The contradiction of agency recruitment

There is a growing contradiction in recruitment for the agency business, one that is potentially driving us faster into the chasm that I described last week rather than across it to the safety of the other side.

The advertising industry through the 80s and 90s (and even early 2000) was seen as a very glamorous business, the high margins and the shiny-cool products made it have a very polished exterior and the complexities of production made it very opaque in terms of actual workings that the majority of opinion was based on output. As a result there was always a line at the door for bright young things to want to join the ranks of these Madison Avenue powerhouses, and the smoke and mirrors of the business meant that there was very much a them and us mentality of those who did and didn’t work in the industry.

But all this has changed, with the advent of technology the opacity of the business is not only becoming more transparent, but worse than this the skillset that was once highly guarded is now available to almost anyone with a PC – from desktop publishing, to HD video and editing, even to the creation of your own online ads and websites, at a very basic level all the highly prized skillets of the business are now open to anyone.

So what are the effects of these changes on agency recruitment?

At a very basic level the business has suddenly lost all of its glamour, and the line at the door is growing shorter and losing quality. Alongside this, we also have the Silicon Valley effect as the young and brilliant no longer want to work in the ad business but would rather be part of a start-up both because it has potentially a much greater upside but also as the marketing business becomes more technology driven, the more interesting parts of the business are in fact in Santa Clara rather than New York (or Minnesota) – the quote from Gareth Kay (@garethk) says it all:

We need to stop communicating products and start making communications products.

I’m thankful that I’m in this part of the business and at the forefront of how agencies are making the change – slowly but surely putting digital, social, mobile, interactive, engagement and participation at the core of our products and not simply churning out TV and print.

How should we change recruiting as a result?

When I look back to my own agency interview experience over 10 years ago, I shudder at the thought – I had no trouble getting interviews, even with very senior execs (my international background and academic qualifications were clearly enough to get me in the door), but when it came to the actual interview I never really made it past first base.

They would show me some ads or a product and start asking me questions about targeting and segmentation, about use of the product and the message that the brand was trying to get across – all things that not only did I have absolutely no idea about, but as we well know are relatively useless for those in the lower echelons of the business. Suffice it to say that these ‘failures’ were probably my saving grace as I finally made it into the BTL and digital side of the business, where recruitment was a little different.

What we need for those joining the business are the skillets that will enable them to carry out their day-to-day work and the curiosity and intelligence to grow within the business. Project management, client & people relationships are not so related to the things that I was tested for in my interviews and more about basic human skills. So how do we test, interview for these? What constitutes as relevant experience, particularly for junior levels? I’ve found over the years, that the best people are not those who were a junior account exec at another agency, but more those who have learnt to think and organize themselves either through different roles in the business (production, planning, creative) or from completely other industries – strangely enough, someone who has 2-3 years experience of another agency, unless they are dramatically innovative in structure or business, have relatively little creative thought to add to the overall communications product.

As all these factors put pressure on the HR side of the agency business we are starting to see a separation in the employee group – not the traditional suits and creative that were highlighted in Mad Men, but those who contribute at a strategic level and those who execute; two very different types of personality and potentially not the traditional approach where these are junior vs senior (what I mean by this is that a junior project manager will become a senior project manager and not a strategic planner).

Hence we need to adapt our needs and our structures to these two distinct groups and for those agencies that find they are struggling to recruit with the right skillet, and have not embraced this new dynamic in their team structures… the answer should be clear.

By Lex Bradshaw-Zanger

A digital native and integrated brand marketer with a passion for marketing-communications and product design, Lex has a truly international outlook and experience, having worked both in major marketing agencies and client-side brands across Europe, the US and the Middle East.

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