The Rise of Talent Networks

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There’s a question that’s been nagging at me for a while. An itch that needed scratching if you like. So I wrote a piece for Marketing Week about it. And they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce it in full here. Input is, as always, valued:

When a new agency called Co: launched this month in New York, a lot of people in the industry seemed to sit up and take notice. The reason had less to do with the fact that four senior execs had left their jobs at JWT, BBH, Wolff Olins to venture out on their own, and more to do with the fact that Co: seemed like a start-up with a difference. The name deliberately evokes their business model of co-creation, collaboration and co-venturing, of a small, agile organisational hub that works with and draws from a list of 40 agencies, businesses and consultancies that are specialists in particular services ranging from digital marketing, to PR, Social Media, Design, technology, gaming, events and media. There’s even a venture capitalist firm amongst the network.

Part of the reason that this is so interesting is that it is symptomatic of a broader trend – the rise of talent networks. In the case of Co:, the founders describe the agency as a ‘brand studio’, likening it to a movie studio that pulls in talent to work on specific projects, facilitates a good result, and provides the environment and the infrastructure for effective collaboration. One of the founders, quoted in the New York Times, talked about how “teams are formed around individual client needs, and when those needs are satisfied, the team is dispersed”.

Relentless digitisation and the recession have combined to create an environment in which the value of much of what we have known is depreciating, and which increasingly requires a culture and a pace of innovation that is consistent with start-ups. Organisational value is shifting from protecting knowledge assets, to encouraging knowledge flow. In ‘We Think’, Charles Leadbetter said: “In the past you were what you owned. Now you are what you share”. New models are springing up that follow a philosophy where access trumps ownership. Assets are increasingly about relationships.

Since starting my own business I seem to have come into contact with many more entrepreneurs, freelancers, and sole traders than I think I would had I still been in corporate life. Part of that is no doubt about wanting to connect with other likeminded people who are out there creating their own value from what and who they know. But I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are just so many people out there doing so many interesting things. People with real talent, who value variety and flexibility.

Corporate down-sizing and technology have combined to create an influx of highly talented individuals into the market with the ready means to turn that talent into real value. There have always been freelancers of-course, but this is talent that is equipped with cheap, effective, readily available yet potentially transformational tools and technologies, and connected to inspiration, to opportunity, and to each other, like never before. It’s a world powered by ideas, enthusiasm, and know-how. But it is also a world powered by collaboration, supported by increasing numbers of co-working spaces and a whole raft of ‘unconference’ style meet-ups, events, and hack days that are both the originator for and a catalyst of innovation. The difference is that the number of people working in this way, equipped with the enterprise tools to enable it, means that perhaps for the first time, the possibility of a real ecosystem of talent networks operating at some scale has suddenly become viable.

Networks, whether of individuals or small firms, are naturally extremely efficient. You can select and partner with some of the best talent in the industry. You make use of the talent you need when you need it. And you don’t have to pay an overhead when you don’t. You benefit from a broad talent pool that brings diversity of thinking and ideas, yet is unencumbered by corporate habit or channeled thinking. And there are numerous pieces of research that prove the value of skill diversity in innovation.

Large organisations have a tendency to pull people into a vortex of internal focus. The smart ones are beginning to recognise that more flexible structures that allow them to interact with, learn from, and work with this external pool of talent will give them genuine competitive advantage. The smartest are structuring their businesses to be agile and flexible enough to allow collaboration of this kind to not be the exception, but the norm.

There’s much talk in the industry about how the tech world needs to be brought closer to the world of media and advertising. I’d suggest that it’s the other way round. We talk a lot about the need for innovating the marketing and advertising model. Why is there not more discussion around innovating our organisational structures in order to deliver a real change in the way our industry works?

Original column here.

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