SXSW: Tackling the millennial talent challenge

Lost Boys' managing director looks to SXSW lessons about how to nurture new talent

Mar 18, 2015 09:41:00 AM | Article | Nadya Powell

A key theme of SXSW was millennial talent. Nadya Powell, managing director at Lost Boys, selects four lessons marketers need to learn in order to retain and attract this crucial new talent.
For a company to compete in the entrepreneurial age, it needs young, hungry talent. So it's no surprise that at SXSW 2015 a huge discussion point was how to get, develop and retain Millennial talent. As former GE chairman Jack Welch said in his fireside chat this is not a new problem — it's one of the immutable laws of business — to have a great company you need great people. But the demands of the Millennial generation on companies vis à vis their careers have got louder and mutated in ways many companies are struggling to understand.
Millennials see work in a totally different way. Their loyalty is to the people who inspire and invest in them — not to companies — and they don’t desire a career, as work is one pursuit of many. Instead, Millennials view work as a portfolio asset – work is one element of their portfolio, alongside outside pursuits and passion projects, and its role is to contribute toward making the individual more marketable, thereby increasing their market value. I have often heard colleagues bemoan Millennials' "selfish," "self-obsessed" approach to work. It is neither of these – Millennials know their worth and demand that it is recognized and constantly increased.
Additionally the types of work they desire has changed. Mondelez’s Bonin Bough's talk on the talent crisis highlighted that the top 10% of graduates at the top schools in the US predominantly want jobs in tech or in a startup. Previously sought-after jobs at brands or agencies are now very much seen as second-best. 
And let's be honest: If we focus on marketing communications in particular, the lack of interest in traditional marketing careers is not that surprising. In a typical marketing job you start out earning maybe $45,000 a year, and you have to do your time and wait for your responsibilities and salary to slowly crawl upwards. And there's the rub: No matter how well you do, your salary and role still have to follow that wayward path. The rewards for risk, bravery and success is not hard-wired into the advertising business model.
Take a startup — by the very nature of it being your company every effort you put in has the potential to lead to reward. And when you’re young the financial reward can be a simple $150,000 payout at the end of a quick journey. More important than the money — during this journey you'll have learned more in 12 months than in three years in advertising. 
So against this backdrop, how can "regular" marketing communications companies compete in the battle for Millennial talent? Well from three great talks, I've assimilated four golden rules.
1. Millennials work for people, not companies. Rockstars, as Bonin Bough calls talent, want to work for rockstars, and they will come to a company that has them. Now the agency world, more so than brands, is definitely famous for its rockstars. But the change agencies need to make is that their rockstars need to stop being solo players and instead form a band. A band where a Millennial may start as a roadie but where they know that one day they can play lead guitar. A rockstar’s job is not about building Brand Me, but instead Brand We.
2. Market value, not company value. Focus on the individual's market value, not on what they can deliver for the company. Accept they will be with you for 12 months and that your job is to ensure they can go on to command a greater salary. If you become the growth agent for their portfolio, investing in making it the best it can be, they will deliver tenfold and may even stay for 24 months.
3. Reward the Pirate. Someone who does not shut up, is constantly restless and challenges norms relentlessly is not a pain in the arse — they are the secret to your company’s success. Let's call them Pirates. These Pirates will come up with new ideas that will deliver competitive advantage. Forget company players, it's not about the slow march forward anymore, you need the Pirate within so you can make leaps. When hiring Millennials, only hire these guys.
4. Leapable structures. Build jobs around people, not people around jobs. Siloed roles are the curse of agencies — you work in creative, planning, account services. Blur the lines and make them leapable. Move people around, let them jump levels and stages, let them invent new roles and departments. See structure as constantly organic and changing, not as an immutable law. And don't obsess about it — Pirates work best when structures get casually broken and remade
Overall, to compete today companies need to adopt Millennial behavior — hungry, restless, organic not fixed, pivoting, re-evaluating, seeing their product as part of an ever-evolving portfolio — as only then will they consistently deliver market value. The most talented Millennials are Pirates, and to tempt them in, and (more fundamentally) to survive, their employer must behave like one too.
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