Ten Things Every Agency Should Do to Attract & Retain The Best Creative Talent

I gathered our partners into our lecture theatre last week……to lecture them.

Most of them are doing most things really well, but my preference is to teach to two constituencies; (i) the fastest and smartest people in the room, and (ii) those who need to hear the message a bit louder and clearer more often than the average. That’s why we invited them down to Brixton on a cold Wednesday afternoon. Because the fastest and smartest agencies know that they need to work harder to attract and retain the very best talent.

Before the event, we sent a survey to our alumni network asking them to open up about their experience in the industry, promising to protect their confidentiality.

I felt compelled to send such a survey after having spent some of the summer holidays chatting to several of our alumni. I was alarmed to discover how many of them were struggling with their mental health or their motivation to carry on working in the industry. Of these, three of them at CD level, had needed to take extended time off work because of burnout.

The purpose of the School of Communication Arts (SCA) is to provide the communications industry with a direct, diverse feed to tomorrow’s creative superstars. We deliver on this commitment year-after-year-after-year, winning the coveted Black Pencil most years and always dominating at Cream. Our alumni continue the winning habit when they start working in agencies, but these superstars are in danger of becoming shooting stars.

The purpose of this paper is to share some of the feedback from our alumni, what we think it teaches us, and how we can become better as an industry by learning from them.

Attracting Talent

  • Open Your Doors

    We encourage our sponsors to provide a space for our students to work when they aren’t in school, and nearly all of them delivered. OK, Specsavers didn’t get many visits from our students because they are based in Guernsey. But they were up for it, with their beautifully open and welcoming culture, which almost certainly leads to the brilliantly effective and creative work that has become part of common culture.

    70% of last year’s intake chose their preferred employer or placement after getting to know them on these visits.

    Some specific feedback from students included;

    “It was really useful in dispelling the aura of fear and anxiety that had built up in my head around actually sitting down at crits in agencies.”

    “It was great in that it helped connect what we’d been learning and get a feel for the type of work we want to do.”

    “Loved it. Great way to network, build relationships and get crits.”

    However, it wasn’t all good news. Some students were put off by their agency visits, deciding that they would never recommend working for that organisation. Some employers kept being mentioned as places to avoid.
  • Close Your Doors

    Whilst a lot of our sponsors were rated 8 out of 10 by students for their industry visits, there was a cluster that scored 2 out of 10. If you are unable to provide creative talent with care and support when they visit, you are much better off closing your doors and taking a step away from the talent pipe for a bit. 

    I hope that this paper will demonstrate how every creative organisation benefits from having permanent access to the pipeline of creative talent, not just through the infusion of new talent, but also because (when done properly) the incumbent team should feel energised and enthusiastic about their careers.

    Our students tend to visit a partner when working on a brief for them in school, so they might see these visits as an opportunity to test ideas with people working for them, possibly on the same brief. Our students also want to show their portfolios for feedback, in the hope of learning something, or in making a new connection.

    Our smartest partners know that these visits are great opportunities for them to filter the pipe, looking for talent that responds to their feedback, answers their brief in an unexpected way, or just simply connects through good chemistry.
  • Be a Good Host

    The poor feedback that our alumni shared came about as a result of a very direct question; “What did an agency do on placement that put you off working for them?”

    Before sharing a small selection of the responses, let’s be absolutely clear that ours is a people business. People buy people. This basic principle is reciprocated by the employer and the employee. Both want to work with good people. Neither want to work with dicks.

    “Had no brown people. The CD’s who hired us barely said two words to us.”

    Imagine having never spent time inside a creative organisation before, working hard to win a placement, and then experiencing a deep sense of being unwelcome. This is, by no means, uncommon.

    “Left to own devices. No formal introduction. Had to beg for work.”

    This person’s experience was shared by others, both in large and small agencies. Good behaviour, well-designed systems and thoughtful processes should exist in every organisation.

    “ECDs making little to no effort to get to know you after you’ve made an effort to talk to them numerous times. I know it’s a busy job, but it’s your house, it should be welcoming from the top down. I don’t want to work for you if you don’t make us feel part of the team, or if you won’t acknowledge us.”

    This came up again and again and again.

    “Placed us under CDs who weren’t keen mentors, it’s important for placement teams to have regular back-and-forths with someone, anyone, whether it’s a strategist, a CD, a junior. Whatever.”

    Most of these comments address basic manners, many of our sponsors weren’t aware that people have had these experiences under their roofs, all of them pledged to work with us to make things better.

    Sadly, there were much worse comments that needed to be shared. 
  • Don’t Abuse The Talent

    The amount of abuse that our alumni have experienced was alarming to read. 

    Some of the comments below will be upsetting for you too. All partners agreed that any agency committing these sins will be banned from supporting SCA, banned from offering placements and named publicly.

    Let’s start with some milder moments of abuse….

    ‘Made us stay until 3 am on consecutive nights when there was no work to do. The reasoning was, “I had to do this when I was a junior, so you do too.”

    “Gave our ideas to senior teams to make”

    “Kept us on placement for 18 months. This happened during covid, so might have been an exception. However, the same agency made us work multiple weekends to make a mood film for a conference early on in our placement.”

    Let’s be very clear, these first three testimonials demonstrate a lack of respect for people and their career journeys. There is something very wrong and disrespectful, which simply shouldn’t happen in an industry that is so focused on understanding how to make people feel loyalty towards brands and organisations.

    When an industry stops respecting each other, awful things can easily happen. This next testimonial is one example of many.

    “Sexual harassment is still rife in this industry. Older executives in high power positions grope and make inappropriate comments to junior female creatives. From, “are you in an open relationship with your boyfriend?”, “Would you be up for something?” (asked ten days into a placement stint!!) to lewd stares and office parties compounded with alcohol and total impunity is a recipe for disaster.”

    I’m lost for words that any company would be so dangerously stupid as to allow abuse to happen under their roof. It’s even more stupid that any company would sponsor our School with the intention of nurturing talent, only to allow their senior management to abuse that talent. It’s like buying a Ferrari and then deliberately scraping the key down one side. 

Attracting and Retaining Talent

  • Don’t be a TWaT

    The workplace has changed massively since coronavirus, with senior management often choosing to spend time in their offices on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Offices are often empty on Mondays and Fridays.

    The creative talent coming out of SCA are all hungry to carry on learning throughout their careers. They have been told repeatedly that, when they graduate, they should choose an employer with creative talent that they look up to and want to carry on learning from.

    Most of us seniors remember learning through informal conversations on the creative floor, or from quickly showing 100 lines to the Head of Copy, or by getting ideas ripped apart from one of the star teams. We watched how work was made. We emulated the people we respected the most.

    I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t encourage working from home at all: at SCA we encourage staff and students to work remotely one day a week so that they have time to think and reflect, and then come together to collaborate, share and inspire each other.

    Great creative environments should feel like inspiring places to hang out. There should be a buzz around the place, there should be people you look forward to spending time with, and there needs to be space for the extrovert and the introvert to both thrive. In exactly the same way as you instinctively know whether a brasserie is going to serve up good food by the ambience and atmosphere of the place when you walk through the door, creative talent will instinctively know whether an environment is going to nourish them sufficiently.
  • Create a Culture of Learning

    One consistent trait in every successful creative is curiosity: they are hungry to learn something, they have a strong desire to understand new things, they instinctively want their questions answered.

    One of the many self-inflicted wounds that the communications industry should recognise is their collective under-investment in learning and development of creative talent, particularly when compared to industries starting to eat their lunch. Management consultancies, for example, have a description for one of the ways in which learning is designed into the working processes of every one of their colleagues.

    They call it ‘benching’, and it happens when one of their people finishes working on a project, before starting on another. The bench is a place where high performance engines are checked, tuned or upgraded. It is a moment to celebrate getting stronger or faster or more resilient.

    This behaviour is almost non-existent in most creative departments of most agencies.

    My hero, Alvin Toffler, wrote in his seminal book Future Shock (published in 1970) that the illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read or write, but those who can’t learn and unlearn and relearn.

    The communications industry has experienced decades of change, which has expanded the canvases for creative talent to express ideas. When I studied at the SCA my only options were TV, Radio, Press, Poster, Direct Mail. Now, there are thousands of new options. In the fifteen years that I’ve been running SCA we’ve introduced things like Programmatic, Social Media, Metaverse, Apps, Smart Speakers and Gaming to name just a few.

    About 2,000 words ago, I introduced the School’s key purpose…’to provide the communications industry with a direct, diverse feed to tomorrow’s creative superstars‘. When our sponsors met up last week I mentioned that we need to update our purpose, expanding it to promote learning inside every organisation. This feels like something that is urgently needed, so we invited our sponsors to choose courses that they would like us to develop first for them. We are on a mission to provide our sponsors with the same quality of learning experiences, tailored to meet the busiest of schedules, delivered without raising the eyebrows of a CFO, whilst raising the standards of creativity across every department.

    I’ve put this in the Attract and Retain section because it applies to both. For evidence, read these answers to the question; “What did an agency do on placement that made you want to work for them?”

    “Trusting you, letting you be involved in the good briefs, some of the other teams took time to teach us and check in.  I like learning, so anyone that took the time I was super grateful for.”

    “Support and guidance.”

    “Provide you with real opportunity and responsibility. The best thing they can do is treat you like a middle or senior creative team while you are on placement and see how you deal with that. You learn more and you work harder because you are valued.”

    “Offer us good briefs, and mentoring from senior teams.”

    “Opportunities to show your talent and learn. Partner this with regular intervals where you can chat to mentors/senior staff. It is pretty simple.”

Retaining Talent

  • Live Fast, Die Young

    We deliberately push our students to their limits at select moments of the year. For example, during D&AD awards, or close to Portfolio Day, we plan for a couple of all-nighters. There will be times when they will need to pull an occasional all-nighter when they graduate and gain employment.

    Just after we work on D&AD, we break for Easter and the students have nearly three weeks to get their energy back. Soon after Portfolio Day, term ends and they can enjoy a few weeks rest before starting placements or jobs. They might not realise it at the time, but the students’ health (mental and physical) is front of mind all the time.

    I had lunch a few weeks ago with an alumnus who is now a CD in a very profitable and awarded agency. He had to take a few weeks off work because of his mental health, brought on purely through burnout. He has made a few fantastic commercials since working at that agency, and was in the middle of making a global campaign when he had his burnout. He has to handle a few accounts, and he finds himself speaking to people in Europe, America and Asia, which means long workdays most days. The thought of him having to do these Zoom calls feels alien to me, because this alumnus is pure creative talent, born in an art school, raised in our portfolio school, built to create powerful communications.

    His energy is being wasted by an agency who doesn’t understand the harm they are doing.

    Thankfully, I am married to one of the world’s leading occupational psychologists, and she comes with a network of experts on how to develop psychological flexibility and build resilience, whilst also leading research on how managers can reduce stress amongst their people.

    How to Prepare Psychologically For a Long And Healthy Career was the course most requested by sponsors who attended our event last week, and will be the next one that we bring to market. 

    Most of our alumni told us that they would want to take this course too, and it will be offered to them for free, because we need to be a school that continues to create superstars, not shooting stars.
  • Make Mentoring Mandatory

    Everyone should experience the reciprocal power of mentoring, because (done properly) it is always a life changing experience.

    First, let’s deal with the reciprocal bit of that statement. Almost every guest mentor provides us with feedback that they came away from SCA feeling refreshed, energised, motivated and educated. This isn’t surprising, organisations that study the relationship between people and their professional development, such as the CIPD, consistently see a direct correlation between the act of mentoring and an increase in productivity. People who mentor are more likely to feel proud about their job and their employer. They are less likely to start looking for another job.

    Everyone should experience mentoring, from the C-Suite all the way through to work placement teams. By this, I mean that everyone should experience both sides of the mentoring relationship and discover the benefits that come from being a mentor, and also the benefits that come from being a mentee. Both provide opportunities for growth.

    The bit in that sentence (done properly) is key. Both parties need to feel completely safe. Both should be trained in how to get the most out of each meeting. Both should understand the limitations and boundaries before meeting.

    How To Give Helpful Creative Feedback was the second most requested new course by sponsors who attended our event last week, and we will start offering it very soon.

    We have started reaching out to friends who can help us to help our sponsors design mentoring and reverse-mentoring programmes and will be piloting this as soon as we can, so that we can present the industry with a robust case study showing the benefits of making mentoring mandatory.
  • Memories Have More Value Than Cash

    Look – pay a decent rate and pay your freelancers on time. I’m not suggesting that cash isn’t important. It’s just not as important as the CFO or the CEO thinks it is. There are more important things in life.

    Creative talent wants to be credited for their work, or at least recognised. Often, they’re not.

    Junior creative talent should be encouraged to attend Cannes, perhaps by winning their way there with the support of brilliant employers, like SCA Alumni Phil and Alice got from 3 Monkeys Zeno.

    If their work is up for some awards, it shouldn’t be the ECD that attends on their behalf.

    It’s not just trips to places like Cannes that can make lasting memories, we partnered with The Comedy School and challenged cohorts to learn how to take the stage in a top comedy club. We learned loads of useful skills for our work, we bonded through laughter, we supported each other when the nerves kicked in, when we performed together in a packed room, with friends and family supporting us. 

    And we celebrated together long into the night.

    And we laughed about the night for the rest of the year.
  •  Don’t Just Talk

    This industry has more bullshitters than a farm full of Jersey’s finest heifers. 

    Whilst I trust our partners, mainly because they’ve put their money where their mouths are, we’ve collectively agreed that the School will need to remove sponsors if they fail to provide safe spaces for our creative talent.

    One of the biggest things we learned this summer is the urgent need to be able to look our creative talent in the eye and promise them that they will survive, thrive and prosper in any of our partner’s homes.

    We have enough work to do to ensure that we can meet this promise with our partners, so I have no immediate intention of providing the industry with a kite-mark of quality for non-partners.

    There was a bit of a gasp amongst sponsors when we met last week and they discovered that there is a ‘Glass Door’ type website run by placement teams, ranking and rating agencies. Sometimes providing warnings.

    Just as the reviews for a restaurant can quickly change with new ownership or a new head chef, your company’s profile can easily improve by simply following the nine previous suggestions. Following them with action.

    You don’t need the SCA to make it happen, but if you ever want to chat about sustainable ways of making the industry a better place for creative talent, then we would love to work with you.

Follow SCA Dean, Marc Lewis on Twitter @SCA2Dean

*If you’d like to find out more about partnering SCA, or accessing any of the short courses mentioned in this article, please get in touch with for more information.

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