GOING FISHING: WITH AGENCIES CLAMORING TO HIRE THE SAME SENIOR CREATIVES, RECRUITING HAS BECOME A COMPLICATED ANGLING EXPEDITION. HERE'S HOW TO REEL IN THE RIGHT PEOPLE.

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Last year, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein wanted to hire Gerry Graf and David Gray, a BBDO/New York creative team that had produced a quirky, interesting campaign for Snickers. So the West Coast agency tendered a respectable offer. Then, BBDO -- long known in the industry for its deep pockets -- countered generously, reportedly almost doubling Goodby's offer.

So what happened was, these guys took the money, right? Wrong. Graf and Gray joined Goodby.

The moral of the story: In the agency recruiting wars, now raging full force in these bull-market, full-employment, new-business-booming times, the rules of engagement are different on the creative side. While account-siders are perhaps more likely to sell themselves to the highest bidder, the process of wooing and signing creatives -- the best of whom care at least as much about the work they can do as about the money they take home -- tends to be more complex and subtle. Says industry headhunter Anne Bingman Thomas: "It's a dance of seduction."

And these days, there's a shortage of desirable dance partners, particularly for agencies looking for creatives who bring a complete package of skills and solid experience to the table. "What we're looking for are talented people who also know how to supervise and deal with clients," says Lee Garfinkel of Lowe & Partners/SMS. "It's a limited talent pool." Eric McClelland, the creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day/New York, agrees. "The field is flush with juniors, as always, but there's only a handful of talented heavyweights and middleweights," says McClelland, who claims that he's been looking for a mid-level team for a year.

Agencies seeking that kind of experienced, high-quality talent are usually forced to swipe it from another agency, because such people are not apt to be pounding the pavement. So how do agencies steal top creative talent?

If you happen to be one of advertising's creative elite (which presently consists of five agencies: Goodby Silverstein, Wieden & Kennedy, TBWA Chiat/Day, Fallon McElligott and Cliff Freeman & Partners), it may be as simple as making a phone call. "If Goodby or Wieden & Kennedy calls and offers a job, who's going to say no?" wonders Dany Lennon, a recruiter with Creative Register. But for most agencies, it's not so simple. Recruiters and creative directors agree that bringing in top creative talent is a matter of knowing where to find such people. Then the matter becomes how to approach them, court them and close the deal.

When agencies are looking to stock their arsenal with new creative guns, there are a few places they turn: The award show books and the hot creative shops. The top five creative agencies have all found themselves under siege of late. "Because everyone's fortunes have improved, there's a lot of demand on agencies now to staff up," says Cliff Freeman, "and many are doing that by raiding the top agencies." Perhaps the most beleaguered has been Goodby Silverstein, which has a twofold "problem" -- it's the hot agency in the boiling-over, rapidly-expanding local market of San Francisco. Rich Silverstein complains that Bay area start-up Leagas Delaney has been raiding his agency non-stop for a year. "Enough already!" barks Silverstein. "It's getting tiresome!"

Recruitment insiders say that raiding the handful of top creative agencies is a myopic approach, and may not produce the best results. For starters, there are simply not enough Goodby and Wieden people to go around. And to get them, an agency may have to offer more than the person is really worth. "Some people at our agency are enticed by outsiders offering a big title, big money and responsibility that the person may not be ready for," says Silverstein. "I see some of these Jose Canseco-type offers, and I'm tempted to say, hey, I'll take that [deal] myself."

Recruiter Thomas says it's more productive to go scouting beyond advertising's establishment: "I'm looking for [people] in markets nobody thinks about, like Kalamazoo, Michigan. The talent is out there."

Award show books can point recruiters and headhunters to creative stars, but again, that's too limited a pool to rely on. "You need to get out and see what kind of work is being done all over," says Nancy Rubenstein, the in-house recruiter at Fallon McElligott. McClelland says some of his best leads come from talking to people within his own agency: "After I've hired someone, one of the first things I say is, who have you worked with in the past that was good?" Some shops, such as Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, offer cash incentives -- reportedly, up to a thousand dollars -- to staffers who help bring in creative talent.

Once an agency has set its sights on a prospect, how does it reel in the catch? "We use general pressure, relentlessly applied," says Fred Bertino, president and creative chief at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos. It starts with psychology, he believes: "You have to understand the individual motivations of each person," and the agency must offer to fill the voids in that person's worklife. In the case of Hill Holliday, the carrot is often the chance to do national TV work, a rare opportunity in the Boston market.

The chance to get good work produced and seen by a large audience is often the single most compelling incentive for a creative candidate. "That's the closer," says Silverstein. "You show them the kind of work you're doing, and tell them that this is what they're going to be able to produce if they come aboard." That prospect alone is not always enough, it turns out, at least not at Goodby. Blame fancy titles, says Silverstein. He believs his agency has lost many people in the recruiting wars because its structure is horizontal, and not many people have titles. "So when someone comes along and says to one of our people, 'You can be the top enchilada,' that's enticing to them."

What if your problem isn't a lack of an impressive-sounding titles, but a perception among candidates that your shop hasn't yet joined the pantheon of supreme advertising creativity? Eric McClelland, who has been revamping Chiat's New York operation, promises candidates a chance to forge the soul of the agency: "The way I pitch this to candidates is: Come build something with me," he explains. "I say to them, 'You know all the times you said to yourself that you'd run things differently if you had a chance? Well, here's your chance to do it differently.' "

Autonomy is also a big selling point. "If you're trying to bring in senior people," says Hill Holliday's Bertino, "they need to know that they're going to be able to run their own businesses, and not have to report to three different layers."

What else makes creatives happy? Great colleagues and a boss who has their respect. "In a close call, the creative director makes the difference now," says Dany Lennon. Carol Vick, head of recruitment at the Atlanta ad school Creative Circus, agrees: "Candidates are asking themselves, 'Is this someone I can learn from?' They want to work for a guru-type."

And if you run a sweatshop, don't get your hopes up of snagging the best creatives in the business. Many creative directors have begun to emphasize a kinder and gentler culture in their pitch to candidates. "I tell them to talk to people at the agency, and also to look at our turnover rate," says Lowe's Garfinkel. Bill Oberlander, creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, encourages candidates to immerse themselves in the culture. "I try to get them to spend a long period of time visiting the agency, to get a feeling for how people work," he explains.

Little things in the agency environment can have a big impact: Are there recreation areas (and if so, is anybody using them)? Is there a day care center? Such things "send a signal to candidates about the agency culture," says Bertino.

And then there's the green stuff. Salaries on the creative side have continued to escalate for the heavy hitters who occasionally are the object of bidding wars. (Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the current new-business boom, though, have been top-notch freelancers brought in for pitches, who can make as much as $2,500 a day.) The juiciest offers tend to come, not surprisingly, from the biggest agencies: "It's always been the case that the big agencies overpay people and then those people feel as if they can't leave because of their salaries," says Rubenstein. Lennon concurs that "there are cushy deals coming from agencies with hacky clients," but she says that most of the quality creative agencies "have wisely clamped down on creative salaries. It's not a money war, the way it was in the 1980s."

Still, according to industry headhunters, a senior art director or copywriter can command a salary of close to $150,000 at most of the big agencies -- but less at the Elite Five, whose desirability to creatives keeps wages somewhat more modest. (Starting salaries for creatives hover around $30,000. At most big shops, that sum typically doubles in about two to three years, and generally balloons to a cool hundred grand for creatives with five or six years' experience and a really good book. Promotions to ACD or CD can result in double that amount, depending on the agency and its location.) But take-home wages aren't everything.

"We tailor the package to the person," says Bertino. "If they have kids, we have programs where the bonus is put into annuities that go toward education. In other cases, they may want the money upfront, and we can do that, too." Thomas says it's not uncommon now for agencies to throw a variety of perks into the mix, such as a car allowance, health club membership, a sign-on bonus or a bonus tied to performance.

Creative directors know they must present attractive packages, but many insist that they won't get into bidding wars for talent. Oberlander compares salary-bidding to a kind of bribery. "There's nothing more pathetic," he says, "than trying to get someone to come to your party when they don't really want to."

TEN TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS

How to steal your competition's best people

1. CAST YOUR NET WIDE

Don't just raid the obvious places -- the shop down the road, the top handful of famous creative agencies and the teams represented in award show books. The best recruiters are scouring smaller markets and the international scene, and looking for creators of good work that may not have made it into the show books.

2. USE YOUR OWN CREATIVE STAFF AS RECRUITERS

Ask them for leads; offer incentives if someone they recommended gets hired; invite them to share their views on the agency with candidates.

3. PLANT SEEDS AHEAD OF TIME

Recruiters say one of the biggest mistakes an agency can make is to wait until it's under the gun to hire talent. The best people are often hired slowly, and only after a relationship has been forged.

4. SELL THE CHANCE TO DO GOOD WORK

The biggest incentive to most creatives is not money -- it's the opportunity to produce better and more visible work (which eventually yields money).

5. SELL AUTONOMY

Senior people are usually looking for more independence, more responsibility, and more freedom. They may say they don't care about titles, but they like the autonomy that comes with a title.

6. PROMOTE THE CULTURE

Sweatshops are for kids. Senior creatives want to be assured that they can have a life. Show them how the agency works, and that your people are not miserable.

7. OFFER UP PARTNERS AND GURUS

Creatives worth their salt want to work with, and for, people who are smarter than they are.

8. IF YOU CAN'T HIRE 'EM, ACQUIRE 'EM

Some of the best creative peolpe are not looking for a job -- they're running their own agencies. When Lowe & Partners was looking for a top CD, they "hired" Gary Goldsmith by acquiring his agency, Goldsmith/ Jeffrey.

9. OFFER A HUGE CONTRACT, A CORNER OFFICE, AND A CUSHY 9-to-5 WORK SCHEDULE

A particularly effective strategy for large, hacky agencies with toilet paper clients.

10. BUILD A REPUTATION LIKE GOODBY SILVERSTEIN'S, OR WIEDEN & KENNEDY'S

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