Attracting top talent to b-to-b

13-01-02_BillAultby Bill Ault, head of Randall-Reilly’s data businesses and chair of ABM’s Business Information Council.

I have been asked to predict what b-to-b media and information companies can expect in 2013. In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb effectively argues that it is impossible to predict the future. So in light of that, I have elected to take the safe road and comment on one trend that I find particularly fascinating and offer one idea to help capitalize on it:

As media and information companies acquire an increasingly more sophisticated set of technical capabilities, clients will move a greater share of their marketing spend to media and information companies and away from agencies and other service providers.

Clients need help with the practical marketing applications of new and existing technologies (in most cases, emerging technologies are too new), and b-to-b media & information companies have a huge opportunity to capture these dollars. We’ve all seen the dramatic and frightening growth of client spending on their “own” internal marketing initiatives. The great news is that the pace and speed of change is so rapid that the overwhelming majority of b-to-b clients cannot possibly begin to keep up (at Randall-Reilly, we see this in every space we play in). The only way we, b-to-b media and information companies, can possibly hope to survive in this environment is to acquire leading and even bleeding-edge technical capabilities. But how can we possibly afford to do this? Do you have any idea what Fortune 500 companies are doing to attract top technical talent? I do.

I met a 24-year-old entrepreneur at a recent Christmas party who had just bootstrapped a company; he graduated with a finance degree from Georgetown two years ago. His new company had been live for exactly one week and naturally has zero revenue so far. He was proud to tell me that he even has some “gray hairs” on his team (gray hairs are people with real-world business experience, sort of a Larry Page-Eric Schmidt kind of thing). His company appears to be headed towards the consumer space, and I’m sure he would love any level of funding available.  My encounter with this young man gave me this idea: earmark dollars to sponsor start-up contests at local universities. I didn’t invent this idea. I just think it would work for our industry.

During the summer, and over the college breaks, I happened to have the advantage (it usually seems like an advantage) of having a 20-year-old computer science major living in my house. Far and away, the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that all of the computer science majors want to be the next “Mark Zuckerberg,” only they are much more realistic in their aspirations. I’m not seeing a thirst for money but rather a desire to “start a business” and do so even before they get out of college. This is exactly what my son wants to do.

My son tells me that he gets 10 emails a day offering him internships from all over the country and many of these companies are in the Fortune 500. As he tells me, the demand for technical talent is crazy; companies were approaching him during his first semester. I can remember a conversation I had with him three weeks into his freshman year: “Dad, they offered me an internship and I don’t even know anything!”.

The point is that we, b-to-b, are going to have to be creative in order to capture top talent. If media companies can begin relationships with local universities, we have the opportunity to attract top talent right out of college. These kids are not chasing money; they are chasing the opportunity to run a start-up, to work 90 hours a week and eat ramen noodles. So here is the idea: pick a topic, any topic that fits your strategy, i.e., “effective social media in the b-to-b space” and hold a contest in conjunction with a local university. The winner gets to work for you. In reality, you will be awarding a prize that will enable a young entrepreneur or team of entrepreneurs to realize their dreams, and although the arrangement might not be the traditional employer/employee relationship, you will be bringing relevant top talent into your building.

I think you would be surprised at how inexpensively this could be done. Engaged top talent is what we all need if we are going to earn our clients marketing dollars going forward.

Bill Ault heads up Randall-Reilly’s data businesses and is the current chair of ABM’s Business Information Council. He can be reached at bault@randallreilly.com. For more information on the Business Information Council, click here.

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