Moreover, the work itself has changed. No longer a matter of discrete technical skills, like programming or Flash design, interactive has become a big-picture pursuit, and creatives who can generate ideas across the web (and other nontraditional platforms) are in short supply. "We cleared out an entire generation of talent when the bubble burst, so the true believers and the ones who had enough talent to make it through have become rarer and rarer birds," says Matt Freeman, CEO at Tribal DDB Worldwide. "You layer on top of that the fact that now the most prized skills are not just pure interactive skills but an ability to integrate interactive thinking with broader marketing thinking, and those people become rarer still."
"We're looking for creative excellence in all media, and then applying that to the digital channel," says Joe Crump, executive creative director at Avenue A/Razor-fish. "So we keep track of the best young kids coming out of the top design and interactive schools, we watch what the top teams at our competitors are doing, and we study the awards shows pretty intensely." Beyond that, agencies are looking for new blood outside the usual talent pool. "We've hired people out of the movie business, TV, game development," Freeman says. "Just about every creative and analytical industry you can think of, and it's because the pool isn't deep enough if you just go for people who have done exactly the same thing before." "The last person I hired told me that she funded her way through school by starting a business to pay for it," says Ajaz Ahmed, co-founder and chairman of interactive agency AKQA. "I loved her story, her energy and passion, and I hired her on the spot. What she demonstrated is the ability to solve a problem."
Most CDs have similar stories. David Droga, founder of year-old boutique Droga5, which made a big splash last year with its "Air Force One" hoax for Marc Ecko, describes his hiring patterns as "pretty schizophrenic," drawing in everyone from a former Microsoft executive and cable programming wizard to "a fantastic Flash animation artist from Brooklyn." Ahmed, meanwhile, says he's hired people from backgrounds as diverse as product design and architecture. Similarly, Anthony Bianchi, director of interactive recruiting at search firm Janou Pakter, says, "Some of the most amazing web designers I've met didn't necessarily study web design. And there have been some really amazing art directors and creative directors I've worked with who came out of architecture." In London, in fact, Wieden + Kennedy has institutionalized the process of reaching out to nonspecialists with a program called WK Side. Now in its third cycle—which is specifically aimed at unearthing digital talent—the program invites four outsiders to join the agency and work on business for three months.
Rick Boyko, managing director at the VCU Adcenter, says "media-agnostic thinking off of big ideas is probably not that new," but the dizzying array of media options has made conceptual thinking more important than ever. "It's still about creative thinking and ideas, and that goes for any discipline," he adds. Droga agrees. "The majority of the people we're hiring are the conceptual people and the strategic people who have a great understanding of what can be done," he says. "And sometimes there's an advantage to having a few people who have no idea what can be done, because they can stretch so much further."
Ironically, as convergence becomes a reality, interactive agencies have even begun reaching out to candidates with nondigital backgrounds, according to Bianchi. "Some of my clients are open to seeing people with a traditional background, in traditional advertising or graphic design, who maybe haven't touched much on interactive but are really interested—because, more and more, a lot of what's living on the web could be on TV."
"You can educate people about the tools they have to work with, but it's harder to educate people to come up with great ideas," Goodby's McGinness says. "While it's great when people have this kind of experience, the most important thing is that they demonstrate the ability to communicate in an intelligent way. The pure creators are still the people you really want. It's just a matter of having enough people to educate the pure creators as to what's feasible and what's not."
And what's feasible doesn't always have to happen in-house. Increasingly, agencies are stocking up on strategic and conceptual talent while turning to outside companies to execute the nuts and bolts—just as they've been doing with TV spots for years. "That's the model that we're going toward, because the creative thinking is much more critical than who executes it," says Kenan Aktulun, a creative director at Digitas in New York. "You can find a lot of people who are specialists in the specific tools—brilliant Flash designers, programmers—but not all of those people are necessarily creative problem solvers."
Anomaly creative director Mike Byrne agrees. "I think there are a lot of people out there who can do what you want on a website, but we're always looking forward to developing the technology in the digital world, as opposed to just doing websites," he says, pointing to YouTube and Nike's integration of running shoes with iPods as examples of truly big ideas. "And there are very few people who can actually bring to the table new thinking about technology." As Droga says, "All I'm trying to do is surround myself with doers who can operate in any space; doers who are creative through and through, but have an understanding of how to link that to a brand. Whatever happens in our industry, conceptual people are our number one offering." And that will be true wherever those people come from. "New energy equals new ideas," says AKQA's Ahmed. "The kind of people we want are difficult to find—but every now and then they find us."