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Need help with your hiring? We asked 29 agency experts to share their best hiring tips in this guide.
Hiring is a massive challenge for every agency.
To start with, agencies are fundamentally people-driven businesses. The quality of your output is directly related to the quality of your personnel. Better people = better results.
It doesn’t help that as an agency, you’re competing against well-funded startups, established tech giants, and large consultancies for talent.
The nature of agency work doesn’t go in your favor either. Long hours and demanding clients are the norm across the industry. Some thrive in such an environment, some sink.
Little wonder that the agency business has one of the highest turnover rates in the world.
What can you do to make hiring easier? And what can you do to ensure that the people you hire stick around?
We asked 29 agency experts these questions to gather the best hiring tips for agencies.
Here’s what we learned.
While agencies usually have their own process for finding and filtering candidates, we learned that most share a few things in common:
1. Culture fit is crucial
Culture fit is more important than you realize. Hard skills can be learned but if your core values don’t align, you’ll have a hard time working with someone.
Here’s what Zach Montroy of Navigate The Journey, a leadership and team development firm, has to say on this topic:
“Hire based on culture and core values...Make sure the potential teammate is going to add to culture, not detract from it. Your company's core values should be the filter from which you use to make these important decisions.”
Read more about building your agency’s culture in this post.
2. Aptitude and attitude > skills
Hiring underskilled people and training them can often work to your advantage, provided they have a) the raw aptitude, and b) the willingness to learn.
As Pete Sena of Digital Surgeons says,
“Talent and skill are not just about the here and now but it’s about future potential. We have to think like sports coaches and talent scouts. While some scouts want the team captain with the best stats. I look for attitude, ambition, and action in the people we bring on....We can teach skills and software all day long but we can’t teach passion.”
3. Be honest
Be honest about your expectations and what you can offer them. An employee who somehow feels misled is an employee who won’t stick around for long.
Here’s Parrish Walton of Black Bear Design on this topic:
“Often it seems hiring managers try and guess what the candidate wants to hear, not what they need to hear. The worst outcome is to hire someone who isn't a fit and was sold on a position that doesn't match what the reality holds.”
4. Offer a trial run
Test tasks and trial periods are a great way to evaluate hard skills without the liability of actually managing a full-time employee.
As Ryder Meehan of UpGrow says:
“My best hiring tip is make a test project part of the process. This step of the interview process has a few benefits. First it eliminates candidates not motivated enough to complete it. Second, it gives us a much better gauge of the skills than interviewing alone can since we get to see what type of work they deliver and we also have them present it to us so can see how strong they are in presentation.”
5. Avoid overhiring
Refrain from hiring people until you absolutely need them. Over-hiring can eat into your profit margins and add to your management workload. Keep an eye on your AGI:FTE ratio to know if you’re optimally staffed.
As Angelo Sorbello of AstroGrowth says:
“Don't hire people you don't need..It's a better investment of time for you and your candidates to start a working relationship when there's a right fit for the actual job to be done.”
6. Look beyond the resume
The skills and experience an agency employee needs to thrive can be hard to capture on paper. Look for aptitude, ambition, and values to know if someone will be a good fit for your agency.
Here’s Kevin Pike of RankFuse on this topic:
“A resume does not communicate a level of desire for a career in digital marketing. As an interviewer you must separate the job worthy from the career-hungry. For some digital marketers, a job pays the bills. For others, it’s a love of technology, marketing, or creative work that generates a deeper investment in themselves to be one of the best.”
7. Don’t outsource your hiring
Unless you’re a large agency with well-established recruitment channels, be as involved as possible in the hiring process. Don’t use recruiters or software tools. Instead, find people you want to work with manually and reach out to them directly.
It’s also a good idea to get every department involved in the hiring decision. After all, good creative work today depends heavily on collaboration. Unless a candidate can work well with everyone, she’ll have a hard time collaborating comfortably.
As Erin McCoy of Killer Visual Strategies says:
“We arrange several different interviews so that members from every department within our organization have the chance to interview them. They make sure the entire project team is involved in the planning stages of any given project so as to ensure the highest-quality deliverables. That means that all of their departments need to be able to work well together.”
This covers the broad takeaways, but there’s still a lot you can learn about hiring. We’ll share all the best hiring tips from our agency experts below.
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The Best Hiring Tips for Agencies: 29 Experts Weigh-in
Here’s what we learned about hiring great candidates for your agency from our experts:
1. Natalia Wulfe
“While digital marketing is a discipline that has been around for more than a decade, colleges and universities have been slow to update their curriculum to include digital marketing.
My best hiring tip is to make connections with marketing, advertising and communications professors at your local universities and offer to provide digital marketing training to their classes as a guest lecturer. Professors will often welcome the opportunity to get some real-world instruction for their students and are always looking for ways to connect their students with potential employers to help boost job placement rates for the university.
You should aim to teach a course for seniors during the middle of the fall or spring semester so you can put your job description directly in front of students that will be looking for a job in the near future. You want to get ahead of their job search a bit, and the best and brightest will be starting their job search early – a couple months before graduation.
Additionally, professors will often be very upfront about which students they deem their “star” students, giving you more insight into the best candidates.”
2. Kevin Pike
“Look for a high-level of Job Passion During an interview
Posting a job typically results in several candidates with experience and skills you are looking for, but a resume does not communicate a level of desire for a career in digital marketing. As an interviewer you must separate the job worthy from the career-hungry. For some digital marketers, a job pays the bills. For others, it’s a love of technology, marketing, or creative work that generates a deeper investment in themselves to be one of the best.
I know I can train and teach digital marketing, but I have also learned I can’t teach desire and passion for the work agencies do.
Know The Good-Better-Best Answers To Your Technical Questions
When an interviewer can ask complex questions and quickly know what is a good vs. great answer your going to make a better hiring decision. Having done most digital marketing jobs at one time or another, I have a huge advantage in the hiring process for my agency. When larger agencies use HR and hiring managers who may not be experts for the job they are interviewing, it opens the door for missing out on the right person.
I recommend having at least one peer/expert in the hiring process that can separate the buzz word repeaters vs. someone who truly knows the job. It’s a critical step that I’m surprised to see some agencies skip."
3. Ryder Meehan
“My best hiring tip is make a test project part of the process. This step of the interview process has a few benefits, first it eliminates candidates not motivated enough to complete it. Second, it gives us a much better gauge of the skills than interviewing alone can since we get to see what type of work they deliver and we also have them present it to us so can see how strong they are in presentation. The project is something closely related to the position, so an SEO Manager would do an SEO audit while a PPC Manager would create a sample Google Ads campaign from scratch.”
4. Toby Walker
“The best tips I can offer are to go with your gut and to be patient, even if that means waiting longer than is ideal for the right candidate to come along.
It might sound a bit old school to rely on your instincts when hiring, but we’ve made the mistake of prioritizing the right skillset over the right personality, and as a small agency the damage that the wrong individual can do to your company well-being is enormous. So if an alarm bell is ringing in your head at interview stage, don’t ignore it - even if the candidate’s on-paper experience is exactly what you’re looking for. Probe a bit deeper and don’t be afraid to recall a candidate for a third interview to help your decision making.
Equally, rushing into a hire because of a heavy workload or a growing pile of client commitments can be a route straight to disaster. Much better to have a coping strategy in place, be that your existing freelance network or turning to gig economy providers to see you through. It might cost more in the short term, but longer term, the right person will mean less stress, fewer recruitment fees and less wasted resource for your management team."
5. Angela Ash
“Hiring is all about finding people who can be innovative and function as an entrepreneur, which means a team member who works best without a lot of oversight and direction. When you begin to interview for any type of team member, you should search for characteristics which include:
- Willingness to jump right in without a lot of management
- Ability to make decisions that best represent the company
- Able to work with other employees as a team, even if working remotely
- Excellent communication skills
- Knowledge of organizational apps like Asana and Slack”
6. Anna Binder
“Employer requirements have changed drastically even since the early 2000's - and the one soft skill they're looking for over college degrees or static skills will be hustle.
Previously there may have been 3-4 requirements a prospective employee had to meet to get a job, but with the world changing at break-neck pace, companies are no longer looking for static skills. Employers want people who can learn and adapt. Even college degrees are no longer a requirement
Conversely, employees are looking for training and the chance to learn marketable skills. Companies that don't offer this will have trouble attracting and retaining talent."
7. Adam Hempenstall
“My best tip for hiring for creative roles is to always give a paid test task before proceeding with someone. Be it a design, a piece of copy or something else, give them a task that is: meaningful, well-paid and has clear instructions and a normal deadline, to see how they perform. If they do well, you can proceed and make an offer.
If you’re still not convinced, you can offer them a paid test week, for example. Note that this is not so easy to pull off if your candidate is already working for someone else. However, if you give them the freedom to work remotely and in their own time, it’s a possibility. You can see whether the candidate can do their work properly and they can see if they fit into your team.”
8. Kornel Kurtz
“Create a business that people want to be a part of. I’m not talking about offering free ping-pong and beer, I’m talking about earning 5 star reviews from clients and building a positive reputation in the community so when your company name is mentioned, it has a good vibe. Word spreads fast, let it be good words.
Build that quality and reputation, do the right things, help clients be successful, be courteous to vendors… and the talented employees will come. As an employee, would you want to commit your days to a company that has a 3.0 star rating on Google, or one with glowing 5 star reviews? Build it right, and they will come.”
9. Mike Jackowski
“I assume that my answer may not be super sexy, but... I've hired over 40 great, full-time employees in total in my career for positions related to digital landscape, and... what I've learned is that you must always ask people to perform a test job. I recommend that, because I know it's not so obvious for everybody. I didn't at the beginning. Not only it shows candidate's creativity, but first and foremost their problem solving skills and working mindset. What in the end is a daily bread and butter influencing alignment with the rest of your team, overall company's DNA.”
10. Charlie Marchant
“Our best tip for hiring talent is to look for potential and motivation, rather than experience. You can train people with the skills they need to do the job, but you can't train people to be motivated. Our best team members are those who are self-motivated; they have an intrinsic drive to want to do well and hit their goals.
By comparison, someone who isn't all that motivated or intrinsically driven tends to be difficult to manage and financial incentives can only take them so far. Even if they have years more experience in the role or industry, if they're not enthusiastic and motivated then that experience doesn't bring much benefit to the company as a whole.”
11. Sam Orchard
“My top tip for finding top creative talent is to use proactive hiring.When we’re looking to hire a designer, we always check out Dribbble and Behance to see creatives in our area. By taking a look at their work and style, we can put together a shortlist of suitable candidates.
Then we check them out on LinkedIn so get an idea of their background and experience, and if we think they might be a good fit for us we reach out to see if they’re looking for a new opportunity.This proactive approach means that we’re picking talent based on the quality of their work first and foremost, and saves lots of time sifting through dozens of CVs that often don’t even include portfolios.”
12. Rachael Jessney
“When we hire, we are always as focused on personality as much as someone's qualifications. We obviously do our due diligence on technical skills. However, when we interview, we try and envision them in situations such as sat in front of one of our clients, or out at a team social event.
This has helped us build a team of like minded people with similar values which is fundamental for building strong relationships within our team and with our clients."
13. Stuart Cooke
“I look for someone who is keen to impress. That may sound like a very basic tip but if you create your job advert correctly and include the right criteria and experience necessary for the role then you should automatically filter out the inexperienced or irrelevant candidates. Then you will be left with candidates who are in and around the same level of ability and experience.
Once you reach that stage then their determination to impress and exceed expectations becomes the most important asset for me. That tells me that they will be able to work on their own initiative, they are self-motivated, self-disciplined and are able to be trusted. There are lots of talented people out there but for me the biggest talent is the ability to earn the trust of your colleagues and employers.”
14. Angelo Sorbello
“Don't hire people you don't need. It sounds obvious, however, two years ago I had to hire a sales representative for our agency. He was smart and captivating, but not the right person for a consultative selling job when analytical skills can be less relevant than social skills. I hired him instead of another candidate that looked like a better fit for that exact job description. I thought that he would have learned and adapted.
Ultimately it was just a waste of time for both of us. It's a better investment of time for you and your candidates to start a working relationship when there's a right fit for the actual job to be done.”
15. Tim Brown
“When it comes to hiring people on to a digital agency, only you can truly determine what your #1 priority is. Once you know what you want out of a good hire, make a note and cater your questions around that topic. For us we wanted a self starter with a really good attitude and work ethic. We were totally fine with training him and teaching him skills he needed to develop.
My tip is to define for yourself what you are looking for, and don't cheat yourself out of the candidate you want. Be patient, they will come.”
16. Parrish Walton
“Be honest and upfront about the expectations, what the position will require on a day-to-day basis, and the personality you are looking for. Often it seems hiring managers try and guess what the candidate wants to hear, not what they need to hear.
The worst outcome is to hire someone who isn't a fit and was sold on a position that doesn't match what the reality holds. That only leads to more headaches for everyone.”
17. Dalton Sapp
“I'm a fan of hiring less experienced candidates if they seem to be eager to learn and are very motivated. I think it's easier to hire someone who has a passion for the job, but less experience than someone who's done the job for a long time but doesn't seem interested. If someone has that drive in them, they’re more willing to learn.”
18. Ashton Meisner
“It's essential to ensure future teammates are coachable. Don't be fooled by various awards and experiences on paper. In a previous position, I learned this the hard way by selecting a candidate over another, trusting their experience would make them a solid addition to our team.
However, one of my best employees that year was someone who had half of the experience as the other person but had the grit and hustle to be her best every day.
Ask the right questions in the interview, is this ""experienced"" person the right fit for your team?”
19. Brandon Howard
“My best tip for hiring talent at my agency is to hire based on work someone has done - not their education or experience credentials. For example, if someone has a degree from a great school and they've been in the business for 20 years, that doesn't mean they are a better designer or marketer than the 23 year old that's barely out of school.
Another thing to look out for is their ability to think for themselves rather than just following a formula. I always bring on new team members as 1099 contractors so I can work with them for a little bit and make sure they can think of creative solutions to problems without having to come to me about it.”
20. Kama Wilson
“While we do almost all our work ourselves, we do hire overseas talent at times for special projects. As such, we're always filtering through lots of less-than-ideal candidates. What we learned years ago was to ask in the job description for the candidates to put a certain word as the first word on their cover letter. If the candidate doesn't include this word, we immediately archive their application.
Why? Well, in the creative space, attention-to-detail is important, right?! So this gives us an instant filtering ability from the get-go. Such a simple thing, but it's proven to help our hiring process so much that when we finalize our choice and hire someone, they're almost always the right fit!”
“Hiring for my team requires particular attention as we are 100% remote. I don’t have the luxury of gauging a candidate with an in-person interview, so it’s all done with phone calls and web chats. Here are the top three things I’ve learned over the years hiring for my agency:
The first phone call interview is the most important step of all. It’s easy to tell when I’ve got someone great on the line, because their energy shines through clearly.. You can hear in a person’s voice if they’re actually excited about the position or if they’re just treating it like “just another job.”
Listen more than you talk in that first conversation. Keep an ear out for keywords that are relevant to the position in question, to gauge the candidate’s knowledge of the industry or role.
Always ask the candidate about their hobbies and if they have pets. This is not just filler conversation; it’s an easy way to get a more well-rounded picture of the individual beyond their professional capacity. Especially when working remotely, it’s SUPER important to be able to connect on a personal level—to remember that we are all people with our own interesting, complex lives—not just a name on a screen somewhere else in the world.”
22. Daniel Heuer
“One thing that I find to be helpful in hiring creatives is to give them a small project to do to see how fast, and at what quality, their turnaround is. With digital marketing and branding projects and clients, everything moves very quickly. We have to be able to keep up and we have to be able to trust that the potential employee can, too.”
23. Zach Montroy
“Hire based on culture and core values. Have clarity on the raw skills and talents needed, then train and develop from within. Make sure the potential teammate is going to add to culture, not detract from it.
Look for the raw skills needed but look for adaptability, grit, resilience and emotional intelligence. Research is showing an emotionally intelligent colleague has a much greater likelihood of success than one who is lacking in those skills and abilities.
Your company's core values should be the filter from which you use to make these important decisions.”
24. Patrick Antinozzi
“This is a small little hack that has saved me tons of time and energy when searching for a new hire. It's also a super simple way to instantly gauge the level of commitment your applicant has for their work.
Whenever I publish a new job opening online, I place a little codeword at the end of the job description. This codeword will tell me whether the applicant even bothered to read the whole job posting before applying.
For example, at the end of a lengthy job posting, I'll say something like: ""Begin your application with the word 'PANDA', so I know that you actually took the time to read this before applying.""
This little trick has helped me weed out about 80% of applicants who are just mass-applying for any job they can find.”
25. Geoff Hoesch
“We hire based on experience, not certifications. Certifications are usually fairly easy to come by, and with a few hours of work anyone can get them, but experience takes years to acquire. If it’s an entry-level position, we try to find someone who has built their own website and tried to promote it.
Our company also does a lot of remote work, so we’re always looking for candidates who have experience working on their own and meeting deadlines because not everyone has the discipline needed to work on their own.”
26. Larissa Pickens
“A lot of agencies hire by making a list of their needs and trying to hire one person to handle them all. Sometimes this works, however often it becomes a long laundry list of random skills that will be impossible to fulfill.
Better to break it into smaller jobs, how much time and how often you need the tasks done and look for specialists than expect to find a unicorn who can handle everything.”
27. Pete Sena
“I like to get to know the candidate on a more human level. Find out what makes them tick and what lights them up. Ask questions to find out how they solve problems or approach something new. Degrees, accolades, and buzzwords don’t mean anything if you don’t possess emotional intelligence or a growth mindset."
On resumes and skills:
"A lot of agencies don’t think beyond the resume. They rely far too heavily on the resume and portfolio as indicators of talent. Talent and skill are not just about the here and now but it’s about future potential. We have to think like sports coaches and talent scouts. While some scouts want the team captain with the best stats.
I look for attitude, ambition, and action in the people we bring on. An equal mix of heart and head. The one who comes in a little bit earlier to get in a little more practice. You can’t teach ambition. We can teach skills and software all day long but we can’t teach passion."
On recruiters and recruiting tools
"Stop relying on automation tools, algorithms, and AI to recruit and respond to candidates. Instead, be as involved (and human) as possible. We have to remember that we are dealing with someone’s livelihood and that joining a new company is a huge decision.
We should be empathetic to that, respect their time, and give them real actionable feedback. Whether its an offer or a rejection, do it live and over the phone. It shows the candidate that you care about your organization and how your employees interact and communicate internally and externally.”
28. Erin McCoy
“When Killer Visual Strategies is hiring new talent, we arrange several different interviews so that members from every department within our organization have the chance to interview them. This is because the most successful agencies are highly collaborative. They make sure the entire project team is involved in the planning stages of any given project so as to ensure the highest-quality deliverables. That means that all of their departments need to be able to work well together.
And because every department has unique priorities and styles when it comes to collaboration and communication, they should all have a role in the hiring process. This ensures that the talent they hire will work well with every team, improving project success and client relationships in the long run. "
29. Dan Salganik
“Hiring new talent can be risky, expensive, and mentally/emotionally draining; especially as a small business. You're investing in the company's future, the new hire's future, and in the quality of your company's deliverables. When hiring a new team member for our agency, VisualFizz, we try to ensure that this individual has specific traits that allow the rest of the team to feel comfortable and excited to work with that individuals.
A few of those crucial traits include: Open-Minded, Creative, Entrepreneurial (doesn't have to be an entrepreneur, but have an entrepreneurial mindset), Interested in Innovation, Always Learning, Communicative, and Team-Oriented. Of course, no one is perfect, but those types of qualities allow us to feel comfortable making the investment toward a strong new team member.
We, personally, want someone who is willing to challenge us and our ideas because we're definitely NOT always right. Sometimes agencies hire new employees because there is an ASAP demand for more labor hours for new projects. We understand that there is a need to fulfill orders and sometimes a lack of time for thoughtful employment processes.
Our recommendation is to take a step back during all of the craziness of the agency workload and really consider who you want to be part of your team. Our team rarely, if ever, looks at things like GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and even the college that our candidates went to.
Some additional qualities we are interested in are: commitment/drive that the employee is willing to commit to the company, loyalty to our brand and our clients, a great attitude, and an innovative mindset. Also, we want them to feel like they're a part of the team, not a part of the hierarchical ladder.
Make your team members feel like they are on the same level as you are vs. constantly reminding them that you're somehow superior to them.”
Over to You
Hiring for your agency is never going to be easy, but hopefully, these hiring tips will clear the clouds and help you make better decisions.
One way to get the most out of your newly hired employees is to give them the best-in-class software tools. An agency management tool like Workamajig can streamline your workflows and help your people do their best work.