Fast agency promotion – a double-edged sword?
We are witnessing what can only be described as a ‘meteoric rise’ of some agency people, especially within the client service and strategy fields. For example, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of client service people asking for NZ$100,000+ for Account Director roles, when they have been working for less than seven years. This would have been unheard of only a handful of years ago. You can bet that these hopefuls carry the confidence and determination to not only ask for that level of salary but to genuinely expect to receive it.
It was a mere generation (or less) ago that people knew what it meant to ‘do their time’. It was accepted that you entered your profession as a graduate or apprentice, then worked your way up the ranks over many years. Times - it seems - have changed.
Promotions (especially those that come with salary increases) are wonderful and should be celebrated. They are usually a sign of validation and appreciation of hard work rendered. Promotion is exciting – until it reaches the point where a person’s salary and title become inflated beyond market value. This situation can result in a rude wake-up call when the person decides to move onto another role. A prospective employer may consider them an ‘expensive hire’ when compared to other candidates who have had a similar amount of experience.
The problem of having a high salary/title expectation is exacerbated by folk returning from working in agencies overseas. It is common for a returning Kiwi to perform a currency conversion on their overseas salary and expect to get an equivalent (or higher) salary in New Zealand. Unfortunately for most (especially those returning from the likes of London or Sydney), there are very few realistic apples-for-apples conversions.
So, how do these folk get themselves into the position where they expect to command high salaries and role titles? For the most part, the responsibility lies with the agencies in which they work and the fact that some agencies promote their staff far too early and far too quickly.
Why would agencies promote quickly?
- To save time. It can be easier and quicker to plug a team gap with someone already working within the agency than to enter into a lengthy recruitment process.
- To save money. Making an internal promotion is often cheaper than hiring someone from outside, especially if you can tempt an existing staff member with a more senior job title and a not-much-higher salary.
- To retain good staff. Agency management might wish to be proactive and identify emerging talent to fast-track the next generation of leaders. This is the ‘noble’ approach. However, the less-noble (and more reactive) approach is to offer a tempting monetary or title incentive to staff after they have handed in their resignation.
- To get more for their money. A common agency tactic is ‘job title inflation’. It is used for quick promotions to retain talent without increasing their salary (or without meeting market rates for the promoted role). At times the more senior job title is bestowed without adding new responsibilities and may have no reflection on the staff member’s capability. Beware, you may get a cost-saving in the short-term, but a savvy person won’t stand for that type of treatment for long.
- To consolidate the number of staff. The agency may have hollowed out costlier, experienced staff, and so they turn to younger, cheaper options to fill the gaps.
- Out of ignorance. Naive managers may think they are doing the right thing by promoting young talent for reasons other than on merit; or they may not understand the implications of their actions. There is no rule book to follow when it comes to agency hiring policies. In a game of (almost) anything goes, promotion may come down to the individual agency’s hiring policy, and the interpretation of capabilities by the hiring managers.
- Out of fear. Some agency managers struggle to lead older workers and so favour building a younger, more malleable team that does not challenge them. This is not leadership; it’s a structure made out of fear and can quickly end up with the wrong people in the wrong roles.
- Because someone asks for it. Never ask, never gain. Some people are better at asking for what they want than others. Ambitious young people will have no hesitation putting together a value proposal to initiate a career development discussion and ask for a promotion.
What are the implications?
Let’s say that many of the ‘quick’ or ‘early’ agency promotions are not based purely on merit. What, then, are the implications for the staff member, the agency, and the industry as a whole?
Implications for the staff member
- Developmental gaps. If a staff member is promoted quickly, they are in real danger of missing vital steps in their career development. These missing steps can include learning to manage teams; self-management; a command of systems and processes; conflict management; and the ability to understand agency, client and interpersonal politics.
- Training and experience gaps. You only know what you know, and someone with 15 years of experience will (on average) know a whole lot more than someone who has been working for five years.
- Role model gaps. A significant proportion of life-training and work-training comes from observing those around us. Mentors and roles models are accumulated and observed over time.
- FITYMI failure. A ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach can be helpful on many occasions; however, some people use it to talk their way into a job that they may not be quite ready for. Others may soon discover the person is faking, which can increase the chances of them failing in a very public (and embarrassing) way, with a potential fall-out for their agency and clients.
- Self-centredness and low social empathy. People who move up the career ladder quickly are usually highly ambitious and may come across as self-serving. They may have been so focused on their career that they haven’t yet learned essential qualities of leadership and social empathy.
- Difficulty moving roles. Hiring managers will look at the total amount of relevant industry experience that an applicant has accumulated. If a hiring manager does not agree with the salary level or job title that a person purports to be at, then that person may find moving to a new role challenging.
Implications for the agency
- Skill gaps. The skipping of development steps can be detrimental to not only the staff member but also to the agency. A job title or salary level is no guarantee of the skills that a person has. Someone who has been promoted quickly may lack essential foundation skills; may have had incomplete or non-existent training, and may not be fully-equipped to execute their job responsibilities.
- Failure to deliver. If a hiring manager takes an applicant’s title at face value and gives them the job, they will also have certain expectations for that position. What might then happen if the person fails to deliver the expected skills?
- Client reaction. How will an agency’s clients respond to their new senior agency contact who may be well-spoken and presented but lacks an expected level of experience, knowledge, maturity, interpersonal skills, service, and business nous. Not only can this be damaging to the relationship between the staff member and client, but it could also jeopardise the client’s business with the agency.
Implications for the industry
- Salary disparity. It’s difficult enough, under normal recruitment circumstances, for an agency hiring manager to figure out what to pay their team. Salaries that are the result of quick promotions start to paint an unrealistic picture of wider industry salary levels, as well as what an agency should expect to get for their money.
- Agency perceptions. Clients want to work with senior people who know what they are doing. If agencies persist in promoting young people (who cannot yet carry themselves with senior-level presence and authority) into senior-level roles, they risk reinforcing a perception of agency weakness.
Where to from here?
It’s absolutely OK to promote your staff. Offering a development plan can be an essential and effective tactic for staff retention and encouraging staff satisfaction. Your challenge is to ensure that any promotion you make is based on a person’s merit, plus the knowledge that they will be able to deliver the required skills. It is also vital that they are paid in a fair manner, and according to market rates.
You may be required to manage and balance a staff member’s ambition with patience, and provide them with enough challenges to keep them motivated and happy over time.
Remember that an engaging personality, confidence and ambition are great qualities to have, but that the creative communications industry also relies heavily on skills and experience. It’s imperative that you get the right people, working at the right level, in the right roles – as anything less could set your staff, your agency and your industry up to fail. Yeee-oo-uuch!
This article was originally written Aug19 for 3rdeye Consulting, New Zealand.
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