How to retain your marketing talent during the “Great Resignation” with Alex Kukich of WITHIN

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Welcome to another episode of 3-Minute-Marketing, the podcast that’s all about growth and marketing. We interview some of the world’s foremost minds and ask them to give us 3-minute micro TED talks for your listening pleasure.

Today I’m super excited to have Alex Kukich on the line with me. Alex is a friend of mine and a very impressive individual. He was previously Head of Google Partnerships with Jellyfish, and is now CRO at WITHIN.

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My question for Alex is, “how do you retain your marketing talent during the ‘Great Resignation’?”.

Show notes:

  1. If you want to carry your business forward you need people who have bought into your mission, ethos, and ethics.
  2. Now more than ever, teams are looking to feel human/connectivity with all of us working in very different places.
  3. It wasn’t long ago that if you weren’t living in New York you couldn’t work for a company like WITHIN, but that’s changed. Remote work has taken over and it’s impacted our sense of community and how we get work done.
  4. Two years ago, people were most concerned with benefits, salary, career progression, and title. Now, candidates are asking about what companies are doing for the community, how they’re addressing diversity and inclusion, and how they support people who need help with their mental health.
  5. Not only do you need to understand what people want individually, but you also need to have an offering that aligns with issues that are rising in importance.
  6. Find out where your people have been and where they want to go. Are they in alignment with what you’re trying to build as a business?
  7. You still need to find good human beings. If you find ethical people, you’ll be okay.


– You’re listening to Three Minute Marketing, where we interview the world’s top growth marketing leaders and distill their knowledge into actionable, bite-sized insights. Now here’s your host, Chris Mechanic.

– [Chris Mechanic] What’s up, everybody? Welcome to another episode of Three Minute Marketing. I’m your host, Chris Mechanic, here. Three Minute Marketing is all about growth and marketing. We interview some of the world’s foremost minds and we ask them to give us a three minute little micro Ted Talk, just for your listening and snackable pleasure. Today, I’m super excited. I got Alex Kukich on the line with me. Alex Kukich is actually a friend of mine in real life, but a very impressive individual. He was previously, had a partner, or head of the Google partnership with Jellyfish, which is one of Google’s largest agency partners. And now he’s chief revenue officer at Within agency, which is an impressive, fast-growing, mostly direct to consumer agency. Super excited to have you on the show today, Alex. Thanks for making it.

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah, thanks Chris. That’s a, quite an intro. We’re just friends first and foremost. And then we have these other things that ties a little tighter together, but it’s good to be here, man. I appreciate it.

– [Chris Mechanic] Yeah and that was the toned down version of the intro. I could have gone on.

– [Alex Kukich] Well, I’m glad that you didn’t, I guess I’ll leave it at that.

– [Chris Mechanic] Heck yeah. All right, man. Well, you know, this is Three Minute Marketing, so let’s cut right to the chase. I want to talk about talent today. I know that that is an area that’s now I guess, squarely within your job description, but you always had a way with talent. I had saw your leadership style back in your Jellyfish days, but with the pandemic, with the great resignation, tell us a little bit about what you’re seeing in the talent market and how you guys are responding to it.

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah, I mean, from my perspective, I think it’s really important, right? If you want to carry your business forward, you need people to be bought into your mission, your ethos, your ethics, and now more than ever, people are looking to feel human and connectivity when we’re all working in very different places. It wasn’t so long ago that if you didn’t work in New York, you couldn’t work for a company like Within, or if you weren’t in Columbia, you might not be working for WebMechanix or Baltimore, et cetera. And so not only has remote working taken over, but what’s that impact like and what does that have from a further reaching perspective on cultivating, not only that culture and that sense of community, but also just getting work done and holding people accountable, et cetera. So, two years ago, people mostly wanted to know what kind of benefits you had, what kind of salary they would have, what their career progression would look like and what the title was. You know, quite often I’m asked today what we do within our community, what we’re doing for diversity and inclusion, how do we support people that go through things from a mental health capacity? So, not only do you really need to understand what people want individually, you need to have an offering that aligns with some of these things that have now risen in importance that previously weren’t even on the radar. Again, that’s diversity and inclusion, mental health, flexibility and work support and now some crazy benefits that I think you and I might not have ever thought we would get coming out of college, like unlimited vacation, right? And PTO, right? And just kind of going off for a couple of weeks at a time to get back into a good head space. So, for me, the four things that I really think are important, number one, find out where these folks have been and where they want to go. Are they in alignment with what you’re trying to build as a leader of a business, as a leader of a department or as somebody who’s building a team that doesn’t exist yet? Are they taking a job for money or the opportunity? Always look for the people that want that opportunity. Number two, how do they present themselves in this virtual environment that we’re in today? What are they looking at that’s important to them and how quickly can they communicate what’s the way that they come across on camera and how do they sound, right? Because there is no more handshake, looking people in the eye, delivering work in a unique environment when you’re in front of people, as often as it was before. And then three, what are these ancillary benefits that are now mainstream? What are you doing from a diversity inclusion perspective and building culture? And there might be some things that come out where people don’t really feel like they’re that aligned with some of the things that you want and that you’re trying to build in a business and that might not work for them. And therefore, that great candidate who has all that role, that expertise, that subject matter experience and all that, you just got to kind of pass on them because they’re not built for where you’re going. And then the last one is, you just still got to weed through and find those good human beings. And you’re finding people with a high level of ethical opportunity. I think you’re going to be okay. How’d I do?

– [Chris Mechanic] You did great. You did great. I liked that a lot. And I mean, it’s really relevant, man, because like one thing you said really resonated is that what used to matter, I mean, those things I think still matter, but there’s new categories of stuff that matters. So how is your organization covering for those categories really stood out and that might take the form of different types of benefits, different, very different. And sometimes those might even be non-monetary benefits.

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah. I mean, just to go on a little bit of a tangent there, I have a gentleman that works with me. He is awesome. And I wanted to bring him on full time and gave him a compelling offer. And he just said, no, that’s just not what I want. And then you look at the billability of what he would have been earning and what he earned as a consultant and I’m happy to pay for what I’m getting, but it’s interesting. You have really people that, you know, are just kind of making decisions around what’s best for them. And they’re starting to go to the edges of those boxes and the outside, which I think is interesting.

– [Chris Mechanic] Awesome. Well, hey, let’s wrap this for now. But Alex and I are going to continue talking for another 15 minutes. If you want to see the rest of our conversation, there should be a link somewhere around this video, up, down, left or right, with links to the additional content. If you like this, and if you want more stuff like this, why not drop us a quick like, or a comment or share with one of your friends, they may very well love it. Thank you again, Alex, we really, really appreciate it and tell everybody where they can learn more about you and or Within.

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah, sure. So, it’s just, we’re a performance branding company. And if you have any questions for me, [email protected], or you can look me up on LinkedIn, which I’m sure will be dropped into some of the comments and the things here. But I’m in Maryland and I’m eager and willing to talk shop or anything with anyone at any time. So thanks for the opportunity.

– [Chris Mechanic]  Love it. Alright, thanks Kuk. Let’s keep rapping here because a couple of different things came to mind as you were going.

– [Alex Kukich] Sure.

– [Chris Mechanic] One of them is basically with the, it’s like everybody has more options now. And like to the tune of like, I have buddies who I won’t name, that in the remote work environment, they actually have multiple full-time jobs, right? Like, because they’re just really good at what they do or they’re not being asked to do a whole lot. They have multiple full-time jobs. Have you seen any, I mean, you’ve probably seen candidates doing that, but do you know of anybody internally that’s doing that?

– [Alex Kukich] I do know some people that are not at Within, and are not particularly at Jellyfish, which is my last stop in the career train station. But I do know that, I have some buddies that are in some pretty interesting roles. I got a friend of mine, who’s doing two sales jobs. One is an individual contributor. The other is as a manager, both are very healthy salaries. And the interesting thing is, I’m not sure how he’s able to get away with it because sales, you kind of got to have your LinkedIn updated and pretty consistently people were always checking into you but I never thought that that would be a thing that anyone could do. Sure, you could do some consulting on the side, but 40 hour gigs where you’re efficiently doing 20 hours for each gig and you got two income streams and the world is just a different place now, you know?

– [Chris Mechanic] It’s wild, man. It’s wild, but, and I’d never thought of such a thing, but then in thinking of it, I’m like, are any of our people doing that? I don’t think they are. But do you have any kind of like scrubber mechanism internally that you use to just check on that or regulate that? Or I guess maybe you wouldn’t even care if they’re doing the job.

– [Alex Kukich] I mean, I’m a big, get your stuff done and if it’s done right and it’s done well, we’re in great shape, right? I don’t want, just because you work all Saturday, that doesn’t mean much to me if you didn’t do anything on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and force yourself into that position. Now, if you’re a high output person, that’s a little bit different than we have a bandwidth issue and we need to solve for that. But now, I mean, I just think that it’s really interesting and it’s intriguing when it comes to that. I think the other thing too, is when you think about how to scrub for it, to me, it just comes back to LinkedIn, right? And if you’re kind of there and it looks a little murky in the past and you don’t have really good descriptions of where you’ve been in really consistent timelines, then I would want to know. Also, I always ask to speak to other people’s bosses about them in the past. I just gave a recommendation for someone on my team who just took a new job that was still working for me and said, this person is great, I would hate to lose them, but the opportunity you’re affording to them is fantastic. Any good leader should take that phone call like I did, or you would and put that recommendation forward because it helps that person more than it would hurt you to not do it, right, in the grand scheme of things. So I always, that’s number one for me, is who’s the last person you reported into at your old business? Let’s get on the phone and see what they have to say, because I think you learn a lot there, the good and the bad, you know?

– [Chris Mechanic] Yep, and several of the things that you were talking about were things that would happen sort of with a candidate, like while you’re on the line with them, like aligning on their vision of the future. Have you guys made any adjustments to the way that you’re sourcing candidates?

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah, we have, we’re actually building an in-house recruiting arm. We’ve revamped our human resources department across the board. So some really, really smart women and men in that group that are coming from all different backgrounds, individual recruiter, who’s coming in and bringing other people to work and pay them like, outside, external, third party recruiters, inside of our walls. We’re also figuring out how we can do recruiting services for our clients. And then we’re rearchitecting what we’re doing from a human resources perspective around how we bring and onboard people into the business as well. So, there are some changes there. I think the number one thing is that in-house recruiting aspect is huge. You know, if you hire a million dollars worth of staff, and if you’re hiring five to 10 people that are in mid-level roles, it’s not hard to get a million dollars. Why are you going to give $200,000 in commission away, you know, 20% of what that rake is, to somebody else? Why not give that to somebody in your organization for landing you candidates that are just that good? And that’s something that’s unique that I’ve seen traditionally, and you know, no, not all the internal recruiters out there, but the external recruiters are compensated more highly and they’re more motivated and you usually get better candidates out of it. So why not bring that model inside? I think there’s a lot to be said for that. We’ll see how it plays out.

– [Chris Mechanic] Yeah, absolutely. And I have a prediction to put forth and maybe I shouldn’t give this one away ’cause it just seems so obvious. But I bet you you’ll start seeing more hybrid agency staffing firms.

– [Alex Kukich] I completely agree. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that, I think. Number one, you have a lot of folks that have worked in that traditional agency environment, but grew up in a digital space, right? So, you got your folks that are a little bit more senior. Maybe they started their careers in the early two thousands and they were sitting at top of these digital orbs, but they weren’t digital natives. Now you have people that are in leadership roles in their late twenties, early to mid thirties that grew up as digital natives. And they’re going to see an opportunity for them to grab three or four of their buddies or close counterparts and just be mercenaries for hire when people have bandwidth issues and just need to plug in things here or there. I think that’s absolutely it. I think you also see a lot more of the outsourcing and staffing from overseas. You know, this started a long time ago in India with telecom and now it’s growing in Costa Rica for ad ops and creative work, it’s also huge in the Philippines. And it’s interesting because when you were working with folks that were overseas, they were always trying to get somewhere else. Now, with the way that the world works, you can build yourself a really great life in perpetuity, in a place like Costa Rica and the Philippines, et cetera. So, some of these ecosystems are not with an eye on getting to America or getting to Europe or getting to a more central location of APAC. It’s, nope, I want to live on the beach in Costa Rica and run ad ops and have a great time, which I think is fascinating as something that’s definitely new.

– [Chris Mechanic] Yup. So we, historically, have like very high retention rates for people, over 90% kind of a thing. And we were solid, like, right when the pandemic hit, we were solid. We lost almost nobody. But then we had this period right around the great resignation, as they were saying, where it was just like, it felt like every week somebody was putting in their two weeks. It was like, boom, boom, boom. Like, there was like three or four weeks where like six people or seven people left, which is more than what we would lose in a full year, usually. Have you, did you guys see that? Or are you guys, are you seeing higher turnover in general than this year?

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah, so I was, it was interesting to me because I was, I was part of a leadership group at Jellyfish that started to see that happening. And then I was somebody that also did that at Jellyfish. When I moved to within, transparently, I was looking for a different point of an opportunity, had a great run with Jellyfish. It was great, but I wanted to work across a couple of different departments. I wanted to upskill myself in a few different areas, like P and L elements, marketing, plan event elements, you know, as well as ad tech and mar tech from how we acquire new business opportunities, run them through our cycle and our pipeline and win clients. I think for me, at Jellyfish, it happened very quickly and there were a lot of people who went and it was, where are you going? And it was, I don’t know. I have some friends that left to become ski instructors in Vail and in Salt Lake city and Park city in Utah and California and they’re never coming back. I have other people that went and totally did a different career change. And then I have other folks that took their savings and bought bars and moved to Charleston, South Carolina just to figure it out. So, I think everybody just kind of really put back into perspective what happiness was all about. And then that great resignation kind of ensued. And I think most of those people, especially in our realm, went back to work. They didn’t just leave Jellyfish and go to WebMechanix or go to Within or go to GroupM. They did those things that I just kind of shared with you, which I think is interesting.

– [Chris Mechanic] Yeah, really interesting. And we had one person go and take a completely separate route like that. And I was just, I was really surprised. But you bring up an interesting concept on the mercenary for hire thing.

– [Alex Kukich] Sure.

– [Chris Mechanic] And one thing that we’re considering doing, we have this phrase on the sales side here at WebMechanix to let the customers buy how they want to buy. So it’s like, hey, you want to pay all upfront for the year, great. Hey, you want to do project by project instead of retainer, fine. Hey, percent of spend what, like we, if they wanted to buy in a certain way, we let them buy. We’re thinking about applying that same thing on the recruiting side, because what we’re seeing is more of these mercenaries for hire that have their own little, micro agencies and they don’t want to be a W2. You know, they don’t want to put it on their LinkedIn. They, but if you have that 1099 option, they’ll work almost like an, very similar to an employee, but part-time, or project based or something. Have you seen a shift in your mix of W2’s to 1099s at all?

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah. It’s been unbelievable. People that I thought would never work on a 1099, like media planners and strategists, right? Like, you kind of need to be entrenched in the team. You need to be entrenched in who’s executing, you need to be entrenched with the sales folks and understand the data and what the clients need, et cetera. And we have found that there’s a lot of people that are willing to do that work in that type of capacity. And that was just not a thing before. Within another example that I have, is the gentleman who helps with our MQLs and SQLs and setting up Marquetto to pump into Salesforce. You know, I’d love to bring him in full time and he’s just not having it. Now, there are two totally different types of roles there, right? You know, you have that media player, that strategist, and then you have a very tactical and technical marketing and sales person that’s trying to line things up from a messaging and a revenue recognition perspective, both wanting the same thing, which is that flexibility. Now some of those contracts, which I’m finding are some guys want to do and gals want to do hourly, and then other people just want that monthly commitment. But to answer your question directly, I am super taken back at how many people are looking to do that, are doing it, and the mix of roles and responsibilities across those folks that are enacting that and working that way.

– [Chris Mechanic] Yup. It’s wild. And I think that fast forward 10, 20, 30 years from now, folks will look back at this period and it’ll be just like the great transformation or the great revolution. With, especially with AI and automation, like, basically proliferating faster than ever, I think that the entire way that we work and way that we produce is going to look very, very different. And I think, especially in the agency business, where there’s already a shortage of good digital talent, that was even before the pandemic, but especially now, I think it behooves anybody, any marketing executives or anybody in an agency role to really look at the way we’re recruiting talent and adjust accordingly. And I think that some of the things that you laid out here basically like that deep sort of alignment at just the vision and mission level is more important than ever. The recognition and understanding that different stuff is important. It’s not all just about money and then adapting your offer to suit that as well as just suiting legally the way people want to work, 1099 and W2.

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah. No, I’m totally with you. And I think not only that, but then the ability to be remote is also going to dictate where those folks go and do that to what levels. I mean, we have US-based employees at both places I’ve been. One of the gals who runs some of our content marketing and our social handles, she’s been with us for a few months. She’s been in Hawaii, she’s been in the Dominican Republic. She’s been in Puerto Rico. She’s been in North Carolina. She’s been in Portland, she’s been in Seattle and I’m just, the joke is, where is she going to be next? But it’s interesting. And before that was just never really a thing. So, we even just have to have a couple more people that are in Central America. And I think that will really shape some things as well, because you look at how people have migrated between state to state in the US, right? A lot of people left California, where’d they go, they went to Austin, Texas, right? People left California. They went to Arizona. People left Chicago, they went to Montana, right? And now it really kind of is choose your own adventure on where you live and what your community looks like. And you couple that in with work as much or as little as you want, and maybe have two full-time jobs and not tell anybody, or only work 20 hours a week. And the world’s going to be a very different place and the fragmentation is going to continue. I can guarantee that.

– [Chris Mechanic] A hundred percent, dude, crazy times, crazy times. Well, Kuk, I want to be sensitive to your time. I’m really enjoying this. We could go for hours on end. Will you come back sometime?

– [Alex Kukich] Yeah. I’ll come back. Maybe we can touch on some more technical stuff. Like, what you and I have been kicking around. I think I’d love that, but this is a great discussion. And thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it.

– [Chris Mechanic] Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, if you guys like this, please drop a like, a comment, a share, it will help us get even bigger and even better. And hey, if there’s a specific person that you’d like to meet or a specific topic you’d like us to cover it, drop those in the comments too. We read every one.

– [Alex Kukich] Cool.

– [Chris Mechanic] Thank you, Kuk. Once again, man, we’ll be in touch soon.

Alex Kukich

Alex KukichCRO

Chris Mechanic

Chris MechanicCEO & Co-Founder

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