8 Ways To Win The Race for Creative Talent

The Lookinglass’s Charles Day talks about what, beyond a paycheck, companies can offer to attract and motivate creative talent.

8 Ways To Win The Race for Creative Talent

Many creative businesses limit their talent recruitment and retention strategies to money and flattery.


But companies adept at unlocking what I describe as Profitable Creativity are built on more sustainable practices. Many of these, I learned first hand over a decade building a company filled with demanding, world-class talent. In that time, we lost not one of our artists to a competitor. The others I’ve experienced in my work as a confidant to some of the world’s most successful chief creative officers and company owners. In all, there are eight practices. And seven come with the added benefit that they cost nothing to implement.

1. Build An Evangelical Business

Creative people yearn to make one thing more than any other. A difference. They want to solve problems they believe are important. Ten years ago, Netflix and Blockbuster were in the same business. The difference lay in their respective visions of the future of movie rentals. Internet-supplied delivery at your convenience? Or rainy Thursday nights staring at an empty shelf in a store? Which set of problems would you rather solve? Nothing attracts creative people like a clearly defined vision of a better future. And the opportunity to be part of making it come true.

2. Avoid The Deflationary Value of Money

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, Drive, he explains that many creative people are in fact demotivated by money. In some cases it makes them perform worse, because when a task becomes “work,” creative people tend to feel restricted. As a manager, focus whenever you can on highlighting the intrinsic value of solving a client’s problem. And when your company decides it must “do it for the money”–an economic reality in virtually every business–be mindful of the impact this has on your most creative people.

3. Pay Fairly

There is a time to spend money. Paying “below the market” shatters trust. Many companies ignore this truth, underpaying early on when the company can, then overpaying later in order to keep talent locked in place. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market-parity compensation, with bonuses for extraordinary results. Desperate competitors may still try to overpay to hire away your best people. But loyalty to you will drive the price even higher. And if occasionally your competitors succeed, they will do so only by damaging their own margins.

4. Measure Progress

At Rosetta, one of the industry’s fastest growing interactive agencies, the rigor of the employee review program stands in stark contrast to most creative businesses. Employees are measured on a set of four published benchmarks that encourage both personal initiative and collaboration. The system is transparent and consistent. At the end of the year, everyone is evaluated and rated against their own peer group at their own level. This ensures that every employee has a clear understanding of how much progress they have made. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, nothing matters more to ambitious people.

5. Engineer Engagement

Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Nothing dilutes loyalty more than a company’s willingness to support underperformers. Be relentless about improving or firing the weakest links and raising standards and expectations. It attracts and unlocks greatness.


6. Invest in Individuality

Google famously attributes its growth to the investment it’s made in allowing 20 percent of engineers’ time to be used for anything they want, so long as it makes Google a better company. Creative companies that charge by the hour can’t match this level of investment. But when you decide to invest zero in the possibility that your talent can create value in unpredictable ways, it suggests you think they are not capable of doing so.

7. Be Open. Be Honest

Transparency is essential to attracting and retaining great talent. We define transparency as this: telling what you can and explaining what you can’t. Sharing openly encourages your people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Critical to building loyalty.

8. Say Thank You

The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us makes a choice every day about where we work. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted.

Individually, each of these practices will make an organization more empathetic. Essential fuel for unlocking Profitable Creativity. Collectively, they will make your company irresistible to talented people. And invaluable to your customers. They do require investment. Mostly of time and humanity. But the ROI will exceed any expectation you think is reasonable. And most you would believe are unrealistic. Try one today. And let us know how it works.

Charles Day is founder and CEO of The Lookinglass, a group of advisors to leaders of creative businesses.

[Images: Flickr users nataliej, Kevin Trotman, Krissy Venosdale, and Daniel Kulinski]