Keeping talent is a full-time job

Talent - who's buying...who's selling...who needs a pair?...

Talent – who’s buying…who’s selling…who needs a pair?

Any attempt to sound like a scalper is purely intentional. In the ‘war for talent’ these days, that’s what many of us employers feel like.

Much has been written over the past couple of years about the talent wars. A good chunk of it penned by people far more eloquent and trained on the subject than I. That said, here’s my take.

Acquiring and retaining talent is a full-time job these days. I know. The company I work for, Young & Rubicam, believed this to the extent that a year ago they asked me to move from my previous day job – director of broadcast – to devote my undivided attention to the 200-plus people who work at Y&R across Canada.

What I’ve discovered is this: the human side of the fight for talent is pretty nutty. Today’s philosophy appears to be something along the lines of: ‘I may decide to stay at your company for a long time, but my going-in proposition is that the connection is pretty loose. That’s because (a) the market is hot; and (b) I’ve seen my friends and family get turfed and I know loyalty can be fleeting.’

Harsh? Absolutely.

I read a comment attributed to Rob Guenette, vice-president of marketing for the Export brand at Molson Breweries, in the Jan. 29. ’01 issue of Strategy, which noted that today’s employees have more options, are more mobile and are bigger risk-takers than those in previous years. That’s very true. The proliferation and acceptance of the Internet alone opens up possibilities and expectations well beyond Toronto’s marketing community. There’s a whole world out there and people want and expect to experience it.

As part of that, salary expectations out of the gate are indeed jumping exponentially. But agencies’ entry-level salaries have probably been outdated for years. Why would today’s graduate accept $23,000 for a junior-level agency position when they’re being offered twice as much in another line of business? Because of their ‘passion for advertising’? Puhlease. What has our industry been doing lately to instil or encourage ‘passion’ at the post-secondary level?

So what to do.

When so many of the ‘big things’ are out of the staff’s control – global realignments, account shifts, less original Canadian work – it’s essential we don’t ignore the ‘little things.’ I call it throwing pebbles in the water. And since I became people-obsessed, my arm’s getting pretty tender from all the rocks we’ve tossed. I’m fortunate enough to work at a company that makes people a priority. I also work with a phenomenally compassionate and (thankfully) trained human resources director, which allows me to focus on making Y&R the place where people want to work.

One of the first ideas I stole was to interview each and every employee in the Toronto office. We talk about everything from their family history to what they like and, yes, dislike about life at Y&R. These informal chat sessions serve a couple of purposes: they allow me to know a little bit about everyone working here – what’s top of mind, what we’re doing right, what we could be doing better – and it gives them an opportunity to grill me.

Several things that have come out of these discussions have been immediately implemented. In response to the sentiment that the company was so big ‘we’re losing touch with each other,’ we introduced monthly pizza lunches that each department takes a turn hosting. They can show a reel, bring in a guest speaker, play games – whatever they want. It seems to be working. Everyone’s showing up – it’s probably the free food, let’s not kid ourselves – and having a few laughs. We offered everyone the option of painting their office. We instituted twice-a-month breakfasts with the president. We put out a periodic HR News & Views newsletter to improve communication.

The most well-received pebble recently was the introduction of our ‘Exercise Your Mind & Body’ program. Each employee, having completed a year at Y&R, is given a lump sum towards either a fitness-related activity or a higher-learning, mind-invigorating program of their choice. It sets the right tone. The balance between work/life has never been more a factor and we’re trying to show we understand that.

We invest heavily in training, at all levels, from account management 101 to Second City Improv sessions. We have regular all-staff meetings at a local cinema to show the work and update everyone with what’s going on.

We have an internal referral program that rewards those who recommend somebody we hire. The war for talent means we have to be thinking one or two moves ahead of the current situation; we can’t afford to be completely reactive.

We make a point of meeting top people, whether there’s a specific opening or not. The talent pool is small and shrinking and, quite frankly, we’re looking for the kind of people who aren’t looking to move. This requires building and maintaining relationships with people, so even if the timing’s not perfect, when someone is finally motivated to move, we’re but a phone call away.

One of the advantages in working for a global company is the international connection within the network. We recently helped one of our people get work in Spain for a year – a life experience this particular person felt was important. Rather than risk losing her altogether, we assisted and kept in touch. A year later, it’s paying off. She’s returning with a promotion, psyched and invigorated.

Admittedly, these are little things. But they add up and, if there are enough ripples, it eventually makes a decent-sized wave. We think if you ask people who work here, they feel respected and cared for as human beings. And it needn’t cost a whack of money to help your people grow and feel valued. It’s an investment in time and in taking an interest in your people. But the dividends are well beyond what you’ve put into it.

Are we proficient at this yet? Nope. Has Y&R got this war for talent licked? Not even close. We still stumble and do the occasional dopey thing. But we’re definitely tripping up less, and the feedback we’re getting is that people are noticing.

Hey, what do I know? Ask a producer to run the people show and hang on for the ride.

Doug Lowe is senior vice-president, chief of staff at Young & Rubicam in Toronto. He can be reached by phone at (416) 324-2039 or via e-mail at