Why Executive Recruiters Rule the Roost at Agencies

Cadre of Powerful Placement Experts Are Adland's Hidden Creative Talent

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Credit: Taylor Callery for Ad Age

Behind many great creative directors stands a great recruiter.

Though they largely operate behind the scenes, recruiters are crucial players in adland, populating the upper ranks at agencies and matchmaking potential hires with an agency's culture. They know more about the creative-executive landscape than virtually anyone else in the business.

One top-level hire that had their helping hand was Jeff Benjamin, tapped as North American chief creative officer at JWT two years ago. Recruiters were also behind the 2011 placement of Linus Karlsson as chief creative officer at McCann (he has since moved to Commonwealth) and Mark Wenneker joining Mullen as chief creative officer from Goodby Silverstein & Partners in 2008.

Placing top talent has long been a tricky business, and it's only getting trickier. Splashy names can attract headlines and business interest, but the wrong fit can be devastating for the agency and the individual. Personality and cultural fit are more important than a superlative-filled résumé.

Ask any senior creative to cite the big players in the space and they'll rattle off at least one of these names: Dany Lennon, owner of the Creative Register; Gilly Taylor in Los Angeles, of Gilly & Co.; Patrizia Magni, who in 2007 founded Thread on the West Coast; Sarah King, who joined Ms. Magni in 2007 to launch Thread; Ann Marie Marcus, at Marcus St. Jean; and Susan Kirshenbaum and Nancy Temkin at Greenberg Kirshenbaum.

One newer player on the U.S. recruiting scene is Grace Blue, a U.K. firm that opened in New York two years ago and specializes in staffing for media and creative.

Ms. Lennon, a Brit who started as a copywriter in London, according to an Ad Club bio, is the most influential, well-connected and knowledgeable of the group. "In a business that's so based on finding the most amazing talent, there's one person that stands out as 'the guy,'" said one chief creative officer. "It's amazing the kind of relationships she's built."

Ms. Lennon, who has been in the business for 30 years, refers to herself as being in the "creative management and representation" business rather than recruiting. She said she provides services well beyond executive search, including career coaching and advice for creatives on their long-term career goals. Ms. Taylor, a 27-year vet who also casts a big shadow in the business, Ms. Temkin and Ms. Kirshenbaum said they also offer counsel to creatives and agencies.

No matter what you call them, these are powerful people -- which is perhaps why no creative director would agree to be named in this article (it would be "career suicide," said one), and why top recruiters zealously guard their client list.

"Recruiters can be really influential and persuasive as to who gets the opportunities, especially at the senior level where there are few jobs at the top and things bottleneck," said one creative director.

Find the top dog
Most executives interviewed for this article had glowing things to say about recruiters -- except those spurned or passed over for a big job because they weren't backed by a recruiter with pull at major shops.

"Who knows what's going on in the market better than an executive recruiter?" said one agency CEO. "You want to get their trust and use them as counsel. Information is a massive currency."

A common misperception is that recruiters work for creatives, but their business comes from agencies. "They're not agents, they're scouts," said one creative director. Agencies typically pay them on a contingency basis -- meaning they get paid a percentage of the salary of the position they're filling, estimated by some to be up to 30%.

So what kinds of creatives are recruiters looking to bring to agencies? "You can tell who is never going to be the top dog because they don't possess that skill set that is going to be needed," said Ms. Taylor.

To assess if a candidate has what it takes, she asks herself: Can they deliver that inspirational speech? Can they really collaborate with clients and instill earn their trust? Can they really present ideas? Are they good with new business? Are they motivating their creative department?

Aspiring chief creative officers, take note.

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