Salt & Pepper August 2016: Attracting Young Talent to the Promotional Products Industry

NOTE: Salt & Pepper is intended to foster intelligent dialogue between professionals. This is not a dagger throwing contest. Be honest and authentic, but please also be kind and keep it classy.


One of the most pressing issues facing the promotional products industry is the lack of young professionals. Whether supplier or distributor, most agree that while this is an issue there is no consensus on how to solve this critical problem. This month in Salt & Pepper, PromoKitchen chefs Kirby “Salt” Hasseman and Bill “Pepper” Petrie discuss the ways they would encourage new people to become part of the industry.   

Pepper – Bill Petrie

We have a problem in the promotional products industry – an old problem (pun most certainly intended). For decades the industry has struggled to entice new people and, as an unintended consequence, new ideas. If we want to survive, let alone flourish, as an industry, it is our collective responsibility to attract the next generation of professionals. Here are three ways to create an influx of young talent.

1.       Investment – One of the big reasons that recent college graduates don’t join our industry (especially on the distributor side) is the compensation model is not congruent with their needs. Most people leave college with student loans that need to be repaid and a sales job with a commission only structure is inadequate at best. To attract new people to the industry, companies need to be willing to invest both time and money. Is there upside for the salesperson in a commission only model? Absolutely – but only after that salesperson has been thoroughly trained and has had at least 12 months to build a book of business. By providing a small salary with a reduced commission for the first year of employment, you share the investment with the new employee.

2.       Evolve – This industry has a fascinating habit of living by the code of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” While we all know this is akin to a slow death, very few in our industry are willing to drive, or even accept, change. When we show the next generation that we value the unique perspective they bring, they will not be as resistant to participate in our industry. It’s more than simply hearing ideas, it’s listening and seeking ways to marry fresh perspective with industry experience.

3.       Purpose – Millennials want to be part of something more than landing more profit to the bottom line. While they recognize the importance of revenue and profit, a true sense of purpose is what motivates them. Millennials seek out and thrive in environments in which their work has a clear sense of purpose for both the enterprise and society at large. By maintain a high degree of transparency, eliminating needless bureaucracy, and giving back to the local community, any organization can become a destination for young workers.

Attracting and retaining millennials takes time, effort, and investment. If you are serious about the long-term viability of both your organization and the industry at large, it’s worth the effort.


Salt – Kirby Hasseman

We do have a problem in the industry.  On that point, we totally agree.  But I don’t think we just need “more young people” in the industry.  That’s part of the issue with the promo industry in general.  When in doubt we often cry “we need more” of whatever.  We don’t need more.  

We need better.  

But how do we rise to the challenge of getting “better” young professionals into the promotional products profession?  Here are my thoughts.

1.       Elevation:  We need to continue to elevate the discussion of our industry as a real advertising media.  I am excited about the new PPAI campaign #GetInTouch.  We need to work to raise the industry conversation so that we are talked about in the creation of campaigns…not as an afterthought.  This elevation in status will allow us to recruit the best and the brightest. 

2.       Recruitment:  We need to actively recruit the best young marketing minds into our industry, on both the supplier and distributor sides.  We have some tremendous young talent in our industry (please call them out in the comments below), but so many of us tell the story of “we came upon the industry by accident.”  All of us need to be more intentional about recruiting the cream of the crop.

3.       Investment:  Which leads to the point we agree on.  If we want to have the best and the brightest, we need to be more open to different compensation models.  This is scary for me because there is a fine line.  I want to maintain the entrepreneurial nature of the business without sacrificing talent.  So what about the model used by investment firm Edward Jones.  They recruit great talent and then support them (with a salary) for the first year.  This first year allows them to grow their business while still having some income.  Then after the year is up they need to survive on the business they have created.  

Could distributors get burned?  Maybe.  But I think it would make us a lot better about interviewing on the front end…which helps us to bring in better talent in the first place.