PRWeek's initial HR roundtable looks at the particular challenge of finding and retaining the three-to eight-year pro
A challenging mid-level
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Many in the HR community have cited the three- to eight-year experience level as the most challenging in terms of hiring/maintaining talent. Is this true? If so, why?
Jeffrey Moran (Absolut): Retaining is the biggest problem. People at this level can be easily swayed by an extra $10,000 at a corporate entity without giving as much thought to their career path. I often come across these agency people who think the corporate world is a bastion of greener pastures, but it's not. I can find them, but it's hard to retain them because they're not in it for the long haul.
Dan Madia (Ketchum): The biggest issue around retaining talent revolves around career paths. When you get to that account supervisor level, the big question always is: What's my next step?
Marc Heft (Chandler Chicco Agency): It's difficult to find them, but not impossible. There's good talent at this level, but they're very specific now about what they want to work on. It's not like we have an opening at the account supervisor level and just talk about that. Conversations now revolve around specific accounts. And the questions you get from folks at this level are much more in-depth now. You have to work really hard and guide the process.
Beth Kitzinger (Kaplow): We hear a lot about work-life balance from this group. They've put in long hours at this point. Now they ask about working late nights, four-day work weeks, things like that.
Ken Verostick, Jr. (Coyne Public Relations): When you talk about this level of experience, you're talking about people who are starting to think about marriage and where they see their personal lives going.
Denise Gordon (H&K): The biggest challenge we're finding on the agency side is responding to what motivates people. There's so much going on in the market in terms of companies downsizing, younger generations seeing parents lose jobs, M&As, and huge undertakings like that. People in this experience level are not seeing commitment, so why should they show commitment to us?
It's about understanding what the personal circumstances are on a case-by-case basis.
Madia (Ketchum): It's all about flexibility, and not just about getting home to see my newborns. Folks will say, "I've got heads-down work today, why do I need to take the train in?" We have to offer technologies that can accommodate that and allow people to do their work where they can do their best work.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):At this experience level, you will come across more strong candidates for who a big-city job is not the most appealing, regardless of how highly they rate a company or agency. How do you deal with that?
Judith Harrison (Weber Shandwick): In this particular stage in your career, you try to impress upon them that they are going to be much more apt to find a huge range of experiences in a city. If they take advantage of that, once they past the eight-year mark and they decide to go to the client side in the suburbs, they will be much more marketable.
Gordon (H&K): That's one of the big draws to an agency. People get to work with someone that will give them this variety of experience. The challenge that I have is when they say, "I only want to work on consumer tech," but you only have enterprise. How flexible can you actually be to what these demands are?
Madia (Ketchum): Telling them that there's line of site to that is one way to do it. People just want to know if they will get the opportunity. If you tell them they will, they'll stick around, but you can't have the conversation one month and let it go for six months.
Heft (CCA): When I hire people we say pieces of business change, so you have to [want to] join [because of] the agency.
Moran (Absolut): When I worked at Porter Novelli, I had a stern philosophy that you come to work for the company. When I started my career, I changed jobs the way I changed my shirt. Now, on the other side, I have to question how do you manage the dichotomy of coming to work for the agency, but knowing that candidates are coming to work because of a client. There's the worker bee tool of those with three to eight years' experience, and then there's a management pool. The latter is what I'm focused on because I know the worker bee pool is going to move.
Heft (CCA): In bringing people in at this level, it's vital to let them know that things are going to change. It's a constant daily challenge to keep people happy because if you don't, you know they'll have five job interviews within five minutes. Sometimes you have to push back a little bit. We encourage people to change offices, go work in London or LA for a year. That really helps.
Madia (Ketchum): Development plans have to change, too. Ketchum has always been a great place to develop your craft. But what we're focused on now is the leadership. We have to retrain management and leadership on how to work with the somewhat unstructured work force.
Heft (CCA): CCA doesn't have titles, so I'm often asked, "How do I get a promotion?" I say, "You don't, but you get more responsibility." That really is helping them develop, but people at that stage really care about titles, which is a challenge I face.
Gordon (H&K): When I hear about professional development, what they are really saying is, "I need a good manager. Teach my manager how to teach me."
Madia (Ketchum): We just had our leadership get-together this week, talking about talent management. We took the senior people in and said, "Map your career. Who are the people who influenced you? What were your great experiences?" It was amazing how many people came to us afterwards saying, "I just realized what I'm not doing. I'm not being the person I had or I wished I had."
Verostick (Coyne): People in the three- to eight-year range are getting exposure to their EVPs on the account more than ever. At firms like ours, people wondering how they are going to learn the skills to get to that management level are doing so from hands-on training, sitting in on conference calls to clients. You're going to learn what our EVP is saying to Shell, Chevron, whomever. If someone ends up switching teams, it's almost like human Tetris. When people go to a new team, their first thought often is, "What did I do?" We have to find a way to explain to them that this is good news.
Moran (Absolut): Philosophically, would you advocate three- to five-year stints on certain clients?
Verostick (Coyne): Not necessarily. People do get burned out, but some also get enamored with a client and that's all they want to do. Again, it's a case-by-case determination.
What are people in this experience level asking from companies? Are their demands unreasonable?
Harrison (WS): I don't think we're there, but I do think the market is so competitive that people are over-titled. There isn't the consistency that we look for at a certain level. An account supervisor in one place is an SAE in another. They come in thinking they're account supervisors and expecting to go up from that level. So that is one of the challenges we face. We do have to level-set expectations, but at the same time make it very clear we want to set up a very successful experience. We don't people to wind up in a situation where they're not prepared for their role. We want to advance their careers - and this is one way we do it.
Moran (Absolut): One of the bad habits some people take with them from an over-titled situation is an unstrategic approach to what you are doing. With clients who are paying for play, you can have a lot of agency people who are barely getting by, they come into another structure, and they miss the subtlety of client management and relationships.
Kitzinger (Kaplow): The other thing I hear a lot now is people are asking about turnover. I see people come from these shops where the entire team is gone with client turnover. People are looking for a home. They ask how long has our management been in place? And, as we've said before, they seek a mentor to teach them.
Madia (Ketchum): Line of sight into your career and where do you go also carries so much weight.
Harrison (WS): We see a lot of people from agencies who have switched from one manager to another and have had to prove themselves all over again.
There is a tremendous amount of resentment about that.
Madia (Ketchum): We tend to do a lot of individual reviews annually, but now we're looking into some organizational reviews where we're taking the brand practice, looking at a certain individual within that, and talking about that person openly. There's a balance that comes out of that because you're really talking about performance and what that person has done for the group. An organizational review like that gives people a chance to say, "So this person is kind of burnt out right now, but they'd work well on our business."
Gordon (H&K): We do that on a senior level, and I have been working to push that down because I think that level of connection is what's missing for the more junior staffers at an agency.
Heft (CCA): Some people do better on different teams, but when you move them around, do you tell them what they're strengths and weaknesses are? I'm thinking that they might do better in a new environment, so I tend to accentuate the positive.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):Do you let people know they are stars who you believe have strong long-term prospects at your agency?
Gordon (H&K): I am a big fan of doing so.
Heft (CCA): We identify them early on and know who they are, but we don't tell them.
Madia (Ketchum): How many of your high potentials leave?
Heft (CCA): Not many.
Madia (Ketchum): The trouble is we get caught up in the day-to-day, so while I personally believe in telling people, we don't. But we're getting there.
If we can get managers to have those comfortable conversations with individuals - and we're putting more and more tools in place to facilitate that - I do believe at some point such dialogues will become more frequent.
Gordon (H&K): We don't do it either, but I'm hoping it happens soon. It's not as if we're over-promising by telling people this. We're simply saying, "Look, you have a future here. Let's work together to make sure it stays bright."
Heft (CCA): Part of me wants to tell people, but it's very counter-culture at CCA. We're very team-based, so it would be very difficult to do.
Madia (Ketchum): One area of particular interest is office management. I think we're going to have to identify strong people and coerce them. People want to do the craft, but office management is so important in this business and we need top people for it.
Heft (CCA): You have to be careful. There are people who are amazing at client relations, but you put them in a managing role and they can scare people. You can identify someone who has great potential in an area, but they're still not managers. If you force that upon them, you wind up losing a very valuable person.
Verostick (Coyne): If you gave them the shot to try to manage, a shot was given. Maybe you can create a title for that specialty and find four to five people in that group. They are still senior-level people, but there aren't direct reports. They get their title and are still able to do what they do best.
Hood (PRWeek):Are the skills or talents you seek now different than they were five years ago? Are we looking for a new kind of PR person at this level?
Heft (CCA): Consistency is the new thing we seek. We really look for people who have loyalty and commitment. We don't want staffers thinking we just expect two years out of them and they're gone. We really invest in people.
Kitzinger (Kaplow): We've grown a lot. We're 60 people now. We need managers.
Hood (PRWeek):What about financial wherewithal?
Heft (CCA): It's a good time to be a healthcare person now with five to eight years' experience. It's better than being a condo in Manhattan.
Harrison (WS): I was thinking more from the perspective of development. It's good for junior to mid-level people to learn about budgeting as early as possible. In this business, we tend to think with one side of the brain.
Once you get into the agency business and you realize how they make money, it becomes increasingly important for people to have those kinds of financial skills. But they won't get them if we don't give it to them.
Kitzinger (Kaplow): Admittedly, this is on the most junior-level, but I'm dealing with people's parents talking about their 401K and healthcare coverage. If they are coming in without basic skill sets, can I really trust them with client budgets?
Harrison (WS): Just look at a recent Fortune cover. It said something to the effect of: You raised them, you manage them. From our perspective, that's a bit scary.
The efforts to get a more diverse work force are apparent at every level. What are the challenges/advancements that have been made on this front at this experience level?
Verostick (Coyne): I think the industry is getting better. The Council of PR Firms is working with the Lagrant Foundation to offer recent college graduates scholarships to work at big agencies. That's something that's very important to all of HR in the sense that we want to create that culture of diversity. It's great to have access with those entry-level people to tell them, "Here's PR. Here's why it's so great." True, this is the entry level we're talking about, but it obviously affects every succeeding experience level.
Harrison (WS): We are trying very hard and are doing much better at the entry level, but I'm still seeing problems at finding people at the mid- to senior levels. Let me amend that. It's not so much finding people, but bumping up against the agency mindset that up to a certain level, you have to have had agency experience. It goes back to that whole non-traditional hiring issue. Diverse candidates are often on the client side. Expectations on the agency side need to change, and the right mentoring is necessary.
Moran (Absolut): As you look at the change in the American population and the impact of the Latin culture, not all of the people who work on our account are traditional PR people. Sure, that's a risk, but it's one the PR agency community must think about.
At Absolut, I frankly have no traditional PR people. In fact, I go against that. My view is they have to fit culturally with the brand. I can teach them everything else. I've had many discussions about non-traditional hires and I always say, "Hell yes, that's exactly what you want. I don't need someone working 4pm-midnight. As a client, I appreciate that more."
Harrison (WS): It's a cycle that frightens me. A couple of years ago I did some reading in Fortune on the future demographics of the work force. PR was going to be one of the top 10 industries by 2015. It was predicted that we would have 28% more jobs by 2015. That's huge, but the demographics aren't supporting it because baby boomers will be easing out of the business as this growth takes place. We simply have to look at other places to find people. We can't continue to play musical chairs.
Verostick (Coyne): In truth, we hear a lot of people say, "I have no time to teach them."
Gordon (H&K): Looking at PRWeek's diversity survey, the results aren't that great. There's a lot of work we need to do.
In terms of non-traditional hires and the diversity issue, a lot of them are entrepreneurs because they were never able to get into an agency. It's too bad, too, because a lot of the PR function is building a business and finding people who have the core skills to support this business. These entrepreneurs may not have agency experience because they couldn't get it eight years ago, but they can manage a business and that's a key part of what we need.
So when you ask us what we're looking for, we want this idealistic candidate who has business knowledge, industry expertise, and is a great PR person. We have a lot of great PR people, but they don't have the other qualities we need to meet market demands. Well, we've got to start somewhere.
The second piece of this is people who don't have any PR expertise, but have subject matter expertise. We need to be able internally to support their success. We can find people who have tremendous sector knowledge, but they don't know PR. We have to figure out how to teach them because that expands the pool.
Heft (CCA): At a certain level, if someone has very solid PR skills, you can work with them on a specialized area, like healthcare. But at this six- seven-, eight-year range, clients will expect them to know certain things, such as how to navigate an FDA approval. If you're specializing, you have to get in during the three- to five-year range. It's almost impossible to switch into a different specialized area later than that.
Verostick (Coyne): We need to find a way to do a ramp-up for these non-traditional hires. The Council of PR Firms and the HR Roundtable are doing this already. This way we can go to the agency heads and show them that there are these great agency people and here's how we are going to get them up and running without affecting the business because nothing will get left behind.
Looking to social networks
What are you doing to find talent in this experience range? Is social networking playing a role?
Harrison (WS): I'm finding social networking is working well in conjunction with traditional avenues. The whole industry has reached the point where the Internet has become incredibly important as a way to identify people and create not only candidates, but contacts that you can use to source people.
Madia (Ketchum): We just posted our first intern recruitment spot on YouTube. It was the type of video telling viewers that we don't have the kind of internships where you'll be carrying 17 cups of coffee for various people. And it links to our site.
Harrison (WS): I've been looking into this kind if activity for a while. There are companies on YouTube that have their own channels. They switch their video from time to time, have different people talking about different things. It's incredibly cool. We're all going to have to start thinking of new ways to reach the demographics we're looking for.
Kitzinger (Kaplow): There was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about Second Life interviews. It had the best quote I've ever seen about what not to do on an interview. In a tips box at the back, it said, "If you're interviewing for a position with a traditional firm, it might be best not to come dressed as a mermaid or a wizard."
Verostick (Coyne): We're looking at starting blogs.
Madia (Ketchum): We just put up a new Web site for Ketchum. The first day it was up, we had five resumes posted just like that. We changed the site up so that when the site comes on it shows people talking about how Ketchum looks and sounds like a great place to work - and bam. Using such tools in recruitment will go a long way in the recruiting world.