Recruitment Musings


This is a tough, slightly reflective post to write.

It’s very much a brain dump, the start of some thoughts rather than anything resolved. I’m hoping that some of the smart people out there on the internet will add to it and help these thoughts to develop…

There’s a lot of chat about what we’re all doing right now. How the agency of the future might work. What the roles in that agency might be. What it’s going to produce. What it ought to produce (in a world where making people buy more disposable stuff is a bad thing). And so on.

So in a world where we don’t know what we are now, let alone what we’re going to be next year, how can you possibly make a call on the kind of people you need to hire. Which means that we’re all seeking flexible multi-skilled people who are going to be useful regardless of how things change.

Coupled with this there appears to be a general perception of a skills shortage. I’ve been having conversations with all kinds of people (mainly in the ‘agency’ world, but not exclusively), and everyone seems to be saying similar things. Namely that all of the really good people seem to have their own game going on. They’ve either started their own small companies, or they’re freelancing and living the life that they want, on their terms. (Or they’re heading that way fast and using their next jump or two as an experience-farming exercise). Which means that it’s quite tricky to get them to come and work for wages in a company.

But I think there’s something else at work here. We’re all starting to fish from the same pool of people. Probably because we all need these incredibly flexible and adaptable people. We’re all looking for a few mythical people who have a similar set of experiences and skills.

At Poke we keep having these odd cyclical conversations about a couple of key senior people we’re trying to hire. We’re looking for entrepreneurial, operationally aware, client facing, creatively minded, inspiring, strategic folk with an interesting set of past experiences – oh and they need to love digital which is our specific bit (simple huh!).

The long and short of it is that we’re trying to find creative mini-CEOs. And I don’t think we’re the only ones.

Lots of agencies can probably offer this type of person a job that will keep them challenged, amused and stimulated. But the kind of people that we’re looking for want more than ‘just a job’. But no matter how you wrap it up most roles in agencies are just a job – OK they may end up being a way-of-life or a divorce-inducing quest, but that’s just because it’s an big, important and stressful job.

I think what Anomaly is doing is interesting because (from what I understand) it’s actually got a structure and a remit that would be attractive to this kind of mini-CEO. Even though they’re working on clients’ business they’re actually becoming part of a business not just servicing one, which is an important distinction for entrepreneurial types. But we can’t all be like Anomaly (nor should we be).

So what’s the answer?

I’ve got absolutely no idea. Otherwise I’d be running away with the ball and leaving everyone else scratching in the dirt. But here’s a few thoughts, based on personal experiences:

  • Collaborate more, employ less. This is an obvious, but very difficult thing to do properly. If all the good people are doing their own little things we should all join together and work as virtual teams for the benefit of all. But it’s just not that easy. There’s loads of blurring and loads of overlap which always causes friction. Friction generally causes problems.
  • Wear a hat – This one’s for all those multi-skillers out there. Figure out what your real strengths are and stop confusing yourself and everyone else. Admit weakness and failings and try to find other people to fill those gaps. (I really need to heed my own advice here).
  • Hire brilliant single-skillers – who cares if you’re chief geek hasn’t got the greatest client handling skils. As long as he loves technology to bits, that’s what counts. Someone else can do the other stuff. If you need an operations person, it doesn’t matter that their brogues don’t match the easy-going-trainer-slacker vibe of the rest of the gang – and it doesn’t matter if they’re as creative as a housebrick. As long as they can work with everyone else and they love what they do, that’s the way it should be. I think there’s can be a tendency to try and create a team that all fits into a similar mold, which feels right, but is wrong.
  • Cast your net wider. Another tricky one. It’s really hard to validate whether or not someone’s skills are genuinely transferable. It’s much easier to look at a bunch of achievements that are directly analogous to what you do. Taking on a proper outsider is a big old punt. But when it works it works brilliantly. But taking that risk on a piece of valuable client business is dead scary…

This isn’t just an elaborately wrapped up recruitment ad. But Poke are always looking out for great people, and if you’re one of those mini-CEO types I mentioned and you’d like to come and work at a very nice digital agency for a while then give me a shout, confidentiality guaranteed. We are looking for someone with a few years experience – sorry juniors, next time :-)

12 thoughts on “Recruitment Musings”

  1. Good post, and good point. Recruitment is increasingly difficult (and I’m talking from the content owner/producer (read client) side, not agency), in fact I blame the agencies for spotting and snapping up the decent people before we even know what we need!

    Building a knowledgeable, skilled, experienced team is expensive too – I’m currently looking to employ editorial people and people to co-ordinate launching new products. Both are difficult but the editorial jobs are proving near impossible to fill.

    I agree with you, Iain, and have already started approaching people with no digital experience for the editorial jobs – scary, but I can’t see another way at the moment.

  2. Solution: Offering ‘mini-ceo’ type people shares in the company.

  3. Interesting Post. I’d probably be the ‘mini-ceo’ type you’d be looking for – having run my own web studio for over 6 years (and working ‘on the web’ for 10). Having had staff, I now am scaled back to just me, doing everything.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking how I’d much rather work for a really good digital agency, such as Poke, Preloaded, Digit or some-such, where I would have like-minded collaborators, decent, meaty projects, and someone else to do the client handling/quotes/invoicing etc. I’d love to apply to Poke, but I don’t want to work in London (been there, done that). Unfortunately, most of the top agencies seem to be based there.

    I wonder if location has anything to do with getting experienced people? Sure, youngsters out of college will love the ‘glamour’ of Shoreditch, but a mid-thirties, wife and kids type like myself may be put off?

    What I’d like to know is, whatever happened to the ‘teleworking’ dream I was promised by BT adverts about 5 years ago? Where I could work for any big company remotely, from my house anywhere in the country, and saving the planet by not commuting into the bargain? This was supposed to be the future… ;)

  4. I think what happened in the last crash has a direct impact on recruitment for these kinds of people. A part of what you’re after is experience, and that naturally comes with time.

    If the industry had been on a steady growth path then you’d expect to see quite a few people knocking about with 7-10 years experience at this point. Instead there was a big pinch, with people moving back to their previous industry (b2c – back to consulting), or scratting around trying to keep their hands on any kind of a job. I just don’t think there are that many people around who fit the profile.

    Partner up with a building society, what you want is creative-CEO types with a big mortgage. For them stability is key…

  5. You are spot on with this approach Iain. I think it is the ONLY way to recruit proper level senior staff if you want really good people with solid experience. An interesting discussion that I hear frequently from top-notch freelancers (mainly tech , but also Creative and Client-side big hitters) who have been doing the rounds for years is that they get to see the REAL workings of agencies from contracting, warts and all. The big boys in the industry rely upon a polished PR presence and numerous trade press ass-kissing sessions to retain their external ‘we’re great’ profile, but the freelancers see it how it is (good and bad) and then they tell all their industry and recruitment friends how it was and why they would (or usually wouldn’t) work their fulltime . If you are a nice , freelancer and people-friendly agency then this works in your favour because they spread the positive word and then you can offer those freelancers that contract with you more attractive , commercially-appealing options such as equity in an established company and the opportunity to truly have a vital say in the running of a company which they already have a good, balanced experience of working within. That is what we are doing currently and it seems to be working. Even some of the most ardent ‘I’d never go and work in an agency again with all that politics and shit’ freelancers in the right environment can be tempted when they can have a say and shape something big without the complete responsibility of running their own agency. Then there’s the money….and this is where sensible equity shares (i.e. not vanity or group company smokescreen shares) become valuable currency at this level. I don’t see a way round it in the current employment market where talent can walk anywhere if it isn’t cherished.

  6. “living the life that they want, on their terms”. Didn’t we get that brief from Orange?

  7. I’m not trying to bring you down, this was a good article, but part of the reason I stayed well away from any agencies in my area(Central Scotland), was because they seemed to be run by halfwits.

    The amount of times that I heard that “talent is a dirty word” only to see useless bimbos hired instead of skilled, intelligent creatives was enough to turn me off, even before various bad experiences. Add to that the idea and practice that creatives can ONLY work in teams, sorry, but I guarantee I’m a more skilled copywriter AND art director than 3/4 of the teams working today.

    Also the fact that, well, maybe it’s just me, but this is basic stuff.
    The idea that someone has to be told implicitly that “hiring talented, intelligent people, and not treating them like shit” might be a better way to get results, is something I wish was beyond me.

    My experiences in the industry however cement the fact in my mind, that the creative industries are largely populated by idiots.

    At least you yourself can see what it is you actually need, as opposed to following some dumb industry standard.

    Apologies for the rant, I’m hoping you see where I’m coming from and that it’s not directed at yourself. And good luck!

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