Your Most Precious Asset

Apr 30, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Michael R. Perry
When the hub of your industry is located 700 miles away, in a place so foreign they don't understand the joys of deep-dish pizza or Old Style beer, recruiting top pharma advertising talent can be tough. And losing talent is costly. You have to learn to keep staff happy and motivated, ensure continuity when turnover does happen, and bring in new people through great incentives, management support, and word of mouth.

In the past 12 years, the Chicago-based pharma advertising firm AbelsonTaylor has quintupled in size, making our ability to recruit and retain a key competency. When our peers first voted us Most Creative Agency 14 years ago, we had 21 creative people on staff. Today, 15 of those people are still on staff, including 11 creative directors or associate creative directors; four are partners. Our people have grown with us; they share our culture and values and pass them on to clients and peers. They demonstrate the benefits that come from reducing turnover and building morale.

Below are some tips and tricks we've learned along the way for maintaining a happy, productive staff. They are, by and large, translatable to the rest of the US, recognizing that the East Coast can't rely on the beauty of Lake Michigan's coastline, the proximity of celebrities like Oprah and Jerry Springer, or the strength of character that dealing with O'Hare International Airport on a weekly basis engenders.

1. Share Good and Bad News Quickly

A good agency doesn't treat its people like mushrooms—which can grow, even without tending, in dark, damp places. People need attention, input, direction, and responsibility, so we make sure our senior team knows what's going on and we empower them to let the rest of the organization know, too.

Whenever we get a new account or win an important award, we broadcast the good news, so people know they're part of a great team. Likewise, if something goes wrong we let people know quickly, along with what steps we're taking to improve the situation so they can get on with the job at hand. Our senior level managers also hold regular meetings to formulate policy and discuss staffing, new business, and other agency-wide issues. They then share these policies with their staffs, who are expected to "live it out" in their management.

2. Create Learning Opportunities

People want meaningful responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities to learn so they can reach the next level in their careers. To help them, AbelsonTaylor offers a full curriculum for account management, with regular "lunch-n-learn" programs on subjects such as Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications review; a day in the life of a rep; a day in the life of a product manager; interpreting clinical data; and the like. The smarter you can make your staff, the happier both they and your clients will be. Because the more they know, the better equipped they'll be to pass on knowledge to the next generation of managers.

3. Add Fertilizer

Most people want the opportunity to grow and expand their horizons. For those who want to stretch beyond their job description, we encourage attendance at outside seminars or even courses outside their functional area. This helps staff members explore interests that enrich their jobs and/or lead to other positions in the agency they can contribute to. For those who want more, we offer partial tuition reimbursement for MBA's.

4. Train Like Hospitals

Like hospitals, which train their staffs through a "watch one, do one, teach one" process, our staff watches a procedure, performs the procedure, and is then expected to teach the procedure to others. This concept promotes mentoring that develops our staff's skills as they progress through each level. As a person is promoted, he or she is given someone to train or manage at the level below. Account coordinators train traffic coordinators, account execs train assistant account execs, and so on. This process also allows us to spot talent and provide help if any problems arise.

5. Establish Outside Relationships to Enhance Staff Knowledge

Working with outside institutions can be a win-win situation. For example, in order to keep our in-house staff of PharmD's available to consult with our account and creative staffs, we have established a program with the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy that allows the university's PharmD candidates to fulfill one of their six outside clerkship requirements at the agency. This program gives us valuable staffing resources and a source of knowledgeable new employees, some of whom come to work for us after graduation.