Getting smart about attracting smart talent

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Considering that we work in the business of building brands, we haven’t built the brand of the advertising industry very well. In conferences and in the trades, I hear complaints about nearly every aspect of the industry — followed up by complaints about the fact that smart talent often chooses other industries.

I think it’s time we take control of our industry brand again.

Smart people are attracted to this industry for a number of reasons, but key among them is that every day we take on a fascinating challenge: Get people to care about things they don’t actually care about.

And when we do it well, our clients’ business grows and their customers are happier.

Nobody gets into this industry because they’re excited about hoodwinking people. None of us want to sell things to people that they don’t need or that are bad for them. The exciting challenge lies in getting people to care about things they’re otherwise indifferent about. Which, let’s be honest, are most things.

Sure — if something is objectively better or objectively less expensive, people will choose that. But most of the time, people simply don’t care. Which is why it’s so incredibly cool when we uncover creative, strategic and smart ways of getting them to care.

It’s a bit magical. And something to be proud of.

Plus, every time we do it well, we’re attracting the next generation of smart folks to our industry.

I can trace my desire to get into this line of work back to the Energizer Bunny. When I first saw that campaign, I was in awe of how clever, funny and unexpected it was. It made me care about batteries. No normal person cares about batteries.

I was, in fact, so inspired that I not only got into advertising, but went to work on that specific campaign. My first job out of college was working on the Energizer account at Chiat/Day (as the agency was known at the time). And I saw the research — yep, batteries are all pretty much the same. (Except for the cheap ones. Avoid those.) Yet the Energizer Bunny got people to care about something they don’t care about.

I believe "It’s a Tide ad" might have a similar stimulating effect on future advertising professionals. I hope the Honda "Paper" video inspires the next generation of dreamers. And think about all the young women who might be attracted to our industry after learning it was an agency that brought "Fearless Girl" to life for State Street Global Advisors. Doing great work isn’t just valuable for our clients, it’s a recruiting tool for bringing smart brains into our industry. Smart brains aren’t interested in the mediocre. They want to do something great.

To attract more smart talent to our industry, we have to take that same fascinating challenge and point it at ourselves: Get people to care about something they don’t actually care about. Generally speaking, people don’t care about the advertising industry. So let’s get creative and strategic about making them care. Let’s make this an industry worthy of attention again. It’s bigger than any one agency. It’s something we need to solve together.

There used to be primetime TV specials featuring the funniest commercials from around the world. Remember when the Clios aired on national TV? Most of my family members still think it’s the only advertising award show there is. But now that media channels are splintered and niche, what are we doing to showcase our industry’s most amazing work to mass audiences today? I think there are plenty of people who would still be fascinated in seeing the amazing stuff our industry is coming up with.

Inspiring people with great work is just one step. Smart talent will look at our industry and immediately wonder why there are so few folks over 50. Smart people want a career, not a rude awakening with 20 years left before retirement. What are we collectively doing to help people who’ve chosen this career make it a career they can continue to thrive in?

Let’s do some damage control on advertising’s reputation for working insane hours. Smart people want to work smart — not crazy.

And let’s be proud of our best, not defensive of our worst. Every industry has weak spots. Yes, there is lots of bad advertising. But ever think about how much bad TV there is? Bad film? Music? Retail stores? Home contractors? Every industry has only a tiny percentage of great, compared to mediocre. It’s what makes us appreciate the amazing stuff and strive for it.

I don’t think any of us got into the industry because we’re interested in doing the bad stuff. The smartest talent is driven by aiming to be the best.

Ping Pong in the office is great and all, but that’s not what attracts the smartest people. The smartest people want to sink their teeth into a problem, create something amazing and make a difference.

Let’s work to be known for all of that. It’s a fascinating challenge.

Tim Leake is SVP/chief marketing officer for RPA.

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(Photo by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash)