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Innovation Agents

These Companies Are Vacuuming Up Everybody Else's Tech Talent

IBM and Nike may be great places to work, but they're fighting a bruising war for digital talent—where even Google is taking some hits.

These Companies Are Vacuuming Up Everybody Else's Tech Talent

[Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Want to know just how much or how well a given company is innovating? Take a look at the talent it attracts—or loses. These days, acquiring and hanging onto top-notch tech talent isn't easy.

Plenty of companies are fooling themselves that they're keeping their digital skills current simply by changing job titles and adding roles that include the term "digital." The number of professionals on LinkedIn calling themselves "chief digital officer" grew from 965 in 2015 to 3,255 in 2016—a 237% increase.

That semantic shift conceals a stark reality: A select handful of companies—those that have always lived and breathed digital technology (not to be confused with those other "digital natives")—are sucking up top-notch tech talent, leaving everyone else to pick over the scraps.

The Invisible (Working) Hand

Some things remain true that have long been so. According to our research here at L2, it's clear that a solid brand makes a company beautiful to strangers. If your company has a reputation as a tech innovator, tech talent will come a-knocking. What's changing, though, is that some of the most traditionally aspirational employers are struggling as a result.

Take Nike for instance. It's regularly ranked as one of the best companies to work for, and it's consistently more popular than other top consumer brands like L’Oréal, P&G, and LVMH. But Nike’s popularity still pales in comparison to digitally native technology companies. Searches for Amazon, Facebook, or Google "jobs" outpace searches for "Nike jobs" by an order of magnitude.

In fact, it appears there's already been an exodus of digital talent from agencies to digital-native companies. WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, and Interpublic Group bleed talent to Facebook and Google. Based on L2’s analysis of LinkedIn data, the two tech giants employ 2,227 people who have worked at WPP, while WPP has only attracted around 124 former Facebook or Google employees—a net loss of over 2,100 people.

Employees who leave agencies tend to be high-value, too. Their expertise tends to beat out the experience of those moving in the opposite direction. Many of the people that agencies can hire away from Facebook or Google are often student ambassadors or interns who weren't given full-time offers by the tech giants.

You can almost hear the dejected whispers in the HR departments of the biggest ad firms: "They get our best people, and we get their interns."

All In The Family

Where do tech companies get their talent? From each other. But all things aren't equal. Legacy tech players are ceding talent to the new titans. Microsoft, in fact, is the top source of talent for all other tech firms. There are nearly 13,000 previous Microsoft employees currently working at the other 10 digitally native companies we examined.

Not surprisingly, Yahoo is also losing top digital talent to its competitors. While most digital-native companies have also sourced talent from IBM, it's younger organizations like Pinterest and Snapchat that are now sourcing talent from Google. IBM is your dad, and Google is his younger brother. Both are kind of lame, but your Uncle Joe drives a Porsche and is less lame than Dad is.

That places the older digital-native juggernauts in something of an unfamiliar position. Google, which makes massive investments in human capital (in terms of compensation as well as culture perks like onsite food and professional training), is seeing a strong "yo-yo" phenomenon—employees who leave often return. So while Google loses a lot of talent, it gets some of it back.

In fact, Google has more yo-yo'ers than the other digital natives combined, which seems to validate the ROI on those features of its work culture. The rest of the Big Four (Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) also consistently attract talent from other digitally native tech companies, including younger ones. At the same time, though, the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have no trouble luring away Big Four alums with offers of equity, which many top tech workers still find appealing.

The few firms that have had some success pulling people out of major tech companies have a few things in common:

1. Proximity to tech hubs. Walmart, whose recent acquisition of Jet.com signals its focus on an omni-channel self-reinvention, leads the way. Opening a San Bruno, California, location has helped the retailer recruit more than 300 workers from the Big Four—including 218 from its biggest rival, Amazon.

2. Targeting specific firms. Nike has hired several staff recruiters from Apple and used them to recruit leading store personnel who can deliver next-generation retail experiences. In similar fashion, Kimberly-Clark has targeted Amazon, poaching e-commerce leaders who, in turn, have helped the company pull in additional talent. In fact, 6% of Kimberly-Clark's e-commerce team comes from Amazon. And an impressive 46% of the Amazon employees they’ve recruited have arrived with at least 10 years of experience.

3. Executive access. There's also a pattern of brands successfully recruiting with title inflation and—no surprise here—keys to the executive washroom. L’Oréal, for example, managed to recruit a chief digital officer from Instagram by offering a seat on the executive committee.

Still, the trend is overwhelming: The youngest digital-native tech companies are vacuuming up their elders' best and brightest. The quarterbacks and prom queens of yesterday find themselves sitting alone at the reunion as people line up to get a selfie with the captain of the chess team, who's just started a SaaS firm.

And while there are tactics the old guard can employ, their still-powerful cache isn't as impressive as it once was. More and more these days, they're pushing a rock uphill.


Maureen Mullen is chief strategy officer and cofounder of the business intelligence firm L2.

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