Everyone is looking for those rare advertising luminaries—the “unicorns,” as they’re often called in our industry, because of their near-magical qualities and rarity. They’re the talent with innate abilities, craftsmanship, and instincts that make them perfectly suited to their disciplines; whether those are in creative, account or project management, strategy, science, editorial, or any of the other roles important to the functioning of our business.

We’re all on the hunt for these creatures as we scour LinkedIn, pore over resumes, recruit from local universities, or work with recruiters. But here’s a thought for the day, worthy of a few reads through: No one is a natural-born advertising professional.

There’s no special configuration of planets that align at birth to bring one of our industry’s stars into existence from whole cloth. To think that there are people born to do this job is as much of a fantasy as the unicorns we liken them to. To varying degrees, the employees at all of our agencies have talent (why we sometimes call them “talent” as shorthand), but the knowledge that they carry is learned, the behaviors that make them stars is molded.

Importantly, everyone—and I truly mean everyone—starts in a place at or near zero. Everyone learns along the way. And everyone, no matter how talented, has room to grow.

After more than 17 years in client services, and a new focus on becoming a real change agent to help drive the transformation of not just our agency but our people (in the role of Chief People Officer), my focus is on operational review and transformation, organizational design, and driving that change management agenda. Which is really all to say that it comes down to one thing: A focus on developing people.

Here’s a quick look at four elements in the developmental playbook for how to create those unicorns.

1. Professional growth requires organizational nourishment

A successful agency understands that an engaged and nourished workforce is better equipped to thrive in our fast-paced, ever-changing industry. Company growth is not enough. Employees need career development in an inviting, innovative, and supportive environment. They need mentorship and they need training—i.e., they need regular nourishment.

2. People need purpose

An agency must be able to instill meaning into the work that employees do every day. Awards and titles are perks; money is the cost of entry, although of course things like bonuses or salary increases are critical pieces of strong employee management.

However, an agency must create substantive reasons for its talent to pour their efforts into a difficult job. Because that’s what medical advertising is: Challenging, every day. Perks are one way to validate a job well-done, but the sense of something deeper can be critical to employee growth, success, and retention.

Think of it as nourishing the “why,” as Simon Sinek has eloquently spoken and written about. Why does your company exist? Why do your employees show up and work hard?

This purpose should be made clear, from top to bottom. And in the end, there’s really only one purpose that matters. And that is…

3. People

In this industry, all of the meaningful reasons for doing what we do involve people. Our audiences want to be informed; our clients need to tell the stories of their brands; and most importantly, patients—those people at the other end of everything we do—need the medicine or treatments our clients provide.

The foundational element of all of these things—our employees—can’t be an afterthought to the work or to revenue. Talent must be nourished and empowered to realize their potential which, in turn has downstream benefits on the work, the brand, or the message.

4. Cultivate culture

Another important piece of the puzzle is culture, one of the heaviest influencers of the unicorn-growing process. Culture is great people, and, vice versa, great people feed into and create a great culture. The development of culture is an organic, ever-shifting process driven by the collective efforts of empowered individuals across the agency.

But when culture thrives, this has a positive, compounding effect. It elevates employee engagement, which attracts more like-minded individuals and creates a talented community of empowered and invested people.

Get your culture right, and it’ll grow your people. Which will grow your culture…which will grow your people…

In closing

We all say our agency’s greatest assets get on and off the elevator every day—or maybe they take the stairs. However, they enter the building, every day offers employees learnings and a chance to improve. Just like how a unicorn-to-be enters advertising: At that ground floor, with a world of opportunity to grow.

  • Melissa Morrow

    Melissa Morrow is Partner, Chief People Officer of Calcium. After 17 years in Client Services in the healthcare industry, Melissa recently transitioned to a new role working as Chief People Officer with the focus on operational review and transformation, organizational design, and driving a change management agenda focused on talent development/management, compensation, and employee benefits.


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