agency recruitment

How to attract, recruit and retain great agency staff.

Finding the right people for your agency is never easy. Competition is stiff, if you’re looking for great people, and highly qualified, experienced talent can be hard to find. Whether you’re a global leader, or a growing boutique brand, you’ll need to fight to attract, recruit and retain the right team for your agency.

Here are some points on agency recruitment, to ensure you’re doing all in your power to build a high performing organisation.

Stage 1 – Attract

When you’re thinking about getting the best possible people into your business, it can be helpful to break it down into several different stages.

First off – you need to attract talent to your organisation. This means having an internal and external brand that people warm to – being a business you would be proud to work for. Be known by the right potential employees, by having a presence in universities and colleges to snap up graduate talent. And of course, managing your reputation. Keep an eye on sites such as Glassdoor, which allow employees, interviewees, and ex-team members to leave feedback and reviews based on their perception of your business. As in the sharing economy, these scores count.

Here are a couple of other considerations when it comes to attracting your next high flier.

Make sure you’re fishing in the biggest possible talent pool

Highly qualified and experienced people are in demand. To get the best for your organisation, you need cast your net as widely as possible.

It’s a good idea to consider where you’re looking for the right person for your role. If you’re running a local neighbourhood shop, chances are you’ll want to find your next employee right in your backyard. If you’re running a diverse agency with a global presence, or global ambitions, your approach needs to be different.

How can you reach the right people no matter where they are in the world? Can you offer support with a visa or relocation for the right talent, even if they’re in the wrong place? Is it possible to do the job on a flexible or remote basis? This would open it up to more working parents, or carers juggling family responsibilities with pursuing their careers? Are you asking for specific qualifications – a degree or MBA, or a certain number of years of experience – because they are really needed, or just for form’s sake? Could this stipulation discourage your next potential CEO from even considering your business? As Chris Pearce, chief executive of media group TMW Unlimited says, character eats qualifications for breakfast.

Scout the talent early

Another smart route, open to big and small agencies alike, is to identity and work with talent, early. WPP offered close to 8,000 internships and apprenticeships to students during 2017, at their locations all around the globe. In the UK, these opportunities included programmes designed to reach out to young people who had come through the care system, and students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Not only does this help WPP’s corporate social responsibility agenda, it helps pick out the top talent, and have them engaged with the WPP brand even before they’re seeking a full time job.

Of course, there’s also the graduate milk round – well utilised by all the major agencies. Grad schemes with big brands are competitive, and looking for candidates with a unique view and voice. To give you a sense of how hot these jobs are, Publicis UK will only take on four grads this year. But whether you’re taking on one apprentice, offering work experience for a handful of people, or bringing in a large global graduate intake for a big brand, starting them early, pays.

Stage 2 – Select and recruit

Once you have attracted candidates, you need to sift through the potential to find the right people for your business. Remember, recruiting is a two way street. Your candidates are judging you just as you are them. The most talented will also be in the running for other jobs, and more inclined to walk away if the process you follow looks sloppy, unfriendly or unprofessional. Here’s how to avoid that.

Know what you’re looking for

While this could be as simple as having a well crafted job description, the truth is that the work that many agency team members do, far exceeds what is actually set out within their role profiles. More and more, we are asked to pick up new projects, flex our working style, and deliver quality in an agile and flexible team structure. WPP’s ‘Team energy’ is a great – and celebrated – example of this approach.

So how do you make sure that you’re recruiting the right person, for a role which will inevitably change and flex with different projects and business needs. Having a good job description is certainly one thing. But having a clear view of how you’ll judge these other competencies and qualities, is another. Spending time with the team discussing this before advertising a role – and again before shortlisting – is a good way to iron out your thinking. How will you assess flexibility? Can you really know passion and drive when you see it? What measure of influence, of creativity or of judgement will you use? How can you decide if a candidate is really an exemplar of your business core values?

Nail your interview process

Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s a good time to think about the candidate interview experience. This is the point at which they will judge you – just as much as you are judging them. So it pays to take a considered and thorough approach.

Draw up questions in advance, which cover competence, and experience based enquiry. There are multiple examples of the type of question you might use available online. Interviews should be carried out by a trained staff member, and notes are taken throughout. Whatever decision you make, ensure you’re clear on your rationale, and are as honest as possible with your candidates. Stick to deadlines for feedback, and manage the process professionally. Even if you’re telling a candidate they were unsuccessful, agencyland is a small world. Word will quickly get round if individuals – especially at more senior grades – feel badly treated.  

Naturally, recruitment is governed by swathes of employment law. If the hiring manager is inexperienced, it might pay to have an HR professional or colleague help out.

Recruit for potential

It’s been over 20 years since McKinsey popularised the term ‘war for talent’. The phrase describes the difficulties faced by employers chasing down an ever decreasing number of increasingly mobile, highly sought after high potential employees. In mid- to high-complexity and seniority roles, companies can struggle to find the right people to replace the baby boomers now retiring. Not least because high potential talents can take their pick of jobs from a global pool.

One way that businesses can get the talent they need is by actively recruiting for potential, attitude and learning agilities. Rather than narrowing the focus on whether an individual can deliver a specific role. Think about how Ogilvy have recently restructured, to feature 12 crafts within their organisation. A great candidate, it follows, will have or be willing to gain experience in several of these crafts, to be a well rounded team member.

An easy way to think of this, is to recruit for a grade or two above the position. Look at the candidate’s potential to learn, grow and stretch as well as their track record in delivering at a similar level. This will ensure you find people who can stick around for the long term and develop with the business.

Stage 3 – Retain

You’ve found the right one for you – now the real work begins. Too often, all the effort in resourcing is front loaded. Budgets and time are spent in finding the candidates and getting to the point of offer. Then your new, highly motivated and enthusiastic team member joins, only to be left to navigate their role without the guidance they need to succeed.

Don’t set your new recruit up for failure. Not only is it an expensive folly to lose new recruits early on, it is also damaging to team morale, and word will quickly get round that you’re not interested in looking after your team.

Manage the offer, and induction period tightly

Recruitment doesn’t actually stop at the moment an offer is accepted. Or even at the point that a new employee turns up to work for their first day in the job. There should be a planned induction period in which the new team member gets the training and support needed to settle in.

This period, can be formal or relaxed, but it should absolutely be tailored to the role and the individual you’re dealing with. During this period – which may last 4 to 12 weeks depending on the complexity of the role, make sure your new recruit has easy access to senior team members to discuss their thoughts, observations and issues. Not only does this increase their chances of success, you might also learn something about how a newcomer experiences your agency – for good and bad.

Prioritise retention

A simple point before we close. This should be a no brainer – but it bears repeating. If you have high quality talent in your organisation, work hard to keep them. That means offering internal development opportunities, having honest career discussions, and taking a risk from time to time. It also means identifying the most talented within your team, and nurturing them, creating opportunities for them to grow.

Although there’s no solid benchmark for the number of roles filled internally versus external hires, each organisation can create their own ideal. An 80/20 split internal/external might work for example, and focus the business on keeping the very best of the talent you have. Retaining a great employee has numerous benefits over hiring someone new. It’s cheaper, you maintain organisational knowledge and expertise, and don’t run the risk of your biggest talent defecting to your biggest competition. Everyone wins.

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Helen Johnson
+61 404 458 797


Christian Arpe-Hansen
+45 31 36 66 03