The Switch: The great talent migration
by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) As someone who vacillates between running an ad agency and relaxing through wildlife photography, I find the seasonal migration of various animal species fascinating.
Some animal species migrate from North to South and back. Others migrate vertically from high altitude forests to low altitude forests. These species migrate mostly in search of food and warmer temperatures as well as for breeding purposes.
[pullquote]What I’m learning pretty quickly though, is that this musical chairs phenomenon is pretty normal in our industry. As European swallows are attracted to Europe’s abundant food supplies and long days in their breeding period, creative talent is attracted to agencies that are seen to be on the up and up.[/pullquote]
The wildebeest migration in the Serengeti and the migration of European swallows come to mind. European swallows spend their breeding period in Europeso they can access food supplies and longer days. In winter, they migrate to the warmer southern hemisphere.
Before embarking on their journey to Southern Africa and the Indian sub-continent, they go on a feeding frenzy, which provides sustenance for their long sojourn. They travel in a large group on this long journey that takes them through North Africa, down the West Coast of Africa, all the way down to the South. Come spring, the swallows migrate back to Europe for their breeding season.
As MD of one of South Africa’s larger agencies I’m struck by the similarities between the migration of animal species and the movement of creative talent within our industry. Talent migration used to be limited to advertising agencies. Now we are witnessing lots of movement of talent from traditional advertising agencies to small below the line shops, digital shops as well as to the client side, and vice versa.
[pullquote]Another observation I’ve made is that talented people tend to have a following, which means, when they move agencies, others migrate with them. It matters not how hard you try, using water tight contracts, to preclude them from poaching key staff or to stop key staff from following their heroes.[/pullquote]
Many employers in our industry are starting to use employee propositions to differentiate themselves. Employment contracts and remuneration packages are becoming a lot more creative. We are starting to see a combination of flexi time, relative job security, career paths as well as participation in share schemes.
Ironically all of this makes staff retention a nightmare for many agency MD’s. What compounds this retention problem is the fact that, unlike our parents’ generation, this generation of employees does not value tenure and loyalty. Not only is the world their oyster, it’s also a travelator, constantly on the go.
What I’m learning pretty quickly though, is that this musical chairs phenomenon is pretty normal in our industry. As European swallows are attracted to Europe’s abundant food supplies and long days in their breeding period, creative talent is attracted to agencies that are seen to be on the up and up.
Agencies that win pitches attract masses of creative talent. Agencies that boast a “sexy” client list and have an impressive collection of silverware are also quite alluring to talent.
Another observation I’ve made is that talented people tend to have a following, which means, when they move agencies, others migrate with them. It matters not how hard you try, using water tight contracts, to preclude them from poaching key staff or to stop key staff from following their heroes. At the end of the day birds with bright feathers cannot be caged. Is this perhaps what Bob Marley had in mind when he sang “exodus, it’s the movement of the people.” There’s got to be a better way, methinks.
Everyone who runs a business knows the disruption this migration causes to business operations. As an advertising agency, your creative talent is your lifeblood. The more senior the talent, the greater the disruption because these highly decorated folk often have a team reporting into them and many more idolising them.
Even clients idolise them, which makes it difficult for clients to imagine you producing great work without these swallows. It would help immensely if clients put a higher premium on the “big idea” or “creative platform” than they do on individuals. The former is more enduring than the latter.
Having said that, an agency does not stay on top or “en vogue” forever. There are swings and round-abouts in the circle of life. Accounts come and go and great talent migrates when seasons change. True migrators leave and come back to the same agency even as many find new homes along the way.
As soon as they realize that an agency’s financial success and an impressive client list are not enough to guarantee job satisfaction, they take flight again in search of inspirational leadership, better values, better career management and growth opportunities.
So when a talented individual comes to my office to hand in their resignation, the first thing I check with them is which part of our employee proposition is lacking. If it’s something we can fix, I try to talk them into staying and if I fail, I take comfort in the knowledge that theirs is a two-way migration that will end up where it started.
At some point they will realize that it’s better to sort out your grievances with an employer you know and like, than to hedge your bets on a future employer you know little about. If, however, the issues are beyond our means, I bid them farewell knowing that there will be other swallows migrating our way from colder shores, who will bring a nest full of great ideas.
Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) is a Unilever-trained Chartered Marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience. He’s currently MD of Draftfcb Joburg. Mokoena contributes the monthly “The Switch” column to MarkLives.com.
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