Nikki Wicks
Jan 14, 2015

Skills gap: How are agencies tackling the millennial workforce?

Talent (or lack thereof) was a big issue in 2014, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. But what is actually being done about it? We asked five senior industry figures what they were doing to tackle the skills gap and how the industry needs to address the millennial workforce.

Skills gap: How are agencies tackling the millennial workforce?

Participants (clockwise from upper left):


Wayne Arnold

Firstly, despite in many cases being the demand generator of many organisations, marketing is still not seen as a true profession. If you ask most graduates about their professional aspirations, you will hear lawyer, doctor, accountant and even banker before marketer. We need to combat this by clearly demonstrating that the work we do drives billions of dollars of revenue for our clients. The truth is, we have the power to affect share prices more than ‘traditional’ professions, which are mainly protective rather than creative.

"Despite in many cases being the demand generator of many organisations, marketing is still not seen as a true profession"

And a general observation we are terrible at nurturing talent. The hard reality for people reading this by the time you are 40, unless you have made it to the senior management roles in an agency you will be too expensive and probably out of a job. Most industries have strong career development plans, on-going education and development qualifications, however the marketing industry does not.

In my view we need industry-wide courses and exams equal to those in accounting and law. We need to develop talent that are “diagonal thinkers” as good at reading a spreadsheet as judging a creative idea. These “diagonal thinkers” are the future business leaders, the future CEOs. Let’s face it, the more marketers who are at the top the better it is for the entire industry.

As you can see, this is something we have thought about long and hard at Lowe Profero and we have introduced a number of measures to try address these issues. Our ‘Profero Passport’ scheme for instance offers the opportunity to our talented team to transfer to one of our global network of offices, experiencing new cultures and expanding their horizons. And we invest huge amounts of time with the Universities in some of most important markets like China to educate and attract the next generation of talent.

The China market has one of the hottest and most dynamic talent markets in the world, and as a result, talented millennials have a myriad of choices, especially if you’re recruiting in the hottest sectors: data, digital and CRM. It used to be that other agencies would poach our staff, but now clients and the digital media platforms actively recruit from us. The average Wunderman employee could get as many as two different recruiter calls a week.

“The result is a short attention span in which Chinese millennials change their career paths on an annual basis…”

Besides living in a hot job market, many Chinese millennials technically don’t need to work at all because their parents have satisfied many of their biggest lifetime investments by providing their children with homes and cars. The result is a short attention span in which Chinese millennials change their career paths on an annual basis to receive a full range of collective experiences. They job hop because they can, and desperate companies will be willing to hire them despite having a bad job loyalty track record.

To attract, keep and hold millennials, we operate talent like a CRM agency would manage a client lead. We heavily invest in all aspects of staff development to encourage new millennials from the top schools to join us through Wunderman’s Zed Academy entry internship program. Once you join we get you to stay from training because we believe you come to an agency like Wunderman to learn. We offer a tailored, rigorous training program that exposes recruits into all aspects of new media communications. We set and review objectives for all new staff, mutually identifying opportunities to grow.

And yes, we have a lot of crazy fun, too. We think that there are special aspects to the agency life that millenials would love that the corporate world will never provide.

Despite all of this, we still have face high churn rates so we are now working to provide more periodic incentives for our most loyal staff. Last year, for example, we sent one of our art directors to Singapore for three months and a data analyst to Taiwan. In China, winning the HR war of millenials is clearly the ticket to success. It goes without saying that if you can hire and hold the right people, you will have a prosperous agency.

Good communicators have always been in short supply, so there has always been a ‘skills gap’ of one sort or another. Any company wanting to lead our industry must put recruiting and retaining talent at its center, hence why we have talent identification, for new and existing team members, as a discipline that runs through our business.

"Many firms have become sweatshops and this must change”

Millennials, Generation X’ers or Baby-Boomers all deserve to be treated respectfully and in many ways are looking for similar things. This includes a fair working environment. Many firms have become sweatshops and this must change. How can you offer advice and counsel if you are exhausted, and never out of the office to experience the world in which our clients operate?

We have a “leave work at 6PM policy” and generous holiday entitlements including annual birthday leave, as well as a clearly defined career path, that promotes learning new skills, and a clear path to promotion. This is important for all staff, millennials or not, and a reason we keep people and our business continues to grow.

Millennials want to be positive contributors to society, and be leaders, and so should we all. We have put our millennials to lead our internship and pro-bono programs with a clear brief to bring fresh thinking and make them more meaningful. In 2015, our internship programs will be tailored to help local students and will last for the duration of their undergraduate programs, thus giving long-term work experience to help break the flipside of the millennial dilemma – so much energy and desire for change and no job in which to do it.

"If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants." David Ogilvy's famous quote isn't just a motto, but a fabric of Ogilvy & Mather culture. We believe that employer branding, essentially our reputation as an employer both internally and externally, play a major role in helping us to attract the best talent and fill our skills gaps.

“We understand that for this group [millennials], it is much more about the journey than the end goal”

We are fortunate that our agency structure of multiple disciplines and specialisations under one roof affords us the ability to provide growth opportunities by moving people between roles, disciplines and offices. This is attractive to those who would not previously have considered the communications industry as a career option.

Many of our offices have university and polytechnic lecture programs, internship programs, regularly host visits from student groups and participate in career fairs. We understand that for this group [millennials], it is much more about the journey than the end goal. So we give them significant responsibility early on, the ability to explore, senior leadership exposure and provide multiple training and development opportunities. Training is always experiential, practical and a combination of self-leadership and hard skills.

For the past four years we have run a Graduate Fellowship Program which attracts quality candidates from all disciplines, not just Marketing or Business Studies. The program offers a rotation program through all disciplines so that the company and participants can see where their skill sets and interests fit best. We often find that bringing in young talent and growing them is mutually beneficial in terms of learning and loyalty.

The profession is well aware of the shortage of highly skilled PR specialists. In The Pulse, VMA’s latest research into corporate communications in Asia, two-thirds of PR respondents predicted this as their greatest challenge in 2015. In particular, creativity and the ability to take a strategic lead, appears to be a combination frequently lacking.

“The bigger problem is the gap between the skills candidates often pursue and those valued by the business”

Arguably, the most problematic skills shortage is currently manifesting itself in the digital sphere. Digital experts are in demand but few professionals in Asia have had the time to acquire dedicated experience. It tends to fall to agencies and other external sources to provide the necessary in-house training. There’s a balance to be found between investing in the team’s digital knowledge to improve how they consult with clients (many of whom still work with limited digital budgets), and falling into digital-training overload. But we know that training is an effective retention strategy for PR professionals so generally it’s a win-win for everyone.

The bigger problem is the gap between the skills candidates often pursue and those valued by the business. For example, we often talk to candidates who believe that basic “channel management” skills will suffice, when really what the business is crying out for is expertise to make a greater strategic impact with digital. This means that quite a few appointments for Head of Digital have had to be sourced from markets considered more digitally savvy, such as the UK and Europe.

Millennials of course are a far more tech-savvy bunch generally. But agency partners are still trying to adapt to their quite different communication style. For example, they expect information to be cascaded openly and freely, and want a stronger voice in decision-making. They also care more about work-life balance. Smart hiring managers understand that these rising stars want something other than job security – indeed many are happy to leave their current job without another to go to, making talent retention all the more challenging.

While the number-one retention strategy across the industry is an increase in salary, Millennials are more interested in “fast track” promotion (36%) and working hours (36%). So these are the areas hiring managers should focus on. They also tend to tap into their own personal networks as a trusted source of information on a prospective employer’s reputation for work-life balance, training and general treatment of employees.


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