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Ad agencies share practical tips on when (and how) to promote junior staff

Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.
6 May, 2022
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Developing the skills and capabilities of junior team members isn’t just about training or qualifications – the chance to test their abilities out is important too, but the timing has to be right. If you’re a line manager or supervisor tasked with managing your agency’s new talent, how do you pick the moment to give team members new responsibilities (and the compensation that comes with them)?

Dump a bunch of new duties on to a junior staff member before they’re ready and you’ll crush them. But holding back can lead to staff feeling unfulfilled and encourage them to start looking out the window at career destinations that promise more opportunity.

How do you solve a problem like... picking the right moment to promote staff?

Hannah Wiersma, operations manager, UXUS

We’ve recently implemented a new program called the Bottoms Up club. Despite its name it is not a weekly drinks, but an opportunity for members of the team to gain some managerial experience and to build company culture from the bottom up.

Another new initiative gives the team the opportunity to lead internal training and innovation sessions. I was keen to make sure all of our staff can explore new areas, tap into alternative skills and work on passion projects, which will support their development and aid their progression through the business.

There’s been a shift in how we work and interact with one another, so in addition to finding the right moment for your team’s promotions it’s also important to always consider the ways you can support their growth to get them there.

Erin Quill Keough, chief talent officer, Digitas North America


We look to our talent to give us the signal(s) that they’re ready for a promotion v us telling them. That signal might be that the person is clearly easily delivering on the work they’re currently responsible for, and/or they naturally take on new responsibilities – identifying a gap and jumping in to get something done, and/or they offer to get involved in activities beyond their day-to-day. This could be running a cultural program or volunteering to mentor as just a couple of examples. This shows that the person is looking to expand their remit and likely could assume additional responsibility.

Holly Ripper, managing director, BBH London

Feel the momentum behind the person. Someone on paper might not be quite ready, but the groundswell behind them is so great that you know with the right support and mentoring they will fly.

Listen to their team because some are better at self-promoting than others: how happy are the team and clients, how good is the creative work and what growth have they delivered – to clients and the agency?

It’s like trading in NFTs. You need to trust your own judgement and the insight around you and then make a leap of faith before someone else.

Brad Simms, chief executive officer, president, Gale

In many industries, career advancement is so ambiguous that employees have little to no say in the process itself aside from an annual performance review worksheet. In thinking about how to pick the right moments to promote people and to help them develop, companies must have a proper infrastructure in place.

We use a tool called the Competency Matrix, which was created to ensure that employees’ career progressions are completely transparent. It’s based on our core values and divided by each department, and outlines the skills required to move from one level to another, or to another department. Having this sort of system in place keeps people motivated within their career paths and prevents having unfulfilled staff. Systems don’t just enable business growth. They help people grow.

Magda Tomaszewski, associate managing director, B-Reel New York

We don’t wait to pick these moments with our team. We believe creativity and innovation come from collaboration. And coming from Scandinavian roots, we avoid creating layers of hierarchy. We encourage self-leadership and for the team to seek the opportunities they see before them.

To complement this mindset we’ve rolled out OKRs as a goal-setting framework to help enable innovation from the bottom up, allowing people to determine how they move the needle on our collective goal. This means individuals are stepping into opportunities and responsibilities organically, and twice a year we formalize their progress during performance reviews.

Katie Martin, senior vice-president, managing director, Engine

Most agency businesses have an annual cycle for reviews, pay raises and promotions – and the chief financial officer usually expects teams to follow this. However, we all know that retaining your top talent doesn’t really live in an annual window. Development is always a two-way street and the concept of ‘giving’ more responsibility is dated – we expect our high performers to ‘take’ it. It is also about ongoing feedback and dialogue. It tends to be those who grab the opportunities to step up and take on more that get ahead. Then, after successfully stepping into bigger things, a promotion comes about.

Ben Scoggins, chief executive officer, Organic

In the past we had no systematic approach to promotions, which was no good for anyone. As a result, we lost some great people who got frustrated by a perceived lack of career progression. We also got stung with sporadic demands for pay rises that were not linked to an individual’s performance.

So we’ve changed. Now we have a ‘career mapping’ process, so that employees know where they are heading and to enable us to align the business’s needs with the individual’s aspirations. This gives clarity and therefore confidence for everyone in the team. For the agency, we’re then able to manage expectations around salary in line with the completion of specific tasks or objectives.

Melissa Bouma, chief executive officer, Manifest

At Manifest, we’re committed to the upward mobility of our employees by supporting career growth across all teams. Rather than focusing on a specific timeline, we strive to proactively set and pursue specific and tailored goals that will move each team member toward their next career band. We look at promotions based on an individual’s contributions and solutions to their team, clients, discipline and the agency, rather than just tenure and skillset alone.

Swap Patel, executive director, media, McKinney

Picking the right moment to add on responsibilities, provide feedback, promote staff and the like is highly contingent on maintaining a real-time pulse on each employee’s aspirations, bandwidth and happiness factor. It’s important that I ensure that everyone on my staff is in a state of financial equilibrium – meaning that each employee is fairly compensated for the responsibilities they manage and the value they add. When that’s the case, we all win because our teams are focused on doing great work and having fun along the way.

Vince Lim, executive creative director/head of creative, Argonaut

I know when someone is ready for the next level based on personality, curiosity, ambition and passion – four crucial qualities that set talent apart.

For personality, how do they handle stress? Can they face a difficult situation calmly?

We should all have curiosity when desiring to grow. Do they ask questions? Are they pushing themselves and colleagues to be better?

They should have ambition for themselves and the agency. Are you in it with us?

Lastly, passion. I expect people to show up and be excited about what we do. Make me feel something, smile and get fucking pumped up.

Ozgur Taskaya, chief marketing officer, BcnMonetize

We believe that the job can only be learned by doing it yourself, which is why we always start new staff straight on to accounts at our agency. Typically those accounts are smaller but they still come with their own demands and challenges, forcing new starters to find solutions as they go. Mistakes are made along the way, but it’s the learnings that come as a result that matter. Once staff are comfortable and confident in their roles and the mistakes are few and far between, we can start talking about promotion.

This article was written by Sam Bradley, and first appeared on The Drum: https://www.thedrum.com/news/2...

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