Ad agencies: 5 tips for retaining young talent

Spencer Wong, CEO and COO at McCann Hong Kong, shares tips on how advertising agencies can retain young talent in the face of high turnover in the advertising industry.

1. Hire people who show a passion for advertising.

"Without passion, young people would easily get frustrated and leave.  There would be other attractions such as other jobs and money, and they would leave," Wong said.

"But passion is not just about loyalty.  They have to be very passionate about all things creative to be able to create high quality work. It’s easy to meet client needs but it’s not easy to do a good job."

2. Don't obsess over a young person's skill set.

He notes that the core of advertising is to think creatively, whether the medium is TV or mobile, rather than having skills.

"Creativity is what makes the difference between doing a good job and a bad one.  It’s not about just learning a skill which you can pick up easily by immersing yourself in the agency.  Skills are more user-friendly nowadays, especially because the new generation is so IT-literate," Wong said.  "Skills are not hard to learn, it’s about how you can use your skills after you have a creative idea."

He adds that the problem is exacerbated by the higher education system, where advertising programmes only teach skills instead of how to think creatively.

Wong said, "In university, ad design is now all about getting students jobs as soon as they graduate.  So programmes teach them how to use Photoshop and so on and when they graduate, we hire them but it’s just like hiring a pair of hands.  They aren't able to think."

3. Don't douse them with training.  Instead, throw them into agency life and observe their personality, level of curiosity and time management.

Apart from basic training, Wong says his company does not proactively give extra training to young people entering the firm.

"If they have the right personality for advertising, they would take the initiative to learn.  If they ask us, we will teach them what they need to learn, but we wouldn't approach them ourselves and say, 'You must learn this,'" Wong said.

"Through this process, we can see whether they are curious enough or if they are independent enough to solve problems on their own."

He sees time management in terms of working long hours but being able to prioritize tasks in your work and personal lives appropriately as essential to agency life.

Wong said, "Your friends are all here.  A lot of the time, who you date or get married to are all in the advertising industry.  You have to assimilate into agency life.  It's not that you don't have a life, advertising is not a black and white, 9-to-5 job.  It’s about how you use your time and you have to merge your work and personal life.

"For example, if you worked at Google and you eat and sleep there, does that mean you don't have a life?"

According to him, many young people in Hong Kong are accustomed to this idea of a balanced work life because teachers impose their own ideologies of working regular hours on students.  To work in advertising, the graduates must be able to adjust to agency life.

4. Create clear incentive schemes where young people can rise up quickly provided that they perform.

The trend nowadays is that young people are staying in advertising jobs for an increasingly short time.  Wong says one reason is because young people are very impatient.

Wong said, "Young people who have a strong passion and want to succeed can be very impatient.  We won't encourage them to go too fast, but we give them a chance to fulfill their career aspirations.  I tell them, 'You can work your way up quickly but you must perform.'"

Part of such a scheme requires putting less emphasis on seniority and senior people being always right.

"Just because you have seniority doesn't necessarily mean you are a more valued asset.  It’s not that we are always right.  If you think we are wrong and you can think of your own way of doing something, we have the resources for you to create your own way of solving problems," he said.

But this doesn't mean that work experience is not important.

"In advertising, there are a lot of things that can be done professionally, which you need to spend time learning.  You can't get in touch with businesses of different natures, ways of doing things or meet lots of contacts by only staying in the industry for one year," said Wong.

5. Bear in mind that young people are always looking to try new things - and advertising is just one of them.

"The challenge is how to grab them when they are 23 to 25 years old and get them to stay and continue to do a good job but it’s very hard.  We are used to seeing people leave in their early twenties," Wong said.

The grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence for young people who haven't tried everything they wanted to.

"It's partly because they don’t have anything to compare their current job to and their mindset is not stable. They will wait until they have tried everything before deciding on what they enjoy.  A lot of people come back too."

A core reason why young people have the luxury to try a number of professions before settling on their favourite one is because they have less financial pressure compared to young people a decade or two ago.

"People who were born in the late 1970s and early 1980s are really good at holding down a job because they want to buy a house and move out on their own. But the people born after the late 1980s rely on their families to support them because rent and property prices are too high," Wong said.

"So there is much less pressure on young people today to be independent and the time when they do become independent has been delayed until later on in life.  After graduation, they feel they still have a lot of time to try different things and chase after what they think is a meaningful life."