Top agency strategies for improved onboarding

New hires are walking into fast-moving agency environments characterized by short deadlines, high stakes, and all-hands-on-deck attitudes. Chances are a new hire is arriving well after they were actually needed on the team. So the temptation to simply throw a laptop at the newbie and ask them to hit the ground running is very high. “I’m usually late to hire. I don’t like to have a big staff sitting around, bored,” admits Sharon Goldmacher, president and CEO of communications 21, an Atlanta-based integrated agency.

Any creative, client-oriented organization can have difficulty defining exactly what a new employee will be expected to do and, by extension, what they need to learn. “We have never really had a ‘job opening’ and I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had an actual ‘job description,’” says J. G. Robilotti, partner and senior vice president of account management at LeadDog Marketing Group.

Feeding fresh faces to the fire isn’t the best recipe for cultivating productive employees or retaining top talent. Fortunately, there are established, proven strategies which honor the agency’s need for rapid onboarding as well as the employee’s need to understand the business.

Have a training vision

Today’s agencies have deceptively simple mission statements. Delight customers. Help them succeed. Communicate their values everywhere. Education may be a continuous process, but agencies benefit when they set milestones and targets for the early stages of a new hire’s onboarding process. If you haven’t organized and documented your training process, make the time to do so. The exercise may reveal some important gaps.

SHIFT Communications provides a customized training deck for each new hire with a 90-day plan for integrating with agency business. New employees spend the first few days in the office getting an intense overview of their assigned client preferences and needs, and hearing the perspective of creative, technical, and strategic leaders. And it is understood that everyone may be called upon to help a new arrival. “We always have a resource for someone walking around saying, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” says Kristina Norris, learning and development coordinator at SHIFT.

The need to learn in-house workflow, marketing automation, and reporting tools can provide some structure, but be wary. Modern marketing is so technological and data-driven that tech training can completely dominate the calendar if you let it. One useful strategy to keep tech training from dominating the conversation is to give new hires a head start with external licenses or demo accounts of key agency systems.

Finding a balance that still honors the need to understand the processes and finesse of the discipline is crucial. “I would like our training to be at least 60 percent strategy, creativity, and execution, but it’s probably closer to 40-50 percent,” Goldmacher says. “Honestly, there’s a lot of information and a lot of tools, but we still want our account managers to focus on making client recommendations, not get bogged down pulling data.”

Stay hands-on

Self-service training through documents and videos sounds appealing. Learners get to work at a pace that makes sense to them, and the assets are relatively inexpensive compared to live training, particularly one-on-one instruction. But producing a laughably bad training video is all too easy. Even video instruction experts agree that there is a limit to how much you can lean on canned training films. “No one wants to be left at a desk for three days just watching videos–they’ll pull their hair out,” says Matt Pierce, integrated marketing manager at TechSmith. “Maximize things that are going to be hard to replicate over and over again, and aim for between five and 10 minutes.”

Senior management should take an active role in communicating the vision and values of the agency. “I found that if I completely backed out of training, we ran into problems, because new hires may not have learned my perspective on our philosophy and culture, and what’s important to us,” Goldmacher says. “So now, the first day of training is spent with me, and we go through the top aspects of our culture, focusing on remarkable service and real results. We want people to take initiative, be fearless, and have fun, and it’s important to hear that from the top.”

Bring new hires up for air

Rapid exposure to client demands, productivity tools, and valuable mentors will teach new hires most of what they need to know about agency life. But employees need a sense of life beyond the billable hour in order to be truly successful and contented. That’s why social activities are such an important part of ongoing training and collaboration. communications 21 organizes monthly social events and regular offsite lunches. SHIFT Communications started a Toastmasters group to enhance leadership, confidence, and persuasion. Even something as simple as assigning a “buddy” to a new hire and paying for the occasional lunch and vent session can help a new employee absorb the whirlwind of information that comes with their new environment.

And don’t be afraid to let new employees try to teach you something. Giving them a chance to share what they know will help them feel valuable more quickly, and bring a fresh perspective to the business. “If you told me in your interview that you’re really passionate about blue tables, and think there’s an opportunity to make money or do good in the world with blue tables, chances are we’re going to spend some time seeing if we should be in the blue table business,” Robilotti says. “We don’t run a camp, but we do think that when people are passionate about the things they’re working on, they’re going to serve our clients better.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.