One of the reasons I’m so excited by doing An Hour of Advertising is the opportunity to get a point of view on advertising from all corners of the industry.
And one role that’s always fascinated me is that of a headhunter. Headhunters know more about each individual agency than most. They understand the intricacies of the business and how talent shapes a company.
Which is why I wanted to talk to Helen Kimber. Helen is the Managing Director of the Longhouse and one of the best headhunters around. She places people at every big agency in town. And she knows the industry and those who work within it as well as anyone.
That’s partly because she’s worked in various roles on both sides of the fence. She’s been an Account Director at TBWA. She’s run New Business for Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and Brothers & Sisters. She was Managing Director of Hometown London and a Talent Strategist at another headhunting firm, The Talent Business.
Helen and I discuss what sets agencies apart when it comes to identifying and hiring talent. We cover what those in the industry should look for in an agency (and their headhunter). And we chat through what Helen has learnt so far in a career working with some of advertising’s smartest characters…
Part one: The importance of telling the truth, making friends in all corners of an agency, and how Top Gun sparked an advertising career…
Do you remember the first time in your career that you really fucked up?
I do, and I remember it very clearly, because it’s the time I learnt probably my most important lesson, which is to always tell the truth. I was at TBWA, working on PlayStation, and I was in charge of their recruitment ads. They were trying to hire somebody for one of their regional offices. It was a very small, black-and-white ad in a regional newspaper. The night before it was meant to go to press, I couldn’t get hold of the client. But it looked fine, so I signed it off. The next morning I got in and there was a voicemail from said client, saying ‘all’s fine, it looks great, except there’s a digit wrong in the phone number’.
I’m about four months into my career and I felt sick and scared and I didn’t know what to do. So I ran up to the production department. It’s about eight in the morning and the only person there was a guy called Ian King, who is now part of King Henry. I told Ian what I did and that there was a number wrong and that I didn’t know what else to do. I was catastrophising in a big way. Kingie looked at the ad, looked at phone number and realised he could work it so that he could still call the publication and patch it in. I spent about half an hour sweating, then he came down and said ‘don’t worry, it’s sorted’. And he showed me the fax to prove it. I could call the client back and say ‘it’s fine, it’s all gone through.’
Ian then looked at me square in the eye and said ‘I only helped you because you didn’t lie’. I didn’t try and say it was somebody else’s fault. Instinctively I didn’t lie, but out of self-preservation I could have. Personally I’ve never forgotten what an amazing service he gave to me. He probably got in early to get ahead on his own work, but he helped me out.
I’m cringing you just telling me this story…
Looking back on it, what they spent on this ad was probably a pittance in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still your ad. Somebody has trusted you to do something. And though it all ended up alright in the end, it taught me a lot. It’s like all of the best lessons in life. If you make a mistake but you learn from it, it makes you a better person. I actually thing further down the line that learning those lessons can be what sets you apart. And lesson one: you just don’t lie!
And it shows the importance of having friends in all corners of the agency…
That’s true! I think I’ve always been a bit like that anyway — it’s not that I always need to be liked, but I always like to start off that way. Everyone has a clean sheet at the beginning and should be treated as such. Going into a ‘grad scheme’ like I did at the time was brilliant as it was a very quick-fire introduction to the business.
At TBWA I spent a week in every department — that included despatch, that included working in the café, it included setting up the meeting rooms. Not only then did you make friends with everyone really quickly, but it taught you to respect everyone too. Because you realise how vital every role in the business is. It’s such a cliché to say it, but in those days when you had to have things biked around London, if despatch were you mate, they’d bike your things over someone else’s. You had to make friends to do your job.
Was advertising something you always wanted to do?
I can actually tell you the moment I wanted to work in advertising. It was probably around 1988 and I was watching Top Gun on TV. And the very famous ‘Take my breath away’ song from Top Gun then appeared in the ad break in what I think was a Peugeot ad. And I remember thinking how clever it was that someone had known that track was in that film and used it on the ad, and someone else really clever had then placed the media in the exact right place. The film closed on the ad break with that song and the ad break started with an ad featuring that song. I already loved ads as much as I loved the content they were placed around — the Accrington Stanley ‘Milk’ ads for example — but that was the real moment I knew I wanted to work in the industry.
You started your career in the industry with a placement at Simons Palmer. What was that like?
Working there was like working with a ‘who’s who’ of advertising. We had Charlie Rudd, Robert Senior, Johnny Vulkan, Carl Johnson, Ben Walker and Matt Gooden, Pip (Bishop) and Chris (Hodgkiss) were there…it goes on.
The work we were doing was incredible. Nike ‘Parklife’ was just coming out, some of the great Nissan work was coming out the building. I worked in the new business team into Johnny Vulkan and somebody else brilliant called Sandra Carter, who eventually became a headhunter. I did a 3-month placement and at the end of that placement Robert Senior offered me a job. I was delighted, but I wanted to finish my degree first. By the time I came back, Simons Palmer had become TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, and there were a whole host of new people in there I’d never met. I effectively had to re-interview with Garry Lace, which is another story! Fortunately I kept my job and started my career proper at what is now TBWA.
And even as a newly merged agency it felt like a special place?
If you just watched television and said ‘these are the ads I like’, then you’d want to work there. When I joined TBWA, I came into work on PlayStation, and the ‘Double Life’ campaign was just being finished. When you walked into the building and ads like that were being launched, you knew you were part of something incredible.
Part two: Advice for new business managers, embracing agency cultures and the importance of networking…
Had you plotted your career out when you started?
Yeah, I had actually. But it was obviously always going to change! When I worked in new business, I worked very closely with the senior management, because that’s what that role requires. Even if it’s just because you’re researching or taking notes for them. And I remember having a conversation with Carl (Johnson), saying ‘I want to work in new business’. And I remember him saying ‘that’s great, but don’t become a new business person where that’s all you know what to do’. Because you may become a black book who knows quite a lot of people, but you won’t know how to be a practitioner. So he advised me to go and be an account handler first, learn my trade, learn how to make ads and talk strategically. And then, he said, if I still wanted to be in new business after that, then go for it.
I took that advice and it was very wise advice. And I’d give it to anybody thinking of the same path. I loved being an account handler, but when the opportunity came up later on to do new business, I knew I wanted to do it. It was the right place at the right time.
So what made it the right place at the right time?
I’d worked on a couple of pitches at TBWA and I really enjoyed it. I liked the ‘dipping in and out’. I liked being the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I liked being able to ask the stupid questions. Because you’d jump from sector to sector. Once you’d worked on the same account for a couple of years as an account handler, you couldn’t ask those. I also had a little bit of a strange knack for doing tenders. I could read the language in them and know the right way to respond.
It was also the right time to leave TBWA. I’d got to Senior Account Director level and whilst it was great and I had lots of friends there, if you’d been at a place since you were a grad then you become ‘good old you’. There were still times I was ‘Kimber the little grad’. So it was time to move on. I had a chat to a couple of people and got introduced by Sandra Carter to Chris Macdonald, who was Managing Partner of Rainey Kelly. I hit it off with him immediately. He was looking for a New Business Director, which was way above my pay grade, but we got on brilliantly and Sandra had said we’d be a really good team. I then went and met James Murphy, who was running Rainey Kelly, got on brilliantly with him too, and was offered the role of New Business Director, which felt like a huge title for someone who was 26.
And how did you take to the role?
Rainey Kelly was an agency that was at the top of its game. And when you do new business, the really important thing is to believe in what you’re selling. If you can help tell an amazing story and have the trust from a great management team, then you can build something that’s really brilliant to sell. The client list was phenomenal, the people I met there were phenomenal — as I said it really was the right place at the right time.
It was always an agency known for its culture too…
I think what I looked for in culture had been defined by where I’d started. Simons Palmer was so creatively driven and collaborative, with a very flat structure. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and would walk through walls for each other. You didn’t mind putting the hours in, because you’d be helping someone else out.
Rainey Kelly was absolutely like that. It had a chaos about it, but it was a chaos that you wanted to be part of. It really didn’t matter that there were loads of you still there from the night before a pitch, you’d all pull in. You’d get the most senior people in the building ordering the pizzas. That’s part of what made it great.
It does feel like you fully embraced it…
It was a really formative time. It was a time where my relationships were still relatively transient — I didn’t have children, and though it probably sounds a bit sad to say, life was work and work was life at that time. Not because it felt like I never left the office, but because I liked hanging out with the people I worked with. I’d very happily see people from work in the evenings or at the weekends. I’d go on holiday with them. You can easily get thrust into those situations. And I loved it.
Did you find it easy to build relationships in the industry with those from other agencies too?
My age made a difference. I was younger than most, so I had a huge level of respect for everyone I was around. The way I was brought up I was taught to respect everybody. I remember going to everybody from Kerry and Martin at the AAR to Lucy Barrett, who was then the editor of Marketing, and asking for their advice and help. Because when you get thrust into a new role, you’re probably a couple of years’ experience shy of being able to do it well. So you have to ask people for their help and advice. And if you respect people in that way, then they do help you. Which meant I found it…’easy’ isn’t the right word…but quite ‘natural’ to build a network outside of the agency.
What about the classic new business ‘networking’ you hear about?
That is much harder. And it sounds trite, but you just have to force yourself to do it. We developed a plan outlining the client sectors we wanted to go for. And I turned up to every single conference there was on, say, alcoholic drinks for 18 months. So when there was a pitch, you’d already met the client or the procurement team, or you’d hear about the pitch quicker than the rest. It really is hard to stand next to someone at a tea break and say hi to them when you’re both just there holding a cup of coffee. You do feel exposed. But I learnt that actually most people are quite glad when you do, because they’re feeling quite shy and quite exposed too.
Part three: The Rainey Kelly dream team, the highs and lows of pitching, and the first move into headhunting…
You were at agencies when they were thriving creatively too — could you see this happening, and what was the catalyst for it?
If I had the formula to that I’d be selling it to agencies all over the shop! But it is culture. And the culture that comes from natural chemistry. Sometimes it’s within management teams and that’s very clear — there’s a very clear and set direction. If you take Rainey Kelly as an example, you had an exceptional founding management team who set standards, but then they also put an exceptional succession management team in place too. Chris Macdonald, Tony Harris and James Murphy were all Managing Partners at the time, and the reality was that there was a hair’s breadth between them in terms of who should and could lead it going forward. They all had very different styles, which also complemented each other, which, for the size of Rainey Kelly, was hugely needed.
What made those 3 so special?
Tony was exceptional at government business. There’s nobody finer to deal with that. James was incredible at handling the lifestyle businesses like Virgin and M&S. Anything fast-paced that required a backbone of steel was where Chris came into his own. What we could do was have very different characters but set them up in a position to lead not just different types of clients, but then develop different types of teams within the agency.
And those teams were all distinct, but they weren’t siloed. There was a healthy competition about it, but it was always agency first. We were a bit competitive internally, but we were most competitive as an agency going against everyone externally. We were all part of a gang. So whilst I don’t really ever think there’s a one-size-fits-all cultural answer, you can definitely have distinct and ambitious personalities that drive a good culture.
After Rainey Kelly your job role changed again. How did you get into headhunting?
I’d actually been approached to be a creative headhunter a few times before, but it had never been the right time — largely because it didn’t feel the right time to step out of the buzz of an agency. But I’d always had good relationships with the creative departments I worked in — possibly that early lesson of not telling lies was an important one, as teams knew I’d always come back to them with honesty, rather than pussy-footing around things.
But now it felt like the right time. James, DG (David Golding) and Ben (Priest) had left to start Adam & Eve, and similarly a very good friend of mine at Rainey Kelly, Tanya Livesey, had left to become global head of creative at the Talent Business. She asked me to go with her and look after the London team. So it was a very natural move, working with someone I enjoyed working with, doing a job that I felt I would have a disposition for, it all felt very serendipitous.
At first, was headhunting what you expected it to be?
Yes and no. But the ‘no’ is largely because it was 2008 and such a terrible time due to the recession. There were an awful lot of people and not very many jobs. It’s more soul destroying for the people who can’t get the jobs, but for me it was also a soul destroying start because I couldn’t really help people as much as I was desperate to. It’s not a ‘poor me’ thing, but I just didn’t feel I was getting the most out of the job because I couldn’t deliver for people. I absolutely didn’t hate it, because I made some great friends and made some great contacts that have served me really well since. But having said that the timing was right for me to leave Rainey Kelly, the timing probably wasn’t right for me to take that job. Which is why I felt it best to go back into new business and go and work at Brothers & Sisters with another very dear friend of mine called Juliet (Haygarth).
Brothers and Sisters, a bit like Rainey Kelly and where you went after at Hometown, all had very entrepreneurial cultures. Was that always something you were drawn to?
I don’t actually think I’m very entrepreneurial, I just think I really like working with people who are. I really admire it. I love the energy of entrepreneurial people. And what I loved about Brothers & Sisters was that in many ways it was very different from any agency I’d worked in previously. It was small, it was hugely informal. It was so craft and creatively different — and I don’t mean just in the campaign executions, I mean that people physically sat at their desks making stuff.
And for instance, whilst bringing production in-house eventually became a thing, they had that from day one. When Andy set it up, he knew you had to have it in order to be swift and nimble in the new world. And what appealed to me was that the task was really clear. Sky was a founding client there; it was a huge beast. It owned the agency in terms of billings. So my role was to try and diversify the client base. And it’s very nice to have a really clear agenda and role to play.
Does it feel more ‘united’ as a smaller agency as well? Can you feel like it’s ‘win together, lose together’ at a bigger place too?
I think in the right place that can feel possible. It definitely did at Rainey Kelly. But with Brothers & Sisters at that time, everybody had a real creative craft. For instance I remember once we were pitching for Diet Coke, and literally at the weekend we had people making fairy wings to go on some little dolls that (Brothers & Sisters founder) Andy Fowler’s wife had collected, that we then came into the agency and used for a stop-frame animation film. Let’s say that for an agency of 40 people, there’d be 25 of us in the agency that weekend, creating a piece of film for a pitch. Now that’s unusual, but it’s quite special. And it goes back to that point that yes, it’s work, but it feels more like you’re playing out a creative hobby.
So in terms of pitches like the one you mention there, as a New Business Director, did you go in for the whole pitch theatre etc?
Yeah, definitely. Pitch theatre I love, but it can be done at great expense or it can be done with creativity and physical manpower. I don’t think it really matters what form it takes, as long as it’s thoughtful and relevant. And I think the reason you can get pitch theatre really wrong is if you’re doing it for its own sake.
I remember once we were pitching for BT Business at Rainey Kelly. And I do not for the life of me remember why, but we had a parrot in reception. Now the fact I cannot for the life of me remember why we had it, says to me that it probably wasn’t relevant. I remember the line we had was ‘bringing it all together’, so maybe we taught the parrot to say it, I really don’t know. The parrot sat by our receptionist Gillian for the entire morning and it felt completely tenuous. I don’t think we won that pitch because of it!
But I also remember times like when we pitched for Kopparberg cider and I stayed up until midnight baking a cider cake. Now that may still be a little tenuous and unnecessary, but it was thoughtful, and part of it was about showing that we loved cider in every way. Make it relevant either to the idea or the brand, or perhaps a person in the room. And if you can’t think of anything that’s relevant and right, then don’t do anything at all.
But there have also been times when doing big ostentatious things can also work?
I remember we were pitching for a TV channel and one of the channel’s big shows was about recycling old banger cars. And we literally took the plain glass windows off the front of TBWA to get a load of old banger cars in reception, and then to great expense had the windows put back on. It must have been an extreme cost. But when clients walk around the corner and see that extreme effort, sometimes they can be blown away. They were on that occasion.
There is a truth that most agencies in London should be able to deliver you some really excellent thinking and a bloody good campaign. They might get it slightly wrong sometimes or sometimes miss the brief, but in theory they should be able to do something brilliant. So if that is the case, then it’s going to come down to culture, chemistry and something memorable. I bet eight times out of ten, when clients have two finalists on the table and they’re trying to decide between the two, it may be the cars in reception they remember, or the cider cake that makes them say ‘she was up until really late last night baking this, they must really want it’. It’s not about the cake itself, it’s about the passion and attention they’ll get from the agency going forward.
Part four: What sets agencies apart, the best and worst interview styles, and the biggest mistakes that agencies make when hiring…
I like the point you make that actually, most agencies in town can be brilliant. Is that something you have to discuss regularly as a headhunter with people who come at you wanting jobs at specific places?
That’s a really good question. Yes, most agencies can produce something brilliant, but whether how they do it is right for you is a different proposition entirely. One of the skills of my job now — and you don’t do this alone, otherwise you’d never find time for anything else — is trying to go in and really looking under the bonnet of agencies and find out what does make them different. Because, yes, I should be able to do work at M&C Saatchi as good as I do at Saatchi & Saatchi, but that doesn’t mean that how each agency gets to the solution is the same in terms of process, people, culture, offices, types of clients etc. We really have to be careful and thoughtful about that.
So that’s when you see yourself as a headhunter coming in to your own?
There are certain stages in one’s career that you should just say ‘yes’ to all the conversations. Because you know you need to start thinking about a change, and just going to meet people because it could throw up different things will almost certainly help you. But there are certain other times — and I had it just this morning when I was speaking to a fantastic strategist, who wants to leave her role and who I’ve got to know very well — where I know there are certain cultures that she will thrive in and certain cultures where she won’t. Now you’d never censor it, you’d never not put ideas and opportunities forward, but you do have to be honest. Because there’s nothing worse than trying to sell someone a job they’d hate.
When agencies brief you in though — or when you meet people desperate to move — is there ever an element of ‘we just need this filled’? And if so, how do you push back on that?
Sometimes there is. Sometimes there’s a very busy freelance market, where there’s a huge amount of hands needed and movement, and potentially a little bit of reticence in making full-time hires because of what may or may not happen in the economic client. So with freelance, sometimes you just have to be realistic. You need somebody to start tomorrow for two weeks, then you just need somebody to start tomorrow for two weeks. It’s not ideal, but you have to be pragmatic. And sometimes that can end up in a joyful ‘two weeks becoming two years’ because it’s a great fit. Sometimes it’s just two weeks.
Is there an element of convincing the candidates or the hirers to take a leap of faith sometimes?
There are definitely times you have to talk someone into talking to a place that they don’t necessarily want to talk to. But I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly done it without there being a good reason. ‘You may have heard that this place is like that, but meet the head of department because you may find you really chime with them’. Or ‘the client in question is run by this person and that’s different to the rest of the agency’. These are things that on the surface may not feel right, but we should hopefully know enough to make helpful calls.
We have to be honest with clients as well. Freelance account managers at the moment are like hen’s teeth. Everyone wants them — and it’s at a level where there are some, but not loads. So the reality is that sometimes you have to say to clients ‘take what you can get’. And likewise you have to say to some people ‘just go in and see them’. You also have to push back on the hiring managers and say ‘trust me, see this person — their CV might look like ‘x’, but we’ve met them and you’ll find that they have the skills you need that you can’t see on paper.’
But I’d like to think that we particularly — and I’m not going to do a hard sell on the Longhouse, I promise — because we’re small and independent, we have to stand by our integrity and never push for the sake of fulfilling a role. You do have big recruitment firms who are more about selling jobs, we’d like to think that we’re more about selling careers.
So what are the big mistakes that agencies make when hiring?
There are lots actually. But I’ll caveat this by saying that often it’s nobody’s fault, the mistakes are often an unfortunate circumstance of the industry we’re in.
Speed is the big one. Speed of getting meetings in diaries. If you’re looking to fill a role, make yourself as available as you possibly can. Because the number of good people who go on the market and move to a new place before others have even got a first interview in the diary is insane. Similarly that moment between first and second interview is so important. You have to keep momentum up. It’s very easy for someone to come out of an interview feeling very excited but then go cold on you when they meet the next agency who comes along.
It’s as blunt as that?
Well again, a lot of people in the industry who get to a head of department role are really impressive. So I might walk into ‘x agency’ today and meet Paul, and think ‘wow, Paul’s great, I’d love to work for him’, and then I walk into ‘y agency’ tomorrow and meet Jane and think ‘oh, Jane’s great, I’d love to work for her’. So you need to meet Paul’s colleague quickly to cement that. Otherwise, if Jane moves quicker, then there’s obviously momentum that’s been lost, but there’s also a feeling that Jane’s agency wants you more. And when the market for really excellent people — as it is right now — is so competitive, you need to move quicker, more elegantly and be more generous than the next person. That’s how you get people — and we see it all the time where people don’t take jobs because they just don’t feel wanted enough.
Take me through the specific elements of the hiring process then. What’s your take on the agencies who have formal processes, rounds of interviews and 700 forms to fill out, versus those where the Creative Director just takes the candidate down the pub once?
I think it’s right for agencies in this space to do what comes most naturally to them, because it’s another factor in pulling places apart culturally. None of its quite as extreme as ‘700 forms to fill out’, but there are definitely places that have more rounds of interviewing. We rarely see anything like ‘psychometric testing’ or anything like that — if we do, it tends to be client side when we’re working with them on a role.
Some agencies do like to see certain skills demonstrated — for instance they want to look at a person’s presenting skills or how they write a presentation. And for those places we just ask them to not make it taxing. If you’ve got an Account Manager looking to make the step up into an Account Director role, you might just like to see how they present to a couple of people in the room. That’s not a strange thing to ask, it should be quite a clear and smart thing to do.
Generally I urge people to go on the slightly more informal side. By nature we’re a professional business, but you can be informal and professional at the same time. And I think how we expect people to be with each other is along those lines. Increasingly, clients don’t want you to stand on ceremony for them either. If we want to be partners with each other and with our clients, then I think you have to break down some of those barriers.
What’s your style of interview personally?
My style is quite informal. I don’t always have a drink with everybody, that would be untenable! But I think by nature that a lot of what we do is over a coffee or in collaborative, brainstorm-y surroundings, so it makes sense that you try and get the best out of people by trying to replicate that sort of scenario when first meeting.
Part five: Z-shaped people, identifying talent, and what you should look for in a headhunter…
What are the trends that you see people asking for when you ask them about the type of agencies they’re looking to join? Is it work/life balance?
Yes they ask about that, but less and less do they need to. I think there is such an awareness of allowing people to have a life now, that if anything the bigger, more structured players are over-indexing on it now because they have to be seen to. I think these brilliant introductions of things like ‘core hours’ is absolute genius, and why wouldn’t you, because not only does it give people what they need without having to ask for it, but it has implicit trust baked into it.
I think there’s a huge amount of work to be done in other areas though. Things like maternity and paternity policies, because I think they’re still fairly basic. And given that our entire business is about the people we’ve got right now in the building, then you need to look at that.
I also have a huge bee in my bonnet about it being just maternity and paternity policies. I think if you want to set up your own yoga studio or shop or travel company, then these policies shouldn’t just be the preserve of parents, it should be the preserve of all of us. I think we have to be less embarrassed about saying ‘I would like to do a 4-day week because I run a card shop at the end of my road on a Friday’. I have two kids and they’re delightful and the most important people to me, but it takes all sorts in this life and it definitely takes all sorts to create great work. So let people do what they need to do.
I wanted to ask about agency pigeon-holing. Are we all still too narrow-minded when looking to hire specific skillsets?
I’m a great believer in cross-pollination of skills. I actually wrote a piece called ‘z-shaped people’, which emphasised that if you come from a different type of agency, you can still learn some of the technical skills of producing in a different channel. I really believe that if you have the right support around you, and by osmosis from other people, you can apply your thinking to a different channel.
So cross-pollination across types of agencies — from branding to PR to digital to media — I think is really important for agencies to think about when hiring. And it’s the same when looking at clients and tech companies or whoever it might be. The more we do it, the more normal it will be to train people up, and the more we’ll develop those skills. It means that the leaders of the future will be naturally ‘z-shaped’. Instead of pretending they know about every discipline, they actually will.
Is that changing?
It’s starting to become a trend. We now have more licence to put forward those different types of people to different places — the stumbling block is that people often say that they want them and then don’t hire them. Or when they get down to making the final decision they say ‘they haven’t actually made much tele, have they?’. You sometimes then really have to push back to make it happen, or concede that you’ve got to go back to the ‘norm’. That’s a real shame, but we are making steps in turning a tanker.
What are the skills then that are being asked for a lot right now?
Comms planning. If you’re a really strong brand-thinking comms planner, you’re going to be in high demand. I think strategy roles are interesting right now, because they can be a bit more varied. They’re looking for simply brilliantly insightful thinkers that can be played out across disciplines. There’s a lot of acceptance around cross-pollination there. I think that’s slightly less of a case in creative and client service. There still tends to be round pegs being put in round holes.
So you meet lots of people. When you meet them, is it easy to make pretty snap decisions about them and what they’re right for?
I think you can tell very quickly if someone’s exceptional. But I think you can do that in life. You can tell if there’s a spark in someone in most cases. But in answer to the question, it’s a ‘no’. If I was interviewing for me, for someone to come and work at the Longhouse, then ‘yes’, I’d have an idea fairly quickly about whether that person will be a good fit. But for clients, our role has to be keeping an open mind.
My colleague Ali says ‘every pot has a lid’ — there are so many types of businesses and cultures and work and thinking. We talk a lot about the need for greater diversity in the industry — that has to be diversity of people in every shape and form. My job is to meet you and work out where you’ll be great. And then take the briefs from the client and think ‘let’s find someone who’s great for that’. That might sound a bit lofty, but it’s something you have to do. Your instinct may make a snap decision, but you really can find something for everybody. You can find a skill or an attitude in someone that makes them perfect for something. It can take more time though.
You must have agencies that you love going in to — or even could see yourself working at — how can you separate yourself from them and make sure you keep an open mind?
When you know people within an agency really well, it’s definitely easier to sell it. Sometimes you don’t really even need a brief, someone can send you a text and you know what to do. But though we are all working mums at the Longhouse — that’s not by design, it’s just how it’s. happened to be — we are all very different characters. And so we represent clients that work best for them and us.
I might have a really strong relationship with Mark Roalfe at Rainey Kelly, because I’ve worked with him and think he’s amazing — I find it very easy to talk to people about working for VMLY&R and so will represent them best as a client. Somebody else might have that relationship with another Creative Director at another agency. That’s quite deliberate.
What about the agencies you’ve not come across before?
It sounds obvious, but if you’re representing them and you don’t know them, then you just have to work extra hard at making sure you do. People take the mickey out of how much we take people out for lunch and drinks, but it’s so important. We need to have a bit of informal time with the agencies we represent, so we can get under the skin of the personalities within a business. It’s only then that you can really get to learn about the culture and identity of an agency, and therefore what they’re looking for. You always try, because you always want each agency to be on a level footing.
The flipside of that is that sometimes candidates are looking for something really different. So if you come across something new and different, that you’re a bit unsure of yourself, then that can be great too. You can sell them a bit of the unknown. You can be honest and say ‘this is a new start-up and this is what they’ve told us about themselves and their business’. You can be honest about the fact that you don’t know as much as you do other places, but sometimes that encourages people to go and have the meeting and see what they think.
It all comes back to honesty.
Artwork by Guy Sexty