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From the Ground Up – Recognizing and Retaining Creative Talent

Graffiti artists
It is a busy time in the online space – competition for top talent has never been as fierce as it is now, with many studios vying for the best and most creative minds.

This is not surprising, as there is a great deal of revenue at stake. More and more it is becoming recognized that creativity is a chief contributing factor in the success (or lack thereof) of not just studios, but entire metro economies. (For an interesting discussion of the economic impact of fostering creativity, see Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida.)

Here in Toronto, the results of an extensive investigation into fostering creativity have been released ( and support the notion that cities, and by extension companies, can live or die on their ability to seek out, and retain, top creative talent. So how is it done?

1. Grow your own.
A company that does not have a viable continued learning program will die. Unfortunately, too many companies see this as a problem they must throw money at to solve. It is, rather, an opportunity that often requires a small amount of time investment over money. Smart companies recognize mentors in their midst, and use their own people’s natural talent for teaching to great effect.

Learning programs should be extended to anyone in the company, including contractors. Contractors represent the most viable source of talent for companies in either a growth period or when trimming – why not develop continued good relationships with them?

Continued learning is often an all-or-nothing proposition because it thrives on group spirit. It is hard to have half of a company involved in continued learning.

2. Recognize the leaders in the local community.
There are always those who take an active role in organizing user-groups, discussion forums, student-programs and such. These are the influencers of the creative body, and the most sought after network resources for creatives. Word-of-mouth association far outweighs all other means of getting to top creative talent. It is lightening-fast compared to other means.

3. Use the underground.
Working with placement agencies can be helpful, but should not be considered a first choice in acquiring talent. Why? Well, frankly the most talented and experienced creatives no longer need to use a placement agency. They have an extensive list of friends and contacts and will go through those when they are looking for work.

4. Use the bullpen.
Get to know what schools in the area commonly produce people eager to work in your field. But beyond that, become a partner with them, and have an active hand in contributing to their programs – send speakers, review curriculum, get on the board of advisors. Develop a farm-league.

Beyond the immediate benefits, many experienced creatives find mentoring juniors very satisfying. Couple the eager enthusiasm of fresh recruits with the seasoned experience of veterans for a successful combination.

5. Be aware of the domino effect.
Bringing in top creative talent fosters still more creative talent influx….but the reverse is also true. It is not uncommon to see the creative ‘reserves’ of a company get cleaned out virtually overnight. Most often this is a symptom of not recognizing the true motivation of creative people. In programming terms this is called a ‘broken window effect’. In short, it means that ignoring a small problem is the same as encouraging a big problem.

Most importantly, acquiring top creative talent means having a strong understanding of what motivates creative people.

It has been said that there are only three true types of incentives for people – the economic, the social, and the moral. Not surprisingly, economic factors are the least of the motivators. Many companies make the mistake of overestimating the importance of cash incentives. While money is a consideration, it is not THE consideration for creative types.

In fact, those at the top of their game most often have come to recognize that more cash does not equal more happiness. More or less, they consider money to be an indicator for the second (and much stronger) motivator – the social respect. Creatives have a strong level of desire to do work that will be respected by their peers, and that has the potential for social impact.

But by far, the strongest motivator for creatives is the moral one. A moral incentive is one that contributes to the personal growth of the individual. Top creatives have a strong recognition of their own personal obligation to grow, expand, and take their work to the height of their ability. When a creative is forced to turn in work that they feel did not fall into an acceptable range of results, they take a hit in the moral ‘investment portfolio’. Too many hits, and they will look to invest elsewhere.

Many smaller studios retain top talent year in and year out – despite not being able to offer the same economic incentives as those with more prosperous client relationships. Why is that? They have become masters at recognizing the true motivations of their people. (And frankly, such companies most often do become financially prosperous as well – their strong understanding of creative motivation spills over to a strong understanding of what motivates their clients.)

In the end, online endeavours are a foray into the business of human communication – it requires a human solution. Recognizing the human motivations of creative talent is the key to attracting and retaining highly motivated individuals. Strong and consistent efforts to cultivate continued learning, combined with seeking challenging and socially important projects will get a studio far in attracting the best. Coupled with a plan for investing in the future via collaboration with schools and local creative leaders, any studio, regardless of size, can be successful over less diligent competition.

Photo credit: Graffiti Artists by Brian Auer