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How HR can really make a difference in creative agencies

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Jacqui Barratt, director of font, explains the role HR can play in helping creative agencies make their employer branding,  talent retention and attraction policies more efficient.

Human resources professionals get a bad rap, it’s true. The perception that HR is an evil cost centre that hires and fires is slowly being eradicated, but the reputation seems to persist within creative industries. Why?

Around the region, agencies want help with HR activities, but their experiences have been mostly administrative and compliance-based. Even HR experts who try their hardest to develop a strategic approach struggle, thanks to a general disconnect between what HR thinks the agency wants, compared to what it actually needs.

HR people always talk about “adding value to the business”. While being commercially aware is incredibly important, it’s not the only thing the CEO of an agency is looking for. They’re also looking for someone who sees the creative individuals who make up the DNA of the business for who they are and what they can contribute.

As an HR professional, do you know what is needed to cater to a group of innovative and forward-thinking individuals in a creative agency?

1. Decide whether you actually need an HR team

The first step to truly understanding the value an agency can get from HR is figuring out whether you actually need HR at all.

While large agencies need help to manage people and programmes, smaller agencies probably don’t and there’s not much point investing in a big HR team. When the Toyota gets the job done, why get the Rolls Royce?

No matter the size of the agency, HR will be more strategic if it’s done well and if HR is there for the right reasons – not just as paper pushers.

2. HR needs to drive the agency’s own employer brand

The creative sector focuses so much on branding and marketing for clients, spending hundreds of hours strategising and brainstorming, but rarely do they stop and think about their own employment brand. Why not?

Honing an employer brand message is the number one way to help agencies that are struggling to find top talent attract the best people. To do this, agency HR must work closer with the CEO and business heads to help create and push out their employer branding message. It’s also up to HR to ensure staff understand the reasons behind developing this internal strategy, and why it’s tied to the overall brand.

3. Retention, retention, retention

Every business across every industry is worried about retaining staff, but generally this has not been a big focus for agencies. Instead, high turnover rates and job-hopping is being seen as the norm, and it’s dangerous.

One of the biggest recruitment costs to an agency is staff turnover. This isn’t necessarily because of recruitment companies, but due to lost investment in training and development, lost productivity, loss of intellectual property, and dealing with annoyed clients who have to deal with yet another account manager.

The biggest mistake HR professionals make is not proactively looking at ways to retain staff. Keeping people happy and engaged goes way beyond Friday drinks:

  • Performance and feedback: Creative talent are like anyone else – they want constant feedback. Don’t wait for annual performance reviews; create a culture of feedback where employees know exactly where they stand in the agency at all times.
  • Career development:According to font research from 2014, a lack of professional development is one of the biggest causes of job dissatisfaction for marketers. Top talent always have an idea of where they want to be and what they want to achieve, and if you can’t provide a pathway for growth, they’ll walk.
  • Exit interviews: When people do leave, do you really know why? Their reason might be, “I got a new job” but why were they job hunting in the first place? What don’t you offer that another agency does? Use a frank and honest exit interview process as a temperature check for the business. Get real feedback – good and bad – to better align your business with what talent wants.

4. HR doesn’t always understand creative agencies

It might surprise you, but HR professionals often don’t know the roles in a creative agency. Sure, they might know the job titles, but they don’t necessarily understand what they do enough to help the business plan that person’s career trajectory, or replace them when they leave.

When HR doesn’t understand the differences between a brand marketingperson, a product marketing person, an event organiser and a UX professional, they are essentially pushing themselves into an administrative corner.

What they must do is get cosy with the business. Shadow the creative directors and get to grips with what goes on everyday. What are their challenges and frustrations? As an HR professional, if you don’t see the pain points of the business first-hand, then the strategies you put in place will be more theory-based, rather than developed around real life experiences unique to your agency.

5. Don’t stifle a creative environment

It may sound trite, but HR professionals working in agencies need to understand they are dealing with creative people. If you’re an agency leader, how often have you heard employees tell you “HR just doesn’t ‘get’ us?”

Creative people come in different packages, and there are big differences between how HR should deal with corporate and agency folk. The thinking process is also different between small and big agencies when introducing new policies and programmes – how do you sell these to a group of creatives? How do they think? What do they respond to? How can you tailor the message towards the employees you want to embrace it?

I hate to say it, but the perception remains in some agencies that HR is too dry and compliance-based. The people you are managing pride themselves on being creative, innovative and forward thinking, so try and frame your HR approach in the same way.

Following these points will not only help agencies change their perception of HR, but will help you create a better, more strategic, career path for yourself.

Image: Shutterstock

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