Agencies: Don't Be So Quick to Reject Client-Side Job-Seekers

Only 10% of Candidates May Be Appropriate, but the Right Hires Can Bridge the Understanding Gap

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Paul S. Gumbinner
Paul S. Gumbinner
I meet a lot of client types -- advertising managers, brand and marketing people and others -- who tell me that they would like to work at an ad agency. Some of them once worked on the agency side and want to go back. But 90% of the client-side marketing types I meet should not be at an agency. Some are desperately out of work and are looking for any employment they can get and simply don't belong at an agency. Others just don't have the right temperament for agency life.

But the few (10%, maybe) who actually could do well at an agency are often rejected out of hand, without even being interviewed. Agencies of all types -- general, promotion, digital/interactive, even event-marketing agencies -- just will not talk to them. When asked, agencies rarely give a cogent answer as to why they don't like to hire marketing executives. It may be some kind of unwritten rule that has been handed down from one agency executive to another with no apparent reason.

The best rationale for not hiring brand people or marketing executives seems to be twofold. The first is that clients, ultimately, can tell their agencies what to do. Therefore, client types may lack the finesse that agencies require in order to negotiate through the complexities of dealing with creative. The second is that clients may not be hands-on enough within the context of creative development and don't know enough about the intricacies of managing that process. While both comments may have some validity, agencies' unwillingness to meet and hire qualified, advertising-savvy marketing people is unfortunate. Some, indeed, would make great agency executives.

As an agency recruiter, when I ask client-side candidates why they believe they can succeed at an agency, the inappropriate ones generally respond with something like, "Because I have been a client, and I know what clients need." Wrong. That response shows a complete lack of sensitivity or understanding of advertising agencies and the creative process. Appropriate candidates exude passion for ad development and have always been fully involved with agency creative people during that process; good clients do indeed know how to negotiate through the intricacies of agency life. Often the best references for these candidates are agency creative and account people with whom they've worked.

A fabulous brand manager who was ultimately successful on the agency side once asked me, "Don't you think that in-house creatives, packaging and promotion people consider themselves to be just as creative as their agency counterparts?" Many marketing people deal with in-house agencies and other creative people on a regular basis.

The real reason agencies are reluctant to hire marketing people is that there is an inherent fear that ex-clients will always side with clients against creative. Truth is, a good former brand or marketing person may know how to sell work more effectively because he can frame their arguments from the client's point of view. This does not mean they will simply give in.

There is another important point to be made. We are constantly seeing studies that show that agencies and their clients lack mutual respect. Clients accuse their agencies of not understanding their business, and, given the nature of fees, that's often true. The client budgeting and compensation process rarely leaves enough room to allow agency account (and creative) to really dig into their business. Client purchasing departments have squeezed agencies to the point where all they can do is execute, leaving little or no time for the partnerships that should exist. Agency people rarely, if ever, go on sales calls with their clients, account people don't do store checks, and few agency people ever get real client-side training (years ago, I worked on a cosmetics account and went through cosmetology training and learned how to apply lipstick, mascara and eye makeup). The result is a crisis of confidence. But hiring the right people from the corporate side can help create mutual understanding, respect and interaction. A former client may well be able to enable an agency to do and sell better work.

The critical factor is that they have to be the right people.

When I have this discussion with senior agency people, they often point to the few public and massive failures some client types have had on the agency side, especially at senior levels. My response is that if those jobs had been specified correctly, the people who failed would not have been hired in the first place. There are plenty of wonderful, non-agency executives who have succeeded at ad agencies. Their success has been predicated upon appropriate hiring.

The key is to define the real problem and hire accordingly. Could there be a period of adjustment to the agency side? Of course. There is a period of adjustment for every new hire. But it's worth repeating: The overwhelming majority of client types do not belong at an agency (just like the same number of agency people who don't belong at the client), but the few who are right could be worthwhile and productive hires. These people should never be summarily dismissed simply because they have not worked for an agency. Agency creative departments have often hired people with no advertising experience because they know that thinking out of the box may be the best solution. Account-management departments might consider doing the same.

Paul S. Gumbinner is president of the Gumbinner Co., New York. Before starting his executive-search firm in 1985, he spent 20 years in advertising, as an account person in categories including package goods, cosmetics, broadcasting, financial services, publishing, retail and fast food.
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