How emotional intelligence moved to the top of adland’s talent agenda

With adland often citing retaining and nurturing the right talent, as one of its greatest challenges, developing the emotional intelligence of staff could be key to retaining and promoting a happier workforce. Mumbrella’s Abigail Dawson spoke to agency leaders across the board on how adland can balance the on-the-job capabilities and emotional intelligence of talent.

Agencies often lament the lack of talent and the issue of churn in agencies as a problem across the board. Yet managers favouring the intellectual preparedness of staff over their emotional capabilities is emerging as a key contributing problem to the wider talent problem.

Emotional intelligence is progressively becoming more important within agencies. And as the industry becomes more complex, simply having the intellectual skills and knowledge to complete job roles and responsibilities may no longer be enough.

Ignoring emotional intelligence isn’t just a problem confined to adland, says Fergus Watts, founder and executive chairman at creative agency Bastion Collective.

“This is not just a gap in the corporate market, it’s a gap in the world. What does not get taught now is the things that actually matter in the modern day.

“All we do is interact around human behaviour, yet all we teach is account management skills or creative skills.”

Watts: Not just a gap in the corporate market

Watts said publicly-owned agencies should be focusing on providing more emotional support to employees, teaching emotional intelligence – that is having the ability to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships empathetically – in particular.

“The agency world, more so than any other world should be doing this on every level. It doesn’t get done because most of the agencies are publicly-owned and worry about how their share prices are going,” he said.

Given the growing complexity of the industry, increasing demands on staff and longer work hours, ensuring staff are emotionally ready for new challenges, and supported emotionally, could help combat any poor mental health within the industry, suggested Wendy Gower, managing director at media agency m2m Australia.

Gower: “We ask a lot of junior people.”

“In the macro world mental health is such a big issue and people are increasingly feeling very stressed. We’ve got to be very very cognisant of that and make sure we are doing all that we can to make people feel supported in the workplace,” she said.

“This is an industry where there is really high churn, people are leaving for all sorts of reasons. Particularly given that the industry is very young, and we ask a lot of our junior people.

“I’m not suggesting for a second that every single person in this business isn’t feeling some level of stress because we are all working under deadlines and tight turnaround times,” Gower continues.

Late last year, Mumbrella reported on the resignation of Dentsu’s global CEO over the suicide of an overworked employee in Japan.

Gower says managers are ultimately those who hold the power of deciding what skills are emphasised in the workplace. For the agency boss the key to emotionally capable and successful staff lies in how approachable their managers are.

She says senior staff should ensure they show a human face, including checking in with staff, working to build rapport, offering support and flexibility and celebrating staff when they’re pushed outside their comfort zone.

“It is very difficult to find that balance which is why it’s a daily proposition for the managers. They need to be acutely aware of how their team are feeling and what their work loads are and this is a day-to-day position,” said Gower.

For Kieran Moore, CEO of Public Relations and Public Affairs for WPP AUNZ, and CEO of Ogilvy PR Australia, finding the balance between emotional and resilience training is vital in order to avoid high turnovers within agencies.

Managers and agencies who fail to assist in stress coping mechanisms and neglect the resilience of their team have a very short term view of how important people are, Moore says.

Moore: “People are the most important things we’ve got”

Moore – whose global boss Sir Martin Sorrell famously said WPP’s most important assets go up and down in the elevators every day – argues: “People are the most important things they’ve got, particularly now when employees have so much flexibility between changing careers, changing countries, changing cities, changing jobs.

“Each agency needs to be very clear about the role that they have in terms of their employees and what the employee value proposition is to attract and to keep people,” she says.

But when it comes to individuals making important career choices, Fern Canning-Brook, managing director at PR firm Edelman, said self-reflection is key.

“It doesn’t matter how many years’ experience you have, I encourage everyone to take time regularly for self-reflection, because you have to ask yourself the tough questions about your own values, what you really want to be doing now and in the future, who you can learn from and whether you are in the right place,” she said.

Canning-Brook: Shared values brought her back to Edelman

It was self-reflection that helped Canning-Brook decide to end her stint at PR agency Mango after just one year to return to her previous agency Edelman. The decision was based around where she could learn, be self-aware and guided by her moral compass, she said.

“It wasn’t about the work style or culture at all. It was about shared values and working with a leader that I am inspired by.

“Edelman is a company with values that I share, and an agency I want to share a future with. It really came back to self-awareness and being guided by my moral compass. That made the decision easy for me,” Canning-Brook said.

However, this may prove more difficult for junior staff at the start of their careers as they might be less emotionally aware and being subjected to change, failure and criticism can be daunting, said Edelman talent director Lynette Edmonds.

Edmonds: “They may feel out of their comfort zone”

“So many phenomenal juniors arrive in agencyland with the hard skills, they are focused, they are smart and academically good. But even as they move up the ladder, if they aren’t equipped with the soft skills they may feel out of their comfort zone when they face different situations or when they receive negative feedback,” Edmonds said.

For those individuals struggling with those soft skills, Ogilvy’s Moore said career development and capabilities indicators such as 360 degree feedback, development goals, effective appraisals and training, could help them know if they are ready for their next role.

“Most people are already doing the job that’s one or two levels ahead of them, before they get the job. I suppose that’s how you know that they’re ready,” Moore said.

“The combination of resilience training, feedback from their manager, some scenario training and maybe some negotiation skills training, might be the package that you need. You almost need to have the three prongs which is the wellness, the emotional resilience type of training and then also the skills.”

At Edelman, Canning-Brook and Edmonds foster emotional skills through the agency’s training and mentoring program and actively look for soft skills when hiring new staff, including: signs of resilience, problem solving, understanding failure, experience of working collaboratively and experience in trying times in their careers and having learned lessons from them to both better their emotional and technical skills.

“Not everyone has such strong confidence and it can be easy to be swayed by what is real and right if they let too many distractions come in,” Edmonds said.

“At the end of the day you have to be pleased with your own decisions,” she continued.

The importance of managers and mentors was also emphasised, with Canning-Brook saying junior professionals should listen to advice and feedback given, using it as a positive learning tool.

“If you have a mentor, I encourage people to listen to their advice and feedback, because they are invested in wanting to help you progress and be better,” she says.

For millennial John Dawson – who most recently joined Initiative as communications design director – this was the case for him as he had positive mentors and managers who gradually delivered him more responsibility.

Dawson was first recruited into the industry in 2012 when WPP’s GroupM ran a careers day at Mumbrella360 to introduce graduates to the communications world, and he joined as an assistant to new business boss Greg Graham. Within months he moved to a media role at GroupM’s Mindshare and gradually took on more responsibility.

This made his transition from media agency Mindshare onto Ensemble and then onto Initiative rather smooth as he “just knew” he was ready.

John Dawson “just knew” he was ready for his next role

“The world of media can be very complex and so having managers who are patient enough and knowledgeable enough to get you up to speed for the pace of change while not putting you into the deep end, their assistance is really critical,” he said.

Having managers explain the reason behind the task being conducted and seeing the relevance of the work being completed was another driving force behind his success, Dawson says.

“Unless you have a manager who really understands why that certain task needs to be done, you often, as an entry level employee in the industry, can’t see your relevance to the organisation.”

For Bastion Collective’s Watts it is all about training, support and mentorship to ensure talent, especially millennials, are ready on all levels for their next role.

“The reason there is all this talk about millennials jumping from job to job is because after a couple of years in a job, you’re too good for that – you’re intellectually too good for that job but the problem is you’re not good enough for the next job,” he said.

“That’s why there is always that flux of how long are you going to stay in a particular role at a particular company, when you’re maybe a little bit bored of that role.”

Watts said individuals can fall over when they are promoted because the employer hasn’t looked at how they are developed emotionally and how that impacts on their ability to take on more responsibility.

“I don’t believe employees are not good enough for the next step because of their intellectual ability – they are – but the next step is generally around more client interaction, being able to pull teams together internally or being able to have a greater understanding of the individuals,” he said.

“All we are talking to them about is the roles and responsibilities of their job description, rather than how are they being developed as human beings.

“People don’t have great relationships with each other at work, they don’t have great friendships, they don’t feel completely safe to put themselves on the line to be raw and vulnerable.”

For Watts, succeeding in a role and retaining talent within a business comes down completely to emotional intelligence.

He said: “It’s got nothing to do with your intellectual ability, it’s got everything to do with your emotional understanding.”


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