How to Trick an Agency Into Hiring You

The hiring patterns of agencies in this industry change faster than the price of corn during October harvest. We’re boom and bust and boom and bust, all within the space of a city block. One agency thinks it needs to hire 200 people; another lays off 400.

Part of the problem is the way agencies get paid by clients. Agencies are what an investor would cynically call “body shops.” That is, they sell people’s time, which means the only way to make more money is to hire more people and get clients to pay for them. This leads to signing large initial contracts and desperately hiring to fill quotas. When the people who are hired very quickly turn out not to be really necessary to the client, the agency-client relationship evolves, and great inefficiencies develop within the agency. The agency keeps people on without specific billable hours. Or, worse, it foists these people on other clients even though those clients might be better served by people with different skills.

It’s not that these people aren’t good at what they do; it’s that the agency just isn’t the place where they can best apply particular skills. Thus, we have the wonderful anarchy that is the interactive agency labor market. Boom and bust, boom and bust.

I’ve been working in this mess since the early ’90s, and I’ve had six or seven jobs in that time. Judging by an informal census taken by my friends, this seems to be a bit lower than average for folks with my tenure. Think about that the next time an agency offers you retirement-plan vesting after four years.

This begs the question of what to do once you find yourself in that unenviable position of being the person standing outside the agency once the music stops, and the agency no longer provides enough seats.

My first recommendation, of course, is to run screaming from the industry. Seriously. Dentistry is a great field in which you get to meet all sorts of people who tend to yell at you less. You can always go to law school. Or you can follow the example of famous ’50s ad creative Ed Zern and become an outdoors writer, traveling the country with bird dogs and shotguns.

Are You Happy?

Last week’s column provided an interesting data point regarding our collective professional happiness. The average agency score in our rate-your-agency quiz turned out to be a 48.5. On our grading scale, that falls into (just barely) the category of “That agency doesn’t deserve you. Start interviewing.” Not a ringing endorsement for the state of our profession.

But since you bother to read columns like this one, you probably have an unhealthy curiosity about this interactive thing. You might even see yourself as helping push an envelope that will create new types of commerce, not just for products and profits, but also for ideas and media itself. If this sounds mildly arousing to you, then you have my condolences and my sympathy. Your alternative, alas, is to get back on the saddle and find that next advertising job in the string of advertising jobs you’ll have before you finally wise up and run off to start that chinchilla dream ranch.

Connecting With Agencies

Some of the old saws are good saws. Always keep a contact file of all the folks you meet in the industry. Get their business cards, and keep track of them. If you’re using one of those paper systems, throw it out. I have about 4,000 contacts flying around, and I’m not finding anyone without a digital search function. And you’d be amazed how useful this becomes the richer your data grows. It provides great entertainment later when you can track all the various job paths everyone goes through.

More important, make sure you get the right contacts. I find that the single best people in the industry for job leads are the lower-level planners and buyers. The higher-ups in the agency have a great deal of respect for the opinions of the folks in the trenches, particularly when it comes to assessing expertise in all things media. If I were trying to get a job as a planner or supervisor, I’d rather have my reference come from a buyer than an account director. This, of course, changes when you seek jobs at more senior levels, such as head of interactive. That stuff falls outside the scope of this column but would certainly make for entertaining copy in the future.

These tactics shouldn’t be things you think about only when you’re looking for a new job. You should be doing these things throughout your career. I’m a firm believer that people are much better professionals when they know they can quickly get another job elsewhere. It gives them the integrity of saying “Go soak yourself.” Anyone who can tell that to his or her boss without worrying about his or her job will be a better, more credible, and more respected force within the agency.

An other old saw: Go to industry seminars and mingle. A lot of regional organizations have sprouted up in most metropolitan areas, some covering rich media, others covering media issues. These are great trolling grounds for people seeking new hires.

Sometimes, though, in some communities the labor supply is just too anemic. I remember once when I had to hire a new buyer for a major account in San Francisco. We needed that person immediately; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to include the position in the renegotiated contract. A media supervisor and I went to one of those media buyer meetings down in the South Market area where everyone sits around and talks about the imminent death of the banner. I was prepared to make an offer on the spot. We split up and sat in the audience, listening to the questions the various buyers from other agencies made. One person in particular asked some extremely insightful questions. I worked my way through the crowd to get to this person. He was facing the other way. Before he exited into the next room, I yelled to him, “Hey, excuse me!”

When he turned around, I realized this fellow was the media supervisor I had come with. “What?” he asked, thinking he’d done something wrong.

Finding Agencies That Hire

I’ve always found that agencies that conduct layoffs are frequently the ones with the greatest subsequent hiring needs. It never seems to fail. The agency finds itself overstaffed. It simultaneously draws up a layoff plan, places a hiring freeze, and gooses its new-business efforts. Meanwhile, necessary job slots remain unfilled, and the long fuse of new-business prospects gets lit. This is exactly when the risumis coming into HR start to taper off, due to news of the layoffs.

But then the agency wins one or two accounts and suddenly finds itself 20 percent understaffed. These agencies are the great vacuums of our industry. Lots of people get sucked up into them at such times. If you send your risumi out to agencies that conducted layoffs within the last three months, you might find yourself subject to desperate calls from their HR departments a few weeks later.

The really clever among us keep an eye on the high-profile new-business pitches. I’ve been impressed with people who send me risumis telling me they’d love to work for my agency if we got the such-and-such account. Provided they have relevant experience, these are people I remember once we win a pitch.

The Interview

I won’t go into the standard rigmarole of interview etiquette. I was never very good at that formal stuff anyway. I will tell you some of the things that have impressed me during interviews.

People in our industry, particularly on the buy side of the fence, tend to see themselves as part of a group. They tend to see things as an us-versus-them situation. It might be buyers versus sellers. It might be interactive folks versus traditional media people. Any way you slice it, they tend to have insecurities (which I may elaborate on in a future column). Your job in an interview should be to become part of the “us.” Rather than sitting on the other side of the desk like a foreign substance, you need to engage the interviewer. You need to wrest out of the interviewer the issues that interest him or her and then engage the interviewer in the conversation. You don’t have to agree with the interviewer on how to handle the issue, but you have to show that you’d be on his or her side. This isn’t a criterion interviewers have in their heads for hiring, but it’s the stuff on which the intangibles are established. If an interviewer likes you and thinks that you’re one of them, he or she will fight for you.

Let the interviewer talk. I’ve found that the more a candidate has won over an interviewer, the more the interviewer wants to talk. If the interviewer wants to spout, count yourself lucky, and don’t feel you need to interrupt.

Have some very tough questions for the interviewer. To the degree you can put the interviewer in the hot seat, you make yourself a desirable candidate he or she must work to win. I don’t recommend asking insulting questions, but here are some questions that made me think that the candidates asking them would be very intelligent employees:

  • If I can get my client to succeed and spend more money, can I have the authority to hire more staff to handle this? Or will I have to handle that additional work with the same staff?

  • How much authority does the interactive leadership at this agency enjoy? Can the television people take our budgets? Do we have primary client contact?
  • Will the agency invest in keeping me up to date by sending me to conferences and such?

After Rejection, the Recourse

You will be rejected. It’s just a fact of life that a lot of jobs we interview candidates for wind up going away before we can even hire someone. That’s the industry. Don’t take it personally. I know a lot of folks coming out of the Ivy League who graduated magna cum laude. They get the jitters just contemplating their first rejections. Get used to it. I can think of no better lesson to learn once you’re out of college.

But don’t take the first no as a finality. It may indeed be that a job opening gets cut or that the agency fills it with someone else. This doesn’t mean the agency doesn’t like you. In fact, most times that I’ve interviewed a lot of candidates for a position, I’ve wound up considering some of them for other positions. Frequently there’s an embarrassment of talent riches.

I see a lot of rejected candidates later shy away from the same agencies that rejected them. This is a big mistake. Unless the agency tells you with great certainty that it just simply can’t abide you, keep going back for additional positions. I’ve hired account executives after they did this two or three times, a couple of whom rose to account supervisors within a few years.

This can be taken to an extreme, though. I remember one woman in San Francisco who kept calling my employees for weeks and weeks. The first couple of times was endearing, showing a great deal of persistence on her part. The seventh time made us contemplate a restraining order.

Next week, I will write about negotiating the compensation for your new job. This is an area given short shrift, and I think a lot of people get taken advantage of. Good luck, and don’t sign any contracts until then.

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