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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Category Experience Is Limiting Agency Hiring



When I was first recruiting, I received an assignment for an account person to work on one of the imported car brands.  I found a great candidate who had worked for a number of years on domestic brands.  When I approached him on this assignment, he was delighted and commented that he was dying to work on an import.  I didn’t pay much attention to the comment until I went to introduce him to the hiring manager.
I nearly got my head bit off.  “How could you send me someone with domestic experience?  Don’t you know that we never look at anyone with that kind of experience to work on an import?”

Yiikes.

Now, many years later, I still don’t understand the limitations that ad agencies put on themselves, especially since good talent is at a premium. The problem has gotten worse during the time I have been recruiting.  Perhaps the issue is the fee system.  Under this form of compensation, clients can pretty much dictate who an agency hires and what kind of background they must have have.  

The corollary to this is ironic.  When jobs stay open for a long period of time, those same clients complain that the agency is dragging it feet and that they need a person in place.

And it isn’t just a question of category experience.  That request is often coupled with a demand that prospective candidates also have other specific skills – television production, digital, social media, CRM.
 Check List   Check List   Check List   Check List    Sometimes the check list (job specs) become so narrow that finding a good candidate is almost impossible. (I once had an assignment for a senior account supervisor or junior account director.  That person had to have had experience as an actual investment banker, but they needed at least three to four years of ad agency experience..  All this for about $100k. Sure. Sadly, it wasn't a joke.   It was about nine years ago - before the crash.  The job stayed open for almost a year and the agency finally hired someone with decent financial experience, but he was not an investment banker!  They could have done that within weeks after giving me the assignment.)

I have seen jobs go vacant for months.  I have one client in a southeastern market who will not pay for a relocation, but has had a job open since January.  They insist on category experience, but most of the agencies which handle this particular category are not located anywhere near their market.  They have rejected candidates with that experience but who had it several years ago; their experience is  “no longer relevant”. I actually cannot understand their thinking, which is partially dictated by the client, but the agency needs to fight back.. 

Category experience is a frustrating part of ad agency recruiting life these days.  And I honestly believe that it is hurting both the client relationship and agency creativity. I frequently have candidates call me out of anger and frustration.  They are perfectly qualified for a job, but cannot get interviewed or, if they have seen one person at a company and cannot get passed on because they have similar but not exact experience.  It is exasperating for them and for me.  And, once again, it proves that agencies are hiring resumes, not people.

There are still a few strong agencies out there that will go to their clients and say that they have found a really bright person they are going to hire who does not have category experience, but that person brings a lot of other experience, including new thinking, to the party.

I have one client who is willing to hire just bright and wonderful people regardless of experience.  It is accepted practice among their account people to simply hire smart people.  They have some of the most sophisticated package goods clients in the business.  Ironically, I work with other agencies that handle the same parent company package goods clients and they refuse to look at the same people their sister agency successfully hires. It makes no sense that two agencies with the same client would recruit completely differently.

Can anyone explain this to me?  How can agencies (and their clients) expect creativity if everyone they hire comes out of the same mold?

23 comments:

  1. “Learning” energizes and creates relationships. “Collaboration” is a business fundamental that ties employees together and creates loyalty. “Sharing” is human and creates openness.

    Hiring someone with category experience can derail all three. This is a peeve of mine too. Bold post, sir. Steve at whats the idea

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  2. Thanks, Steve. Nice way of putting it.

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  3. Paul I couldn't agree more. I spent many years working in a very labor intensive category producing literally pounds of scripts and producing at least ten spots a year plus radio, collateral etc. After a few years, I was fried. I had more category experience than you could possibly imagine and no desire to work in the category. While it makes sense to me to look for people with experience against a particular target -- luxury buyers/teens/young men, narrowing it much beyond that is typically just a foolish acquiescence to a client without really exploring what's wanted. Most ad people, particularly in creative, love a steep learning curve. It excites them. And experience from far-flung categories can open up a whole new way of looking at things.

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  4. I would say every single one of my best hires were people who were qualified tangentially, or in wacky/creative ways. They beat down my door, brought loads of energy and creativity, were grateful to learn, worked overtime to catch up on their deficits and brought a new perspective. I have ALWAYS seen people my recruiter wants me to see in that category, because I know they 'get' me. Small companies do this much better than large ones, I think.

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  5. Claudia and Rachel: You are both right, of course. Would love your opinion as to why this happens, especially at big agencies. I am thinking of writing a follow up post on why.

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  6. Paul, there's an old joke along these lines. Agency looking to hire an art director.
    "You've got cigarette experience, right?"
    "Yup, lots."
    "Filter or unfiltered?"
    "Filtered."
    "Every work on Menthols?"
    "Yes, sir"
    "Excellent, how about Menthol, Filtered 100s?" "No, sir, never actually worked on 100s."
    "Sorry, son. That's what we're looking for."

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    1. Livingston: I actually had one of those at the old Ted Bates. Got an assignment years ago for an account supervisor. Had to have moist cat food experience. I found someone with dry, but almost immediately. HR would not see her. I called the EVP who was a friend and actually got my candidate hired. But I paid the price - for about a year HR was angry with me for going to the EVP. I eventually got the account back.

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    2. Don't you understand the difference? MOIST CAT FOOD IS NOT DRY CAT FOOD! Totally different products.

      What is wrong with you, sheesh. Next thing you know you'll be sending someone with rum experience to work on vodka.

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  7. I once was speaking with one of your competitors who was equally stunned about a agency who was looking for specific category experience. It seems the agency was looking for a SENIOR executive with CEREAL experience(alright, there may be 100-200 senior executives in the country with cereal experience). But that was not enough. The Agency really wanted someone with PRESWEETENED CEREAL experience (okay, so maybe a few dozen qualify). Actually, it's PRESWEETENED ADULT-TARGETED CEREAL(how many qualified candidates are left?). The final nail; it's a PRESWEETENED ADULT-TARGETED HOT CEREAL. Can the number of qualified senior candidates in the country be counted on one hand?

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    1. Anonymous: Very stupid. See my response, above, to Livingston Miller.

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  8. Interesting post. As a CMO client, the biggest beef I and other clients had with our agencies was that they are not prepared to think outside their well-trodden boxes. It's true that clients want to interview people working on their business because agencies do such a bad job of identifying talent. It's a good bet that the rules around "category experience" are made up by fearful, second-guessing agency HR or account people, not by clients. Peronally, and this goes for most clients I know, we're just looking for people on our business with a passion for the business. If the candidate can answer the question: "Have you shopped and used our product?" in the affirmative, they're halfway home, regardless of "category exeperience."

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  9. ONE OF THE REASONS THAT THE AGENCY BUSINESS IS SLOWLY SINKING INTO THE GROUND IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DESCRIBE ...A LACK OF INVENTIVE THINKING ...IT APPEARS TO ME THAT THE WORLD HAS CHANGED AND MOST OF THE HOLDING COMPANIES FAIL TO RECOGNIZE THAT TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED THE GAME...THE LINE HAS BLURRED BETWEEN MEDIA PLANNING AND BUYING ..MARKETING...CREATIVE RESEARCH....PR..CONSULTING..AND THE CURRENT ATTITUDE IS TO HAVE SEPARATE COMPANIES KEEP THEM SEPARATE...
    IT DOESN'T WORK ANYMORE...COHESIVE PLANNING OF ALL THESE DISCIPLINES IS THE ANSWER AND PEOPLE WITH MORE IMAGINATIOBN AND NOT SO MUCH SPECIFIC EXPERIENCE MAY BE A BETTER CHOICE TO HIRE IN MANY SITUATIONS

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Appreciate your insights as usual. I think we candidates are trying to work within meeting checklists, or "I'll know it when I see it" approaches. (Scott Frary)

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  12. Great post. As a "newish" recruiter myself, but a past account management person, I completely agree how crazy it is that there are so many mandatories when getting a new job in. When I was looking to get out of healthcare advertising to the general side, I was looked over by so many because I didn't have XYZ specifically listed on my resume; however, the transferable skills were tremendous. It's sad that your first or second job sets the tone for your whole career. People want to get their foot in the door to advertising not realizing that the category they chose may screw them over if they ever want a new experience. As a recruiter, the mandatory list and lack of priorities of experience is hurting everyone - the recruiter, the agency, and the Client.

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    1. @Rachel: I have been wrestling with this for many years trying to figure out why this exists. I have come up with two reasons: fear and laziness. The fear comes because it is far easier to tell a client that you have a candidate who has category experience. The laziness comes from not spending the time to define the issues and problems that they want a new hire to resolve. If you think I am wrong, next time you get an assignment at any level, ask your client what problems they want solved. 90% will tell you that they don't have a problem.

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  13. Paul, I think it also a function of the agency being afraid of the clients...the client doesn't want to have to "train" a senior level person on their business...and then vice-versa, the agency wants this person to walk right into the situation without any guidance. It sucks and I've been a "victim" of this as well. I know how to sell, I know how to work with clients and I know how to be receptive to understanding the demands, but agencies just won't give you the time to "figure it out" because they are afraid they will lose the business.

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    1. @Anonymous: That is my point about fear.

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  14. Honestly though, having seen many agency folks, whether in management or non-management, no matter how long your category experiences are, I feel that most don't really have a deep knowledge of the category. Yes, there may be some stories to tell of a great campaign that was handled at a previous agency... But these are antiquated stories. A successful campaign from 5 years ago does not equal success today. The category has evolved since, and so has advertising itself, let alone consumers. And if they are success stories, well, they can be easily found online as well.

    And often times, I feel that someone who works in a category for 6~12 months are not that different to someone who's worked on it for 5 years. Why? Because most folks are working for the client (or, the "brand" is the norm to say this nowadays), not the category. I doubt there's anyone who came into advertising because they had passion in the CPG industry. It was advertising they had passion for, not the category.

    Instead of finding category experience, I think it's important to seek long-term value of the candidate and his/her passion for the category. I feel, intrinsically, the ask for category experience itself is asking the wrong question - it is asking if the candidate is capable of doing homework FOR the client. What should be asked, is whether the candidate, who is so passionate and pro-active for the brand and category, is capable of giving homework TO the client instead.

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    1. DK, much of what you say is true. However, I do hear stories all the time of clients who will not share information with agencies, which prevents them from really getting to know their business. The reason for this, sadly, is that it is easier (and safer) to merely have agencies execute.

      There is a another side to this as well. Procurement has cut agency staffing to the bone, leaving very little room or ability for agency personnel to spend the time digging into and getting to know the client's business.

      But your point is well taken. I would add that having the agency spend the time to analyze their own needs and figure out what problems have to be solved might lead to far better hiring. If agencies (and all companies, for that matter) did that, they might find that there is other far more relevant experience which should be considered. Or they might find out,in rare cases, that category experience is mandatory. In either case, your comment about knowing what questions to ask is very appropriate.

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

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  15. Wow! Thank you for your wise response, Paul. Yeah. Perhaps it's ready for agencies to rather invest in "category managers" - people who stay on top of client's business and industry trends, so that they can update the current team, and educate new hires. Just a thought!

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