How to Hire the Very Best Creative Talent for Your Agency

As much as the creative industry talks about the importance of workplace culture, it seems few companies actually walk the talk. This is a real problem for any creative agency trying to find and hire the best talent.

I recently spent 13 hours in a Seattle coffee shop, excessively wired on caffeine to meet with 15 potential candidates for an open position on our marketing team.

Everyone I talked with had either worked in creative industries like design firms or marketing/advertising agencies or had strong experience strategizing and creatively churning out compelling content to promote their companies.

But, despite their creative backgrounds, I was shocked to hear they were all still craving some basic cultural values that progressive companies promote. Mainly; room to be creative, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and meaning behind their work.

The war for talent is real. We may take it for granted as we’re wading through hundreds of well-qualified resumes, but the best talent can afford to be picky about where they work. When you’ve narrowed down your top few candidates, it can be disheartening to find out that they’re already weighing their options elsewhere. And even if you hire that perfect person for the role, keeping them is another challenge altogether. Shaping an agency culture that empowers your employees to do their best creative work is paramount to success. Otherwise, they might end up in a lot of coffee meetings of their own.

So, how do you ensure you not only find the best talent, but also communicate your values and culture so every candidate is over the moon to sign your offer letter? Here, we’ve collected insights from our own hiring experiences and from industry leaders to help you find, hire, and keep the best talent for your team.

Designing Your Hiring Process

Define clear goals

The moment you post the job, applications will start flooding in, so it’s important to take some time to clearly define what you and the company want out of your new hire.

  • How will this position contribute to your overall business strategy?
  • What kind of personality and skill set are you looking for?
  • What’s your budget and timeline?

Answering these questions up front will help you be crystal clear with your candidates and align your team throughout the hiring process.

For our team, one of the biggest challenges as we grow is to make sure we’re not hiring too broadly. It’s tempting to look for candidates who are willing to wear a hundred hats, like many of us have done from the start. But we’ve found that defining the actual needs we’re trying to fill with each role has allowed us to hire incredibly skilled, specialized people. It’s also a far more productive conversation with prospective employees than the awkward “So um, in this role, you’ll basically be doing it all. Do you think you’d do a good job at… everything?”

By methodically outlining which skills we’re after for each new position, our hiring process is helping propel our company towards our longer-term vision and goals.

Polish your process

Consider how each step of your recruiting process affects everyone involved. For candidates, this is the first — and possibly most important — impression they have of your agency, your people, and your culture. For internal stakeholders, this process can either feel energizing or stressful.

Once I narrowed down our candidate list from over 150 resumes to the coffee-shop 15, to the final 3, I brought them in for longer-form interviews with team members from each discipline.

I sent our group of interviewers detailed emails with a copy of the job description, our original hiring needs, information about each candidate’s background with my initial thoughts, samples of their work, and some information each candidate sent me post-coffee explaining what they could contribute to 10,000ft. My goal was to ensure each team member felt prepared to dig in and understand how the applicants would contribute to our business goals and our culture.

I then sent each candidate a similar email outlining the schedule, who they’d be meeting with, a quick description of that person’s role at 10,000ft, and which area each interviewer would be focusing on. I wanted to make sure the candidates had the opportunity to be prepared walking in, to quickly move past surface-level fluff.

The more polished your process, the easier it will be for everyone involved.

Get internal buy-in

Before you begin hiring, make sure you have buy-in from the top so you’re supported from the get-go. This might require you to look through your resourcing data to support your business case for the new hire.

For example, a three month view into your team’s utilization across current and future projects will help decision-makers understand your staffing needs. This ensures your entire team is aligned around why this new hire benefits the company, and how they individually contribute to making the hiring process successful.

I’ve found that when you get your team on board early on, everyone also becomes excited to be part of the process and they’re much more invested in the long run.

Think PR, not HR

“I approach recruiting as more PR than HR,” says Dave Miller, Artefact’s Director of Recruiting. “You’ll see me talking with people all the time, giving a tour, hosting an event, or sitting on non-profit boards. Part of the reason we get so many applicants is because of our brand amplification, brand equity, and our visibility in the marketplace.”

He also relies heavily on his referral-based network, both online and offline. “For example, I just had 122 people apply for a Visual Designer position in the first four days, and all 122 ended up being no’s. But the one person we were most interested in never even applied. I met him last year and when this job opened, I said, ‘I’m going to get this guy!’”

What Should You Look For?

Portfolio

No matter how much you like a candidate’s personality, you simply cannot ignore their technical and creative skills.

“In the case of hiring designers, it’s important to remember that it’s still about the work,” says Mark Rolston, founder of argodesign and former Chief Creative Officer at Frog. “I’ve often found really talented people who simply lacked the social skills to perform in an interview. But I hired them anyway and they went on to be incredible design partners.”

Personality

I chose to meet each of our candidates in a coffee shop instead of over the phone for our first round of interviews to help get to know everyone’s personality in a more relaxed environment; something that’s difficult to do on a 30-minute phone call.

“Hire interesting people,” says Mark Rolston. “In the brief time I have to get to know someone in an interview, I try to spend some time way off-topic to see how they pivot.”

Beyond their resume, think about whether you’ll actually want to sit next to this person and dig into work together. Their personality, communication style, how they think, and their sense of humor are all going to be a part of your daily work life for the foreseeable future, so make sure they gel with you and your teammates.

Diversity

Many companies walk on eggshells around diversity because they don’t want to say anything wrong, but diversity means more than gender and ethnicity. You should also consider diversity of thought, background, and life experience in your hiring process.

Leslie Bradshaw of Bionic advises agencies to find talent in unexpected and under-represented places. “When you venture beyond densely populated cities (and even the coasts), blue chip brands, and top 10 schools,” she writes, “you can discover pockets of highly capable—and diverse—talent ready to loyally contribute. Be the company to give them their break, and they will forever remember you for it—and likely refer other hidden gems like them to you in the future.”

You don’t want clones walking around your office, especially in a creative work environment. Echo chambers don’t breed innovation.

What Should You Reconsider?

Culture Fit

Once considered the single most important factor in the process, the term “culture fit” has often been used as a scapegoat for discriminatory hiring practices.

Instead of looking for someone you’d want to get a beer with, consider how every new employee will enhance your agency culture and help drive your strategic business goals.

We look for T-shaped employees at 10,000ft. These are people who have two kinds of characteristics, as IDEO CEO Tim Brown explains it. “The vertical stroke of the T is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. The horizontal stroke of the T is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective—to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”

Because our culture is highly collaborative, the top line of the T is important for us to speak the same language. The vertical line ensures that every individual has something unique to add to our creative process and workplace culture based on their individual expertise and experience.

Salary Expectations

“I don’t ask people how much they want to get paid anymore,” says Dave Miller. There’s plenty of research showing steep pay inequality and an uneven playing field for women and minorities.

“Let’s say I’m hiring for a role with a budget of $100,000, and I have two candidates—a male and a female with the exact same background, appeal, and potential. If I ask how much they want to get paid, the female might tell me $80k, because she was making up to that in a previous position. The male, who already started off at a higher pay, might tell me $110k.”

This creates a problematic situation for both the company and the candidates. “All of a sudden, I know I could offer this female $90k and she’d feel really good about it, and I’m getting her experience at a deal by coming in $10k under budget. Meanwhile, I could offer this guy the full $100k. Even if we met him in the middle, he’s getting $15-20k more than she is, all because she’s been systematically underpaid and didn’t know she could ask for so much more. It’s heartbreaking.”

Rather than asking for salary expectations, set a budget. How much is it worth to have somebody who meets all the qualifications of the job description? Change the conversation from “What can we get out of somebody?” to “What are we willing to pay for this role?” and consider the context around the role you’re hiring for.

You can use 10,000ft to help determine your budget, and do your research on sites like Glassdoor or Payscale to ensure you’re in a competitive range for that role’s salary.

Closing Thoughts

With all the mediocre hiring practices out there, we believe the creative industry can do better. If you truly want to attract and retain top-tier talent, it’s worth investing in top-tier hiring practices.

If your culture is built on innovation and artistry, your hiring process is an opportunity to showcase that to your candidates. In a sea of similar interview experiences, yours can be a buoy in their search. And they’ll be more likely to jump on the opportunity to join a team that appreciates what they have to offer.

overcoming agency challenges guide

Natalie Rohde
August 17th, 2017
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