How agencies are grooming leaders for tomorrow

By Ankit Bhatnagar , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | May 16, 2011
Leadership is all about taking responsibility, and taking charge when the chips are down. Whether it's balancing growth, freedom and discipline, or caressing creative brains, human resource management in advertising is a tricky job. How is it done differently across various companies? afaqs! explores.

What does it take to create a winning combination of a creatively-gifted team, and one that is satisfied with the management, as well? Do HR policies in big agencies differ from those in startups? In this fierce dog-eat-dog world, how do agencies find and retain talent, and what does one need to be first chosen, and then excel in the industry?

It's a common refrain that to taste success in any profession, you need to be passionate about the job. Says Vaasu Gavarasana, executive vice-president and office head, Bates 141 India, "What I look for in a candidate is a genuine interest in media, an interest that has the possibility to develop into a passion. India is a country of arranged marriages. You marry first and fall in love later. A genuine understanding of people and their behaviour is a plus for any recruit. We prefer people who have a world view. And, those who have an opinion or a point-of-view. Not the ones who live with a frog-in-the-well syndrome."

In a nutshell, the candidates should have a point-of-view, high energy and a passion for life.

"What we look for is whether or not they can keep themselves and others in the team going through tough times," adds Gavarasana.

Qualities needed to stand apart

When it comes to traits to look for and qualities sought in a new joinee, there's not much difference in the approach between established agencies and start-ups. "A start-up can't risk having newcomers at every level. While recruiting, I look for candidates who are disciplined and are happy, chirpy people, because the personal demeanour contributes to the workplace environment," says Priti Nair, founder director, Curry Nation. Curry Nation is a five-month old creative start-up, based in Mumbai.

According to Anil Nair, chief executive officer and managing partner, Law & Kenneth, people who are hungry to grow, can evolve as a leader and are willing to contribute to the team, are preferred while being hired. "Certainty is boring and limiting. We look for people who enjoy uncertainty and want to breakaway from monotony," he opines.

Advertising is no longer an unconventional profession by any means. Creative agencies encourage candidates from diverse backgrounds. "At Bates, we have a chef, a chartered accountant, an entrepreneur, and an HR practitioner. We get better quality ideas with such a diversified team. To bring back the vibrancy in advertising, one needs to have people from various backgrounds. You need to cross different wires to create a spark," says Gavarasana.

Advertising education -- filling the vacuum

One nagging concern within the fraternity is that advertising education in India is flawed. Says (Anil) Nair, "The focus of the industry is going to dogs. Advertising has forgotten to market itself, whether to the clients or to future generations."

The industry still lacks consistent and sustained efforts to educate or groom talent. Apart from sporadic efforts made by Mudra in the form of the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA), or Lintas supplemental education for its staff through Lintas Media School, not much can be spoken about.

"Advertising education should be an apprentice profession like MBBS, having components of practicals. Advertising cannot be taught in classrooms," concurs Gavarasana. He adds that internships in advertising as a profession are not structured into the curriculum, and are just an afterthought. It's similar throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

"Advertising is more of a tick box profession, nobody takes pain to structure it, to make it an idea generating profession," he remarks.

Creative talent: Availability or application

There's a consensus that creative talent is available in India. The problem, many feel, lies in its application. "India is the only country where people are working in two languages, English and Hindi, and considering the variety India offers we can create wonders," says Arjun Banerjee, chief executive officer, Grasshoppers.

Reminiscing what has changed in creative talent over years, (Priti) Nair says, "Today, what has changed is that designations have been thrown away. You come across people with high designations, but relatively young in experience. In our times, the creative director was God, but not anymore."

Where India stands today should be seen as a function of media growth. The country is still dominated by traditional media. The world (outside India) has moved on. We lag behind, even in our thinking. Creative guys still think about the TVC first.

According to Gavarasana, today's youngsters are suffering from 'Creative Myopia'. "Today, when I'm writing a 30-second spot, I'm benchmarking it to others like Ogilvy's BlackBerry Boys, Zoozoos, or the Indian Railways. The consumer is no longer watching television. He's on Twitter, is using mobile applications, and updating his Facebook page. The reality today is that content is fighting content, not a communication vertical fighting another."

The question a creative person should be asking is: What content is the consumer demanding? Instead of What TV commercials is he/she watching?

Many believe that advertising does not attract enough talent because it pays less. Industry veterans believe that the issue stems from lower margins for agencies and excessive cut-throat competition. According to (Anil) Nair, clients have to do away with this 'I shall deny you, so that you don't grow bigger than what you are' attitude. By cutting costs, they fail to understand that ultimately it's the talent that's getting affected.

Advertising is not a manufacturing industry. A major chunk of its expenses is the human resource cost. It is all about people. Designing guys have been lost to animation because it pays more, and creative guys to television for the same reason.

Grooming as the key

Since trends change at a much faster pace today, it is important to groom talent to prepare people for future challenges, and survive in the competitive world. It's a fact that even creativity needs hard work to get noticed. Everyone worked hard, whether it was Picasso or the Wright brothers.

While grooming is the key for readying future generations, training in advertising happens on the job.

"Leaders should take regular grooming sessions for their team. Groom them to lead, to tackle tricky situations. In Lowe, we got groomed well," says (Priti) Nair.

Many feel that advertising lacks role models. We don't have many role models. "Creative guys have been winning laurels, but what about management guys? We haven't created role models for coming generations. We are too busy navel-gazing." opines Gavarasana.

In resonance with what (Anil) Nair says, Gavarasana concurs that the advertising fraternity needs to get out on the streets, give the young an understanding of the industry and give them role models to look up to. "I'm fearful for the profession, the silos have been hurting the youngsters more," he says.

According to (Anil) Nair, talent should be groomed by offering entrepreneurial motivation. "Freedom is important to groom talent. Freedom may be intangible, but is a high-value commodity. At Law & Kenneth, we believe that chaos produces champions."

Breeding Leadership, bringing success

Independent, unrestrictive freedom is the hallmark of the advertising industry. What do companies do to instill leadership? Is independent thinking encouraged, or does every decision need a managerial approval?

According to Banerjee, "Every individual has its own value in the organisation. Each one of our team member is given preference and independent thinking, and initiative is always encouraged."

At Law & Kenneth, leadership is exercised at every level. Says (Anil) Nair, "We even expect our peons to solve problems, and not merely follow orders. Growth for us has never been through numbers, but through the individual growth of our employees.

According to Gavarasana, to breed leadership, a company should have a coach-player relationship, instead of a boss-employee one. "The only way to grow is to use your brain, and add value to your team. Why will somebody follow you, if you don't have anything to offer in term of leadership. But, exercising leadership qualities in a creative realm is difficult. We look for people who have the natural instincts of leading teams. We teach our people how to fish, but don't give them the fish," he says.

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