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.


  1. Paul,

    Sorry to say this but while you raise a legitimate issue it may represent the work you do as much as the way agencies work.

    After all you’re a headhunter. And just as headhunters are widely known by candidates for placing round pegs in round holes, they are probably equally well known by hiring managers as the place to find round pegs that fit round holes. You may be a victim of your success.

    Nonetheless, I agree with your observation that agencies often operate from fear. There are many reasons and one is easily explained.

    As presented in the context of your question, fear is operating as a metaphor for efficiency. In other words, people are afraid of making a decision that will lead to an inefficient outcome because inefficiency is a no-no given its importance to how businesses work.

    Look at the fundamentals. Success in capitalism is providing a return to investors. The return comes from profit and the profit comes from perpetually increasing efficiency and innovation. Subsequently, anything viewed as inefficient is internally unsalable. Fitting a square peg candidate into a round holed job appears inefficient. Overcome the appearance and you will overcome the objection to uncommon candidates.

    So when an agency president complains to you that “all [his] account people [are] alike” what he’s really saying on some level is all this likeness is inefficient. You can take it from there.

    1. Bob:

      I am not sure what it is that you are saying. But let me respond as best as I can.

      First, I cannot speak for any other recruiters. However, as often as possible, I try to place appropriate candidates, no mater what shape the hole. Some clients are more willing than others to see people who can do the job but who do not have the requested background. (It was much easier when we dealt directly with the hiring managers.)

      I am not sure what inefficiency has to do with hiring. If you are saying that square pegs in square holes is efficient, the whole point of my blog post was that it is not. The agency president was saying that he wanted more creativity among his people - creativity is what agencies are or should be about and in this context creative hires are probably more efficient in the long run.

      But I am only a recruiter and cannot change the hiring practices of an agency.

  2. Appreciate your continued attention to the limitations of requiring category experience for new hires. When hiring, I've always thought that intelligence, character, and personality are most important. I believe that if somebody truly is smart, they can learn a category. I also believe that experience from other categories can bring fresh insights to a team, which might be siloed into thinking only within that category.

    Regarding client direction on hires, I think we need to be careful as to how much we permit them to influence agency teams. While it is paramount that we treat clients as partners, I think good & smart clients will respect us more if we play the role of expert, as you reference in closing. That said, an agency once had me meet with the lead client before making the offer "official," even though I was told it was not an interview. During our meeting, I frankly thought the client felt uncomfortable about it. I think he just wanted his agency to "man up" and be the expert. I never confirmed my perception, but my relationship with my lead client grew to the point that in meetings he would say, "Scott, if you recommend this approach, I approve it." So I'll take that as confirmation.

    1. @Scott: Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights. Everything you say is right. I would love to have you speak to that client, if possible, to find out what was on his mind when he asked to meet you. Incidentally, no matter what an agency says about meeting a client beforehand, it is always an interview. If, for some reason, the client called and said that they were not sure about you or outright said they didn't like you, you would not have been hired.


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