How to Stop Your Best Creatives From Leaving You

The best defense is an honest dialogue before an offer comes

Recently I almost lost a superstar creative to another agency, and it really taught me something.

Let's face it, all creatives, especially the good ones, are always in the market. They're getting LinkedIn emails from recruiters, text messages from creative directors, and they're being courted by agency heads with fancy dinners or after-work martinis—all with the intent to snag their brains for the next juicy piece of business. As long as all of this activity is happening and headhunters are making 10 percent to 20 percent on every hire, as agency leaders, it's in our best interest to figure out a new way to approach talent retention.

Xanthe Wells, CCO of Pitch 

All too often we're blindsided by the "Heeeeey, so could I grab 15 minutes with you?" conversation which ultimately ends in an awkward resignation. Both parties feel the tension in the room. The manager is caught off guard and the employee fears burning a bridge. No matter how great the working relationship is prior to the dreaded 15 minute chat, it always seems to play out in the same way: a big "ugh."

I think maybe, just maybe, that entire conversation can be avoided if we strengthen our relationship with our creatives and make it OK to fess up when a suitor calls.

As leaders, we were there once, too, when the thrill of a big recruiter calling made our hearts skip a beat. The promise of more money, different brands and maybe a new city pulsed in our veins. So why don't we talk about those new job opportunities honestly with our teams? Why don't we have a real conversation about the elephant in the room, before the elephant even shows up?

We're in a marriage with our creatives, except we don't wear wedding bands and someone is always trying to take them out on a date. If we love them, as we often do with the great ones or even the great-attitude ones, let's be honest with each other about the temptations out there.

As for the creative who almost resigned, we had a very honest conversation about her suitors. For the first time we spoke candidly about what she really wanted out of her job. While I'd given her a good salary and promotions, it was clear that neither title nor more pay made her heart soar. I'd been wrong about her, and I hadn't truly been making her happy because I didn't totally understand her true motivation.

She wanted great brands to work on and she was worried that she'd exhausted her opportunities at the agency. We looked critically at the client roster, analyzing one by one what she had worked on, what she enjoyed and what she'd prefer to never touch again. I acknowledged openly the real challenges of each client and also where we both identified the opportunities.

I made her a deal—what if we refocused her almost exclusively on the client that stoked her passions and made her want to stay? It was something she'd been too scared to ask for directly, but her impending resignation pushed us both into new and uncomfortable territories—saying what we both really wanted in a way that people who really care about each other do—full of vulnerability, yes, but also trust and hope.

At that critical moment, almost like two estranged marriage partners finally revealing hidden desires buried for years under a cloak of fear, we were bare, honest and candid. She told me what she was really looking for, and I told her how I could meet those needs. (I also told her what I could not do.)

Let's put a new spin on our talent retention model and focus on openness, honesty and bravery. It's not being too vulnerable to look creatives in the eye and tell them you really need them and want them to stay. And it shouldn't be too much for them to be truly honest with you about what they want and who else is calling. Why not? We've got nothing to lose.

As my mom said when I was teenager, "if you love them, let them go." I feel that way about keeping my creatives.

Of course, if we can have an open dialogue about their ambitions, needs, wants and dislikes along the way, maybe we can avoid those ugly little 15 minute chats that pop up on our calendars.

And the creatives who we thought were out the door will actually want to stay.

Xanthe Wells (@Xamperella) is the chief creative officer at Pitch.