Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Five Things Advertising Human Resources Does vs. What They Should To Do

Ad agencies often promote managers from other departments into Human Resource positions.  While this is great for their hiring function since those people will have good insights into their previous positions, it also means that they will not necessarily know the other aspects of their jobs.  I have written many times that in advertising, all too often the HR function is defined as recruiting, payroll and benefits.  

Actually, the job of Human Resources should go way beyond recruiting and payroll.  I  thought I would deal with those things.

What follows is very simplistic; the job is and should actually be very complicated with many more parts than I have written about here.  The best human resources people actually go to school to learn the many functions of the position.  The business has a few very dedicated and well trained HR professionals, but often the agencies don't allow them to fully do their jobs. Agency management often loads the department up with so many unrelated tasks (the company picnic, the holiday party, blood drives, managing the sports teams, college recruiting, etc.) that human resources has not time to actually do the remainder of its job.  I know one professional who was hired from another industry to bring some professionalism to a large agency as head of the department.  He quit after 18 months because the agency only gave him time to recruit senior people despite having a department of many.

This is by no means a condemnation of HR, it is merely a commentary on what they are allowed and encouraged to do in ad agencies.

Career Management and Planning
HR should be responsible for ensuring the growth and development of all employees.  Unfortunately, there are few, if any, training programs for juniors.  Some chosen seniors will receive specific training in presentations, marketing and management, but these people are few and far between and these programs are often kept very secretive so as not to offend the bulk of employees who are not included. 

But even without training programs, HR should be responsible for careers, rotations and advancement.  Unfortunately, there are few HR departments at ad agencies which do this.

Once, an HR person, who I had previously liked, sent me an executive who was a star, but whose account was lost; as a result, she had been terminated.  When I asked why if she was such a star, she was simply not rotated on to another business where she would be better than the current person.  The HR person replied, “That is too much trouble.”  Ouch.

Conflict Resolution
When there are problems among employees and supervisors, the subordinate (or the manager, for that matter) should feel free to go to HR to help resolve the situation.  Unfortunately, there are too many stories of the complainer ending up being terminated, disciplined or ending up having an unpleasant meeting with the person they complained about with the HR person not in attendance to mediate.  The result is employees all too often do not trust their HR departments; often, they simply leave their jobs rather than attempt to resolve the situation.

Succession Planning
Smart HR departments plan for career advancement and deal with employee needs, but this does not happen much at agencies.  This is certainly true of senior management.  As Creative Directors, agency Presidents and CEO’s age, only a handful of ad agencies have actually planned the second tier of management to take over.  This is a critical importance and requires complete knowledge of the business and its people, but is often a neglected function.  As a consequence, rather than training transitional senior employees to take over, when a senior person leaves, the agency often has to hire from the outside, which causes morale issues and fosters turnover at all levels.

Performance Management
Performance reviews can serve as a great means of measuring progress in a career.  A less than stellar report can provide guidance for special training or issue resolution.  Unfortunately, most ad agencies (and other companies), merely put the signed review in a file, often only kept for legal reason.  HR neither provides nor supervises any remedial action.  The result is that the employee is left to her/his own devices in order to correct the issue.

Another huge problem is managing salary increases.  This is especially true if a manager leaves, and a new supervisors may be reluctant  to recommend an overdue salary increase to his/her new report.  I have often heard the comment, “How can I authorize a raise if I don’t know you.  You will have to wait six months for me to evaluate you.”  I have known all too many people who, after the six months passes, end up with another new manager, so the whole process repeats; this often leaves an employee without a salary increase for years at a time.  HR should be knowledgeable enough of all employees so that they can step in to make sure that scheduled raises are given out.

HR should know its accounts and people and culture so well that recruiting can be individualized and work smoothly.  Unfortunately, in order to save money from outside recruiters, when there is a crunch (or on a regular basis) contract recruiters are brought in who do not know the culture or the managers causing recruiting to become inefficient. (I have received many jobs from senior executives, especially at the big agencies, who have had jobs open for months with no results.)  Recruiting managers at agencies should be full time employees who know everyone and everything about their company.


  1. A great “wish list” for what HR should do, but NEVER going to happen today. Indeed, some of the five things mentioned here aren’t even the bailiwick of HR (assuming they ever were). To wit … 1) Career Management and Planning – Now long gone, and given the 2-3 year lifecycle of the average employee, each individual is responsible for their own career. If they don’t handle it, nobody will. 2) Conflict Resolution – Always a complete myth. Go to HR and expect the worst. Because unless it’s a serious legal, salary, or benefits issue, even the smallest of matters can escalate into something never intended and with dire consequences for the employee. Best that an employee first address their concerns directly with their immediate supervisor (a courageous matter of respect). If that doesn’t work, go to THEIR boss. Last resort being HR, where and when by then it’s probably too late (update your CV or resume and call your headhunters). 3) Succession Planning – Has NEVER been the province or purview of HR. “Frontline Management” is responsible for and does that. HR is typically a “staff” position. 4) Performance Management – This is solely the responsibility of immediate line supervisors. They know how their direct reports are actually doing relative to expectations. HR has NO idea beyond what they’re told because they don’t have specific knowledge or experience in those areas. And last, 5) Recruiting – Probably the most significant thing HR does (at least at the entry or junior job level) because nobody else has the time to do it. They screen resumes from the likes of Indeed.com or outside recruiters; interview some to make sure they’re “passable”; and then present their candidates to the actual hiring manager. That said, after 40 years in the agency business, I am now reminded of my two all-time favorite HR executives: 1) Anne Melanson at Bates, and 2) Bill Timm at SSC&B. They were very special in every way.

  2. Paul - I think this is one of your best, and most useful columns. Whether it’s the current state of play or not, it clearly defines and benchmarks the function strategically, as it should be. All that said, I also heartily agree with Bob Crandall’s comments. I’m not in HR but comms & mktg, as you know. Still, this is extremely valuable. Kudos.

    1. Thanks, Michael. It is interesting that I received a private email from one of the best HR people I know. Her comment was that she didn't know HR could be strategic until she left advertising and went to a major corporation where she learned all the things I wrote about. Years later she was hired back by an agency to do the very things she had learned. To her disappointment, they really only wanted her for window dressing and didn't let her do any of the things I wrote about. It is really a shame; if agencies approached HR as a strategic position, it might go a long way towards lowering turnover.

  3. Hey Michael ... If you want to stay in Paul's good graces, never agree with me. LOL ...

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