Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Whatever Happened To Common Courtesy When Letting People Go?

Truthfully, there is no proper way to fire someone.  It is the end of the year and ad agencies and other companies have been preparing for 2013 by paring staff.  This year, as always, I have heard so many stories that I thought it worth a comment.

I think it is wonderful that no one actually ever gets fired.  They get cut back, laid off, downsized or reorganized out of a job, none of which is their fault.  but if they are not the cause and are victims of circumstances, why are companies (not just ad agencies) so cruel?


It used to be that when someone was let go, they were generally given a couple of weeks notice (sometimes longer) so they could look for a job.  At an appropriate time they were either given use of their own office or moved to another office for some period of time.  Jerry Della Femina wrote about it in his wonderfully funny book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. (Mandatory reading for anyone who loves advertising.)  He called it “the floor of forgotten men.”  At some point those people either got a job or just stopped coming in. It happens slowly and inexorably, but it happens in the nicest way. 

I always believed that anyone who worked for me should be terminated by me, not by HR or some unknown and faceless executive.  But I guess I am unusual in my ethics.  Today, it is rare for someone to be let go by their supervisor.  More often than not, their supervisor disappears and some (often unknown) HR person makes an appointment and then does the “deed”.  At that point, more than one person has literally been escorted out of the building.  No chance to pack their things, no good-byes; doesn’t matter if they have worked there six months or six years.

It is a terrible way to end a relationship. Over the years I have heard horrendous stories of people being let go.

One theory says it is better for morale to have people quickly disappear.  There is another that says that if terminated people are seen around the place it is bad for morale.  Neither is right.

What happened to common courtesy and allowing terminated people to have some dignity?

If it is a reorganization or a cutback due to shrinking revenues, what is the difference?  People should not be tossed out like they were never there. Being escorted out of a building or told to leave in a few minutes is totally demeaning.  I understand that it is difficult for senior executives to have to face the people who used to work for them..  But I believe that that is the price one must pay to be a senior executive.  The only people who should be made to leave immediately are those who are fired for real cause – gross malfeasance or some other heinous action.

What I don’t understand, is why a company would not want a terminated employee to leave in the best of circumstances, at least feeling as if they were let go in as nice a manner as possible.  That would certainly minimize a lot of bad-mouthing and poor public relations.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Where Does The Need For Category Experience Come From When Hiring

My post last week must have struck a nerve.  While there were a number of comments on the website regarding the limitations in hiring posed by the nonsense of demanding category experience, I received lots of direct emails on the subject.  No one seems to disagree with me, including clients.

So where does this insane need to hire comparable experience come from?

I think there are a lot of hiring managers in Account, Creative, Planning and Media, who just assume that category experience is necessary.  I guess on the surface it makes sense to hire someone who might know something about the brand and the category.  But the mandate has become an issue.  I received one facetious comment about not hiring someone who has worked on rum for a vodka account.  However, most things being equal, if two candidates showed up for the vodka account, one of who had worked on vodka and the other on another type of liquor, I would bet dollars to donuts that the vodka person would win, even if he or she were the lesser candidate.
I also think that human resources professionals know that people with category background are easier to place and most HR people and hiring managers simply want the job off their plate so they will take the path of least resistance.

I have even assignments for assistant account executives with six to nine months experience, who must have prior category experience, as ridiculous as that is.

In fairness, most managers are overworked and when they are looking to replace someone they are understaffed.  Hiring someone who might know something about the category is a short-term fix because it requires less initial hand holding.

But I think the anonymous comment from a CMO who said that this comes from frightened account people is the most realistic answer.  Telling a client you have hired someone who knows the business is a very easy sell.  Telling a client that you have hired someone who is merely smart but will have to learn the category may put the hiring manager under a microscope. 
Bob Berenson, the former President of Grey Advertising told me years ago that when an account person resigns, it is generally left to their supervisor to tell the client.  Inevitably the supervisor panics and says something to the client like, "I am sorry to tell you that Paul has taken a new job.  Don't worry, we have started the search already.  And we will find someone better than Paul." At this point the need to reassure the client rears its head,  "And, we will find someone who knows the category already so there will be no glitch on the account."  At this point  finding category experience becomes engraved in stone.
I had a meeting with an agency president not too long ago and he complained that all their account people were alike and that I should find more creative account people for him to meet.  He was shocked that his people were asking for category background.  And therein is the issue.  Senior management must get involved and approve job specs if they want to hire better people.  (Most specs we get say something like, category experience preferred but not mandatory.  But that is tantamount to telling a recruiter that the company really wants category background. If those specs have been approved by senior management, that clause is pretty innocuous.  They don't realize that preferred actually means mandatory.)

I would be remiss if I did not mention that clients sometimes play a role in this by demanding it of agency hires.  I also believe that this can easily be deflected if agency management cared to because I believe it comes from junior marketing people who are not interested in creativity.And account people who are not strong enough to tell their clients that they will hire the best person for the job, regardless of their background. 

Advertising is a creative business and the creativity should be reflected in the hiring.

When client’s insist on dictating the job specs, agencies should push back.  But often, particularly with junior hires, management would prefer to be uninvolved.  At senior levels, hiring prior experience is safer and easier.  But, after being an account guy for many years, my observation was always what Anonymous wrote:  Client’s rarely care if the agency is sure of itself and wants to hire a smart person.

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?”


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?
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