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Agencies, Define Your Uniqueness for Job Seekers

Regardless of the Size or Location of Your Shop, the Recruitment Approach Is Always the Same

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Most people look at a red barn and see exactly that -- a red barn. Instead, I see our challenge. When we try to recruit talent to Barkley in Kansas City, Mo., I know that's the first thing that pops into their heads (an unfair perception, by the way). Every agency has its "red barn." Maybe the agency is too big. Maybe it's too small. Maybe it's located in an undesirable city. Maybe the account roster is lame. It's important to know what you need to overcome before you begin the recruitment process.

Recruiting isn't easy. There are 13,000 ad agencies in the U.S. What can you offer that the other 12,999 cannot? The answer is different for every agency, but the approach is always the same:

1. HAVE A POINT OF DIFFERENCE.

The real key to recruitment is to look within. What makes your agency unique? Is it your creative product? If so, what is it about your work that makes it unique? You have to dig deep to come up with something tangible and ownable. If you don't have a point of difference, you won't attract great talent.

2. LIVE YOUR POINT OF DIFFERENCE.

It's not enough to talk about what makes you different in new-business pitches and in the annual meeting. You need to live it. And that means you need to be structured in a way that allows you to put that difference into action. It's surprising how often agency employees don't even know the agency's point of difference. Too often it's because the agency doesn't have one.

3. LET YOUR EMPLOYEES BE YOUR APOSTLES.

Imagine having hundreds of recruiters working on your behalf. Not only is it possible, it's happening at your agency right now. Your employees know lots and lots of people in your industry. And they are talking to them on a daily basis. If your employees love your agency, then they will be doing a lot of the recruiting for you. Conversely, if it's a miserable experience for them, then many job candidates are going to know about it before a recruiter ever makes contact.

Recruitment is a big investment. And it's going to hurt a little -- or at least it should. All those great ideas that come out of your agency don't happen in a vacuum. Keep in mind that the investment you make is more than just compensation. It's the commitment you make as an agency toward finding the best people possible.

At Barkley, we have two in-house recruiters who connect with external recruiters. We built a networking database that extends beyond our partners to our ex-partners -- even to our vendor partners. We go to ad schools and we distinguish ourselves from the pack by inviting a handful of top students to attend our annual Barkley Creativity Symposium.

We do everything we can to make the recruitment experience a positive one. First, we do our homework. For example, we discovered that a woman named Laura Elms was into art, so we made sure we took her to Kansas City's best galleries. This is significant because Laura wasn't even applying for a job -- her husband was. We realize that sometimes we don't hire just one person but an entire family.

We always give tours of our space, show our work and make it a point to ask intelligent interview questions. For instance, we wouldn't ask somebody about his or her greatest weakness because the answer is probably rehearsed. Instead, we might ask a more probing question such as "Tell me your most monumental screw-up and what you learned from it." There's no way to prepare for a question like that, which means we are more likely to learn something meaningful about how the person deals with adversity.

Recruiting great talent simply can't be an afterthought. It must be a priority. But it's worth the time, the effort and the cost. Because when you find the right people, everything else falls into place.
Brian Booker is CEO-chief creative officer of Barkley, Kansas City, Mo. Clients include Coca-Cola and Build-A-Bear Workshop.
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