How to keep your talent.

In 1999 I helped set up the advertising agency, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. I know, not the snappiest name ever, but at least it did what it said on the tin. When a client came in to see MCBD, they got M, C, B and D.

When we opened the agency doors we were inundated with calls from prospective clients. Maybe not such a bad name after all. But it had nothing to do with our name, and everything to do with when we set up – right in the middle of the dot com boom. Barely a week went by when some new company, funeralsareus.com or whoever, would appear in our boardroom, with a great deal of excitement, and very little money. Of course, the dot com bubble burst almost as quickly as it appeared, and very few survived the rounds of funding necessary to become viable clients. So we had to build our business the hard way. Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.

After several years we’d put together a roster of blue-chip clients, P&O Cruises, Waitrose, BT, Subaru, Premier Foods, Central Office of Information, HMRC, the Met Police, to name but a few. As the list grew, so did we. It was a learning curve that could best be described as precipitous. While we’d worked for some incredibly talented people in the past, none of the four founding partners had run a company before. We had to learn on the job. One of the most important lessons was how vitally important talent would be to our success.

An ad agency is only ever as good as the people on its phone list. The right talent can unearth ground-breaking strategies, please the most demanding client and produce mould-breaking work. This, in turn, could bring us the ambitious clients we were seeking. But how do both find and keep the right talent to take your forward?

I was one of the Creative Directors of MCBD, so I’ll focus on creative talent. Having looked at innumerable portfolios over the years, it became clear that truly talented creatives were rarer than eclipses. Which meant, when you found someone amazing, you had to ensure they stayed with you as long as possible. So what tips can I give you for keeping your best talent?

Freedom.

The saying Don’t get a dog and bark yourself is never truer than in a creative department. The whole idea of hiring a creative is to find someone who can do things you can’t, who can surprise you, and yes, keep you on your toes. A creative isn’t going to do this in a straight-jacket of do’s and don’t, and corporate manuals.

Every company needs rules. But ask yourself are your rules so restrictive they’re holding your talent back, and perhaps driving them out the door? The rules may even stop them thinking about you in the first place. Are you letting your own views, and perhaps old ways of working, get in the way? Many companies are strict on time. If you’re running an airline this makes sense. But if you’re running a creative department all that really matters are the ads your teams produce. Unless they have a client meeting, when they turn up and when they leave is largely irrelevant. My creative partner Paul and I tried to give all of our creative teams the freedom and the time they needed.

Contact.

Nobody likes to be ignored. But the bigger the company the easier it is for senior management to become divorced from the rest of their team. It’s vital to find time to discover if there are any simmering issues, and to take the temperature of each department, by meeting the people you’ve hired.

Silence isn’t always golden. Just because people are quiet, doesn’t mean there aren’t problems bubbling away below the surface. The first you may know something is wrong is when they walk into your office to say they’re leaving. Far better to keep the dialogue, and the door, open so you can keep your talent happy, and your business growing.

Bury your ego.

As in all agencies, there are only so many good briefs to go around. Not all clients want earth-shattering, knee-trembling work. They often want something straightforward, on brief, on time. But top creatives aren’t going to build a career doing this sort of work year in, year out. So, who’s going to do it? This is the moment you have to swallow your pride and let them have the tasty brief, while you chew away on the one that’s as exciting as a piece of cardboard.

It doesn’t hurt in business to show you’re prepared to roll your sleeves up and do some of the less glamorous work at the coalface.

Happy.

Talented people usually like to be kept busy. But the ups and downs of business mean that you can’t always guarantee a steady stream of work. You don’t want your top talent getting bored, or worse, still, getting on the phone to a rival company. So, what can you do?

The truth is, there is always something to do. In the creative arena, whether it’s improving your website, writing articles for industry journals, finding PR opportunities, writing blogs, going to lectures or exhibitions, there’s always plenty a creative person can be doing. Whatever your business, it’s important to ensure your top talent isn’t gathering cobwebs in the corner, but is being productive, adding to the value of your company.

Rewards.

I’m over eight hundred words in and haven’t mentioned the P word yet. Pay is vital to attracting and keeping talent, but it’s not the only currency in town. Offering someone an environment where they can flourish, make their mark, and go home happy, is also vital to hiring and keeping talent. I’ve moved jobs for far less money because I wanted to work at a business I valued.

If you’re not a cash-rich company, there is equity to consider. By giving your talent a stake in your business, you not only show how much you believe in them, you incentivise them to grow your company and make it far less likely that they’ll leave.

And in the creative world, there’s another currency – awards. The creatives who win the most awards tend to earn the most money. So, if you want ambitious creatives, you need to set up a company geared to garnering gongs. That means having the right creatives, the right account handlers and planners, the right environment, and last, but not least, the right clients. It took us a while to put all the pieces of that jig-saw together, but we did. And someone clearly liked what they saw. That’s why Cossette, the Canadian Communications Group, bought our agency.


Just one final bit of advice, this time, on company names. Don’t ever put your name last on the list. Throughout the history of our agency, everyone called us Miles Calcraft.

Malcolm Duffy. Creative Director of BGI.