Talent, I Wish I Knew Ya’ or If It Were Only That Easy

So, the 4A’s was in Austin this year and one of the big headlines coming out it was “Ad industry leaders say industry faces a talent crunch”.

Martin Roth, CEO of Interpublic, stated that “…without getting the talent issue right, we’re not going to be able to survive in the marketplace going forward,” he said. “We all know the future of our business is based on talent.”

Weeeelllll, I’m not so sure it’s that easy, regardless of whether you have a “Chief Talent Officer” or not. (Cheap shot alert, sorry.)   Yes, talent is a part of it, but not all of it.  Rather, I think there are three areas we have to think about:

  • choosing from a wider talent pool
  • managing that talent better/differently
  • reigniting our (and by ‘our’ I mean in this case, “America”) spark.

Let’s talk first about the wider talent pool.  In November of 2009, Fareed Zakaria had an excellent article in Newsweek titled, Is America Losing Its Mojo?

At the end of this article, he states:

“We have hoped it would all work out, and for a while it did. The seed capital from past decades was strong enough to carry us for decades. We got talent from abroad to mask the erosion at home. We used financial engineering to substitute for the real thing. We borrowed to the hilt and sold each other our homes in an ascending spiral that made us all feel rich. And we kicked all the real problems we face down the road, hoping that someone else would solve them. This too has become part of American culture, a culture that desperately needs to change if we are to preserve American innovation and rekindle the real American Dream.”

Change a few words and this describes exactly what Advertising did…we rested on our laurels, borrowed talent from each other, ‘re-engineered’ titles and roles to cover up the fact that we didn’t have the right talent in the right place and kicked the problems we faced down the road.  Well, we are facing them now, aren’t we? Maybe if we had pulled talent from abroad or from places in America that didn’t look like “us”, or from different schools of thought we might have been ahead of the game.  But we didn’t and shame on us.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of extraordinary people, three of best ad people I’ve worked with came from way, way outside of advertising.  One was in high finance, the other an ex-monk and the third (Ben Wiener, CEO of WongDoody) I think has some sort of medical degree.  I know it sounds like a bad joke…(an financier, a monk and Mr. Wiener walk into a bar….) but the reality was/is that they are truly interesting combinations of dreamer/doers..and when they dreamed, it wasn’t within a box called ‘advertising’—and they were/are incredibly innovative and effective.

I’d add that throughout this year’s SXSWi we saw a number of similar combinations—the entrepreneur and the venture capitalist being one of the most popular. The entrepreneurs of SXSWi came from many, many, many walks of life and so to should Advertisings wider talent pool.

I’ve met a lot of  dreamer/doer combinations in this industry, but at no place are they more successful than at places that have figured out how manage up to their strengths…letting the dreamer, or the more accepted title ‘entrepreneur”, roam free while partnering them with the do-ers: people who know when it’s time to push them off the edge so to speak.  Here at GSD&M Roy Spence was the dreamer and he’s always had Judy (Trabulsi) to tell him when it was time to jump and start building the wings. John Kearon at BrainJuicer is another one…he is a person you whose mind is a fire to be kindled (thank you Jason Lonsdale for the Plutarch quote), but he surrounds himself with people who build and build on his ideas.

If we are going to face a new world, we have to change the way we manage the people who are going to take us there first.  Same-old, same-old isn’t going to cut it anymore. And yes, that will take better profit margins, so we are going to have to find a way around speed bumps like procurement-based advertising, put on our big-girl (or boy) pants and start acting like the culture-leading/game-changing industry we could be.

Which takes me to my last point…this  “spark” we seem to be missing.  Now no one get their panties in a twist…this is not an anti-American rant.  However, it seems to be a another issue we keep pushing down the road, hoping it will fix itself.  And I believe that there is no reason we, Advertising, can’t be the match to set the spark off.

Here at GSD&M, we first saw this ‘lack of spark’ in research done for a 4-part series called “The Business of Politics”, a look at the American consumer during the 2001 political season. Americans, especially young Americans, kept telling us they felt ‘uninspired’ by America, that we had ‘lost our spark’.  A big part of it was that they felt we hadn’t had any ‘big wins’ in a while and that there were no national inspiring leaders, people who helped us see the possibilities that could lead to the big wins.  The trickle-down economics of that reality, for them anyway, was absolutely no drive to  “Go West, Young Man” or to even find out what their ‘West’ was.

Fareed (I wish I knew him to call him by his first name) discusses this same issue in the aforementioned article.  Huffington covered it.  Deepak Chopra has covered it.  John Kao covered it in his 2007 book “Innovation Nation”. And so did James B. Edwards in 2003.  It’s out there and it’s an issue—an issue that could have met its match in President Obama…his ‘big win’ could have been the nations ‘big win’, but his sizzle has been inconsistent…his speeches not able to rouse a nation to action.

The hard reality is that it’s not enough to have talent and to manage them well, we do have to feel inspired by something bigger—at GSD&M we call it Purpose and it helps, but overall the industry and this country does need the mojo back.

Luckily, and I’m not being flip, read any Clay Shirky book and you’ll have a good idea of what it will take to  start down this road.  Look at NGO’s like the Clinton Foundation and how they partner dreamers and doers with the Clinton Global Initiative.  “Waiting for Superman” has its problems (that’s a whole other post), but it’s been useful in that the website can point you to innovative programs like Turnaround for Children.

I’m not kidding, go, hire, read, dream, incorporate, now.  Our leaps of faith as a country have come from many quarters in the past, let’s surprise some people and have it come from Advertising this time…we might even ‘fix’ ourselves in the process.

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