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Agency Growth – “What Makes Us Different Is Our People”

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How to Manage Talent at an Agency 

Marketing as a discipline is so special and exciting because of the way that it combines AI and HI (human intelligence!). It is part science, part art. No amount of automation can fully replace the strategic and emotional thinking that goes into developing a marketing plan. 

With that, comes the need to bring on the ‘right’ people…but what is ‘right’ for you? Once you find Mr or Ms Right, how and where do you make them more effective and happy? How do you get the most out of the talent you have? 

Let’s take a look at the so-called talent management cycle, which effectively goes through the steps of bringing someone onto the team through to when they leave (hopefully after many wonderful years). 

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Source: Georgia State University

One Size Does Not Fit All

A quick caveat to the below…the sophistication of implementation and formality around it greatly depends on the size of the team. Regardless of whether it is a 5 or 50 person team, a structured onboarding for example, which we discuss below, is still a good idea. The depth/complexity of it though can be tailored, such as rather than scheduling 30 minutes with each department lead at a 50 person shop, spending a few hours over a lunch or social setting with all five team members can more naturally accomplish the same objective. 

Attract and New Hire, Onboard Phases 

Before you even start thinking about what will attract candidates, you need to define what the right person is. This falls into two camps: 

  1. The right technical and soft skills you need for the role. This will of course vary by role, and is based on the type of work you are executing (and what your revenue pipeline is telling you as outlined in part 6 of our series). Make sure you can see how this role will help you achieve your strategic/core offerings, and if it doesn’t, go down the freelancer route. 
  1. The right soft skills you need to fit with the team. This should NOT vary by role. This needs to align with your strategic direction in the sense of what your process for strategic thinking looks like, as outlined in one of our past articles here. You want someone that will be able to fit with how you produce your unique approach to being an agency. For example, if you say your value proposition is cross-functional collaboration, you need to hire generalists who are good communicators. If you go with the consulting/fractional CMO model then you need independent thinkers. 

Once you have that, to attract talent I take an opposite approach. I actually tell candidates all the problems we have, and how/where they can be part of the solution. There is no point in overselling candidates on your agency, as once they arrive they will succumb to the expectations gap and from the onset have unrealistic expectations of what you will deliver as part of the experience. The right people for the role you are looking at will be excited to be part of the solution. 

For onboarding new employees, the onboarding process needs to consider: 

  1. Technical learning – how do you teach them the agency tech stack? The processes you use? 
  2. Client learning – what are the goals for each client? What is currently in progress? What have we tried with them in the past? 
  3. Agency/cultural learning – what is the story behind the agency? How do you sell your services? How do all departments/roles contribute to the bigger picture? 

Evaluate and Develop 

As depicted in the talent life cycle diagram above, there is momentum from one phase to another, and in some ways having overlap of the phases would be even more realistic. Effective evaluation or ‘performance management’ actually stems from having a detailed enough onboarding plan. This will allow the team manager to have a barometer or benchmark for success and development of the employee. Using the onboarding plan for the initial performance evaluation makes any tough performance conversation easier because there is something objective to point to and use as a guide for that conversation, rather than leaving it to subjectivity and unclear communication.  

Building in ways to provide feedback to team members at the end of projects or throughout the year for on-going work is important for timely feedback. Waiting for an annual performance review alone is no longer an effective way to manage performance. Having a simple feedback form that can also be completed by juniors, and peers, for your managers is key in getting a holistic view of performance. 

Professional development is another topic that comes up all the time. I know a lot of agency owners that ask ‘how much should I give my team for PD?’ or ‘what percentage of expenses should be PD’ or ‘how do I decide what people get trained on’. It is interesting because it’s been proven that the majority of learning is done on the job so why are we obsessed with paying for conferences? There is a time and place for those experiences, particularly on gathering knowledge and insights that are not within any of your existing team members. Otherwise though, allowing your team to identify who and what they want to learn through professional development plans is more valuable than a conference. I recommend breaking down these plans into breadth (i.e. generalist knowledge), depth (i.e. more technical knowledge in their subject matter expertise), and “soft” skills. 

The final point I will make on evaluation is that we know agencies have turnover, it’s inevitable particularly in today’s ‘gig’ economy. So the key is for agency leadership to critically assess who their top tier of talent is, or their “A players” are, based on both current performance and future growth potential. 

Encourage and Reward 

I am very glad that in the lifecycle they separate encouragement and reward, as sometimes they are blurred together. To go back to some fundamental theory, we also need to keep in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We need to ensure our people have the compensation and rewards that give them that base level of needs met, but beyond that the rest of those needs are fulfilled through encouragement. But how do you tailor or customize encouragement given that everyone is different? We used a values-based survey to understand what type of recognition and encouragement was motivating for that individual. Think of it as love languages for the workplace (do they like external praise and words of affirmation, do they like gestures and tokens of appreciation, etc…just don’t do the physical touch please!!!!). 

For compensation, look at ways to motivate the team with incentives that are tied to the results of the agency. The other side of that coin is ensuring it is something they can at least influence. Not everyone in the agency can control things like rent and operating costs, but everyone can influence client retention or service levels for example, so find shared metrics that will indicate success for both employee and employer.   

Offboarding  

For effective offboarding, the same categories (technical, client and cultural) and processes for onboarding can be used, with the goal just being for the person leaving to impart their knowledge on others. There are plenty of opinions on exit interviews, but from a cultural perspective hearing/seeing the perspective of someone leaving is invaluable. We always had exit interviews with an agency leader, and once we had a larger team, had HR do them in addition to the agency leader. Do not just delegate this. Show your people respect even on the way out and hear whatever tough feedback they have. You also never know when former employees can become potential customers too

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