The Right Stuff

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Rich Silverstein of Goodby Silverstein & Partners and R/GA head Robert Greenberg weigh in on what matters -- in people and profiles -- when recruiting new talent.

What's your take on the talent coming out of ad/design schools these days? Has it gotten better or worse? Does it seem like schools are keeping pace with the changes in the industry today?

GREENBERG: Over the years I have always been a champion of building relationships with educational institutions, whether through teaching or as a board member. This gives me a unique perspective on the educational process. Currently my involvement includes being president of the Art Directors Club, which has a focus on educational outreach, and sitting on the Dean's Council Advisory Board of Tisch School of the Arts and teaching at the school. I am also on the board of directors of the following organizations: Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has an outreach program to minorities in the performing arts; Parsons School of Design, and their Parsons Lab program, bringing together clients and students to develop prototypes, and VCU Adcenter.

Generally the programs are getting better, especially the ones in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. They have the advantage of tapping into the talented pool of industry professionals located in the area as adjunct professors, so the level of teaching and experience is higher. On a broader scale, agencies and companies have increasingly been building relationships with local institutions.

SILVERSTEIN: I see them as the same kind of students. Probably they get more sophisticated. With technology like PhotoShop, the ads look more finished because our world is that way. You could probably realize your ideas better now than in years past. But kids who came out of art school 10, 20 years ago are the same as the kids that come out today. They don't have the real world experience, they've got a lot of energy, the same energy they had 20 years ago and that's great. We've got to keep having them come out of schools and it's wonderful to have them. It's no different than AAA Ball. You go from college to AAA ball to the pros, you've got to have some kind of farm league and that's what schools are. I think they're very important.

Which are the schools from which you've seen the best talent emerge?

GREENBERG: Over the years, Parsons, Tisch School of the Arts and Art Center.

Do you hire according to discipline (copywriter/art director/interactive, etc.)? If so, what do you look for when it comes to each of these?

GREENBERG: Although we hire according to discipline, we look for talented people who are creative, collaborative and conceptual.

Here is an example of what I mean. Recently I presented to 500 design students from England. They all looked like they could have lived in New York. But there was an interesting difference; they were all trained according to the old style, using the English apprenticeship model, with very little access to technology. A clear benefit of this process is that they were taught to think. Sometimes technology overpowers ideas and people tend to think less. We look for people who think more, because they can learn the tools at R/GA.

SILVERSTEIN: We do go for discipline. We will hire an online designer, and we will hire an art director. Sometimes the art director goes and does some online, sometimes the online art director becomes an art director in advertising, but it doesn't start that way.

Portfolios -- what makes one stand out? Where do the best portfolios come from (ad schools/four-year programs/elsewhere)?

GREENBERG: What are really needed are better programs within the schools to teach students about the importance of portfolios and how to present their work. Over the years, I have seen sloppy ones and really great examples. But if a portfolio is poorly designed, we won't hire the person, period.

SILVERSTEIN: It's timeless. A good idea, well executed. That's never changed, it will never change. That's what we do. And, I guess because technology can realize ideas so well, you probably judge the book harsher than you would have done in the past. Because technology is capable of reproducing anything these days, there's no excuse for a book that's designed badly or looks ugly. There are too many ways to make it look good, so you better make it look good.

Beside the creative skills required for the job, what other qualities are important in a new hire?

GREENBERG: One of the most important qualities in an applicant is their passion. Beyond that, since collaboration has always been an underlying tenet of R/GA, being a team player is equally significant. I also look to see if someone has taken time out to create personal projects.

One area that is severely underdeveloped and greatly influences whether someone obtains a job at R/GA is their interviewing skill. So beyond presenting their work, they need to understand and learn how to interview, which is rarely taught in schools.

In hiring new talent, what are the telltale signs of someone who would do well at (and do good for) your particular agency?

GREENBERG: For any position in the agency, we try to discern whether the person is conceptual. Specifically in visual design, I look to see if there is implied motion to their work, even if they are presenting a print portfolio. I extrapolate out their ability to transfer that skill to developing something such as video.

Historically R/GA has placed a high importance on integrating creative and technology. Now as an interactive agency, our engineers possess an understanding of design and the designers have extensive knowledge about software applications. Part of the reason that this model is successful is that we have developed a sort of apprenticeship, allowing employees to grow, encouraging outside learning, fostering training and supporting movement between disciplines. There are many examples of people who start at R/GA and go on to be significant leaders in the industry or entrepreneurs.

What are your turnoffs?

SILVERSTEIN: Arrogance, self-importance. People who think they know everything. When you tell them you don't like something in their book, how they handle it. If they push back too much, it's kind of like, so that's what it's going to be like when they present work to me when they're working here. You interview them as if they're already working here. Do I want to hear ideas from this person? Not that people can't have strong points of view -- I want that -- but there's just the way people might interpret a critique. If I realize it's going to be a struggle, then I think, "You know what, I don't want to deal with this."

Given the changing scope of advertising, do you think it's become more important for agencies to search for creatives outside the traditional/expected areas? If so, from where besides ad schools have you sought out talent?

GREENBERG: I think it is less about the scope and more about how the advertising business is changing. Many of the best students are going into other industries and it is harder to find good talent. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to look beyond traditional establishments such as universities and schools for recruitment.

People at R/GA come from a range of places including corporations, the entertainment business, technology companies, vendors etc. The bottom line is that we hire people from anywhere, but more often than not, they are coming from places other than traditional agencies.

R/GA's foundation is based in the Bauhaus; that the sum is greater that the individual parts. Traditionally that meant that artists, craftspeople and technologists worked side by side. Today we look for artists, filmmakers, writers from underground magazines and people who are self-taught. I was self-taught and, interestingly, many of the people at R/GA were self-taught even if they graduated from universities. They are very motivated and can easily learn new skills on the job.

SILVERSTEIN: That's always interesting to me. It's always interesting that somebody started out as a psychology major and turned to writing, someone was an artist who became an art director. I kind of like the fact that people might have a life outside of advertising. I've never been one who loves advertising. I kind of like other things more and use advertising as an outlet. But I don't have any rules. If you have advertising and you're good, fine you can have a job here. But if you come from another discipline and you're into advertising, that's good too.

Do you believe it's important to promote diversity at your agency? If so, are you proactively hiring to do so?

GREENBERG: We are fortunate that as an interactive advertising agency we have had greater luck in pursuing and developing a diverse culture. It is important to maintain this diversity, since every group brings something different to the table. The web by its very nature is global, so having a diverse culture at the agency not only enhances the breadth of ideas, but allows us to construct better multicultural experiences for consumers.

SILVERSTEIN: There's gotta be more diversity. We certainly don't go out of our way not to do it. It's interesting, first the book comes through -- from a male, female, black, white. I don't know, I look at the book. If the book's interesting I want the person. I don't care. We'd love to have more African-Americans at our company, creatively, but it seems I just don't get to see them. So I would say to the schools, are you guys doing anything? It would be nice if the mix of people in the agencies reflected the mix of society. I don't think it's every happened, but I think it's important to have more of that.

In your experience, have ad school grads proved to have a leg up over those who didn't study advertising?

GREENBERG: No, the best experience is practical.

Given that advertising as we know it has grown beyond just TV and print, do you look specifically for people with experience in, for example, interactive, guerilla marketing?

SILVERSTEIN: I believe anyone who has talent can work in any of those disciplines, and we probably look for something in their book that's just interesting. It could be online, it could be a poster, it could be guerilla. It just has to have a really cool idea. And then we figure, that person gets it and can go and do other disciplines. I don't expect them to come out with a great TV reel because they're not going to have TV. And I believe that interactive is just going to be part of our tools.

What other disciplines have you observed to have produced impressive talents?

GREENBERG: Because we are a creatively-driven agency, we look at people who wanted to be artists but ended up in other areas such as architecture, industrial design, product design, car design, film etc. Many of these people had some focus on creative and are more likely to transition into interactive than traditional advertising, because their skills can be easily transferred. This is especially true of younger generations, who easily work on multiple communication platforms. Interactive also has the advantage of being the one medium where all forms of media converge.

Any interesting recruiting anecdotes about someone you hired in the last few years that today has become a formidable, up and coming name in the industry?

GREENBERG: The superstars that emerge from R/GA come to the company early on in their career. They quickly get recognized as a significant force, get promoted and become leaders both within the company and externally. We give employees the opportunity to grow and expand their thinking, as opposed to hiring high level people who are already established. As a result, they have a hand in creating the internal culture and seeing their ideas quickly realized.
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