The upper hand

A creative approach to staff development, combining on-the-job training, external consultancies and fun days out has led to a more productive – and cost-effective – training strategy. By Helen Donald

Recession may well be just around the corner, but for most agencies recruiting and retaining experienced staff, particularly at senior level, is still a big problem.

The solution, according to MindShare human resources director Gina Ransom-Williams, is to pay greater attention to “soft issues”, such as training and human resources management.

“It’s a well-researched fact that career opportunities, personal development, the quality of relationship with your manager and the standard of communications within an organisation are the important things for employees. Pay is never the big issue, no matter what people say,” she says.

Ransom-Williams is one of a new generation of professionally trained HR directors being lured into the marketing industry. But, they are still a rare breed and could become even more so if recession hits hard. The problem, as many in marketing acknowledge, is that companies often still regard HR and training as an expense rather than a valuable investment. It’s no surprise, therefore, that these areas are among the first to be scaled down when budget cutbacks are introduced.

No room for compromise?

Many companies compromise by making HR the responsibility of an existing director. Market research agency RDSi has plumped for this option and believes that it works well. “As a researcher yourself, you have an insight into the business and can see how people will fit in so that you can better assess their skills and training needs,” says RDSi research director and director of human resources Jacqui Adams.

Unsurprisingly, Ransom-Williams disagrees. “If a person has no professional training themselves, they can’t evaluate training options for other staff effectively. It’s also dangerous to entrust HR to someone too close to the business, as they are unlikely to be seen as impartial if people want to discuss difficult issues,” she says.

Others in the industry argue that a clear distinction needs to be made between HR and training management. Human resources is seen by many as a primarily administrative function, where compliance with employment legislation and efficient systems management for recruitment, performance appraisal and pay and benefits packages are required. Most believe that these issues should be managed by someone with the appropriate professional background.

Responsibility for training, by contrast, is arguably best left to line managers who can identify which skills an individual needs to improve their performance and progress to a more senior position.

Promotions agency TMO has taken the unusual step of putting its planning department in charge of training.

“It was a conscious decision to keep training closer to client servicing,” says TMO director of marketing communications Jo May. “Planning already acts as a central pool of marketing knowledge, providing research and analysis for the client services team, so there is a lot of crossover.”

It’s also important to get employees to take responsibility for their own training needs. At MindShare, all client-facing staff have to undertake 16 hours of training each year, which leads to the IPA’s Certificate in Professional Development. Ransom-Williams believes that this has raised the status of training at MindShare. “People are more aware of their training needs now,” she says, “and they have started to think in a more focused way about what training they need.”

Generating enthusiasm

May agrees: “The biggest challenge is that people regard training as a passive process. Yes, they want to be trained and they see it as a fundamental part of their benefits package, but they need to be enthused about it.”

TMO doesn’t even use the word “training”; the company’s development programme is called “tomato”. Officially it stands for “team motivation and training opportunities” and was originally used as the name for TMO’s in-house learning centre – a large resource of reference books and training manuals that staff are encouraged to use on their own. More recently the name has been extended to cover the company’s entire training programme.

“As a creative agency, it’s important that we are as creative when it comes to our own programmes as we are with clients’,” says May. “We wanted to create a brand that would engage people.”

All work and no play…

Liquid Communications is an integrated agency that also believes strongly in the importance of making training fun. The agency regularly arranges activity days for the entire company combining a serious training element with a good dose of play.

Last year, for example, the company went to comedy club Jongleurs and all the staff, from directors to receptionists, learned how to present a stand-up comedy routine. “The great thing,” says Liquid managing partner Andy Annett, “is that we discovered talents in a couple of individuals that we were completely unaware of. We might never have found that out in a more formal training environment.”

These days out are a rare example of external training for Liquid. Annett is extremely sceptical of the value of most training courses and believes firmly that the best training is on the job. “The vocational courses such as those run by the Institute of Sales Promotion (ISP), Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) are good and we encourage staff to go on them, but on a typical oneto three-day course you’re lucky if you pick up three good tips,” he argues.

The standard of on-the-job training can vary radically from one company to another. Junior employees looking for good training might be surprised to learn that the best coaching can often be provided by a small company where roles are less structured and defined.

“One advantage of being a small agency is that everyone gets involved very quickly in a lot of different areas and consequently they tend to learn a lot more that way,” maintains Annett.

He believes that this is true of both marketing skills and more general ones such as presentation skills. Liquid runs internal training sessions once a fortnight where a senior member of staff, or someone from a related company, conducts a presentation in front of the whole agency.

Pitching in

“The more junior members of the team are encouraged to do a presentation on a specialist subject. It gives them confidence at presenting. It is also a chance for the rest of the team to learn something useful,” says Annett. Junior staff also get a chance to present to clients and take part in new business pitches earlier than they might in larger agencies claims Annett.

Managing director of training consultancy Speak First Cristina Stuart believes encouraging inexperienced junior staff to present to clients is a risky approach to training.

“Of course the acid test is presenting to a client, but I would never recommend that you allow [junior] staff to practise on a client. You’re putting the company’s reputation on the line,” she insists.

Stuart is a firm believer in the value of external training. “Not having an ongoing relationship with the people you are training is, at times, extremely useful. For example, you can say controversial things that no one else would dare to, such as pointing out something personal such as a problem with someone’s appearance.”

Stuart’s other big frustration is the widespread belief among senior agency staff that they know everything there is to know and don’t need training.

Money matters

“Organisations pay a lot of money to improve their staff’s skills, but all too often they waste that money by sending the wrong people on the course,” she says. “Senior people need to regard training as an investment and as an ongoing process. Often they desperately need an injection of fresh ideas but they just don’t realise it.”

The problem with this attitude, as Stuart is quick to point out, is that if most training is done internally and by senior people, then fundamental mistakes can become self-perpetuating.

Stuart maintains that external training has other benefits. For a start, it’s an opportunity to network with people from other companies and a chance to learn from peers in different types of business.

“Agency people tend to be naturally very good at presenting because they are often confident and extrovert. Yet, although their delivery might be good they often don’t pay enough attention to the substance of what they say. If you were training an accountant, for example, it would probably be the other way around, so bringing the two together can be really valuable,” she claims.

TMO’s May probably speaks for most in the industry when she admits: “We used to do training in an ad hoc way. We had a budget and we sent people on courses.”

Nowadays TMO takes a much more strategic approach to training; it evaluates all of its training tools through an internal research programme. This has the added benefit of ensuring that the company makes more efficient use of its training budgets. Not only do employees benefit from such a strategy but so does the company’s bottom line.

Companies must evaluate their training programmes and assess how to get the most out of them. The key issue is not money and budgets but strategy – companies need to adopt a more innovative and cost-effective approach to staff training.

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