4A's Talent@2030: Best Location for Some Ad Agencies? Home Offices!

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Move over New York and Los Angeles. Today's hottest location for the advertising industry is just about anywhere you want to live. Since the pandemic forced companies to adopt to remote work conditions, agencies can now recruit talent from across the country, operating competitively from smaller markets. And clients are comfortable with virtual exchanges.

Remote work allows the Mower agency to hire more diverse talent from any market, said President and Chief Operating Officer Stephanie Crockett. For instance, she recently hired several employees who live in Miami. "It gives us the freedom to look outside geographic areas where we don't have offices," she explained. Mower operates from 10 locations in cities like Syracuse, NY; Buffalo, NY; and Cincinnati, OH, as well as in New York, Boston and Chicago.

Crockett appeared with several other industry executives at the 4A's recent Talent@2030 conference on a panel titled "Meeting Talent Challenges Outside the Big Cities."

Another panelist, Nikki Wilson, Chief People Officer for Dallas-based The Richards Group (TRG), offered some advice: stay "flexible, flexible, flexible." In that way, "we've been able to attract and retain individuals who do not reside in the Dallas-Fort Worth area."

In the last two years, many Americans have reorganized their priorities, and job location isn't necessarily their top concern anymore, Wilson noted. That's been a boon to TRG's recruiting. "We've been able to attract people who have left the big cities and are trying to get back to what's important to them," she said.

For employees who want to live near an office or work in a hybrid setting, smaller markets have advantages. Crockett noted that cities like Syracuse offer nearly nonexistent commutes, lower cost of living, and easy access to lifestyle activities. For today's reoriented workers, who are more focused on wellness and family time, that can be a selling point. "I can go 15 minutes from my house and find hiking trails, places to ski, places to kayak," she said.

Employees want "purpose over place," said Temitayo Jegede, Director of Talent Solutions for the 4A's. "We know people can be productive no matter what location they're in. We need to invest in the technology to enable people to do the work and to engage them."

Of course, remote work presents some logistical hurdles. Early in the pandemic, Crockett said it was challenging to onboard new hires virtually because you couldn't sit down with a new hire and get them up-to-speed quickly. Her firm adapted, and the process is now inclusive and effective.

To engage employees, Wilson said TRG deployed virtual surveys, meetings and questionnaires. They might have gone a little too far. "We almost had too many forums," she said. When participation dipped, the firm reduced the virtual activities and encouraged employees to also share feedback informally.

Despite the remote-work advantages, when employees are scattered around the country, even the best technology can't replicate in-person culture and connections. Agencies need to get creative to build community and foster culture. Crockett said it is important to listen to employees' priorities outside of their work lives and integrate those causes into agency life.

Younger workers, in particular, want employers to reflect their values. They are saying, "'I don't want to check my values and my purpose at the door, I want that to come in with that right in front of me,'" Crockett explained, noting that Mower has employees who are passionate about environmental causes and equity issues, and that they also contribute to social causes in the communities where they live. "We need to focus on that purpose and shared values," she asserted. "That is what we're building."

At TRG, Wilson said some employees bring outside interests into the organization by joining a firm council or spearheading a philanthropic effort. "I want them to bring their values and their passions and see if we can find a win-win," she said.

Another way to succeed outside of the big markets is to emphasize responsiveness. In massive firms in large cities, individuals might not always feel heard, and firms can't be as nimble. Small firms can deliver on the needs of potential recruits and current employees.

"We're hearing a lot about career growth and development," Wilson said. "They're asking, 'What's next?'" Some potential hires want six-month performance reviews, regular feedback and guidance for how their career will progress.

HR leaders report that employees want flexibility, both in location and with work schedules. They're also interested in benefits for travel, childcare and wellness, noted the 4A's Jegede.

Crockett said mentorship and career coaching are top requests. Offering remote work helps there, too, she said. Since Mower can attract more diverse talent nationwide with virtual settings, it broadens the talent pool. That means Mower can extend more mentorships and coaching with more women and people of color who are based across the country.

When agencies do return to in-person work, it should be purposeful and productive. "We don't want it to be just sitting around a conference table," Crockett concluded. "It should be something engaging and about spending time together."

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