“You might suppose that a business which depends entirely on the talent of its people would take recruiting seriously, but that is not yet the case.” – David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising, 1983. p. 39

At the 2011 4A’s conference, the chiefs of the four biggest holding companies revealed the biggest non-secret in the advertising industry: they’ve done a shitty job of training and retaining talent.

Really? What, you needed to commission a study for that? What’s next, a blue-ribbon panel to determine whether or not Charlie Sheen is a douchebag?

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty-five years ago, before every large independent agency got absorbed, many of those independent agencies had their own proud cultures. Some also ran training programs, teaching young people new to the business the “(blank)” way.

But when the Burnetts and Ogilvys got swallowed by the IPGs and WPPs, those programs ground to a halt.

In short order, those institutions lost much of their uniqueness and culture. Senior staff – the people who’d normally train newcomers – started telling newcomers, “this place was great; now it’s crap.” And when those senior staffers were invariably fired, they told the newcomers, “don’t trust this shithole.”

The very notion of long-term investment is anathema to holding companies. They report profits quarterly. Talent development is an expense yielding hard-to-quantify results. Everybody can see the results of not making the investment, but they can’t justify spending the money.

So, we make young talent shell out money for ad school. They finish these programs in debt, and owning all the risk. They’re already free agents. If they manage to get a job, it won’t pay enough to cover rent, much less student loans. The only way to quickly increase pay, and get visibility, is to hop from job to job.

(There’s another important reason agencies can’t retain talent, and it has nothing to do with training: many agencies treat their people like crap, and the grass always looks greener. But that’s a topic for a whole other post. Frankly, it’s one I hesitate to write. I know that 95% of the agency world (my conservative estimate) would agree, but I fear writing about it would sound like my own personal sour grapes.)

When the four chiefs were asked if they could name which of today’s agencies handle talent right, they named one, unanimously: Wieden + Kennedy.

Creatively driven. Privately held. No shareholders to please. Strong, distinct agency culture. Commitment to raising talent “the Wieden way.” Whoever would have pegged W+K as old-school?

I don’t believe the big holding companies will ever return to the care and nurture of talent. They aren’t built for it. Force me to name a holding company that might pull it off, I’d pick MDC – because they seem more careful to maintain each of their sub-brands’ individuality. In fact, I just read that 72andSunny, recently acquired by MDC, is starting its own training program.

Although 72U is charging the kids $10,000 a pop.

That’s new-school.

NOTE: If you’ve got a good story that contradicts this, I’d love to hear it. Were you trained by an ad agency? Were you treated right?