My colleague Mike Jeffs has a saying: “if it’s not 100% yes, it’s 100% no.”

I always value Mike’s input and we’ve interviewed Strategists together on several occasions – but on one of these occasions I was prepared to take responsibility and make a hire, despite Mike being unsure. For me, it was 100% yes…and looking back I was 100% right.

Anyone hired into an agency has to interact with lots of people, on both sides of the table, but someone has to take responsibility for that decision:

  • If you’re hiring someone to work with a particular client, consider interviewing the Account Manager or even the client beforehand (I’ve heard David C. Baker advocate for letting the client interview the candidate themselves and I can’t see this ending well: they don’t yet know enough about the client, or the agency, to understand the strategy). SEOs, for example, tend to be detail-orientated, process-driven…and they like to be right. The client might be big-picture, bullish and direct…and find detail in a meeting tedious. It’s helpful to know whether the candidate can adapt to a style that’s not naturally their own and even more helpful to learn that the client feels there are gaps in the service provided by your team. Ultimately, though, the client isn’t responsible for the decision: you are. To quickly get an understanding of a candidates natural style – and ability to adapt – you might want to try personality assessments.
  • In our culture, a line manager is accountable for their team(s). If I interview alongside a hiring manager who I manage, it’s the hiring manager who has to be comfortable with the decision because they’re taking disproportionately more risk (with this individual decision). I’ve allowed direct reports to hire candidates with no experience, for example, because they want to take responsibility for training the candidate and are confident in the candidate’s aptitude and commitment to taking that training on board. These hires have always been good.
  • Track recruitment costs and make hiring managers responsible for how this budget is spent. Consistently poor hiring decisions should result in more intervention in future hires and the prioritisation of other roles with recruitment agents/paid advertising.

Recruitment is both an overhead and a staff cost, so track it as both (but obviously don’t count it twice). An agency will likely cost you between 10-20% of a hire’s salary for the first 6-12 months of employment: associating this cost with the employee makes it easier to incorporate planned salary increases into a forecast (when that money no longer goes to a recruiter); tracking it as an overhead serves as a reminder that hiring and firing quickly results in real money leaving the business for months after a hire does.

Whenever I’ve made hires I’m not 100% sure about, it hasn’t worked out for either of us. Mark Suster arguably did more to promote the “hire fast, fire fast” start-up mentality than anyone else, but I don’t think this applies to most agencies. A bad hire in Silicon Valley can affect the quality of the product; the quality of an agency hire literally determines the quality of the service you’re providing to a client. I’ve also never had $millions in VC cash to waste hiring people I’m not confident in – I will always advocate resisting the pressure to hire someone quickly when you’re not 100% sure.

Most hires I’ve made have been under pressure: there’s already too much work for the people working at the agency to do; it takes time to write, approve and post a job spec; I’ve been waiting months for a candidate that looks good on paper; the candidate has a notice period; it’s our policy to do interviews in two stages. In my experience, it takes an average of 4 months to get a new hire in through the door. When these timelines slip (e.g. it’s 3 months before anyone qualified applies for the role), the pressure increases.

This reminds me of another quote Mike is particularly fond of, courtesy of former client and Powwownow founder Paul Lees: “I’d rather have a hole in my business than an arsehole.”

Structuring interviews

In my experience, a good interview process typically takes 2-4 weeks, incorporating a 30-45 minute phone call or face-to-face over coffee and a longer and more formal second-stage requiring some preparation from the candidate. For a technical role this is often a presentation (PowerPoint optional); for a sales role I’ll ask the candidate to complete personality assessments (at my expense, not theirs).

The initial phone call should always be with the hiring manager, who will make the decision whether it’s worth asking both the candidate and a colleague or two to commit more of their time.

I make a point of asking all my questions about a candidate’s resume on the call and I don’t typically take a CV into a second-stage interview. I’ll share my notes with the other interviewer(s) before that second-stage, but it should be assumed that if they’ve got that far then they have the experience. After the first call it’s all about the future.

Interview questions

These questions usually appear in the second-stage of an interview process, after conversation around CV and why a change in role makes sense.

  1. I always ask candidates what they read, when, and how they read it.
    What they read tells me whether there’s a shared worldview (I’ll discuss Bill Slawski or AJ Kohn with interviewees for hours). Bonus points are awarded for candidates who have read my blog posts and are willing to challenge me on them.
    When they read tells me how committed the candidate is to their own self-development. If the answer is “mostly during work time” that’s totally fine. There’s an expectation that the employer will allow time for learning, which is ultimately for the good of clients. The only unacceptable answer is “never”.
    How they read tells me my next question: if the candidate only reads books – how do they stay up to date? If they only read RSS or Twitter – where do their big ideas come from?
    What do you write? > what do you read? As Ryan Hoover wrote: blogging is the new resume.
  2. How have you changed what you do in the last 12 months? Too much or too little change both indicate a lack of strategic thinking i.e. the candidate isn’t executing against a long term vision. Assuming change did happen though, I want to know what caused it: the market? A new technology? A training course?
  3. You can only do one thing. What is it? Clients have development queues, politics and limited budgets. Agencies need to be pragmatic – and to think on their feet. This is usually my first question after a candidate has delivered their strategy presentation.
  4. What do you think you’ll find hardest about this job? Interviewers and interviewees should be brutally honest with each other and I don’t think I’ve ever hired anyone for an easy job. I’ll spend most of a first stage interview for a sales role trying to put the candidate off – if they can’t be persistent for a job they want, they won’t be persistent for a sale they want.
  5. Have you applied anywhere else? Ask if they mind sharing what stage they’re up to and who with: do you compare yourself with these firms? Ask face-to-face and you can tell more easily if a candidate is being truthful.

Things you might want to try

  • Always have job specs for each of your team members and allow them to add their own thoughts and objectives. It’s always good for each employee to know what’s expected of them, but if they should leave and you need to replace them – or if you want someone else with a similar skill set – it will save you a lot of time interviewing colleagues to find out what they were really good at.
  • Cut interviews short when it’s a hard no. It’s kinder. Give unsuccessful candidates feedback on the spot.
  • Audit your job ads. Somewhere between designing a spec and publishing an ad the whole thing doubles in size. Nobody makes a decision about whether they want to work for you based on the little they read in a job spec so take it out.
  • Establish quickly whether the application is cold. When a prospective client gets in touch just because your firm appeared in a search for “digital marketing agency” you know that: a) you aren’t seen as meaningfully different to competing firms so you’ll have to accommodate outrageous demands; and b) your cost of sale will be high. It’s the same with hiring staff.
  • Create a scorecard and share it with your colleagues. Divide the scoring criteria between essential and desirable. Be honest about which skills fall into which categories. Does this job really need a degree?
  • Brainstorm what opportunity your company could represent. Good candidates often come to us from junior positions in bigger agencies (want to get noticed) or more senior positions in smaller agencies (want to work with bigger brands and brighter minds). Not many candidates trade like for like unless it’s for a pay increase.
  • Always answer the phone to recruiters. They’ll give you information about who’s looking and why; salary expectations in the market; and gossip about your firm. I’ve also hired 5 technical (and difficult to find) staff via a recruiter who originally got in touch with me about a position I didn’t end up interviewing for, just because the process I went through with them matched the kind of experience I’d want to give my new hires.
  • Read some more tips from me and others on the ContentKing blog.

If you feel you could benefit from some help designing job specs or hiring the right people, get in touch…and if you have different ideas on how to make good hires I’d love to hear them in the comments.