Attracting and Retaining the Creative Class

You get an email about a “Young Professionals Leadership Summit” and decide to open it to see what’s on the agenda. There’s a session on financial management, one on networking, another on “serving your community through volunteering.” Volunteering? In today’s economy? What else?

Scott Erickson of Status Media and MC/Host of the Young Professionals Forum Summit.

“I’m going to be more of an MC,” explains Scott Erickson, head of Status Media. If you’ve ever seen the Grand Rapids, Mich. lipdub video on YouTube then you know of Erickson’s work. “I’ll be the host, almost, introducing the different presenters and trying to get the crowd excited and having a good time.”

Not, apparently, your average conference.

“It’s to present solid information that young professionals need to be successful, while having some entertainment value at the same time. The idea initially was ‘young’ professionals but they got a lot of queries from [old] people in their 30s and 40s. So really everybody is welcome.”

On his role as the MC, Erickson says, “It’ll be sort of like Jay Leno. I’ll come out and have the bit that I’ll do and I’ll have my band leader [DJ Zach B] and we’ll riff a bit. It’s not that I’m cool but Zach’s cool and I want him to reflect off me a little bit. We want to give the presenters an energized crowd to work with. I think that’s the best environment to learn in -“ when you’re engaged. Your senses are all there and you’re not drifting away. We want people to be on their phones and texting and tweeting and taking pictures.”

All of this emphasis on being cool and tweeting while learning is an attempt to retain (and perhaps grow) what professor and author Richard Florida calls the Creative Class. Florida says that some 40 million workers -“ 30 percent of the U.S. workforce -“ fall into that category. He then subdivides the class into two sections: Creative Professionals — “the classic knowledge-based workers who include those working in healthcare, business and finance, the legal sector and education;” and the “Super Creative Core -“ the scientists, engineers, techies, innovators and researchers as well as artists, designers, writers and musicians.”

Is it possible for the two sections to interact and effectively cross-pollenate?

Erickson says, “I think cross-pollination is something Grand Rapids has mastered.” He cites the highly successful ArtPrize as an example. Artists’ work can be displayed in a variety of locations from downtown office buildings and retail establishments to city parks and neighborhoods, but the decision on location is a joint one between artist and venue. “Artists and venues collaborate. There’ll be some PR [by the artist] to get the word out about their entry; there’ll be marketing by the venue. For the conference there’ll be a wide range of people attending and presenting at the Summit so we expect there’ll be a lot to learn from both.”

Erickson, who has a film production company, an independent record label and an artist management company, says that he will be listening as much to the woman who’ll be talking about how to create a strong financial future -“ “I’m not really that great about finances so I’ll be listening to what she’ll have to say” -“ as he will be about the people talking about professional etiquette and personal branding -“ “I think I’m pretty good at that kind of stuff but hearing what other people have to say can either reinforce or give you a new perspective.”.

Another member of Richard Florida’s Core Creatives is Jeff Barrett. He’s a co-creator of the Grand Rapids lipdub as well as one for the award-winning Pure Michigan state marketing campaign that garnered two million views on YouTube before it was unexpectedly taken down. He fits the “young professional” description perfectly, having graduated from Baker College five years ago where he “was quarterback of the school’s fantasy football team.” He also answers email with the tagline “sent from a pay phone.”

Jeff Barrett of Status Creative.

Barrett’s take on retaining and recruiting the creative class in an urban environment is that “it comes down to networking, building relationships and value. Are you providing value for both of those elements of the creative class? Are you giving them projects and opportunities for them to succeed? It’s not punching in on a time clock. It’s being able to execute on things. There has to be a way to foster their dreams and ambitions. You need the people who can think outside the box as well as the more traditional ones. You need opportunities for everyone -“ and then value is created.”

“People in this community recognize that.”

Barrett, not surprisingly, uses a football analogy to explain how an urban community can reach out to younger members of the creative class. Talking to a “recruit” he says, “‘Come here and you get playing time all four years. You’re not going to get drowned out in the millions, you’re going to have an opportunity immediately to do creative work. If you’ve got a good creative idea you’re going to be able to execute it.’ For a lot of people that’s really important.”

Is branding an area as cool or innovative or supportive the primary thing to keep and get creatives or is it more effective to use social and other media to create buzz and a ‘cool factor’ -“ or are both necessary and should be concurrent?

Barrett responds, “You have to move those along at the same time. Perhaps the best way is to have a little piece here and let it go to the blogosphere and then put another out and do it that way.” Then he considers further and clarifies, “You have to absolutely execute on brand first. You have to have that one signature thing that has people talking about it. With Las Vegas people know what that’s about. Here’ we’re starting. We have a couple of pieces -“ ArtPrize and, hopefully, what we’ve done [the lipdub] -“ that are getting good things said about us.”

Additionally, and perhaps just as important, Barrett says, “We have the right mix of people willing to listen to new ideas, other people willing to invest in those ideas.” That leads to a multiplier effect as others see the results of listening and investing.

Some of the participants in the Grand Rapids lipdub.

Returning to the results of the lipdub as an example of a return on investment, Barrett reports that Grand Valley State University says that it garnered “5.6 million views. The media buy that it would take to reach the numbers of people we reached -“ that’s in the tens of millions of dollars. That is tangible. When I’m at ArtPrize I run into people who say ‘I saw the lipdub and it made me want to come. I’m from South Carolina’-¦ or wherever. It’s all about creating awareness.” Awareness is a key component in attracting creatives.

When Barrett talks as one of the presenters at the Young Professionals Summit he says he “won’t take a thousand-foot perspective, but instead provide a couple of key, but simple, concepts -“ things that you can start doing now that will immediately change the way that you interact in business to further your career, to further your business relationships. It’s finding a way to rise above the herd.”

“I want to provide a takeaway, an action step. Without that I may as well not have said anything.”

The Young (and somewhat Older) Professionals Leadership Summit will be at the JW Marriott Hotel in Grand Rapids Oct. 24 starting at 9 a.m. Details are at Follow it on Twitter at @ypforum.