THE AGENCY RECRUITING PRIMER: The Search

RECRUITING TO WIN: The Search

Ok, you have a job to fill. For most mid-sized regional agencies, any hire is an important hire. Most agencies follow this path:

  • a) look inside their agency first to see if someone can change seats on the agency bus.
  • b) Call around to agency people they know to see if anyone has recently seen any available talent.
  • c) Post jobs online hoping to get lucky (this is the I’m feeling lucky”… I mean, Digital Age)
  • d) Contact a recruiter when all other paths are exhausted

Let’s explore these steps:

1. Conducting an Internal Search

Agencies that train and groom young talent and program them to grow professionally should expect to sometimes fill their needs internally. The best way to go about this is to first ask the employee in a confidential setting if he or she would be interested in making a change and switching responsibilities. The biggest potential problem in many of these cases is that the particular job you are looking to fill comes with a subset of new challenges – and most people are creatures of habit, despite what they say.

In the event of a raise or promotion or added decision-making opportunities, it is important to gauge if the employee is interested in adding responsibility and not just adding income or a new title. The best internal searches are confidential and narrow, only consider one or two of your current staff – more than that and you are asking for trouble as employees invariably talk to each other – and very often away from the agency. If you decide not to promote one or all – it’s likely to leave a trail of disappointment, akin to losing a new business pitch. Be decisive, stick to deadlines – if you’ve decided to “open up the search” communicate this to the staffer you have interviewed. The last thing you want is for them to hear this from elsewhere. Don’t leave your better people twisting in the wind. It may motivate them to look outside for a similar opportunity as they now are emotionally driven by a promotion or opportunity.

2. Open Searches and Confidential Searches

The difference appears obvious but let’s look at them:

An open search is when the job is open, or soon to be vacated and it’s common knowledge between employee and employer. If you choose, you can ask for referrals, post jobs online and engage recruiters. This is the case with most agency openings.

But, a confidential search is usually far more critical to the agency. It usually involves:

  • A key position to replace an underperforming key employee
  • A key employee for a new piece of business that you can’t announce
  • A key position to replace an employee that has confidentially resigned
  • Adding a key person to save or shore up an existing account
  • A senior management team member

In these cases, due to the competitive nature of the agency business, it is always best to conduct a confidential search.

3. Handling Employee Referrals

Many agencies today have a policy of offering a financial reward to employees if they refer a candidate that is hired by agency. I’m told by the 4A’s that this is popular with agencies and HR types. I guess they believe that they are saving the agency money by not having to pay outside fees. Sometimes, agencies may get lucky this way. In most cases, they are opening a can of worms that come back to haunt them. What if you don’t hire a referred candidate by one of your employees? What if you don’t even interview them? What kind of message are you sending? What if you hire them and have to pay them more money than the referrer? What if you hire them and it doesn’t work out? How do you subvert the feeling that “I got so-and so his job here and now look…”? You can get lucky, after all, but this policy invariably creates unforeseen problems down the road.

The best way to handle internal referrals is to have your employees forward names on a quarterly basis to your Recruiting Director as potential “fits” for the agency. If you want to offer a financial reward, then reward the employees that refer the best potential “fits”, regardless if you hire them or not. Keep these potential “fits” in an active database. They will come in handy.

4. Networking

It’s all about the network. Right? Well, not always. Owners of mid-sized, regional agencies know a lot of connected people. You can often solve a recruiting dilemma by picking up the phone and calling former colleagues and friends. Sometimes, a former colleague or friend will call and make an unsolicited referral. This is recruiting “over the transom”. Sometimes these referrals work out, more times they do not. The worst thing you can do is count on them to consistently find your “fits”. And, obviously, be careful about sending needy messages into the advertising community. Before picking up the phone to make a networking recruiting call make sure the call doesn’t expose a vulnerable account or another potential vulnerability at the agency. The odds on networking referrals are long – proceed accordingly.

5. Working With a Recruiter

As a recruiter, I’d like to try to remove partisanship from this section. While recruiting top talent exclusively for advertising agencies for 20 years, I hope I’ve gained some insights that can help you recruit more effectively. I’m aware of the perception of recruiters, not only in our industry, but recruiters in general. While we are paid to create win-win situations and solve business problem, we are often viewed as a necessary evil. There are good recruiters, and there are probably bad recruiters. Tip #4 is find the good recruiters.

How? Take some time and talk to them. It’s not that hard to find out who they are. If you don’t know who they are, then ask your best people – I guarantee you they know. Talk to them and invite a couple to visit you at the agency. The biggest misconception in the universe of agency/recruiter relationships is that recruiters represent candidates, that they are the candidates’ agents. This is simply wrong. The recruiter’s client is the agency. The agency pays the recruiter. In all cases this is true. Both agencies and candidates propagate this myth. Candidates sometimes say to me, “I already have a headhunter”. It always makes me laugh when I hear that. HR types often ask me, “are you repping this candidate?” Recruiters don’t represent anyone except their client agencies. If this series accomplishes anything, let’s at least dispel the myth that recruiters “work” with candidates. They work with agencies to recruit candidates.

This knowledge and mindset empowers you to enlist the top recruiters on your behalf. You may even want to make one your assistant Recruiting Director. It allows you to better understand and control your relationship with recruiters and it allows you to develop your recruiting strategies with your chosen recruiter(s).

There are two ways of working with recruiters:

  • a) Contingency – the most common way of doing business. Fees usually range between 15%-30% of candidate’s first year salary paid upon start date. You only pay if you hire their candidate. The most common rate in our industry is 20% or what you’d pay a good server in a restaurant. Some recruiters charge 25% and some others charge 30%.
  • b) Retainer – This method is usually for a very key position, a creative director or a management supervisor. It is also common for a confidential search to be handled by retainer, one where you don’t want a lot of recruiters calling a lot of candidates. A retainer is a down payment to the recruiter to buy his time and commitment to the search. It is credited against the overall fee.

6. How It Works Best

In filling a key or senior position, it usually works better on retainer. You may get lucky on contingency, but you may wind up paying more in time and money. The best candidates are not looking for a job. They are not surfing the job boards. The top talent is very busy at their jobs, almost impervious to the agency world around them. The best candidates need to be recruited. The right person and best “fits” for your agency are driving to work this morning with absolutely no inkling of an impending career opportunity. It is the recruiter’s job to know this person and know exactly what his “triggers” are. The best recruiters are like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”. They know who the best people are and that they are originally from a particular city where one of their fledgling client agencies are based. They know what the perfect opportunity is for the ideal candidate. Then they sell both sides on the potential fit. To do this correctly, this requires time, energy and a lot of breath. You may find a recruiter qualified and savvy enough to pull this off for you on a contingency basis. But be prepared to seek out an expert and pay them for their time to handle a thorough and professional search. It will be worth it to land the right person.

In filling junior to mid level positions – go with the scattershot approach. Engage several recruiters. Play the numbers game. There is strength in numbers but always stay connected to your lead recruiters and your Recruiting Director. They should have a freezer-full of fledgling junior-to-mid level candidates. And for these positions, posting jobs online may be an effective approach. Again, I wouldn’t count on the internet to solve all your recruiting problems, but maybe a potential “fit” may also be “feeling lucky”.

How to Engage a Recruiter:

  • a) do your homework – discover recruiters who have track records in your universe
  • b) talk to them, meet them, educate them about your agency and agency “fits”
  • c) get fee agreements in writing
  • d) set realistic criteria for the search
  • e) establish a search strategy and process
  • f) stick to it

How NOT to Engage a Recruiter:

  • a) have your part-time HR person email them titles and specs
  • b) assume he knows the difference between your agency and all others
  • c) fight them on fees
  • d) ask them to email resumes first

Remember, the best candidates DON’T EVEN HAVE A RESUME. They’re working!

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