Cannes Lions 2017: Ogilvy & Mather's worldwide chairman and chief executive, John Seifert – "Millennial representation is crucial"

Elliott Haworth
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John Seifert (Source: City A.M. )

I'm here in Cannes, lapping up the sun at the Ogilvy and Mather penthouse with worldwide chairman and chief executive, John Seifert – we talk advertising's diversity problem, and the struggle of retaining millennial talent.

EH – So, John – you're in the process of restructuring Ogilvy, and a major part of that was increasing diversity in your organisation. Does advertising have a problem?

JS – Yes.

EH – How are you approaching solving it?

JS – I think you have to do a lot of things to solve it. And first of all you have to realise you have a problem. There are some people who have complained that there’s been too much talk about diversity and not enough action, and I think that's partially true. You have to accept the data that says companies who have more diversity and practice a more inclusive engagement with their employees get better shareholder results. The facts are the facts, and I think now in a world that is so dependent on constant innovation, and more integration across enterprises, if you don’t have a diversity of thought and representation across your workforce, you’re probably not going to perform as well as others.

EH – Diversity comes in many forms – often we focus on race and gender, but what else do you think diversity entails?

JS – It’s generational as well. When I started in the business, if you didn’t say anything for the first five years that was probably okay – the view was you were learning the craft. You were learning the discipline of the business. Now clients say 'if I don’t have millennial representation in the room, helping me understand them as an audience in terms of behaviours, in terms of their tastes, I don’t think you're relevant.'

Read more: Ogilvy's Tham Khai Meng lays bare his alternative Cannes Lions themes

EH – So what changed?

JS – I would say that our youngest people are entering the business world at the moment where their perceived value is the highest it’s ever been – not like five years from now – right now. And we’re fortunate, because a lot of our youngest employees come in with an expectation of being involved and being engaged, they don’t want to sit around. It literally never occurred to me in my first ten years at Ogilvy that would do anything other than keep my head down and try not to screw it up.

EH – It's funny how one generation can differ so much to the last

JS – Yes, I guess they’ve been developed that way as children – early engagement, cognitive development, all the things we now know about the brain. My parents used to say leave the house at 8am and don’t come back until 5pm unless you’re bleeding. And there was just a sense that kids are 'over there', and adults 'over here,' but it’s not how kids grow up now – and that's great for us.

Read more: Cannes Lions 2017: Mark Lund – "Diversity of all sorts helps creativity"

EH – My generation, loathe to call us Millenials as I do, are often accused of being entitled.

JS – I don’t think it’s entitlement, I think it’s nothing but positive. I mean look, I find it hard that sometimes it’s hard to retain the best talent against the choices they have, the freedom they have to take their skills elsewhere. But I don't think there’s anything inherently bad in their desire to not want to be loyal. I think they must have a set of expectations, and are much braver, in that they believe their own skills are transferable.

EH – It's often said that there's no such thing as a job for life anymore

JS – I think it’s a challenge. It costs so much in a very knowledge intensive world to give people the proper training and development they need to become as productive as they need to be. One of the things I’m worried about in our industry, and our company in general, is that if you have very high turnover of staff, then you start to question the decision to invest in young talent, because you fear that everything you teach them is going to walk out the elevator and not come back. I think that’s a scary precedent. I do believe that there is a lifelong learning imperative, given the nature of our world today, and the pace of change. So how do you justify a lifelong learning environment – that differential investment you want to make in skill building for your people – if your view is 'why would I do that for someone else if they’re going to leave?'

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