Should Marketing Agencies Build through The Draft?

As a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan, it pains me to hear the phrase, “building through the draft.”

In National Football League lingo, that means, “Sorry Browns fans, high-priced free agents aren’t going to help this team any time soon. Just give us another three years and you’ll see we know what we’re doing.”

For a team with two winning seasons since 1999, it’s hard to accept that rationale as a fan. However, as an agency owner, I have to respect and admire the philosophy because I believe it’s 100 percent correct.

‘A’ Players, Agencies and The Draft

draft-photoConstructing an agency filled with top talent establishes a distinct and formidable competitive advantage. According to Bradford D. Smart, PhD, “High performers—the ‘A’ players—contribute more, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, display more resourcefulness, take more initiative, develop better business strategies, articulate their vision more passionately, implement change more effectively, deliver higher-quality work, demonstrate greater teamwork, and find ways to get the job done in less time with less cost.”1

So the question for agencies is, do you recruit experienced professionals and accelerate growth, or do you take a more organic, long-term approach and build around entry-level talent?

The top marketing firms, which will lead industry transformation and deliver the most value to clients, are built from within. Like professional sports teams that build through the draft, these model agencies excel at identifying and nurturing high-potential young talent, ideally straight out of school. These professionals are groomed within defined systems and trained to adhere to agency standards for performance.

Top performing young professionals are the most important foundation for hybrid agencies. To excel and continually differentiate, agencies must have a solid strategy to recruit, advance, and retain emerging talent.

Standard processes enable agencies to quickly get professionals onboard, and transition them into revenue-producing roles. Meanwhile, as market demands shift to predominantly digital marketing services, agencies can transition the balance of work to basic and intermediate levels, keeping labor costs low, pricing affordable and profit margins high.

3 Challenges of Building through The Draft

Agencies cannot push growth beyond their capability to service it. One of the most challenging aspects of building through the draft is what I call the patience of potential. Although your recruits may have A-player potential, not all top picks are ready for primetime right away. Any number of factors can influence how quickly they adapt from college life to the real world and embrace the opportunities ahead of them.

Intelligence becomes secondary to effort in the agency world.

A few of the more common factors agencies face, include:

  • Commitment: It’s common for professionals in their early-to-mid-20s to struggle, and even question their career choices as they adapt and seek balance in their lives. Those who resist fully committing to their careers in the early years risk falling significantly behind their peers’ development, and stalling the agency’s growth. This is why it’s imperative to recruit internally driven professionals who have an insatiable desire to improve, advance, and succeed. They will put in the extra time and energy needed to build a solid foundation of knowledge that will rapidly propel them into leadership positions. 
  • Perspective: Some young professionals lack the perspective to appreciate opportunities presented to them. They may feel underpaid or undervalued because they don’t understand the economics of agencies. Or, they may have a skewed sense of entitlement and not want to put in the work necessary to advance. A lack of perspective can be poisonous to agency cultures, and it may lead to high turnover rates, so agencies must be transparent and open with young professionals.
  • Speed: You often hear NFL quarterbacks talk about how fast the game moves when they transition from college to the pros. The game plans are more complex, the competition is stronger and quicker, and they can no longer get by on athleticism and instincts alone.

Marketing agency professionals experience the same phenomenon. Expectations are high, and the pace is quick in the first year. In addition, mistakes are common, which can negatively affect a young professional’s confidence. Eventually, everything slows down as their knowledge and experience grows, and they are able to gradually improve their performance. 

Some professionals are born ready, and others need help to realize and embrace their capacity for greatness. Agency leaders must be able to identify high-potential talent and have the patience to develop and nurture these emerging leaders. 

When It’s Time to Bring in Free Agents

In professional sports, teams sign free agents with proven track records of success to strengthen their organizations. When the time is right, agencies have to do the same and make the move to bring in seasoned talent. Their experience and capabilities enhance the team’s capacity for growth, and they add much-needed leadership to help develop and advance young professionals.

View free agents as the final pieces to the puzzle, rather than the building blocks of your agency.

However, be cautious when bringing in free agents. Professionals shifting from larger, more established agencies or those coming from less demanding corporate and nonprofit jobs may struggle in the early going to adjust to the speed of agency life. This can directly impact the agency’s efficiency and productivity, and if they do not quickly adjust, their higher salaries can have an undesirable effect on profitability. Additionally, each hire adds a new dynamic to the agency culture, which is delicate during early growth phases.

To avoid making costly hiring mistakes, it’s important to have very clear and open dialogue about opportunities and expectations. Make sure candidates understand the systems they will be asked to work within, and buy into the agency’s vision. There cannot be any doubt on either end, or else it will never work in the long run.

View free agents as the final pieces to the puzzle, rather than the building blocks of your agency. Use the infusion of experienced talent and fresh perspective to push the agency to the next level.

What’s Your Agency Philosophy?

Is your agency building through the draft? What’s been your experience with free agents and integrating them into your unique systems?

Check out The Blueprint Series On Demand for More

The Blueprint Series presented by HubSpot is an interactive five-part webinar event available on demand for $495. Session 1 is “Hybrid Professionals: How to Recruit, Train and Retain Top Agency Talent.”


 Image credit: mjpeacecorps

1. Bradford D. Smart, Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People (New York: Penguin, 2005), 6.

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