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Nick Throp

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What the HR profession can learn from the advertising industry


Two different worlds with two very different outlooks. But that’s why advertising has interesting insights to offer the enlightened HR professional.

Even the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, misogynist world of 1960s advertising from the classic American series, Mad Men, has something to teach the HR profession of today.

Kodak visit the agency to discuss their innovative new slide projector technology – The Wheel. Don Draper, the creative director, explains to the client,

“Technology is a glittering lure. But there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

With words and a few simple slides of family life, he then creates exactly that sentimental bond – with a slide projector of all things.

“This device isn’t a space ship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards…forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called The Wheel. It’s called The Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – round and around – and back home again…to a place where we know we are loved.”

What’s the relevance to the HR profession of today? Ironically, for the discipline that is charged with shaping how people think and feel about their work, HR is often wary of pulling some of the emotional levers that advertisers know work.

Think “engaging” not “engagement”

Employee engagement is the goal of many people strategies – to drive the employee’s emotional and intellectual involvement with and commitment to the organisation. But how often does HR employ the techniques of the advertiser as the means towards that end?

For somebody to be engaged, they have to find the work, the culture, the purpose of the organisation engaging. The model for all effective communication is face-to-face interaction. So, when we meet someone that we find “engaging”, what attributes do we associate with them?

When we ask people what they find “engaging”, they often describe an engaging person as “intelligent”, “witty”, “amusing”, “sensitive”, “interesting and interested”, “personable”. Try this exercise yourself and see what characteristics you find engaging; then reflect upon the way you communicate with your people and mark yourself out of 10 for each of these traits. If your organisation is not engaging, how do you expect your people to be engaged?

The brand

The advertiser understands that the brand has to have a set of emotional values that connect with an audience. Too few employer brands really reflect compelling and distinctive emotional values.

But what is a brand? Clearly it’s more than just a logo, a colour palette and a font.

For the advertising agency, brand is made up of three components: image, identity and personality.

Image is always aspirational. It’s about the values you would like to be associated with.

Identity is about the clothes we wear to signal the sort of person we are – this is where the corporate identity of logos and colours comes into play.

Personality is who we are and how we behave. This is the area where HR and marketing come together. HR own much of the content that determines how the organisation behaves, from reward to recognition, from performance planning to career development. It’s the creative flair of the advertising agency that can bring this to life.

The creative process

One of the questions that we often get asked by HR is how does the creative process work? This question tells you all you need to know about the difference between the mindset of HR and advertising.

Creativity is not a process. Quite often the best ideas occur at 3 o’clock in the morning. There is no process flowchart for that.

Like great art, creativity involves an idea at its core. If it doesn’t, it’s just a nice piece of design. That idea can be a metaphor or a storyline or juxtaposition of two concepts that are not normally joined together.

After that, it’s about the skilled use of words and pictures to explain, amuse or excite. Sometimes it’s not enough just to give people information.

Direct marketing

With the technology available today, communication is less an act of faith. With the ability to monitor how, when and what people access online, the delivery of highly targeted messaging allows the direct marketeers to test which messages work and which don’t.

While the creative craft you need in putting your communication together is an art; implementation and measurement is increasingly a science. The direct marketeers are expert at that science: tinkering with the message and the medium to create the maximum impact.

As HR strives to make the business case for the investment in its programmes, this kind of evaluation can be very helpful.

Making a difference

If you think that HR isn’t making the impact you want it to make, if your engagement scores aren’t as high as you would like them to be, if people don’t understand your employee proposition, then maybe you should learn from the advertising agencies.

As Don Draper says, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” That’s what advertising can help you to do.

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Nick Throp


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