Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adventures In Recruiting: A "No" Means "No"

One of the advantages of using a recruiter is that most of the time they can get you feedback faster than you can get it yourself.  One of the toughest things to do is to tell candidates that they did not get a job.  Occasionally when this happens, candidates ask if there is anything they can do.  The answer is always no; a nice thank you note acknowledging the rejection and telling the company that you hope there will be another opportunity is a classy and smart thing to do.  Once a company’s (or hiring manager's) mind is made up, they rarely, if ever, change their minds.

On this subject, I heard an amusing story which I wanted to share. It did not happen to me or to one of my candidates. But this is a true story; I have changed some of the details to protect the guilty.

A candidate was told "no" after having met human resources and the CEO.  The CEO did not feel he was right for the job or for the agency.  The candidate believed that he was perfect for the job and couldn't accept his rejection.  He decided to try to get another interview.  He called his recruiter and asked for another meeting.. The recruiter called the human resources director, asked for the second meeting and was told, "No."

I have had many of these conversations over the years.  The candidate gives all the reasons why he or she thinks he is right for the job.  If I was given specific reasons why the candidate is wrong, I tell him or her. Generally that is enough.  However, in this case the candidate insisted.  He was so convinced he was right for the job that he went “rogue”, bypassing the recruiter.  He started calling the CEO. The CEO’s admin politely told the candidate that there would be no additional meeting.  So the candidate developed his own plan in order to force an interview. 

A few days later, he sent some sort of singing telegram.  The person delivering it was dressed up as a car (no kidding).  He arrived at reception, asked for the CEO (Imagine the call from the receptionist: “Sir, there is a car here to see you.”).  The executive came to the reception area whereupon the car played a music track on a boom box and started singing a popular song, lyrics changed, requesting a second meeting.  The lyrics, of course, told why this candidate was wonderful for the job and that the CEO had misjudged the candidate.   By the time the car stopped singing, a crowd of employees had formed in the reception area.  When the song was over, the car person presented the CEO with a letter demanding another interview.   The CEO was flabbergasted and very embarrassed. (Imagine if the employees had not known the job was open).  It didn’t happen in the privacy of the CEO's office, but right out in the open so that everyone could see and hear.  The CEO had to stand there listening to lyrics saying, essentially, you made a mistake by bypassing me.

It made the CEO furious.

I am sure this scheme cost a lot of money, not to mention time and energy.  It backfired. The agency will never see the candidate again.  Not for any job.  The recruiter will now never deal with the candidate either.  It was a total embarrassment to everyone involved.

It was a case of just going too far.  This was not a junior candidate.  He is mature and experienced enough to know that no one likes to have their decisions questioned.  Nor do they like to be made to look like a fool.  The irony is that the incident proved that the CEO’s initial judgment about the candidate was correct.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Forcing Employees To Sign Non-Compete Agreements

During the past several years, while advertising jobs have gotten fewer and fewer, more and more candidates are being asked to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment.  These agreements are presented to candidates at every level of the business.   While in some cases, they are referenced in offer letters, more often than not, employees find out about them on their first day of employment and are asked to sign them once they show up for work.  This is unfair and unfortunate.  And, especially if a candidate has been out of work, most new employees are not in any position to refuse to sign.

In fact, I have yet to hear about any new employee who refuses to sign one.  By the time they are asked, they are captive. (I do recall one candidate who simply “forgot” to sign it and it was never picked up by his employer,)

Employment and advertising lawyers tell me that these agreements are suggested by agency financial and legal people and are written to prevent employees from moving to directly competitive accounts. However, over time language has crept into these agreements which would seem to prevent people from moving to vaguely competitive accounts – the account or creative person who is  working on a vodka account who is precluded from working on a wine brand because the document is written as “alcoholic beverages” or the person working on a cereal account who may not be able to go work on a product made from the same components (I actually saw this – a non-compete which specified that the candidate could not work on any product made from grains.  I wonder if this also included alcoholic beverages?).  I have heard about but not seen agreements which prevent people from moving to another agency which handles an account that is competitive to something which the agency has, even if the person does not work on it.  This whole concept is ridiculous..

While these covenants may be unenforceable, they are nevertheless intimidating for the employee (which may be the point), especially younger, more junior people.  Most employees, are asked to sign these documents on their first day of work.  They rarely have the opportunity to show them to an attorney.  New employees are often told by HR not to worry about them because, “everyone signs one.”  This is, of course, also of questionable legality.  However, these documents have become so routine, that most people don’t pay attention to them.  Dropping these covenants on people, especially juniors, sets a really bad tone - the company as bully.

These covenants are rarely enforced, but they could be.  And the companies requesting the non-compete, have far deeper pockets than the employee being asked to sign; this is true of even the most senior people.  I find asking a junior account person or a junior creative to be rather strange and certainly unnecessary.  I have had any number of candidates who have gone to agencies on only vaguely competitive accounts who have actually gone to their previous employer to ask permission (almost always granted).

My advice for everyone at every level is that when given this document, request to take it home and show a lawyer.  Most of the time if you conveniently “forget” to sign it, the issue will go away.  If reminded by HR, I do advise actually showing it to a lawyer.  He or she will probably tell you to sign it and not to worry about it.  But, it could be a thorn in your side in the future.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Agency New Business People Turn Over So Quickly

It is my observation that senior new business people at agencies turn over about every 18-30 months.  This is no different than their client counterparts where Chief Marketing Officers turn over at about the same rate.  I have been observing this for many years and have concluded that this high turnover is either because agencies  use the wrong criteria for hiring, their expectations are not realistic or, just like their clients, they ask their new business people to be responsible for things really not in the purview of a marketing or new business person.

Let’s tackle the last point first.  Much has been written about the rapid turnover of corporate CMO's.  I would like to give it a different spin.  Corporate marketing people are constantly asked to tackle things not in their domain.  Every senior executive at a supermarket chain knows that as soon as they refurbish and refresh a store, sales go up.  This is an operations issue and has nothing to do with marketing, per se. But supermarket CMO’s are constantly being asked to remedy the issue of declining sales due to a decrepit physical plant.  Similarly, the marketing director of a quick serve restaurant cannot solve the problem of lower sales which are related to the rise in gas prices that causes their customers to be reluctant to drive a distance for a meal.  This issue can be partially solved by promotion; but the promotion, which may increases sales, drives down profits.  The CMO often gets blamed.  Look at what is and has happened at Burger King.

And so it is with agencies. 

All agencies seem to go though cycles.  When agencies are on the upswing, new business people are heroes.  When they are in a down mode or just flat, new business people get blamed for the agency’s inability to close or to even get meetings.  That inability can be due to factors way beyond their control:  they can’t fix a bad creative product;  they can’t silence senior executives who say stupid things in presentations;  they aren’t responsible for creative which gets low test scores, which often determine the winners of a new business shoot-out.  And, they can’t resolve significant business problems – imagine being the new business person at Arnell right now. 

But they get blamed any way.

Agencies often use the wrong criteria when hiring.  Just because someone is highly successful at one agency, does not mean that that success will be translated to another.  Before soliciting and hiring someone who has done well at another agency, it is important for the new company to come to a complete understanding of the elements that made that new business person successful previously – could be as simple as attitude or chemistry among the principals or great positioning of the agency and its work.  Often, those elements simply do not or cannot be duplicated at another company.    All too many agencies simply hire a résumé, not a person.  When it comes to new business, many disparate elements must converge to create a successful new business program.  There are too many executives who have been successful at one place and cannot duplicate that accomplishment at another. 

Realistic expectations are critical to the success of new business people.  I have had many assignments over the years where the hiring executives verbalize their understanding that putting together a successful new business program may take many months or even a year or two.  However, all too often, the verbalized expectations have nothing to do with the reality that the new agency really expects it to happen in only a few months or when it doesn't happen quickly enough they become antsy.

I have previously written about writing realistic job specifications.  When it comes to new business there is no magic bullet.  The new business process can take months or even years.  If an agency is truly expecting their CMO to bring in new business within a short period of time, they have to tell their new hire up front and they have to provide him or her with the tools with which to accomplish this feat.  They also have to realize that their expectations might not be realistic.  All too often, I have seen new business people hired who spend their first three or four months merely getting the agency organized and up to speed with things like materials, mailings and presentations.  By the time these are ready for a full court press, agency management is chomping at the bit to have a new client and is unhappy with the progress of the new business person.  Prospecting and cultivation can take months or years.  All of this needs to be part of actionable job specs.

Every agency president and CEO knows that new business must be cultivated, which takes time.  I have never quite understood why they would think that their own CMO/new business person can do it faster. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adventures in Recruiting: My Shortest Placement, Part II

This actually happened and should bring a smile.

A very senior, highly respected candidate lost his job.  He told me he wanted to do something different – he had worked for big agencies his whole career.  He had become the director of account management at a highly respected large creative shop; now he wanted to try smaller.

After a few months of looking I came up with an opportunity at q well known recent start-up.  At the time, they were about twelve or fifteen people - all young and aggressive.  The chairman/creative director, who was about 32 or 33 was looking for a potential partner and a director of account management.  I sent Steve.  Now Steve was very dynamic, very quick on his feet and extremely outspoken.  He was also about 5’7”, if that.

Steve interviewed, had dinner with the chairman and was hired.  On his first day on the job he was taken around the agency and introduced to everyone.  One person he met was an account executive who doubled as the head of new business.  The chairman told the two of them that they should talk.  Later in the day, Steve walked into the account person’s office and asked if he had a couple of minutes to chat.  The account person, we’ll call him Alan, said he would come down to Steve’s office in a couple of minutes.

When he showed up, he was full of bravado, which took Steve somewhat aback.  Their very brief conversation went something like this:

Alan: “How do you feel about being the oldest one here?”
Steve: “Not nearly as bad as I do about being the shortest one here.”  The response was immediate and without hesitation.  

Five minutes later the chairman came in and fired the new employee.  No reason given.

You can’t make this stuff up.
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