Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Adventures In Advertising: The Client Who Controlled Agency Hiring

I have written many times that the agency fee system has put clients in charge of their own agencies.  This story shows how true it can be.

Not too long ago, I was given a fee paid search to find a senior executive to run a major DTC pharma account at a major, network-owned ad agency.  The job would be for an EVP at $300k+. It was a big, important job for the agency because it was running one of its largest and most visible accounts.

The search took several months.  When the president of the agency narrowed its search to four candidates, they then extensively interviewed with the senior agency management.  Two made the cut.  
they were both my candidates. At the client’s request, they went to meet the client.  The agency knew that this was more than just a courtesy and that it was doubtful that the client would leave the final hiring decision to the agency. After all, if the agency had a preference, but if the client, for whatever reasons, chose the other candidate, they would be required to hire their second choice.

This is the inherent danger in having the client meet candidates.

Well, the client met the two candidates.  Both were enthusiastic about the job, the client and the brand.  Their interviewing lasted several hours and they met most of the senior client marketing management people.  Both candidates commented that the interviews went well and they would be happy working with this client.

When I called the next day to get feedback, you could have pushed me over with a feather when I heard the client’s reaction.  The client loved both people, but decided that their advertising business did not require the seniority or expertise of these candidates (this was an account that spent tens of millions of dollars to advertise the brand).  Instead, they wanted someone making considerably less, with commensurate lesser qualifications, to run their business.  They felt that instead of an 
EVP, a Senior Vice President would be sufficient.  And of course with a less senior candidate, they could cut the agency fee somewhat.

This is what happens when the client is the final word in hiring.  Once upon a time, long before fees, ad agencies chose their hires based on all the agency's needs.  Of course candidates were chosen to handle specific businesses, but they were hired to suit the agency's needs.

End of story.  Thank goodness I was paid for the search.  The agency asked me to do the search again, this time for a lower level executive.  I told them I would do it at a discounted rate since it had now become a completely different search.  Another two months went by before the client approved a candidate.

The irony is that about a year later, the agency lost the business.  The new agency actually hired one of the two rejected candidates to run the business.  Go figure.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Agencies need to trust their own leadership to make hiring decisions. Clients don't have adequate insight into "how" agencies operate and the talent required to achieve their goals. If they did, they wouldn't need an agency at all. In my opinion, it's better to leave clients out of hiring decisions.


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