Managing talent outside entertainment

Fence Sitter
A.R. Samson

Posted on June 22, 2015

The unit in charge of defining organizational functions and what they should be called first referred to itself as Human Resources (at par perhaps with financial and natural resources). Lately, it has latched on to a new tag: talent management. The head of HR is thus referred to as the “talent manager,” implying that he does not just handle sick leaves and salary loans, but also bring in people with needed skills.

The paradigm for discovering, hiring and nurturing talent is the entertainment industry. It offers many lessons to its corporate counterpart.

Casting is an important aspect of management. In the acquisition of a company, the new management determines what kind of talent is needed. Is it a villainous cost-cutter or a nurturing father figure? It all depends on the plot that is contemplated. If it’s a third-placer trying to overtake a duopoly, does the board go for a me-too kind of guy from the same set of talents as the top two? Or is a maverick from a totally different industry (maybe fast food) what the director wants?

Do you grow talent in-house, and promote from within? Or do you poach players from the market leaders? The talent factory of successful TV networks creates future stars and makes them easily replaceable when they get too demanding. These talents are also imbued with the corporate culture and understand the value of hard work and patience. Pirating stars from other companies not only brings up the talent fees; they also upset the existing compensation structure, encouraging aspirants within to plot their revenge -- “Oops, I forgot to get the wardrobe for tonight’s show.”

Also, poached talents don’t always bring in the ratings, as they are sometimes past their expiry dates. The resume mentioning old hits are yellowing with age.

Mentoring is part of managing talent. Directors (also called bosses) understand the potential of a novice talent and puts the trainee through the paces of taking different roles on the way to becoming a bankable star, with her name above the movie title.

Only in an entertainment-based company does talent management cease to become just a metaphor. Selecting a particular actor for a role can turn a movie or teleserye into a blockbuster... or a flop.

Diva-handling is a specialization of talent managers. This should be a simple cost-benefit exercise. Are the diva’s demands, both emotional and financial, exceeded by the revenues she brings into the company? The delicate balance between pleasing a diva and building a high fence around him or her (also called a retention strategy) is maintained only until the revenue stream dries up. Then, it’s time to quickly change the plot with the demise of her character. Okay, a lingering disease gives her a chance to prove herself.

The truly adroit talent manager is able to foist an unwanted diva on a competitor who is made to pay a huge premium to recruit her. Passing on an expensive headache to the competition is the height of good talent management. It employs deception of the highest order, which involves convincing the industry of the continuing value of damaged goods. This talent manager needs the persuasiveness of a used-car salesman (“the brakes sometimes work”) coupled with the duplicity of a politician.

Talent management is a matching game. It determines what the organization (or movie) needs and then recruits (or casts) the appropriate talent at a reasonable cost. Getting the ingredients and mix right leads to the perfect adobo -- not too wet, not too sour, and requiring no additional condiments.

In the corporate setting, overhead cost shoots up with a pricey talent, without a corresponding bump up in revenues. Overhead then exceeds “underfoot.” Figure that one out.

As in TV and film (now owned by the same studios), so too in companies: it’s all about numbers. When revenues (or ratings) stall, the talent has to be re-evaluated. Putting her in the freezer takes care of visibility. But such appliances, for keeping meat from spoiling, still consume power.

It takes talent to spot winners, and then cold-blooded determination to cut losses, and let go of losers... who have to leave to spend more time with the family.

A.R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.