THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Large firms set global standards with cross-border training

Gaining a competitive advantage in the large-agency world is essential. And for the past few years, many firms have been trying to gain an edge from the inside out, investing in training.

Gaining a competitive advantage in the large-agency world is essential. And for the past few years, many firms have been trying to gain an edge from the inside out, investing in training.

It is difficult to imagine trying to compete in today's global marketplace without continually reinvesting in your business' infrastructure. In service industries (like marketing communications) reinvesting in your infrastructure often means pouring resources back into your employees. This usually translates into training. Over the last half-decade, many of the world's largest PR firms have approached training as a serious business function, giving their programs names like BMU (Burson-Marsteller University), Edel-U (Edelman University) and Ketchum College. Many of these programs sprang up in the mid- and late 1990s, when the large PR firms started becoming truly global. Some say they realized early on training's ability to help keep tabs on a growing global operation. "In about 1996-97, we began to realize we were really becoming a global company," says Janice Rotchstein, Edelman's chief quality officer, who started Edel-U in 1997. "Different offices were working together around the world more intensely. We also wanted to have a learning experience for everyone so we could have consistent service and a consistent understanding of, for instance, what a new-business presentation was. This way we'd be sure if it was being put together in Sao Paolo, it'd be put together the same way in Seattle or San Francisco." Many of these programs leverage the internet to get employees used to collaborating across borders. For instance, BMU has a "virtual training" program called the BM Way, which sees teams set up around the globe and collaborate on a mock client project. Each group has classroom training, and then has periods of interaction with the other involved groups, which are spread around the global network. The entire course takes places over three weeks. In one scenario, the group works on a new-business opportunity. "We have the teams assembled across the world so it maps to real life," explains Celia Berk, MD of HR at Burson. "These people are working together on a project even though they don't meet each other." Increasingly, large-agency training programs have also focused on helping the firms meet business objectives. This is true at Ketchum College, where some courses are geared toward driving business opportunities that help raise the firm's bottom line. For example, this year Ketchum set a goal of increasing net incremental income derived from its largest accounts. The firm decided to pursue this goal by training the teams working on these large accounts with a program focused on bolstering this group's "consultative selling" skills, according to the firm's chief learning officer Robert Burnside. "I designed an account planning tool that helped the account teams organize their selling approach - which additional capabilities they thought they could sell in to whom," explained Burnside in a note about the program sent to PRWeek. "After the programs, the account teams completed these forms, and we aggregate them and then follow up on them monthly to monitor how we are doing against our goals." During a monthly phone call, the account teams share their findings with the other groups. And while some of these training offerings sound sophisticated and highly specialized, the firms say they all continue to offer core competency skill classes for nearly every level of employee. These include giving employees the opportunity to bone up on everything from the new-business proposal process to media relations to business writing. And much of the training occurs during regular work hours. While most firms have decided to shy away from giving grades in their training programs, some have used the programs as a launching point for general evaluations. For example, the completion of training "credits" in some cases is taken into account during performance reviews. Some agencies offer training opportunities beyond their in-house programs. Burson offers some of its employees the chance for training within the programs of its parent company WPP. And some firms, like Edelman, offer tuition reimbursement to some employees who continue their education in an area that correlates to their work at the agency. And although most firms do not make training mandatory, most say that getting people interested in training is not really an issue. "This is something that most everybody wants," says Burnside. "There's never much of a problem of getting people involved. The usefulness of this is apparent to nearly everyone." ----- Trends in training investment Over the last half-decade, many large agencies have begun to invest heavily in training. Here are some obvious trends:
  • Leveraging communications technology. Collaborative training over the web or phone gets AEs used to working with colleagues across borders.
  • Training focused on meeting the firm's business goals. Some courses are centered on key points of the firm's business plan.
  • Uniform training shrinks the firm. Makes sure procedures and client experience is practically uniform worldwide.

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