How to protect your best designers from poachers

Vault49's Jonathan Kenyon reveals how to retain your studio's best talent and keep headhunters at bay.

Award-winning designer Jonathan Kenyon is co-founder and executive creative director of New York agency Vault49. He's kept headhunters at bay for 13 years, and shares the wisdom of his experience here...

Jonathan Kenyon, image by Żaneta Antosik

The poaching of staff and team members moving on is a fact of our industry. An old mentor of mine – who used to be the global creative lead at a well-known agency – would recruit the best talent by telling them that their next job was going to be incredible.

So envied was his creative team throughout the industry that it was inevitable that the big agencies would come knocking for his best talent eventually.

Foster shared passions

That doesn't mean that as a small studio you resign yourself to losing your best staff to bigger players. Vault49 is 13 years old now and we've never lost a member of staff to a 'better' offer from another studio or agency, though I'm told there are frequent attempts. However we don't take this for granted, especially as we grow.

An image from Vault49's campaign for Adobe and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Welcome to Cannes

New 'blood' in the studio is of course a very good thing, but not if you're a studio principal with a team of only four people to begin with and you're trying to build momentum.

If I were a principal who often lost staff to other outfits, I'd begin by asking myself why my team doesn't share the same passion for my company as I do.

I stay personally committed to Vault49's mission because I'm building something with people I like and respect, I have objectives, I'm invested in results, I have something to lose, I learn from failures, and there are clear rewards to success (both creative and financial).

Invest in your team

Your team has to be similarly invested in the studio's success. Learn to get out of the way of your best staff, let them lead, support them when they fail, and ensure they share the glory and financial rewards when the studio does well.

On a practical level, our entire team shares a substantial bonus pool at the end of a good year, we also match-fund employee retirement accounts, offer fully paid private healthcare and more.

But financials to one side, investing in studio culture is critical and much harder to quantify – it's also the glue that holds everything together, especially during the more challenging years. We enjoy coming to work, we're quick to laugh and enjoy each other's company.

Get outside the studio

Our team also spends a lot of time socialising, not only in the studio, but at the pub, at galleries (often where our team are exhibiting) and at various studio-wide retreats.

For instance, every summer our entire team spends half a week at a nature retreat in upstate New York, and we insist that it's part of the working week and not an out-of-hours chore.

The Vault49 team make time for non-client work, such as this intricate typographic exploration, Neon Type

I believe in muddying the division between work and play; fun does not need to be what happens at the weekend, and creativity during working hours.

We're also extremely loyal to our team and don't make rash business decisions that could jeopardise jobs, mortgages, and families, preferring instead to build something that will last. I think our team trusts that we look out for them.

Words: Jonathan Kenyon

The full version of this article first appeared inside Computer Arts issue 242, a typography special that explores the state of contemporary typography. You can grab your copy of Computer Arts 242 here.

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