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Is Mentoring in Advertising Agencies a Lost Art?


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The competition for bright young agency talent is fierce. Yet many of the mentors that historically helped young talent are now gone. And if talent development is diminished, the future looks bleak.

Here are some thoughts on mentoring that may help your agency.

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Is Mentoring in Advertising Agencies a Lost Art?

  1. 1. Is Mentoring a Lost Art? by Mike CarltonLong AgoStop! Before reading further, open your iPad and enter the names of the two orthree most important mentors you had early in your career. Think a bit about theimpact they have had on your professional life. And possibly your total lifeexperience.Also, think a bit of what things might have been like if they had never connectedwith you those many years ago. What would your life be like today? And, howgood an agency professional would you be?The simple fact is that today’s best agency people usually had yesterday’s bestmentors.Missing in ActionDuring the Great Recession US agencies and related marketing firms shrank byalmost 100,000 people. With similar shrinkage around much of the world.The perspective of this is stunning! Something approaching 20% of jobsdisappeared. And, so did the seasoned talent that occupied those jobs.Some of the first to go were senior agency people. Professionals that wereprobably fairly expensive and may have been past their peak in productivity.Historically, these folks did much of the mentoring of younger agency staffers.They had the knowledge, the experience, the wisdom, and most importantly, thetime to help young talent develop. The good ones believed in giving back to thenext generation of agency professionals the skill gifts that they had received intheir youth. While their mentoring contribution was not easily quantifiable, it wasof incredible value.Now, the ranks of those unselfish mentors are dramatically thinned. Is the art ofmentoring being lost?Mentoring’s ImpactThere is little question about the value of mentoring. A survey published in USAToday asked the following question: 1
  2. 2. “How much of an impact does coaching or mentoring have on career success?”While the response was not surprising, it certainly was clear. 46% said thatcoaching or mentoring has a great impact on career success. 45% more said ithad a moderate impact. Only 9% said it had little or no impact on careersuccess.Nothing wishy-washy here. The perceived value of mentoring is overwhelming.Competitive EnvironmentIt’s a tough world out there. Young professional talent is increasingly in shortsupply. Attracting, recruiting, training, growing and retaining young professionaltalent is the key to the future success of any intellectually driven enterprise. Andadvertising agencies have to compete for that talent in a much more difficultmarketplace.For example, some of the major consulting firms spend upward of 10% of totalpayroll for staff training. So do other talent intensive businesses. They areinvesting heavily in the development of their young professionals.Do agencies put this much relative effort into the training and development oftheir young people? Are advertising agencies lagging in their commitment totraining and developing young talent?Some agencies used to have formal training programs. But many of theseprograms were killed during the recent difficult years. It is not clear how manyare now being reinstated. There is some evidence that management recognizedmentoring is an ongoing activity in only about 25% of agencies.The best young talent will go where they feel they will have the greatest chanceof growing professionally. And their employer’s commitment to theirdevelopment will surely play a key role in their career choice.The Role of MentoringBut, you may say that most agencies never had much in the way of formaltraining programs anyway, but they always had great mentors. And that is true.The question is that in an increasingly competitive and cost sensitive agencybusiness environment, if formal training programs are unaffordable canmentoring fill the gap? And if so, what should be expected of mentoring?And most importantly, is mentoring itself even affordable? 2
  3. 3. And if there is little training or mentoring, can the agency industry really expect tobe the choice of the best and brightest young talent? And without that talent,what kind of future is in store?Mentoring DefinedThe dictionary defines a mentor as: a wise advisor, a loyal friend, a trusted guide,a teacher and a coach.These are not typical business terms. They reflect the fact that the relationshipwith a good mentor goes way beyond a normal business relationship but ratherto a much deeper personal one.Thus, when we discuss mentoring we are venturing outside a tidy world definedin monetary value. Mentoring is not, and never has been, something that can beeasily measured or quantified. There is just no place for it on an IncomeStatement or Balance Sheet.Why Mentor?This then raises the question, just why do mentors mentor? If the relationship isprimarily personal, why do they do it? If there is no economic benefit to themwhat is their motivation? What do they expect to get out of it?Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to look back at the folks thatmentored you. What was the reason they took you under their wing? And notsomeone else?Then ask yourself what did they receive from it? Certainly there was no financialreward in it for them. And it took valuable time that they could have been usingon more urgent, and probably more financially rewarding, matters.So, why did they do it?The Answer is Really Quite SimpleMentoring is one of the most natural and most satisfying activities in life. It isalso one of the most frustrating and most difficult.In many respects it is very much like parenting.A true mentor, like a good parent, is internally driven and wants the recipient tosucceed. In fact the mentor really wants his young charge to move beyond thelevel that he himself has achieved. And in return, self-satisfaction is the mentor’sonly reward. 3
  4. 4. When you look at it this way one could say that mentoring is an act ofunconditional love.Love in business? Wow. That’s pretty heavy stuff.A Closer LookIn understanding why a mentor mentors it appears there are four key dimensionsto examine. First is its naturalness. Second, its satisfactions. Third, itsfrustrations. And forth, its difficulties. Let’s take a closer look at each: 1. Its Naturalness Since the beginning of time, the youth of every species have been taught by the elders. Nothing is more natural than parenting. Be it the bird teaching its offspring to fly. Or the human mother patiently reading to her child. Every species naturally mentors. It is part of the DNA. It is just how the world works. The need to mentor is intuitive. And it springs from deep inside. The source is built in. It requires no advanced degree. 2. Its Satisfactions Mentoring is a link in the chain of life. Each generation passes on knowledge and wisdom to the next. As such, mentoring can be viewed as a way one assures a measure of immortality. The life of each being is finite. But through mentoring, knowledge, skills, visions and values can live on indefinitely. In this context, it can be said that mentoring imparts a sense of purpose in a confusing and troubled world. And in doing so, provides an increased sense of personal worth to the mentor. 3. Its Frustrations Mentoring is not easy. It is not uncommon for the recipient to not want to receive it. Think of trying to give wise advice to a teenager. Watch a dog trying to shepherd her pups. Knowledge and wisdom may not be easily accepted by youth. So, gratification cannot be expected to come from the recipient. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Yet mentoring endures. 4. Its Difficulties Ultimately each of us is a product of what we have learned. Some of us received excellent mentoring early in our agency careers. Some of us didn’t. So, individual experience with the practice of mentoring varies widely. 4
  5. 5. And there is a lot of truth in the old saying that you cannot give away something that you have never received. While mentoring is a learnable skill, nothing beats the internalization that comes from direct experience on the receiving end. Thus, it is quite difficult for some to be able to embrace the concept of mentoring, much less be effective at it.The Cost of MentoringWhile most everyone believes that mentoring within an advertising agency is agood thing, it is not without its cost. Mentoring takes commitment. Andmentoring takes time. Time of senior people that most likely can be used tomore immediate economic advantage on business development or paying clientwork.Thus, agencies are caught in a conundrum. Do you maximize immediaterevenue at the expense of developing talent for the future? Or do you forgosome money today in order to build the future talent base?Not easy questions. But clearly if agencies do not develop talent for the futurewhen other intellectual services businesses are spending heavily in that area therole of advertising agencies in our society will surely decline.“Après moi le déluge”In the late 1700s as social unrest was increasing in France, Louis XV is reportedto have dismissed his advisors concerns about the country’s future with thefamous remark (translated) “After me, the flood.” It wasn’t long until that attitudecost the French Monarchy their heads.Could it be that a lot of today’s agency leaders are as myopic? Could it be thatthey are sacrificing the future agency talent pool for immediate financial returns?Or is it mostly just benign neglect?These are certainly questions worth pondering.An Interesting Side BenefitGeneral Mills has a very successful institutionalized mentoring program. While itis much more formal and structured than what probably makes sense for anentrepreneurial agency, they have discovered an interesting side benefit.They have come to believe that mentoring is much more of a two-way street thanthey initially expected. It seems that their mentors are learning all kinds of 5
  6. 6. valuable insights into the skills, interests and motivations of another generation.Insights that make the senior people more in tune with a younger market. Andthus more successful in their jobs.Clearly, this kind of generational insight is something that could benefit many ofus raised in the heyday of network television.Looking Ahead“Ok” you say, “I had great mentors. And I want my young people to have greatmentors too. I believe that we should be investing more in our future talent. Thequestion I have is how to make more mentoring happen in my shop, withoutbusting the budget doing it?”So, what makes for an agency with a successful mentoring environment?Five Pre-ConditionsBecause mentoring is so personal and can flow so naturally, not manyorganizations have formal, structured mentoring programs. And the “how to”body of information, while rapidly growing, is still quite sketchy.Yet when you examine those agencies where mentoring seems to thrive, at leastsome of these five pre-conditions generally appear. They are: 1. Part of the Agency’s DNA Mentoring is a bit like motherhood and the flag. Nobody is against it. But it is not easy to culturally embed. As a result, many agencies say they endorse and support mentoring. Yet only a few have made it an important part of their DNA. To have mentoring become integral with the agency’s culture it takes significant commitment from the top. In fact, in agencies in which mentoring is strong you almost always find senior leaders that are natural, intuitive mentors themselves. They practice what they preach. And there is nothing quite like leading by example. 2. The Agency is Populated by People With High Self-Esteem A good mentor wants her charge to excel. Even exceed the capabilities of the mentor. This takes people with strong self-belief. People that are not at all threatened by having their young charge do better than they can. Remember, like a good parent, the satisfaction of a good mentor comes from the accomplishment of the individual being mentored. Thus, there is never any loss of face when a young charge soars. 6
  7. 7. A sense of pride overwhelms any sense of threat.3. Mentoring is Expected of those Capable of Doing So As mentioned earlier, if someone has not been well mentored himself, it is usually much more difficult for him to intuitively mentor others. So skill levels in this area can be all over the place. Thus, it is probably unrealistic to expect everyone to be a good mentor. But the people who are naturally good mentors, and enjoy it, should be encouraged to do it. Even more, they should be granted the time it requires. And they should be rewarded, both psychically and financially for it. There are lots of subtle ways of making this happen. Again, the commitment of senior leaders is key to enabling and embedding this.4. The Mentoring Process is Celebrated Good agencies thrive on celebration. And celebration usually assures that you will get more of what you are celebrating. Essentially, celebration is a subtle, but very strong, signal from leadership that what is happening is good. And desirable. And valuable. Now this is not to suggest that there be mentoring parties. That would be way too heavy-handed. But consistent recognition of those who mentor, and the accomplishments of those whose skills improve because of mentoring, is definitely in order. This reinforces the entire culture of the agency and the value it places on talent. And its relentless commitment to assuring that each individual grows professionally. This in turn makes it much more likely that young talent will be attracted and stay. And in turn, become positive ambassadors of the agency’s culture within the community of their external peers.5. Resources are Available to Help Improve Mentoring Skills Teaching mentoring from scratch is not easy. Most good mentors come to it naturally. But, there are a growing number of tools that can make a good mentor a great mentor. Agencies in which mentoring thrives frequently underwrite courses, books, workshops, seminars, etc. in which their mentors can improve their skills. It is a proposition in which everyone wins. 7
  8. 8. Years from NowWouldn’t it be nice if years from now someone you mentored today wrote downyour name in remembrance? Then quietly reminisced about how you helpedbuild her successful career. And silently expressed a long-simmering thank you.Not a bad legacy to leave. Copyright 2012 – Carlton Associates IncorporatedQuotes:A mentor is a wise advisor, a loyal friend, a trusted guide, a teacher and a coach.Webster’s New World Dictionary “Après moi le déluge”Louis XVIllustration:Man and younger womanSubject:Agency Whitepaper – The Lost Art of MentoringLead in:The competition for bright young agency talent is fierce. Yet many of thementors that historically helped young talent are now gone. And if talentdevelopment is diminished, the future looks bleak.Here are some thoughts on mentoring that may help your agency. 8