Competing effectively in the war for talent

7 min read by Sarah Smith 1 Sep 2022

In a post-Covid world, we’re led to believe that the only way to attract talent is money or flexible working. You don’t have huge salaries to place on the table, and you’re not ready to ditch the office for good. So how can you compete in the war for talent? We believe that the answer lies in the simpler values of transparency, collaboration and inclusion.

How do you make the people who work with you feel more valued and engaged? A recent survey by Brand Aperture Engage of over 1,500 employees in the US showed that only one in four employees feel meaningfully engaged with their employer. Where they did, employee retention was 27 per cent higher, and revenue growth was 25 per cent higher. So it’s fundamental to commercial success; but it also means that three quarters of American businesses are shooting themselves in the foot. That’s pretty shocking, and it’s unlikely to be much different in other countries. So how do you get it right? 

Money talks, but transparency wins

Money is the most obvious way, except that CMOs seeking to attract and retain the best talent can’t usually offer the stratospheric packages of investment banks, large law firms and private equity. They still need to be competitive, though, especially since more and more people in the workforce have student debt, whose repayment thresholds are also coming down. 

Keeping tabs on market rates is essential, but so is transparency and consistency on pay: the tighter and clearer the pay bands and bonus structures, the less room there is for resentment. People talk about their pay. You can try all you like to stop it, but you won’t succeed.

Make it personal

Next, there needs to be an environment in which staff can learn, thrive, progress and eventually become ambassadors for their business and role models for their successors. Obvious again, but it’s harder in practice. Employees need to feel they have a voice, and that they are properly listened to.

They also need to feel like individuals: the founder of one of the world’s leading PR firms knew the birthday of every single employee and personally bought each one a gift and a card, even when headcount had reached 300. Staff should be praised publicly when they do well, but if there’s an issue, it should be calmly handled, behind closed doors. 

Homeworking is fine, but the office stays

Work / life balance: it’s here to stay, and that’s a good thing. Even before the pandemic, working from home for some of the week was already commonplace, especially in the creative industries. The experience of lockdown then showed that people could be just as productive working permanently from home, with the collaboration essential for a successful marketing function facilitated by Teams and Zoom. But it’s also a good way to show sympathy to an individual’s situation: a long commute, care commitments and mental health and overall wellbeing.

We’d argue that real collaboration, though, can only truly exist in a face-to-face open plan environment. In marketing, collaboration across the entire business is an essential way for it both to operate and succeed, and to be seen as a rewarding and enjoyable place in which to work. 

You exchange ideas, you get to know each other, you can show your skills and knowledge and you learn from others. This needs to be shown to be part of the business’ DNA. That doesn’t mean a whole working week of commuting; but nor does it mean a whole week at home.

A diverse team is a successful one

A clear and credible diversity policy that creates an environment of inclusiveness, empathy and compassion is no longer optional. Businesses which don’t take this seriously will lose out in the talent war, because the latest generation of professionals simply won’t tolerate bullying and discrimination: they’ll either leave or sue, most likely both. 

What’s more, in a marketing department, diversity is fundamental on the basis that it needs to understand all audiences. As these become both increasingly complex, increasingly demanding and increasingly vocal, the more diverse teams will be more successful.

Talent management is a natural partner

Collaboration with HR & Talent Management capabilities is essential. Like marketing, HR is undergoing its own, sometimes painful, transition from cost centre to strategic function. Many organisations may find that outsourcing recruitment works best, keeping the skills of its in-house team to focus on ways to keep their best employees through dedicated career paths and training. 

Regardless of the set-up, CMOs need to find ways to break through HR/Talent Management silos to create harmonious relationships. In fact, HR/Marketing can really help one another when it comes to things like recruitment and onboarding. For example, CMOs can invest their understanding of digital communications and journey mapping. In turn, talent managers gain a better understanding of the CMOs recruitment challenges.

Don’t neglect training

Training, in particular, has an important part to play in addressing one of the most basic problems that can exist in an organisation, namely a lack of understanding by its people of what it actually does and what it is looking to achieve. 

This is especially true in marketing & communications and client-facing agencies. The less people understand what they’re doing, the less confident they feel. The less confident they feel, the less they enjoy what they do; and the less they enjoy what they do, the less well they perform. The result? An unhappy workforce and a poor reputation as an employer, both internally and externally. Constructive and regular feedback and proper training will stop this, which goes back to the whole concept of listening.

Be generous with knowledge

Real knowledge, though, comes from culture, and that starts from the top. So, fundamental to a CMO’s ability to be seen as a top employer that people should want to work for, is their relationship with the CEO and C-Suite. The better the relationship, the more transparent and frequent the communication, the more trust will exist and the information will be shared. 

Prepare for home truths

It’s amazing how often this doesn’t happen. Of course senior management have to be circumspect about what gets shared across the business; but if its marketing department is operating in the dark, people get sucked into the downward spiral of low confidence, lack of enjoyment and poor performance, because they don’t have the necessary knowledge. 

So, they’ll leave and they’ll probably tell their friends why: not exactly great for the reputation of the business. Properly understanding why people leave is therefore another obvious way of putting things right. That may mean having to speak some home truths to C-Suite. If it does, they’ve got to take it on the chin.


CMOs who sleep better at night do so because they have strong, diverse, energised teams that know what they are doing; and that is because they communicate and collaborate effectively across the entire business, break down barriers and have a reputation for doing so. Even before the individual strategies and campaigns they win plaudits and awards for, that reputation alone is gold dust in the retention and acquisition of talent.

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