It’s Time to Stop Putting Our Agency Talent in Little Boxes

September 16, 2019

(Originally appeared in Ad Age Collective)

As we grow our talent base and teams as agencies, we know that talent is scarce. If enough talent doesn’t exist, we look within or in unlikely places to see what talent we can develop. And this is where we see a problem.

Young talent comes out of school with wide eyes and high hopes. Their eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, as they want to take on colossal branding challenges and become strategic marketers who will change the face of advertising forever.

That talent comes into the workforce with such hope — and our hopes tied to it — yet, they get put in little boxes. (You may sing Malvina Reynolds to yourself as you read this.)

agency talent

We see they are young, so we start them in social media, and we seal them off from the rest of the branding world. We put them in departments that have a specific process in place so they can produce just like us. We give them a growth path that consists of taking “junior” off of their title or adding “senior” onto it and give them a few thousand dollars more in the hopes they will continue cranking out the sausage.

But good sausage doesn’t come from the factory; it comes from the frying pan. We need to get our talent out of the little boxes and put them into that pan. There, they can get burned. Their skin can thicken a little. They can develop a flavor of their own and an incentive to get out of that pan and into a more complex dish.

Creativity relies on those who think differently. It relies on people who have been steeped and bruised in reality. People who have experience with actual business and brand leaders who have had to make hard decisions about how to market and sell, when to stop and start, and how to try things that may not fit the data-driven model and defend those things when a breakthrough is near.

It’s not as simple as letting people break the rules of typography or advocate for a political position that ruffles feathers and, therefore, gains exposure. Breaking those kinds of rules is easy and cheap.

To develop the talent we need for the future, we need to take people who may not know a thing into a meeting with people who know a lot. Let future talent speak and ask questions. In fact, we must demand they speak so they begin to form their own voices and narratives from which to draw on if they’re ever to become strategists.

Because if people have voices and points of view and understand the edges of their understanding, we can work with them to become future talent. When they can only describe the shape of their box and what comes in it and out of it, we have no hope.

Here’s to the future filled with people dying to have access to great things and more knowledge without artificial walls built around them from the very start. Here’s to the talent who can replace us because they saw what we did and how we did it; more importantly, they saw a change in the world and, anchored by their own experience, they dared to pursue a new course.

And, practically speaking, here’s hoping they want to interview with us.