Millennials are not a panacea for all agencies’ problems

Amid all the Christmas ad hoo-ha one story really stood out for me. And it didn’t have anything to do with a bouncing dog.

It was around the John Lewis spoof and W Communications’ decision to hire the clever lad behind it. Hiring an 18-year old with no agency experience is a bold move. And I look forward to hearing how young Nick Jablonka fares. He’s clearly got raw talent – but also a long, hard journey ahead of him.

Millennials are crucial to our industry, no doubt. As digital natives, they have the know-how most clients crave, and they are, after all, the workforce and leaders of the future. But are they really agencyland’s knights in shining armour? I think it’s time we tempered our view of millennials a little. It’s a two-way street. When taking on young talent, we should celebrate what they have to offer without forgetting our own business needs and responsibilities.

Younger recruits have an energy and vitality that’s hard to find anywhere else. They’re untainted by the cynicism that can afflict our industry. Plus, they’re often motivated, passionate and eager to learn. These attributes bring a freshness of ideas that are a boost to agencies’ creativity. But hiring young talent who exhibit these traits is just the start. Raw talent only takes you half of the way.

Agencies have a responsibility to nurture the other half. Often the very nature of our industry is the hardest thing for new recruits to grasp. Marketing hinges on the long-term and that can be an alien concept for millennials. In this era of fast-growth start-ups and declining home ownership, that is wholly understandable. They’re not driven by the same incentives as us older folk were at their age, partly because a lot of them appear to be less attainable. What’s more, youth culture in all its guises – music, film, fashion – is incredibly fast moving. If you’re coming of age right now a short-term attitude is almost a requirement.

A successful career in the marketing world is based on time and hard work accompanied by a healthy measure of experience. For wide-eyed, ambitious recruits it’s tempting to bring this instant, short-term outlook with them to business life. I love seeing this vigour in our new hires and a desire to move up the ladder is laudable. But the reality is that progression isn’t a matter of ticking boxes. Experience is complicated. It’s not just about delivering on certain objectives, it’s more intangible – it’s about testing your skills over and over again, in different situations and in different ways.

Inevitably the wheels will fall off to one degree or another (another hard and fast agency rule). And if you’ve risen through the ranks without ever having a problem to deal with, there’s going to be a world of trouble when one finally falls in your lap. That’s why agencies are so interested in graduates’ answers to situational interview questions. Unforeseen circumstances will always emerge: it’s no use saying that the systems in place will protect against them, as one of our interviewees did. It’s better to accept that you won’t always have the answer up front; cracking a problem asks you to think differently.

The beauty of experience is that it breeds flexibility. If you’ve got banks of knowledge to draw on, you’re better equipped to think on your feet and improvise. No job in our industry is mundane and no skill is exclusive to a particular job role, so that flexibility brings with it tremendous value. But how do you teach it?

In my experience, it pays to have clearly set out company values. An agency that practices openness will attract staff with the same principles. And this openness will be applicable to any job function. So, there’s a lot to be said about having a rigorous employment process too: it means you get the right kind of person who has real business benefits, both culturally and structurally.

In addition to that bright spark, agencies should put a real emphasis on emotional intelligence with their young hires. Empathetic people, who really reflect the values your company is founded on, aren’t constrained to one kind of thinking. So above all else, there’s an agency responsibility to make it clear to recruits what they want from them. There’s no point taking on a promising newcomer if they’re not the right fit for your agency.

Ultimately though, there’s no one size fits all when it comes to young talent. Agencies that expect millennials to solve all their problems will be disappointed. To get the best out of new recruits, agencies have a responsibility to make them a useful part of a workforce. It’s not about chucking them in at the deep end and seeing if they can swim either. It’s about showing them the ropes, helping them build valuable experience and ultimately, learning from them too.

By Wendy Hooper, Commercial Director at Brightsparks.