Replacing The Meaningless Language Of Talent With A Portfolio Of Now

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Talent. We nurture it. You use it. Britain’s got it. You have Heads of it. We don’t talk about “graduates” anymore. You don’t talk about “human resources”. We’re in the ‘talent’ business. But what is it? How do we identify it? How does a NewGen job hunter demonstrate it? What is “the Book” now? This isn’t just a question for those of us tasked with preparing students for the world (of work), it’s also a question for the industry which spends time and resources digging through internship applications, speculative CVs and portfolios and countless imaginative approaches from the young and keen.

As universities form deeper and more powerful relationships with industry, the ‘talent’ word becomes embedded in more and more funding bids, performance review meetings and press releases. As industry takes a more active role in the curriculum development and even pedagogic strategy of their feeder and partner programmes, ‘talent’ is in danger of becoming a fake discourse: accepted as simple and clear, clean and universally acknowledged. Bearing in mind that the careers of young people and the future of our industry is dependent on getting hiring right, we need to interrogate ‘talent’.

Sean McBride, ECD at Arnold, recently highlighted what he saw as the challenge of “finding talent to throw into [the] high-speed comedy tornado” of contemporary copywriting. “We just don’t see the right portfolios. In fact, I’m not sure they really exist anymore,” he says. He explains that he has turned to Twitter and on stage for people who can write well. What he has spotted is that people’s talent often shines best in their own spaces, moments and the condescendingly-titled side hustles. It is in these spaces talent has a habit of flowing rather than merely fitting the PDF, or sitting in a WordPress template.

Talent is not subjective nor is it unchanging. It is deeply related to the business challenges we face and the moment we face them in.

McBride is not alone in musing about talent. No lesser figure than Sir Martin Sorrell has talked of S4 eyeing up Argentina as a key market for both creativity and technical talent (interesting separating technology and creativity). Karen Fraser, head of advertising think tank Credos frames the crisis in trust in the industry in terms of attracting “new young talent to our business”. And of course, the headhunters are happy to stoke the fires. Ad Week gives space to Gary Stolkin CEO of the wonderfully titled “The Talent Business”  to sprinkle the word ‘talent’ liberally into his commentary on agencies of the future. “Once upon a time, it was culture and talent… Culture attracts the best talent… Leaders who understand how to build a culture and attract the best talent will come into their own again,” he says.

From business bosses through creative bosses to those taking commission from them, there is an inability, or at least unwillingness, to pin the blancmange to the ceiling. They know it when they see it. But is that a strategic enough basis on which to run our programmes and our businesses at a moment marked by frenemies and what Faris Yakob has called the ‘Great Blur’?

Talent is not subjective nor is it unchanging. It is deeply related to the business challenges we face and the moment we face them in.

Sorrell does not need tech ‘talent’, he needs people who get technology as it is now because his business is entwined with particular sorts of tech … for now. This is not a subjective call. This can be clear and specific. Not as utilitarian as “C++ developer wanted” nor as woolly as “geeks wanted”. The need and the call should be for people with majors in new thinking, strategic creativity, connected imagining… at least for now as we rebuild ad-tech beyond the fraud-ridden morass of adtech. And that call needs to be clear giving applicants a chance to demonstrate the specifics of creative thinking and strategic imagination. That tech ‘talent’ may, in turn, need a coder but without a person with a portfolio of thinking and contemporary vision, the coder is lost.

McBride does not need writing ‘talent’, he needs people who get writing in all its short-form, long-form, conversational complexities. This is not amorphous ‘talent’, it is specific and contemporary language sensitivity and skill; linguistic strategy rooted in the now of voice, transient content, augmented visuality and so much more. The reason the improv comedian gets it is because she does it now and now and now. Her routine is a portfolio of now, contemporary invention and imagination. Her audience is clear. She knows what she needs to do.

I tell my students to be that person, to show that contemporary imagination in their application but they quite reasonably ask: “how?”, “what does the ‘head of talent’ want?”

It is beholden on C-level leaders and those who set the tone of the industry to stop talking in the meaningless language of talent and start to demand a portfolio of now, of imagination and to work with those of us training their applicants to find ways to modernise ‘the Book’.

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