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August 7, 2010
Creative Professionals Put to the Test. Literally.
I think we’re witnessing an uptick in testing. I’m not talking about focus group testing. The kind of testing I’m referring to is company and agency tests that creative professionals must take in order to be hired. I think we’re witnessing an upswing in these tests. Why? What’s the harm?

First off, I have firsthand experience. I’ve had everything from take-home tests and open-ended essays to “Spend five minutes and show us some online banner ideas.” I know art directors and designers who’ve spent hours completing creative assignments as a condition of employment.

Why test?

I can remember a day when the biggest test for a creative professional was your portfolio. Of course, some might put work in their books they barely touched. Still, your book proved or disproved your creative ability. It wasn’t questioned.

Now it seems like for companies, ad agencies, and staffing companies, the digital portfolio isn’t enough. They want you to prove you can do the work, so they give you an actual assignment. Until you do it for them, your chances of being hired are nil.

How did this come to be? Blame the Great Recession. There’s greater oversight by management, so testing is a way to show management that steps were taken to prove the right hire was made. It’s like that running joke in IT. Nobody got fired for hiring IBM. My point is, employers want IBM-like assurance and have settled on assignment-based testing to lower the risk of making a bad hire.

Another factor is the rise in non-creative people involved in the interview process. Let’s say an IT recruiter is shopping for a senior copywriter. They’re used to checking off IT credentials, not judging creative work. The test saves them.

To be honest, I think an actual assignment is a pretty good test of one’s capabilities. However, that doesn’t make it right, and that leads to my major objection with testing.

Free doesn’t pay

It’s one thing for ad agencies to create spec work to win an account. It’s quite another for an out-of-work or time-pressed creative professional to spend hours doing an assignment for free. It’s not fair. It robs personal time, family time, and job-hunting time. The freelance model is a much better answer, and we don’t have to invent it.

Hire the candidate on a freelance or contact basis and try them out. That’s fair to both the company and the candidate. In every test I’ve taken, I’ve had no doubt I could do the work. What I objected to then and now is doing the work for free. Our talents are being devalued by our willingness to give them away for free. Here’s another thought: If creatives can’t be paid for the test, why not make it a pro-bono assignment?

Alas, I think companies give the same test over and over again, so it’s easier to administer and prove to management. But the test gets dated, so whatever you generate, no matter how good or bad it is, is destined for the trash bin.

Pass my test

Early in my career, I had my own test for ad agencies that I interviewed with. I’d listen to the CD pontificate about doing great work, but it was the produced work on the wall that showed promise or peril ahead.

In light of all the testing going on and what we creatives are being subjected to, I think we better come up with our own test for employers. I have mine. What if we put our heads together on this? E-mail me and I’ll send you Og’s Agency Employer Test. You won’t get this from the 4 A’s! Whenever I interview with an agency or company, I look for these things. Interestingly, none of my questions relate to salary and benefits. We’ve spent our careers trying to create better ads. Isn’t it time we created better careers?

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Mike Ogden is a digital/senior writer based in Kansas City. Ad agency stops have enabled him to create for major brands like American Century, Capital One, Sprint, and USAA. Seasoned and sharp with a touch of gray, Ogden, aka Og, is known for creating and championing ideas. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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