Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Asking For Typical Writing Samples May Not Accomplish Its Intent: Here Is A Better Idea

Many hiring managers ask candidates to send writing samples.  Some insist on them. The ask for creative briefs, they ask for points of view, they ask for recommendations.  In the days when advertising agency executives wrote whole marketing plans for clients, I had people ask me for a full marketing plan. I always refused because I thought it was unethical to give another agency that kind of document. Even today, if the samples which candidates are for departed clients or are in any way sensitive, I tell my candidates to blank out the client name if possible.

The problem is that asking anyone to provide a writing sample means very little since one never knows who actually wrote or edited the document. Often, anything submitted has been edited by at least one person, possibly even two or three. This is even true  at the most senior levels.  I used to write speeches for an agency chairman and I often wrote his point-of-view documents; he would then edit them, of course, and take all the credit.

Every creative director knows this problem.  Six or eight writers, art directors and producers may all have the same commercials, ads or content on their reels or in their portfolios.  When I was in advertising, my creative partners used to laugh when ads and commercials they created showed up on reels and portfolios sent by people hoping to work for them.  Often, this work came from people they didn’t know and who, to their knowledge, had nothing to do with the work they submitted as their own. 

Asking for a writing sample may not necessarily accomplish what it is supposed to. So here is wonderful way to judge how someone writes and thinks.

Many years ago, I worked with a brilliant account guy named Robert Schrijver.   He had a better idea.  He would still ask for creative briefs, points-of-view and other business documents, because they were necessary and relevant. But then he also asked for a personal letter.  That’s right, a letter.  He wanted someone to send him a letter they wrote to a bank, a store or someone else where they had a complaint or something else they wanted to happen.  He explained to me that there was a 99% chance these were unedited and represented the potential employee’s ability to articulate, persuade and express themselves.

I always thought this was a brilliant solution. It shows an unfettered sample of how someone thinks and articulates.  And it is about 99% unedited.  It is an unusual solution, but it is very accurate and compliments a business writing sample perfectly.


  1. Paul, this is the last paragraph from Bob Levenson's obituary. It lends support to the "letter" idea...

    “When he was asked how he wrote the copy for all those Volkswagen ads,” Mr. Imseng recalled on Thursday, “he said: ‘I always started by writing Dear Charlie, like writing to a friend. And then I would say what I had to say, and at the end I would cross out Dear Charlie, and I was all right.’ ”

  2. When I was at Organic, we asked finalists for two original pieces of writing: one a short essay and the other a presentation in response to a fictional client brief. This approach solved the "many hands" and ethics concerns. I wrote a bit about my current approach here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/most-important-skill-hiring-process-usually-misses-matthew-rosenberg?trk=prof-post

    1. That is great. I think it is a very good assignment and I bet it separates the wheat from chaff. Someone emailed me directly and told me that he had a hiring manager ask him to write a conference report on their meeting. Same difference, but also a great solution.

      I would ask my readers to follow the link to your blog post - it is worth reading.



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