The escalating war for top communications talent

The war for top talent in our field is about to escalate. Agencies have been battling over thought leaders and rainmakers for years. Now, corporate departments have started to join the fray.

The war for top talent in our field is about to escalate.

Agencies have been battling over thought leaders and rainmakers for years. Now, corporate departments have started to join the fray.

Soon, organizations with the most disciplined, assertive approach to acquiring, developing, and retaining top talent will prevail. Equivocators will languish.

In 1991, Edward Bernays observed: "Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner."

His opinion then was harsh but not unique. PR at the time was a more narrow discipline, more synonymous with publicity and striving for a seat in the C-suite.

Much has changed. PR has morphed into communications, and nearly 60% of the respondents to the latest USC GAP study said their function reports to the C-suite.

Management expectations have increased, too. Companies now expect communications teams to take the lead in engaging employees, activating stakeholders, driving change, and managing corporate reputation.

But there's a gap today between management expectations and the ability of some senior communicators to meet them. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, what got many communicators here – communications expertise – won't get them to the next level. More and more, CEOs will need their communicators to be fully fluent in all key aspects of business, not just communications – and this will require new skills.

Unfortunately, organizations have typically under-invested in professional development for senior communicators. Some haven't invested at all. As one senior professional in a global financial services company recently told me: “No one here is looking after my development plan. I'm responsible for that.”

Traditional approaches to talent development in our field must evolve. We must invest considerably more to equip our current and future leaders with the business, interpersonal, and communications skills they will need to succeed. This effort will take years, if not decades, to produce material results. In the interim, expect the war for top talent to escalate dramatically.

To stay competitive by building practice depth and breadth, agencies will need to add thousands of senior professionals. Edelman alone will need at least 30% more people – more than 1,000, many at senior levels – to become the first $1 billion firm.

More companies will pursue senior communications talent. They will develop their best, poach from competitors, hire more from agencies, and even import top talent from other fields. Mark Penn is an example. He moved from his research firm to Burson-Marsteller, and now he's taking on a high-level role with Microsoft.

Some of the implications of the new talent wars will be profound. For example:

  • More communications professionals will pursue specialized degrees in business, finance, statistics, medicine, technology, etc. to complement their communications expertise.
  • Cooperation between communications, marketing, IT, and other functions will increase, favoring exceptional collaborators.
  • Talent pipelines between agencies and between agencies and corporations will widen, with the flow increasing in all directions.
  • Communications will become more multicultural as globalization produces more leaders from emerging economies.
  • Salaries and bonuses will jump for the very top performers, who will have a steady stream of new suitors.
  • Frequent job changes will be more common, and the best recruiters will keep busy as their work becomes more specialized and scientific.

In the years ahead, standing still will mean falling behind for agencies and corporate teams lacking a thoughtful and more aggressive approach to winning the escalating war for top talent.

Mark Bain is president of upper 90 consulting, a newly launched firm that helps CCOs and their direct reports become more effective managers and leaders. Previously, he led global communications at Baker & McKenzie and Alticor after starting his career with Burson-Marsteller.

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