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When building an agency, look for O-shaped people


When Ad Age asked us to write a column about emerging trends in agency “talent,” we noted teams now need to go beyond just skills or collaboration. The solution is to find ‘O-shaped people.” In our October 2020 column, we wrote:

The great irony of COVID-19 is that while it has squeezed many agencies via shrinking client budgets, it’s also increased competition for talent. There are winners in this pandemic, and they are chasing your top employees. E-commerce startups are booming. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, fueled by $1.7 trillion in market cap growth this year, are hiring. And LinkedIn reports 10 of the 15 fastest-growing jobs in the United States are tied to digital media, data or analytics. The best workers that agencies need to compete are most likely to walk out the door.

What’s the solution? Don’t focus solely on creative, digital or data acumen. Test recruits for being “O-shaped people”—those who contribute to the entire circle around them. Agencies will never win by focusing solely on specialized skills. You need to get people who are more likely to stick with your organization, with a spirit of one for all, not all for one. 

“O” stands for organizational awareness, a variation of the situational awareness espoused by military leaders since Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War.” It’s an evolution beyond what HR managers have talked about for years—first “I-shaped” skill specialists, then “T-shaped” employees with cross-functional talent.

O-shaped people have skills, yes, but they also know how to monitor and influence outside their positions. This type of situational awareness was codified by fighter pilots of World War I, who had to instantly take in the buzzing dogfighters around them, and today is deployed in high-stress environments including air-traffic control towers, emergency rooms and nuclear power plants. These are arenas of shifting dynamics, where missing one thing on the periphery dooms you to failure. Sound familiar?

This is a vital aptitude, because the expanded “organizations” that agencies operate in are becoming ever-more fragmented. Clients are standing up organizations with multiple agencies, vendors, tech platforms and other relationships. This marketing ecosystem requires all the original “I-shaped” skills of strategy, creative, media and PR, but now with the added “T” complexity of digital, analytics and technology. In this brave new world, everyone needs to be a data scientist. The binary dance of one-client-to-one-agency has become a thing of the past.

“O-shaped” means talent with depth, breadth and wide organizational influence.

The question, of course, is how to find such O-shaped employees. Part of it is seeking highly skilled employees who also have track records of reaching beyond themselves, to find solutions outside their organizational boundaries. But the real solution is to attract them by building an O-shaped organization yourself. Your company or agency needs to reach out beyond its own walls, give back to society, and participate in your industry’s knowledge communities. If you do this, you’ll attract employee talent most likely to solve the cross-organizational complexities of modern marketing.