Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recruiters Are Hired To Find People Who Can Actually Do A Job


Here is the scenario:  You are out of work.  You have lots of experience.  You have worked on multiple categories – automotive, consumer package goods, insurance, consumer electronics.  You can pretty much work on anything.  You hear about a job at one of your target ad agencies working on a retail bank account and you know, you absolutely are sure, it is perfect for you.  But you can’t get them to see you.  It makes no sense to you.  You hear about people they are talking to who have banking experience and you know you are better, smarter and quicker than they are.  But still you cannot get in to see them. 

This is an all too common situation.  I have written extensively about it.  It drives me nuts. But here is the reason you can’t get seen.  In this economy it is all too often a question of your specific skill set and experience.

Recruiters, and that includes people on my side of the business as well as those who work in human resources at a company, get paid to find the right candidate for a job. Generally, companies give us specific job specs.  All too often those specifications include specific category experience.  All of us are constantly barraged by résumé submissions and assaulted by candidates who believe that they are qualified and able to do a job, but who actually lack the skills to do it because they have not worked in that category.

I recently did something I rarely do – I posted a job on the Ladders for a director of finance at a very good young agency.  My posting was very clear in that I had to have candidates with direct, recent ad agency experience.  I received almost 200 responses.  That is right, two hundred.  Unfortunately, only six were from ad agency financial people.  I made the mistake of responding to one very aggressive non-agency candidate and explained to him that, based on the criteria given to me by my client, he was unqualified for the job because he had no ad agency experience.  I got an email lecture from him about how all accounting jobs are the same.  But from firsthand experience, I know that is not true.  There are peculiarities to the ad agency financial business (e.g. sales tax issues) which require prior knowledge and he simply wasn’t qualified.  

Besides, it doesn’t matter.  My job is to send candidates to my client with the backgrounds they require.
The issue is that while this candidate wanted the job and, given some training, probably could do it competently, he was not able to do it yet.  Recruiters don’t get hired to find people who want to do a job.  We get hired to find people who can do it.  Now. 

Sadly, all recruiters are paid to put square pegs in square holes.  That is not to say that we can’t be creative and, when we know the hiring manager, we can ask them to do the interview.  Every once in a while that pays off, but rarely.  

I have previously posted about why people can’t go backwards.  I have also posted about the difficulty of placing out of the box candidates.   It isn’t that we don’t want to place you. It is just that we can’t.  We are constantly getting job specifications that require category experience as one of the criteria for submitting a candidate.  You know, pharmaceutical accounts only want people with pharma experience and package goods accounts only want CPG people and financial people working on financial accounts.  And that is certainly not to say that a good financial account person couldn’t succeed admirably on a package goods account.

One of my favorite comments on this subject was from a non-package goods person who was made an account supervisor on a major consumer package goods brand (at his current agency, of course – they would probably never have hired someone with his background from the outside).  After about four months on the account he called me and said, “Okay, so now I have worked this category for four months.  What is the big deal?  Is this all there is?”  We all know that the answer was and is, “yes”, that’s all there is. (Incidentally, this person is now the president of a large and successful agency.)

Of course agencies should hire people not résumés.  But this is the real world.  Unfortunately, all too often prior experience triumphs over talent.


  1. Alas, your last line says it all: it's people not resumes that count. We hire this way, but that may be one of the privileges of being an independent and independent minded.

    Livingston Miller
    President, Seiter & Miller Advertising

    1. Ah, you are so right. I am not sure if it is the limitations of non-independent shops, but the limitations of people. I have spoken often about hiring people with category experience. Paul

  2. I wish, Paul, (as I believe you do too) that hiring managers didn't see the downturn in the labor market as an invitation to seek out Purple Squirrels.

    Yes, experience is important, often critical even. As your example points out, there are industry specific idiosyncrasies that demand experience.

    BUT, there's a difference between requiring functionally necessary experience and "desired" experience. For instance, I saw a posting last week that was looking for a "Marketing Manager" with a small CPG company in rural Western PA. They wanted someone with an MBA (fair enough), 3-5 years of CPG experience (again, fair) and 3-5 years experience with a Big 5 consulting firm (!?!?!). Oh, and they posted a salary of $45-65k.

    Delusional? Hunting for unicorns and purple squirrels? I'd say yes to both.

  3. Mallthus: You made me smile. We got an assignment last week from an agency in a smaller market. 5-7 years experience on automotive, with direct, digital and general (must have broadcast production). No relocation. Salary $55-75. Lots of luck there too. Funny, but four business days they called wanting to know where the candidates were. It can be nuts.

  4. Interesting, however, prior experience is often the greatest inhibitor of creativity, innvovation and lateral thinking. Those who've extensive experience or expertise in certain categories can tend to display 'cruise control' characteristics whereby they simply apply previous thinking, behaviour and solutions to recurring issues. This isn't to knock knowledge accumulated via specialisation. But, it's worth considering that this is precisely what might lead to steady, yet stale performance.

  5. I couldn't agree more, Brian. I have written about this in the past. Unfortunately, most companies, even those that claim to be innovative, get cold feet, especially when it comes to senior people. When it comes to hiring, as you put it, most agencies would rather play it safe.

  6. Two of the best hires I have made in my life were people who did not fit the job specs. I didn't want to see either one of them, but the recruiter said she knew I was the kind of person who would hire the person, not the resume. One was for an office manager, who never ran an office, but she created a fabulous power point presentation that paralleled her experience with exactly what we needed. We figured she just needed the right home to blossom in. She was a fabulous office manager, and eventually was promoted into Planning, and was brilliant at that, too. The second position was a vibrant young woman with engineering and hard hat experience. I found her to be so charming, so lovable, so perceptive and innovative as a thinker, so articulate, I knew clients would feel the same way. It was a stellar hire I never regretted for a minute. She took some coaching, but it was definitely worth it. Her people skills and brains were worth hiring then and any time.

  7. Rachel: What is interesting here is that in both cases,you (and the recruiter) recognized that these people could do the job. That is what happens when you have a real relationship and communication with the headhunter. It is why I always advocate working closely with companies and people. Different than the person who comes in here with a funereal black suit and who has only worked at large, boring agencies and says that he wants to work at a creative shop. And, when asked, he tells me that the best campaign out there is Budget Rent A Car (huh?).

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