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Five steps to keeping young talent

There’s increased competition from employers for junior marketers, so to boost the chances of holding onto their brightest talent, CMOs need to rethink unconscious habits
The one thing you don’t want, having done the hard bit, is for your brilliant, bright newcomers to walk right out again a year down the line
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Something I’m hearing from my senior marketer contacts is that there is a lot of recruitment competition for talent at the other end of the spectrum – those closer to the start of their careers. For every young marketer with around 18 months experience, headhunters have a slew of positions they could pretty much walk right into.

That’s great for them. But it is a headache for the CMO who has to find them, attract them, convince them – and keep them. The one thing you don’t want, having done the hard bit, is for your brilliant, bright newcomers to walk right out again a year down the line. So how do you make things more satisfying for the inchoate talent you’ve just brought in – or the talent you already have, come to that?

To be honest, I can think of a few norms that CMOs might be advised to break, in the way they handle their most junior people. Habits they incline towards, often without thinking. Little tropes that can mount up and get really bloody annoying. By thinking about them more carefully first, and coming at them another way, not only will your junior people be less vexed, they’ll grow faster, too. Here are five to consider:

1. Most junior speaks first

In that big, pivotal meeting with the agency, with a cast of a dozen around the table, following the presentation of a high-stakes new creative strategy, there is always a silence that seems to go on for too long. Into this silence somebody from the client team will have to speak, to give their immediate thoughts.

Who will it be? Tradition has it that the lowest rung in the marketer hierarchy is called upon first – which is wrong on so many levels. Among other injustices, it ensures that the person with the least experience has the least time to get their thoughts in order.

CMOs do not inflict this discomfort as part of a cruel rites-of-passage initiation – or at least, I hope they don’t – but because they sense that if you do things the other way around, nobody will dare contradict what the seniors say, and valuable perspective might be lost.

Here is a better way to go about it. Immediately after thanking the agency for their work, you request a five-minute hiatus, during which all members of the team will write down two or three sentences capturing their thoughts. You collect these, briefly assess them for themes and tensions, and summarise the views back to the agency – asking your team members to comment where appropriate.

If the most junior member has been wildly naïve, they will be forgiven – and not exposed. If they have been unexpectedly insightful, it will not go unnoticed.

2. The untrained middle boss

keeping young talentIn a sizeable marketing department, the CMO cannot be hands-on with the most junior layer on every initiative. The solution is often to delegate leadership to a newly promoted member of the team, with the junior marketer working under them. That team leader becomes – effectively if not officially – the junior marketer’s temporary boss.

That’s where the problems start, because marketing prowess – the kind that earns promotion – does not automatically translate into management skills. So these mid-ranking team-leader bosses can succumb to the human flaws that can dog us all when we first step up to the role of managing others: too strident, too demanding, too protective, too mercurial, or simply a bit too keen to embody their newly earned status.

The answer is leadership coaching. And the investment is worth it even if the training budgets are close to zero, because it is a two-for-one: the new middle manager will benefit, and the junior will benefit even more.

3. The digital dump

An irritating trope whereby the CMO pointedly calls on the youngest and freshest member of the team for views on anything digital.

Yes, that young person might well be a digital native and be active on Instagram and TikTok, but it does not mean they will have a grasp of the nuances of retargeting, cookieless tracking or the optimum balance between traditional and digital media for a given brand with a 60:40 brand-building/sales-driven marketing strategy.

But there is one member of the team who should have all these bases well and truly covered. You.

4. Agency gets the kudos

In a long and successful brand initiative, it is the most junior member of the team who will have the most granulated experience of the process. They are the ones who have been there at every minor meeting, who have collated reams of data, who have been tasked with getting around the portfolio, the estate, the regulations, the competitive set.

And yet when it comes to writing up the case for a marketing award, the norm is for the agency to do it – using the junior marketer as a kind of handy resource. And it is the agency that will get the kudos when the prizes are handed out.

This is a norm to reverse. Although they won’t thank you for it at first – because it is hard work – the person to entrust with the case write-up is the junior marketer.

With the caveat that they are supported – ideally by you – this is a wonderful way to help them internalise the relationships between all the variables, and to sense the significance of even minor decisions made along the way. It is a low-stakes, high-return form of training on the job. And if they happen to get shortlisted, or win a prize, it will be them, and the wider marketing team, that attract the plaudits – with the agency as the support act, where it should be.

5. Not being there

This is something of a new norm – but a potentially pernicious one. It suits you to work from home. And that sends a signal to your other senior marketers, and to the mid-marketer layer, that not showing up at the office is OK for them too. So the ones who end up spending long days in the marketing equivalent of the Marie Celeste, doing those low-level mundane tasks, are the ones who share a small flat with four others, all competing for the same dodgy WiFi.

Go in. Have a smile on your face. Get round everyone. Engage with the people at the other end of the marketing experience spectrum. Be ready to answer questions. Take suggestions. Cheerfully offer a little light insight into marketing best practice. Basics, really.

But when the headhunter calls with a new offer for your brightest young talent, it will be another reason for them to say, ‘Thanks, I’m flattered – but I really am loving it right here.’