Do you have a bench?

David Ogilvy once said that the advertising agency business is one where the assets go down the elevator every night.  As he often was, Mr. Ogilvy was absolutely right.  And it’s still that way today.

Here’s the irony.

Ad agencies are good at advising their clients about brand building, advocating strategies and tactics that look well into the future.  They understand that a strong brand is a huge asset and worth doing almost anything to protect.

Increasingly, however, advertising agencies look at their primary asset – talent – in a much different manner.  Most agencies are highly talent-reactive as opposed to talent-proactive.  If the star art director gets poached by another agency or the well-respected account manager switches over to the client side, what often follows is the advertising version of the Chinese fire drill.

The drill goes something like this:  the agency’s internal recruiter receives a memo from the top directing an immediate all-out effort to find a replacement.  It’s this panic driven approach that often leads to bad hires.  And bad hires lead to lowered productivity and fractured client relationships.

How much better would an agency’s operations be if they adopted their same long-term brand-building approach to asset-building?  Yes, most service businesses tend to be reactive by nature but that doesn’t mean one can’t plan for the future by preparing contingencies.  The reality of today’s advertising marketplace is that no client can be guaranteed forever and no person is irreplaceable.

Agencies are always looking for new clients knowing client defections will occur.  That same approach needs to be applied to human capital.

With modern recruiting tools, it’s not an unrealistic goal for an agency to develop a “virtual bench” of talent for use in the future.  When the circumstances are right to add new talent or to replace someone who unexpectedly walks out the door, using a “virtual-bench” approach can minimize downtime and increase the chances the new hire will be the right hire.

It may feel like a radical approach to HR, but considering the dynamic changes in today’s business, the time is right for agency leadership to embrace the “elevator effect” and take a proactive approach to managing the future of their firm’s most important asset: human capital.

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