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If I knew then what I know now ... I'd hire 'different'

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Hiring Differently_3x2 Credit: iStock

If I knew then what I know now... is a weekly series of essays by small agency owners and executives about their experiences in starting up their shops.

BSSP was recently recognized as Small Agency of the Year at the Ad Age Small Agency Awards, a recognition we are grateful for and extremely proud of.

However, over the course of the last 25 years, there were certainly times I smacked my forehead and said "If I knew then what I know now…"

The one that stands out most, and certainly something our industry is beginning to highlight a conversation around is: hire different.

By different, I mean: Smarter, complementary, mutually interdependent, diverse, more experienced, and most important, well, different.

I guess I should have known this from the beginning. After all, I was indoctrinated by David Ogilvy-isms throughout my early career, most notably: "If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants."


Great idea, especially if you've got a nice hiring budget. But when you're a start-up, and let's be honest, we were a start-up for well over a decade, you tend to try to do more with less (including a smaller payroll). I distinctly remember the day Butler, Shine and I were in a car and we blurted out the salaries we were each making at the time we left Goodby. I then realized that we'd never hired anyone at BSSP at a salary higher than that figure. (Were the founders subconsciously unwilling to allow that someone might know more or be better than we were? Armchair psychoanalysis notwithstanding, what did we know? We hadn't done this before.) Not long after, and, during an economic downturn, we bit the bullet and made a big hire. Ironically, that individual didn't work out (a topic worthy of its own "If I Knew Then" column), but we did learn that experience does, in fact, matter. And different experience matters more.

Another reason I should have known this intuitively is that I had always attributed the good fortunes of BSSP to the fact that the three founders had mutually interdependent skills and talent. None of us did the same thing. We complemented each other. There was little redundancy, and, in fact, we created a sum that was greater than the individual parts.

That innate knowledge should have led to an early understanding that such complementary skill sets, diversity of experience and background should accelerate scaling the agency. We've since learned that whether looking at different skill sets, including technology, analytics or strategy, or different backgrounds and life experience, variety will always lead to more creative and effective solutions.

Of course, that's a fine ambition to hold. Today's hyper-competitive talent and hiring environment (in which agencies compete with technology firms, clients and just about everyone else) makes that goal more challenging than ever. BSSP acquired SF Interactive after the first dot-com bust, integrating the services of a digital agency into our own. By the second major new business win within six months of that acquisition, our suspicion that diversity of thought, skills and experience make a meaningful difference was confirmed.

Although the marketing and related industries seem to have finally realized the importance of a diverse workplace as a competitive advantage, and are now working in earnest to create a robust pipeline of talent, change recruiting practices, and create an inclusive work environment, that's one important part of the hire different argument I'm making. Not only must diversity apply to race, gender, and sexual orientation, what I do know now is that for an agency (or any business) to succeed today it must hire differently and diversely across seniority, experience, talent, background, skill set, and way of thinking.

Greg Stern is CEO of BSSP, Sausilito, California

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