The ‘hard work trumps talent’ ethos damages the industry

Instead of celebrating overtime, celebrate the unique minds, ideas and approaches that give life to an agency, writes Ogilvy Sydney head of strategy Ryan O'Connell.

In recent times, I’ve seen a number of agency leaders spout mantras that could be best summarised by the catchy soundbite of “hard work trumps talent”.

Though it may have a touch more nuance to it than that, the intended outtake is essentially the same: “I’ll take someone who works hard over someone that’s talented, every day of the week.”

Please allow me to respectfully offer up a verbose, well-articulated counterpoint: No. Please, just . . . no.

When discussing this type of mentality, I’ll stop short of using the cliché “this is everything that’s wrong with the industry”, but I honestly do believe such a belief can only cause all of us damage, because we don’t want hard-working people, we want talented people.

Firstly, such marginalisation of ‘talent’ is ludicrous. The talent of our people is the single most tangible asset we have. It is our point of difference and must be protected and nurtured; not dismissed as irrelevant or a ‘nice to have’.

Secondly, the inference that a little bit of ‘elbow grease’ and some late nights in the office is what it takes to produce great work is misguided at best, and just plain wrong at worst. Give a hard-working (but untalented) strategist or creative team a year to work on a brief, and they still won’t get to where a great strategist or creative team will get in a week. They’re worth the extra money, I assure you.

Personally, I’ll take talent.

Of all the many benefits that talent provides, by far the greatest is speed. Speed enables you to understand the true business problem quickly. To get to an insight quicker. To arrive at the strategy early. To land the idea swiftly.

All these things increase the quality of the output because they have the flow-on effect of providing time; which the lack of, is the greatest inhibitor to brilliant thinking and brilliant work.

With more time, we can write the business problem in a way that has the solution hard-baked into it already. We can really sharpen the insight, and write an evocative and inspirational brief. We can ensure the briefing is as stimulating and directional as possible.

Speed also allows more time in creative, so they’re not forced to present embryonic or under-cooked ideas. It also allows more craft, so the execution can be shaped into something that truly does justice to a great idea.

Talent buys you more time, and more time is a very good thing. So let’s not undersell talent.

The other concern I have with this mantra around hard work is that it creates the perception you need to work long hours to get somewhere great. It’s just not true, and intentionally or not, it promotes burning people out.

The goal of agencies should be to work smarter, not harder. Which, not coincidentally, is how talented people work – but hopefully I’ve landed that point already! If COVID has taught us anything, I hope it’s that we can work smarter as an industry.

We need to stop the romanticising of working late into the night (or morning!), or working weekends, and missing out on time with family and/or friends. It’s not impressive or anything to boast about, and I’d also argue that it’s counter-productive anyway: it doesn’t necessarily result in great work.

You know what does result in great work? Great people!

I’m not naive enough to believe that working too hard, working too late, or working weekends will never not be a part of the industry. The demands and nature of the job ensure that they will always be a reality. However, it should be the exception, not the norm. Nor should it be celebrated.

I should also stress that all of this does not mean that you hire dickheads, just because they’re talented. Never put a premium on talent to the detriment of other factors that also contribute to great work – culture, collaboration, teamwork, people you enjoy working with, etc. These elements are just as vital.

But please, pretty please, let’s not discount, dismiss or diminish talent. Great talent is the straightest line to doing great, effective work. And great, effective work is what we should all be striving to do.

So let’s be careful not to promote any notion that working hard is a substitute for, or better than, talent.

Ryan O’Connell is the head of strategy at Ogilvy Sydney.


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