Stop Hiring Based Only on Category Experience

The Best Person for a Job May Have Far More Important Skills

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Paul S. Gumbinner
Paul S. Gumbinner
There's no question that there are far more job candidates than there are job openings. With advertising-industry unemployment at historically high levels, there are many excellent candidates available. Among them, agencies are being very selective, often hiring people only with similar category experience to their clients' business. But are they hiring the best candidates? In a buyer's market, employers can and should be choosy -- they are able to bring in wonderful people at all levels and in all disciplines. But because most companies are limiting their candidate pool, they are missing out on some very good talent.

By hiring people who already have brand or category experience, agencies are screening for résumés rather than talent. In fact, during the past year, we have had jobs for advertising people with backgrounds so specific, it was a nearly impossible task. We have been asked to look for people with dog-food experience; a person with at least three years' experience advertising GI tract medications to physicians, but who also has direct-to-consumer experience; a restaurant person who has worked on quick serve, but not fast food; a consumer-electronics person who has experience marketing package goods, computers and, possibly, appliances. Perhaps the most absurd job was for an agency executive, who had to have been an actual investment banker, but also had to have retail-banking advertising knowledge with 10 to 15 years of experience. If that weren't enough, the job paid $125,000 (we turned down the assignment).

We understand that sometimes it is simply a matter of a client's dictating who they want on their account. The fee system has put clients in full charge of their agencies so that clients can dictate how their accounts are staffed. But when clients leave the hiring open, many agencies often take the safe alternative and hire category experience anyway. There's no question that bringing in someone who knows the brand or category has its advantages. Familiarity presumably shortens the learning curve. It also makes sense that clients often request new agencies to hire people who have previously worked on their account, which is totally understandable.

But this need for experience can get carried to extremes. We have had job orders for junior account executives and even assistants that require finding someone with category background. At this level, that makes little sense.

In trying to understand this situation, the clearest answer I have received was some years ago by Bob Berenson, former president of Grey Advertising. He once told me that hiring experience often occurs because of panic among mid-level account people when someone resigns. He called it "fear of client." This fear leads a person to reassure the client that the departing employee, no matter how good, will be replaced by someone better who knows the category. Once said, hiring category experience becomes a mandate.

There is a paradox when hiring people with this line of thinking. For new accounts, the agency was probably hired because of the insights they developed during the pitch. The agency's fresh thinking is what won the business in the first place. Hiring for a specific background is anathema. For established accounts, agencies should crave new thinking. Undoubtedly there will be people both above and below the new employee who will know the business; why duplicate what is already there?

However, it's not the agency's fault. I strongly believe this situation has been caused by the advertisers themselves. The fee system leaves little room for agencies to learn the nuances of their clients' business. Rather, they are paid only to create ads and get the work out quickly. There is little time to learn the business, and fees have been cut to the point where there is no incentive or ability for agencies to spend the time learning their clients' business. Understandably, they compensate by hiring people with a presumed shorter learning curve on the business.

While hiring someone with specific product experience is understandable and often necessary at senior levels, it should never preclude hiring the best person to do the job, regardless of background. If the job is specified correctly, category experience may be relatively unimportant and could be a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The best person for the job may not necessarily have brand or category experience, but may have other skills which are far more important to the successful running of the business.

With so many good people on the street it is time for agencies and their clients to work together to reconsider who they hire -- and start opening their minds as to the best candidates to hire for the long term, regardless of background.

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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