What Talent Shortage?
September 01 2006
The cry for talent is a familiar one for healthcare agencies, as demand clearly outweighs supply in today's talent pool. Knee-jerk short-term solutions often exacerbate the problem. Most agency leaders agree that long-term solutions are necessary and require commitment, collaboration and creativity.
“This is an extremely important issue that we as an industry need to take a closer look at,” says Ken Begasse, Jr., partner and director of client services at New York-based Concentric Advertising. “It's the people who propel business and have impact on clients' business.”
Mike Trepicchio, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare Communications, adds, “it's one thing to need talent because we've gained business; it's horrendous when we [need] talent because good talent has left us.”
The short-term game
A seller's market creates interesting dynamics. It's a good time for people to get into the business and a great time for those with experience to move up—or over. Poaching, salary and benefit increases, and title inflation are attractive short-term solutions. Recirculating talent does little to cultivate stability. Salary and benefit increases can improve retention, but skyrocketing talent costs pressure bottom lines. Title inflation can prevent leaks, but when awarded without skill mastery this tactic hurts everyone—clients, agencies and employees.
“There is enormous pressure on our salary structure to get the best and brightest,” says Richard Nordstrom, global CEO, McCann Healthcare Worldwide. “It's very competitive at [junior] levels. At the mid-level, there is very little resistance for a person to move from one agency to the next. [Mid-level talent is] the most difficult to find and keep. There's less movement at senior levels. Talent is at the greatest premium at the senior levels because that's what our clients want.”
Begasse says attracting new talent isn't as difficult as finding talent that meets the agency's expectations. “Part of the issue across the board is the talent level is a bit shallow,” he says. “In the urgency of staffing business, if you're not disciplined you could hire people who might not be an ultimate fit for your agency. Long-term, you're going to have to deal with that.”
Harrison and Star CEO Larry Star reports copywriting positions are “probably the hardest to fill,” especially if specific experience, such as oncology, is needed. “The art side is easier to fill than the copy side because you can draw from a broader pool,” Star says. “On the account service side, it's hard to find not just people with experience, but people who have the right skills, ethics and values. You have to [resist] the temptation to just get a warm body.”
Trepicchio agrees people with deep specialty knowledge, such as oncology and antiviral, are particularly tough to find.
Cambridge BioMarketing president Steve West notes that agencies are on their own in the hunt for junior and mid-level talent because headhunters won't typically deal in those experience levels. The firm has had success teaching the drug business to consumer and business-to-business recruits.
“They bring a fresh perspective,” West says. “The bad side is they don't have the same depth of experience, track record or war stories from having worked in pharma. Ideally, you want smart, good, energetic [people who] care about the work and also have some industry experience. If you can't get both, go for smart. They do learn quickly. If people have the right DNA, they start to become productive [quickly]. And it's not as expensive as you might think. I think people get caught in a pattern of recirculating or re-pirating the same people because it seems more efficient or more secure.”
Cambridge hires post-docs, art-school grads and people from other ad disciplines. “One of the best copywriter hires I ever made was a post-doc working for a Nobel Prize winner,” West says. “In a matter of weeks, she was terrific with clinical copy and concept.”
Irvine, CA-based Ignite Health recruits people both with tech and healthcare backgrounds. “We're in a tech-central place, [so] you can pull more talent from the online perspective,” says co-founder and CEO Jackie Herr. “We're hiring a lot of talented, smart, motivated people who are willing to learn. Typically, in account services they had to have pharma [or] biotech backgrounds. If you wait for everyone to have the package of online talent and science background, it's harder to come by. We're finding so many smart, talented people, and you need to take a chance on them. Nine times out of 10, it's paid off beautifully. If they'll hang in here, they'll be great for this business.”
Herr explains that Ignite is “building an industry” in terms of online space. “Everyday, there's something new,” she says. “I'm smart enough to listen to these smart young people and be patient and [recognize] that, from a tech perspective, they're ahead of me. We need to listen and be smarter about listening. [Being] collaborative with them is a huge [part of] how we attract and retain talent because they feel a part of the process.”
Star likes life sciences backgrounds and has gotten some “very good people” from healthcare. He finds client-side hiring is a double-edged sword. “They all know what it's like to walk a mile in the client's shoe,” he says. “Not all are effectively able to make the transition from being a client to being a service provider.”
Nordstrom has had “positive experience” pulling from other disciplines. He tends not to hire from the client side and notes that a “gray area” exists on the agency side, while things tend to be more “black and white” on the client side.
Chicago-based AbelsonTaylor is one of the few agencies that doesn't report difficulty finding or retaining talent. Last year, the firm hired over 60 people and expects to hire that many again over the next 12 months. It's “carefully modulating the rate” of new business as not to overextend. President Dale Taylor reports success with client-side hires (about 10 account people came from clients).
“[Pharma] consolidation has created great displacement,” Taylor says. “Those are real opportunities for us. Someone who has been a client for a long time very often has a mindset that's exactly what we need. It doesn't take long for people to realize they're on the other side of the table.”
“It's always easier to keep your bucket full if you build a bucket that doesn't leak,” Taylor says. And while some struggle to recruit talent in the Midwest, Taylor sees Chicago as a retention asset. “Unlike being on east coast,” he says, “there aren't that many other agencies here. It's a very attractive place to live and work.”
Trepicchio thinks communicating with employees is critical to retention. “We've got to be creative,” he says. “Find out what people really want—and if they are key talent, figure out how to accommodate it. This isn't a dollars and cents game all the time. The key [to retaining talent] really is talking with people. If we don't know what their needs and desires are, it's very difficult. Sometimes somebody is really busting their hump and doing a great job, and they want to be recognized. Recognition is not just a pat on the back, but [real appreciation].”
Moving and sharing talent is a retention advantage at networked agencies. Nordstrom notes that secondment programs are beneficial at McCann.
Taylor believes “tenure is the key to success.” The average tenure for AbelsonTaylor creative directors is 16 years and for account directors it's 12 years. “People won't stay at an agency if they see top jobs going to outsiders,” he says. “People see that if they stay, as we grow those opportunities will be available to [those who] have grown up here.”
Taylor stresses the importance of creating an environment where people don't feel expendable. He believes people also walk if they feel stuck or if they're not given an opportunity demonstrate strengths. Often, as many as 80 creatives are invited to concept meetings to help develop big ideas. “Everyone gets to show their stuff pretty often,” he says. It lets them show management how good they are. Everyone needs that chance.”
West has “zero attrition,” and has never lost a person to another agency. “Environment is everything,” he says. “Let people own their work. If people have a sense of ownership as opposed to just feeding something to the next higher up, that's huge. You foster that [by not taking] it away from them the first time they stumble. Help them get through the wall and continue to own the work. Don't have the senior people doing the all the glory work and the junior people doing all the grunt work. Distribute it so glory and grunt is shared by all.”
The Long View
Unwavering commitment to developing and nurturing existing talent may well be the first line of defense in retaining talent, and it clearly strengthens the base from which future leadership grows.
Saatchi & Saatchi is surveying employees and putting effort into developing “new and better and different” training programs to provide them necessary tools. “Our goals are to develop enough bench strength that we're pulling in from the bottom, getting people who can grow to the top,” Trepicchio says.
Most of AbelsonTaylor's creative and account staff are homegrown. Copywriters enter as clinical research associates (CRA), who check facts, compile resources and assemble reference packages. Most are master's-level life-science or life-science-related graduates. The position feeds into senior copywriter position, and more than 33 copywriters developed through this channel.
Most senior people across McCann's network of seven agencies are also homegrown. “We've put an awful lot of resources and training behind a small group of high-potential people over the years,” Nordstrom says. “It's the best, most efficient way. You've got to have a serious, sustained, strategic approach to talent.”
Talent audits identify high-potential people at McCann. The agency also creates experience maps for the entire population. Nordstrom says the budget to train and develop talent “would be the last budget touched” across the network. “Talent has to be your Number One priority, emanating from the top of the organization,” he says.
Chicago-based Corbett Accel Healthcare Group created an initiative for leadership development, called NextGen (see sidebar, left). The agency also will roll out its version of career maps at the end of the year. “We invest disproportionately on learning and development,” says CEO Scott Cotherman. “We spend four times more than the average agency.”
Meanwhile, New York-based Cline Davis & Mann launched CDM University (CDMU) in 2003. Curriculum is employee-driven and some have been promoted or have shifted tracks as a result of the training. Lori Klein, EVP, director of medical and scientific affairs and CDMU dean, says it's very well received.
And Dorland Global Health Communications rolled out its in-house training program, Dorland Global Institute (DGI). The initiative is part of the fabric of the agency's culture that has “given the staff a common nomenclature,” says Rich Minoff, Dorland president and head of DGI. “Executive committee wanted to provide more value to clients and make sure people feel good about learning because it's part of our environment. We were growing and we knew this was a way we could demonstrate to staff and associates that it's critical for us to invest.”
Dorland also has a leadership program for middle and senior management. It involves three or four classes a year, and Minoff says no expense is spared. “We look at the wellness of the whole individual,” says Sharon Rundberg, Dorland's EVP and director of internal resources. “We have fitness classes. We have healthy food offerings. We support community activities, look at flextime and telecommuting. We want to give back and have people have healthy lives.”
Meanwhile, AbelsonTaylor conducts weekly “Lunch and Learn” training seminars. Recent topics include “A Day in the Life of the Product Manager” and “A Day in the Life of a Sales Rep.”
Harrison and Star developed in-house curriculum and spent nearly a year with a Six Sigma black belt to ensure processes don't hamper employees' quality of life. “Work/life balance is related to retention and attraction,” Star says. “As people climb the ladder, it becomes a real dilemma. The purpose of bringing [Six Sigma] in was to deconstruct our processes and see where we could streamline them, make things more efficient without losing quality control. We want people to have a life outside of work or else you go stale.”
Star also spends “a fair amount of time” personally mentoring people. “They value it, and if it's something they're not going to get at another place, maybe they'll think twice about going.”
Cultivating the talent pool
Cultivating candidates can also help solve the talent shortage over time. It's important for industry leaders to invest time and energy in educating broader audiences about the industry, which certainly improves chances of attracting bright, young talent who might not otherwise be aware that they could contribute to the industry.
Star stresses the importance of diversity. “There aren't nearly enough African-Americans in this business,” he says. “We need to do a better job recruiting and letting people know we exist, and what this business is about. From a business perspective, it's in everyone's interest. Our clients are much more diverse than we are. Their HR departments that have taken that very seriously. And, we see a much more global diversity. We need to emulate that, and do a better job of making ourselves known to a broader audience.”
Star sees a need to leverage staffers who may be members of under-represented communities. When presented with an opportunity by a Korean employee, he jumped at the chance to advertise the agency in an awards journal for a Korean-American business organization.
Dorland actively pursues and maintains relationships with schools on both coasts, including the University of Pennsylvania, Saint Joseph's University, The University of the Arts, the University of California's Berkeley and San Francisco campuses, and Santa Clara University. Agency leadership goes to classes and networks through professors, alumni organizations and career counselors.
“Build relationships with heads of career services,” Minoff says. “Give them profiles for candidates and they'll go into their databases and give you leads. Six to eight people who [came and spent] a half-day shadowing people were referred this year by universities. It shows the environment and the spirit of the company.”
While it's “hard to measure what long-term programs will yield,” Star thinks getting industry veterans out to high schools and colleges is a good idea. Paid summer internships draw college students to Harrison and Star. They are given a mix of work and “become missionaries for us in a sense,” Star says. “We're trying to throw a lot of seeds out there and hoping one or two will take.”
AbelsonTaylor benefits from a formalized relationship with the University of Illinois Department of Pharmacy, from which it has been drawing talent for nearly a decade.
Concentric's Begasse notes that as more pharma products are getting to young people, the industry has an advantage in reaching them. “There are more quality of life medications, asthma treatments—somehow they've been exposed to [pharma],” he says. “If they can understand how a product lands in their hand, you're going to start cultivating people interested in our business. There is opportunity. We need to seize it.”
Missionary work also leads to helping educators develop classes targeted at industry needs.
“Marketing and communications departments at universities don't really have in-depth studies of online advertising, so graduates are coming out with very little understanding of what's going on in the online space,” Herr says. “It's not as straight-up anymore. People have to think about how this can translate. There needs to be a concerted effort placed on universities' marketing curricula, [to get] online [programs] beefed up so they can provide [new staff].”
Begasse believes the industry “needs to start implementing programs at local universities, and start developing pharma-specific strategic and creative minds.”
He says, “Professional organizations, such as Healthcare Marketing & Communications Council (HMC), need to invest more to create this curriculum on a parochial and collegiate level. There are some pockets where pharma companies have an impact on communities. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut are heavily saturated with pharma companies. In California and Boston, you're really talking about biotechs—and that's probably an even hotter topic—and where the industry will go in finding individualized medicines.
“We can have an effect doing grass root-level initiatives to get people involved in these pockets. HMC has the ability to do it all. [It] recruits, and people on-board are fairly influential in all aspects of our business. If anyone [is] poised to do this, it's HMC.”
SIDEBAR: Talent in the regions
Cambridge BioMarketing president Steve West has led agencies in New Jersey, San Francisco and now Boston. “It's almost no harder to pull to Boston or San Francisco than it is to get people across the Hudson to New Jersey,” he says. “In New York, the pool is wider, but not necessarily deeper.”
“The east coast tends to be where people fish,” says McCann Healthcare Worldwide Richard Nordstrom, global CEO. In Chicago, it was impossible to recruit from New York unless they were from the midwest. In New York, if you lose your job you go down the street and get another job in two weeks. You see resumes of people who have been at 5 or 6 different agencies in 10 years. They're really never in one place long enough to develop the kind of competency their title and salary commands.”
“The talent pool in Chicago is a fraction of the size it is in New York,” says AbelsonTaylor president Dale Taylor. “There are some very good people here. Most of them work for AbelsonTaylor. There are always people coming out of the pharma industry. We also pull from New York and the east coast market.”
“California has a unique advantage [because there] aren't that many agencies of size,” Nordstrom says. “It's small, entrepreneurial and they enjoy it. It's very difficult moving somebody from the west coast to the middle or to the east coast. There is a level of sophistication you can tap into on the east [and] bring west.”
“The sheer numbers on the east coast make it easier to identify top talent,” says Sharon Rundberg, EVP, Director of Internal Resources Dorland Global Corporation. “The west coast doesn't have as many agencies and the clients' departments are not as well defined.”
“For the interactive agency business, it has to be tough everywhere,” says Ignite Health cofounder and CEO Jackie Herr. “In Orange County, we've been able to pull from the tech part. At the end of the day, I don't think that's going to be enough.”