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February 16, 2005
How to Hire an Award-Winning Creative Staff

When I was asked by DDB many years ago to help create the best creative department in the industry, I had a distinct advantage over my fellow recruiters: I actually sat on the other side of the desk. I first worked as a copywriter at small, medium and large-size agencies and then later as an acting creative director with big-brand responsibility. As I strategize how to structure a creative recruitment department that would rival the best and attract the top creatives, I could put myself back in their shoes and ask myself questions like “what did I want to know about the agencies” and “what selling points impressed or dissuaded me”? I became my market.

Stepping back into those shoes has allowed me to act on DDB Chicago Chairman and CCO Bob Scarpelli’s goal to make DDB Chicago not only a national creative presence, but more exciting, an international creative powerhouse.

Following are just a few of the insights I’ve learned in recruiting the kind of top creative talent needed to help turn DDB Chicago into one of the most awarded, creative agencies in the world.

Know who you are.

Before you make one call to a candidate, sit down with your key management and clearly define your agency’s vision and mission. Top talent is attracted to agencies that know who they are and are competitively striving towards similar ideals.

Next, communicate that vision/mission to everyone in the hiring process along with an action plan on how you are going to achieve those goals. If a candidate gets mixed messages from the employees they meet during their interview, they will quickly see your lack of internal communication and direction.

One of our goals is to have every candidate we meet put DDB at the top of his or her list of most desired agencies to work. To accomplish this, we view every contact point with a potential candidate as an opportunity to inform them of DDB’s point of difference and unique creative culture. Whenever we meet candidates that are not interested in moving to Chicago, we still take advantage of the opportunity and sell the network. A simple goal with a huge payoff!

Be honest about your agency culture.

As you are trying to determine a creative’s strengths and weaknesses, they are trying to determine your agency’s. It is important that you are aware of the positives and negatives regarding your agency and be comfortable discussing both. If you don’t address a negative on your own, they will create their own rational on why your agency has these problems. (Remember, they’re creatives!)

One of the most important issues in an interview is determining if a candidate is the right fit. If your creative department is especially congenial or strong at nurturing juniors, brag about it. If you are lush with television opportunities, have a low attrition rate or have a “creative-minded” holding company, weave that into your discussion and help your candidate understand the significance of these benefits.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to admit it if your department works from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. There are creatives who thrive on the focused-energy this kind of an environment provides.

If one of your creative directors likes to have the whole group compete on large assignments, make sure your candidate knows that. Some creatives look at that as negative and some as a positive point. Why waste the time and expense of moving someone into your creative department if he or she will become frustrated with the situation and leave? Candidates are keenly interested in knowing the good, bad and the ugly and many are willing to accept certain negative factors as long as they know there is a plan to better the situation.

It is important for agencies to be viewed as aspirational, but it is equally important not to present your agency as something it isn’t. A junior might buy it, but a seasoned pro will either sleuth out the truth before making a commitment or become so angry that they’ll leave and spread the word to all of their friends. Just as negative word of mouth is damaging in advertising, so is the effect of on future recruiting.

Always be in the hiring mode.

At DDB Chicago, we are always looking for great creative talent. Whether we have just won a major new account or are in the midst of a hiring freeze, we are actively scouting the U.S. for all levels of new talent. And it’s easy.

When you see creative work you think is amazing, call the creatives directly and tell them your thoughts. They will love to hear how their work sparks you, and you will have made a valuable contact that might lead to a future candidate.

Once we identify a potential candidate, we make every possible opportunity to get to know them and develop an on-going relationship. Then when we do finally have a specific need, we can contact them easily since we already have their attention and, hopefully, their interest.

In addition to phone contact, I make trips to the top ad markets several times a year to meet with creatives. If you are meeting a client in New York City or Chicago, add an extra day to meet some of the people behind your favorite work. You’ll be surprised how that one day can put you months ahead when you are faced an active search.

The best time to look for candidates is when neither the candidate nor we are looking. You will always get a truer look at a candidate’s demeanor when they aren’t trying to sell themselves and win you over for a job.

Create a strong base.

Over the years, we have been able to amass a computer bank profiling thousands of candidates. This information is constantly updated as creatives continue to send in work or as we gain information on their new campaigns, awards, promotions and agency moves. You never know when a quick computer search can help you narrow in on category experience or remind you of someone you missed.

We also continuously monitor regional, national and international advertising trade journals, newspapers, computer sites and awards shows to identify emerging new talent, mid-weight creatives who are consistently developing award-winning campaigns, and most importantly, the creative leaders who are spawning this highly lauded work.

Maintain just one file filled with clippings of creative work you liked over a year’s time and when hiring time comes, you will expedite your search with a resource that will help you pin point the kind of creatives your agency needs.

Great work attracts great creatives

The year we launched Budweiser’s “Whassup” campaign for Anheuser-Busch was one of the easiest recruitment years we’ve ever had. We were deluged with creatives from around the world who aspired to do groundbreaking work.

Award-winning creatives are naturally competitive and curious about new work so they are always checking places like Adcritic.com, directors’ reels, or the industry trade journals. It is not unusual for even the busiest, most prolific creatives to know who is doing what before it has even hit the air so it is important to make sure your work is on display.

If your work is regional, don’t wait for the award shows to highlight it. Do whatever you can to bump up your PR factor. You’ll be surprised how many creatives who have done “the big city” experience are craving a smaller-city lifestyle but want to maintain an environment that is passionate about creative.

Even new agency upstarts can benefit from exposing their best work. One great campaign can launch an agency’s credibility with creatives. Two great campaigns and it becomes a “destination” agency!

Great creatives attract great creatives

Internal networking has always been very profitable for DDB Chicago. From the moment we hire creatives, we ask them to let us know if any of their friends are interested in talking with us.

This creative magnet theory has worked for us many times over the years—great creatives really do attract great creatives. If a creative is happy in their environment, they tell their creative buddies about us, thereby doing half the selling for us. And, in this case, they come without creative recruitment fees.

Besides stimulating a creative department with more great creatives, friendships make it harder for creatives to leave, therefore strengthening retention.

Go where creatives go.

When feasible, try to attend awards shows and industry-sponsored seminars to meet creatives in a social atmosphere. It is remarkable to see how many creatives let their true colors show in these more relaxed environments. And, many creatives are more open to meet you since they feel it is more discreet than in their hometown.

These events also open the door to assess top creative leaders as they speak about their work, creative issues or trends that are currently important to them. You’ll learn first, if they are effective public speakers and second, if they can command the respect of other creatives. It’s surprising how much a creative leader will reveal about themselves when they are not in the agency limelight and feel they are safe to express themselves. This is information that can never be obtained in an interview.

Grow your own.

Whenever we hire juniors, they are almost guaranteed major television production opportunities within the first six months. In fact, this year two of our junior teams had spots in the Super Bowl and one team’s spot placed first in the USA Today AdMeter poll.

To look for young talent, we attend portfolio reviews at the top advertising schools in the country including Virginia Commonwealth, Creative Circus, Miami Ad School and the Portfolio Center. We also monitor newer regional schools that show great promise in creative development like Brainco and The Chicago Portfolio School.

Visiting these schools offers us a major opportunity to educate young creatives on what the DDB brand stands for and cultivate a positive image of DDB early in their careers. Because the schools are an important first point contact for us, we always try to make our creatives available to the schools to teach classes, judge student shows, attend portfolio reviews, etc.

We also furnish reels of our work and provide them with award-winning case studies that appeal to their age group while demonstrating our creative process.

Develop strong recruitment partnerships.

DDB Chicago tries to hire directly whenever possible, but we do maintain strong relationships with industry recruiters across the country including those that specialize in niche areas such as direct and interactive. A great recruiter knows your agency’s culture, work and mission and is always on the lookout for when one of “your type” of creative is vulnerable or looking.

Networking with other in-house recruiters also is a great way to gain outside agency information and perspective and to stay on top of major creative moves.

Know who you are hiring.

Ever wonder how a creative who was fired three times in one city miraculously surfaces a few months later in another city? Somebody probably missed one of the most important steps of hiring - reference checking.

To gain the most important information on a candidate’s background, I always try to triple-check. By asking pointed questions to people who have worked above, beside and, when considering them for a management position, below the candidate’s rank. Each of these three perspectives adds another dimension to their profile that is as important individually as it is collectively.

Great leaders attract great creatives.

Finally, one of the quickest ways to hire an award-winning creative staff is to hire an award-winning creative leader. This sends a direct signal to the advertising community as to what your agency stands for. But, it’s only part of the equation.

Top creatives want to work with the best advertising leaders in every discipline. An account director who boasts his or her own portfolio of award-winning work is rare, but an instant draw for creatives. An account planner who is known to stimulate creatives with unique insights is sought after by creatives. New media experts who find the same joy in innovation as creatives will not only change our industry but will lead creatives there. And, of course, brilliant print and broadcast production directors who have a reputation for always researching out the newest directors and directions are considered the ultimate creative partners.

Any creative who has ever had the opportunity to work with a great leader knows the powerful impact they have on the final creative product and will probably do just about anything to find their way to your doorstep.

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Deanne McLean doesn’t get her name in the awards shows, but DDB Chicago wouldn’t win awards without her help. Because, as Senior Vice President, Director of Creative Recruitment, Deanne’s eye for spotting great talent has made her the gatekeeper for a creative powerhouse; she’s reviewed well over 12,000 books. Prior to joining DDB, she spent over 10 years as a copywriter for various agencies throughout the U.S.
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