How To Entice (And Retain) The Best Creative Talent


The war for talent is getting fiercer. As the U.S. unemployment rate hit 3.9 percent — a figure not sustained since the 1960s — employees gained an even stronger upper hand. With April marking the 91st consecutive month of job gains following the recession, talented workers have had their pick of roles.

The competition is even fiercer for creatives, many of whom have fled to greener tech pastures. “For many who do make the leap, the appeal lies in the opportunity to do work that requires a different level of thinking or that can even change the world,” explains AdAdge’s Lindsay Stein. “The migration of young talent to tech companies has been going on for years, but the loss of established bold-name creative leaders to the Apples and the Googles is a newer and troubling trend for agencies.”

So how do companies that need creative talent compete with the Apples and the Googles? And once they attract essential talent, how do they keep it?

The Creative Talent Blind Spot

Many businesses overlook one key aspect of the creative exodus: It’s not just about perks and visibility. It’s easy to write off the departure of creatives as a desire to add a big name to their résumé or pad their savings account, but the key word here is “creative.” These people are seeking opportunities to tell stories, push boundaries, and develop new approaches.

Adam Tompkins, co-founder of Working Not Working, a platform that helps creative talent and companies find each other, says this shift has made the war for creative talent more nuanced — and more difficult for agencies and others to wage. “A lot of agency people left for startups promising cool offices, creative freedom, and stock options that could actually make them rich,” he told AdAge. “The difference now is that 15 years later, in a post-iPod society, storytelling, branding, and design are much more valued by startups and established brands alike.”

The first step, then, is for companies to make sure they’re not handcuffing creatives in roles they wouldn’t have knowingly signed up for. Creatives have lamented the recent trend of companies advertising a role — one that sounds challenging, artistically fulfilling, and stimulating — and offering another once the ideal candidate is in the chair. These bait-and-switch roles often involve more administrative or repetitive work and less creative or strategic work, leaving creatives with an itch they’ll go scratch somewhere else.

Bend So You Don’t Break

Developing a truly creative role isn’t where the effort to attract and retain creative talent ends. Companies new to hiring creatives typically have cultures and expectations that are more in line with task-oriented positions, and it’s smart to revisit these. Bonus: Many of these tweaks can be advertised during the hiring phase to help attract the talent you want.

1. Offer professional development aimed at creatives.

Like creative roles themselves, these opportunities don’t have to conform to a single mold. You may have graphic designers who want to take advanced Photoshop classes as they begin using the platform more frequently, or you may have a marketing manager who needs an outlet to exercise ideas for combining different departments’ expertise for campaigns. Recognizing that professional development opportunities for those in the creative realm may look different, but are equally valuable, is critical to keeping creative talent. In one study, almost half of the in-house designers surveyed said they would have a leg up if they were able to develop multifaceted skill sets rather than specialties. Their companies benefit, too — as long as they support creatives’ ability to develop these skills.

2. Rethink your approach to money.

Charles Day, founder of creative leadership practice The Lookinglass, explains that money has “deflationary value” for many creatives, who want to view their efforts as helping someone, not merely doing work in exchange for money. Avoiding a transactional setup is important for making creative work feel valued, both within your team and externally. But, Day cautions, don’t mistake this feeling for a general disdain for money — creatives who aren’t paid market value will become resentful and lose trust in their employer. Merit is prized by the creative class, so value people’s work on its merits, not overtly because of the money it brings to your bottom line.

3. Build in flexibility.

The image of the artist who sleeps all day and creates all night, out of touch with other people in an obsessive state until he or she is finished, is outdated. But that doesn’t mean that the stereotype arose out of nowhere. Many creatives do value flexibility in working through a creative streak or “flow,” making their hours adjust a bit to their inspiration. Affording creative talent the flexibility to work from home or work offset hours can improve their work, enhance their job satisfaction, and result in a stronger ROI for your company.

4. Give your full-time creatives the same love as your freelancers.

Some companies fall into a habit of treating freelance creatives — the only ones they’ve ever had — very well to keep them around, and then they fail to give their newly hired full-time creatives the same consideration. Tompkins’ team has run into many situations where freelancers are given more accommodations or pay, with the knowledge that they have a lot on their plates; companies paying on a per-day or per-project basis want their freelancers’ focus on them. But full-timers’ days can be loaded up with meetings and more assignments than they can handle, with their managers knowing they’ll get to it “someday.” Don’t demoralize your full-timers by not treating them as well as your contract employees; treat both as essential to your creative efforts.

The war for creative talent is still raging, and companies that want to attract the best and the brightest will put themselves in their prospective employees’ shoes. Knowing what they value and what they need can go a long way toward getting the best talent through the door — and keeping them there.

Serenity Gibbons is the local lead for NAACP in Northern California with a mission is to ensure economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.


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