Five People Not to Hire

These Folks Could Ruin Your Shop's Culture

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Ben Wiener
Ben Wiener

I hate hiring people. Even though I like what it means -- when we're hiring, we're growing -- the whole process is fraught with peril.

Sure, hiring is an opportunity to improve our organization, bring in new skills and new energy, and generally elevate our offering. On the other hand, it's also a big risk. Every time we bring in someone new, there's the potential we're going to mess with our culture, our work, and the happiness of many people, making a mistake that takes months to correct.

If there are any silver linings to the past couple of years of industry stagnation, it's that as a hiring organization, we've had the luxury of a broad pool of candidates and time to make careful choices.

As the economy improves, and agencies' growth accelerates, however, the number of positions we need to fill at all levels of our companies is steadily increasing. And while we've all made bad hires along the way and we don't know exactly whom we'll end up hiring this year, here are five characters to keep your eyes out for.

1. "Working? Yeah, I've been working. On my blog."
I have yet to meet an agency that hasn't been expanding its capabilities around social media. When you combine the demand for social-media experts with the paucity of people who merit that moniker, a lot of bad hires are going to get made. Don't confuse an applicant's personal social-media presence with his ability to strategize, execute and manage real campaigns on behalf of real clients. And make it clear that clients come first. When an employee's personal blog has five new entries, yet the client blog he's managing has none, it's time for a different candidate.

2. The Counterrevolutionary
Any company that's endured the past couple of years and is thriving now has undoubtedly gone through some process of reinvention. Now that things have stabilized, it's easy for that impulse towards reinvention to fade and for the status quo, or even worse, nostalgia, to rear its head. Watch out for really senior folks who won't accept the fundamental structural changes to our business. A 30-year agency veteran who believes that fat retainers are just around the corner again; that the internet is "just another medium like TV"; and that experience trumps ingenuity won't help you build for the future.

3. Mr./Mr. . Microscopic Spreadsheet
According to Wikipedia, analysis is "the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it." Nowhere in that description does it mention putting huge amounts of data into Excel spreadsheets in four-point type, then using it to bore people. Analysis isn't about data. It's about reaching actionable conclusions to impact marketing effectiveness. If you're expanding your analytics team, make sure everyone you hire can make that leap.

4. The Technofibber
When you look at a prospective creative hire's book, it's sometimes hard to tell what that individual's contribution was to the work. Did she come up with the big idea for the campaign, or just a couple of executions? How much of what you're seeing is her vision, or was it a partner, a director or someone else who was responsible for taking the work from pedestrian to excellent? It's no different with people on the technology side. Be very wary when you hear the "I" word when talking to a web designer or developer. No one works alone. And no one individual has all the skills to marry creativity and technology in a compelling way from ideation through execution. Anyone who shows you a website or iPhone App and says, "I did that," is likely giving short shrift to the contributions of half a dozen other colleagues.

5. The Transcendent Manager
Organizations have gotten flatter both on the agency side and the client side. That means, besides going to meetings and managing direct reports, everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and make real contributions to the work. There are a few folks, however, who believe that once the word "director" hits their business cards, they've transcended such mundane tasks as putting pen to paper themselves, actually writing a presentation or putting forward their own thoughts. Not only are these folks a waste of money, but also they're setting a bad example for your more junior colleagues who are learning bad lessons by example.

There's so much discussion about all the things that have changed in our business, it's easy to lose sight of the constants. This always has been and will continue to be a business driven by talent. Talent attracts talent. Culture retains talent. And bad hires repel talent and damage your culture.

As you go forth and hire this year -- and I hope you'll be doing a lot of it -- perhaps some of our challenging experiences can spare you some mistakes of your own.

Ben Wiener is CEO at Wongdoody, which has offices in Seattle and Culver City, Calif.
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