If the recession starts to bite and cost-cutting kicks in, you don’t have to watch your best people walk out the door never to return, says Mike Bennett
As chief executive of local creative industries support network Bristol Media, I’m fortunate enough to meet other consultancy heads and owners on a regular basis to chew the fat, talk openly and compare notes.
In this guise, I recently hosted a series of ‘recession’ round-table discussions with Bristol’s leading creative entrepreneurs, to discuss what we can do to support each other if times get harder, and how we can all increase our chances of survival.
Not surprisingly, the subject of people and redundancies came high on the agenda.
Some at the table had already made redundancies and some were about to. Others were only too well aware that if billings dip in the current climate, the salary line would be the first bit of the profit and loss account to come under the microscope.
Some acknowledged that the current climate presents an opportunity to restructure, but others face the prospect of having to cut so deep they could lose real talent – people they don’t want to see walk out, never to return.
You know the scenario. We’re talking about the art director you spent 12 months recruiting, paid over the odds for, swallowing a 20 per cent agency fee on top; the junior designer you’ve nurtured since leaving college, who’s always positive, upbeat and a tonic when times are hard; and what about that copywriter you headhunted from London, convincing them to sell their home and move their family miles to work for a big client which now happens to be billing £40 000 a month less.
Letting good people go can not only hurt your consultancy, but it can also potentially hit the state of the design sector in your city and further afield.
So how can we keep talent in cities like Bristol without risking it upping sticks and heading back to London or elsewhere? Answer: why not share it with your competitors?
You read that correctly. Consider sharing your most treasured people with your competitors until you’re in a position to bring them back into the fold.
In Bristol we’ve developed a system that works like a football loan scheme, but involving creative people and consultancies rather than Premiership players and clubs.
The basic premise is that you loan to other local consultancies very talented people who you can’t afford to keep in the short term, but don’t want to lose long-term.
The other consultancy pays their wages, and they’re loaned for a specific period of time, to be agreed by both parties. The other group agrees not to poach them and acknowledges that they’ll eventually return to their original consultancy.
You can download contract templates outlining guidelines for participating groups. We’ve even taken it a step further and developed an online tool where consultancies can see where other groups have resource gaps, enabling them to hire out staff to cope with short-term work peaks.
The system is proving incredibly powerful and compelling. Just weeks into its launch, it has enabled half-a-dozen people to keep their jobs across design and digital consultancies in Bristol. It’s also helped consultancies facing last-minute, end-of-year client requests to up their resources easily and efficiently without the expense of tracking down and negotiating with ‘in-demand freelances’, or having to agree expensive three-month contracts.
You may come across some staff who don’t take to the concept of being ‘shared’, and it might bruise a few egos in the short term. But ask anyone who has been made redundant and the large majority will tell you that it can be one of the most traumatic and confidence-shattering experiences anyone has to face in their professional life.
One of the positive sides of an economic downturn – and there are some – is that business owners may be forced to innovate, share and develop new and exciting solutions to problems. Those who do, according to a recent Nesta report, are in a much better position to survive whatever the next few months throws at them and come back fighting fit when things pick up.
Being part of a scheme like Bristol Media’s not only promotes a supportive, positive company culture to the rest of your employees, but also brings the wider community closer together. And with so much appearing to go in the opposite direction, doesn’t a bit of joined-up thinking, closer working and collaboration with your fellow consultancy heads make a refreshing change?
Mike Bennett is chief executive of Bristol Media
Pooling your resources
• Entering into the ‘spirit’ of staff loan schemes is important, so getting like-minded consultancies around the table is vital if they are to work
• Such schemes are built on trust and a consideration of the wider regional or city picture
• They probably won’t work across all disciplines. Loaning out your key account directors might just be a step too far for many consultancies