The Talent Benefit of Specialization

Sam Meers, CEO, Meers Advertising
Sam Meers, CEO, Meers Advertising

By Sam Meers

CEO, Meers Advertising, member of the 4A’s Kansas City Board of Governors

A friend of mine reached out a few weeks ago and asked how we were attracting and retaining talent in a mid-size market like Kansas City, Mo. He is also in a mid-size market and has to compete with three Fortune 500 companies who suck up all the media and creative talent in the region.

My response to him did not offer a simple solution. In fact, the solution we’ve found to attract and retain talent is a side benefit of an over-arching strategic business decision we made almost three years ago: We narrowed our focus and only serve clients in the insurance and financial services categories.

Many agency leadership teams believe they can only attract talent if they have a diverse client base offering staff multiple opportunities to stretch their wings. I would counter and say within any given category, including something as common as health insurance, there are as much opportunities as there are in a generalist agency to be creative and demonstrate innovative thinking across all disciplines.

Back to the original question: How has narrowing our focus helped with staff acquisition and retention? While it seems somewhat counter intuitive, here is why I believe it is true:

  1. People enjoy feeling like experts. Because of our narrowed focus, our teams feel more confident when they walk into client meetings. The clients know we are working with a number of companies in their category and are eager to hear our point of view on their business. This, in turn, helps our team feel wanted and needed. They know this is less likely to happen if they’re working at a generalist agency.
  1. Our narrowed focus has increased our margins.With increased margins, we are able to pay people more competitively at all levels within the agency. That helps ward off competitive companies. The increased margins also allow us to do a number of things that enhance the culture of the agency. We have a full-time marketing person who focuses 50 percent of her time on internal initiatives—contests, special events, employee “thank you” gifts, internal communications, employee anniversaries, employee birthdays and agency swag (like T-shirts, water bottles and mouse pads). These little things make a difference.
  1. Our new business win rate is higher.We’ve won 10 of our last 13 pitches in the past two years. Because of our focus, our people expect to win when we go into a pitch. They know how many new business opportunities we turn down. We have walked away from $14 million in new business opportunities in the past two years because they did not fit our focus. Likewise, our staff knows when we make the decision to pursue a prospect that we have a high likelihood of winning. This contributes to the culture and the esprit de corps of the agency.

Specialization is not for every agency. It has to be a commitment from the top of the organization. However, two years into the effort, our leadership cannot imagine going back to being a generalist agency—and frankly, neither can our staff.