‘No jerks allowed’: Agencies are prioritizing personality, authenticity when hiring

College degrees are less critical than they once were, but AI, UX, and UI skills are a plus, execs said.
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Francis Scialabba

· 6 min read

Much like your For You page, the skills ad agencies are looking for in creatives are always changing.

For a while, nearly everyone thought the metaverse would be the next big thing. Last spring, TikTokers at agencies were all the rage. Now, AI is the talk of the town, although robots haven’t replaced creatives yet.

Heading into 2024, certain hard skills and experience with new tech, like AI, remain attractive to recruiters and agency execs when hiring creatives. But given the lasting impacts of the pandemic on work environments, agency leaders told us that they are looking more for good vibes than polished résumés.

“To me, talent is everything, and that’s all we have,” Richard Brim, chief creative officer of adam&eveDDB, told Marketing Brew. “Getting the right talent is really, really, really tricky, and it’s getting trickier.”

Tech genius

The good news is that job-seekers don’t have to have a Tony Stark–like AI skill set to get hired as a creative, agency execs told us.

“As this is a relatively new space, we would not look for expansive, deep experience,” Aimee Pagano, global head of talent acquisition at VMLY&R, said.

External recruiters largely concurred that, for the time being, agencies aren’t seeking AI experts either. “I don’t have a client who says, ‘I need a creative who has produced campaigns with AI,’” Debra Sercy, managing partner at executive search firm Grace Blue, said.

However, some experience could help candidates stand out. Pagano said that VMLY&R keeps an eye out for candidates who can demonstrate they’ve worked on projects where AI was incorporated, as well as those who have been trained or certified in AI tools or attended conferences about it.

And Susan Bortone, the founder of boutique recruitment firm Noble Talent Group, said creatives who do have AI-related skills and can show thought leadership on AI might stand out at the moment because agencies “want to be able to say that [they] have this capability” to potentially help bring in new business.

Think big

In addition to the AI-curious, creatives with business and strategy knowledge—or “big brand thinking,” as Brim put it—are likely to be in high demand among agencies in the coming year.

“I’m always looking for really smart strategists,” adam&eveDDB CEO Caroline Winterton said.

Several execs emphasized the attractiveness of candidates with experience working with UX and UI for brands in addition to working on individual campaigns. Marie Lamonica, managing director of creative strategy at consultancy We Are Rosie, said UX and UI skills were already of interest to agencies looking for creatives this year and predicted that demand will only increase in 2024.

“Product design and creativity live in the same world now,” she said, and the ability to work closely with UX and UI teams is a big plus.

Vibe check

Creatives can have all those skills and more and still not get hired. Why? Well, it’s a small industry, Brim said, and word travels fast when someone has a positive outlook—or if they tend to badmouth their current employer. Especially now that some agencies are requiring employees to return to offices, passing the vibe check—more formally known as culture fit—is more important than ever.

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“No jerks allowed,” Winterton said.

What she means is that she would “much rather not look at a résumé and just have a real conversation with somebody and be like, ‘Can I work with this person? Do I feel like they get the business? Do I feel like they care about the people around them?’” she told us. “Then I double check the résumé just to make sure that we’re checking the boxes in terms of…[fit and] skill set.”

Brian Vaughan, partner and executive creative director at creative marketing and comms agency Shadow, said he’s also a fan of more casual, conversational interviews, as it might better reflect what a working relationship will be like.

“It’s not like you’re showing up to the office with your briefcase and your portfolio and going into a boardroom and having a meeting,” he said.

As some agency leaders focus less on reading résumés, what of the oh-so-important cover letter? Those also seem to be turning into something of a relic in an industry that’s moving away from more polished formality, execs told us. “Most cover letters feel packaged and templated,” Vaughan said, whereas a quick, casual note may seem more authentic.

Pasquale Bortone, who recently served as an operations consultant at Noble Talent, said that LinkedIn has “replaced the cover letter, in a way,” and Lamonica said the professional network is “the new résumé.”

One more traditional practice that doesn’t get old? “I appreciate a thank-you note,” Vaughan said.

Bend the knee degree

College degrees also don’t hold the same importance in the agency world as they once did. Sercy said that while brands she recruits for still require that creatives hold college degrees, agencies have never asked her to obtain certification of education for candidates. Degree requirements are a barrier to increasing diversity, she said.

We Are Rosie has long advocated against those requirements in the name of inclusivity, Lamonica said, and Vaughan said that a traditional educational background isn’t necessary to get hired as a creative at Shadow, either. “A diverse background of experience, or creative experience, is equally valuable,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be so regimented.”

One thing that agency execs and recruiters repeatedly emphasized was the importance of candidates demonstrating a positive attitude and being a genuine fit for the agency they’re applying to—especially when it comes to higher-level creative roles.

“I cannot underscore how important it is to have good leadership and good people in roles that are managing people, and I don’t necessarily know that that has always been valued or evaluated appropriately,” Lauren Lotka, founder and CEO of executive search consultancy Lotka&Co, said. “I think we need more [collaboration] in our world and in our business than ever.”

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