Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jan-Feb 2015

Rewiring the hire

Hiring for digital requires a different mindset.

In an evolving industry like digital marketing, hiring poses its own unique challenges. Not only do you need to hire people who are good at what they do, you also need to ensure they have the capacity (and will) to evolve, learn and adapt as the industry evolves – which it does at a stunningly rapid pace.

Take search engine optimisation for example. A few years ago, it was quite easy to game search results with spammy tactics and low level ‘hacks’, such as keyword stuffing and article marketing. Today, if you hire someone who is good at this, you are probably going to get your website kicked out of Google’s index with a hefty penalty! Take analytics, social media, content marketing or any other facet of digital marketing and the same applies. As they say on the internet, if you are doing the same thing you were doing six months ago, you are probably doing the wrong thing. So how do you go about hiring the right talent for your digital marketing agency? Here are a few things I have picked up having worked for digital marketing agencies and now running my own.

Getting into the right mindset

1 Degrees don’t matter

That’s right; degrees don’t matter, just like the points in the Drew Carey Show. You will not find a web analytics graduate or a content marketing expert straight out of college. In most cases, fresh graduates will not even have touched upon these disciplines during their years of schooling (something schools and colleges should really consider, but that is another topic altogether). So the default approach of picking the brightest students from the best universities does not apply here.

2 Exceptional talent is easy to pick out

Regardless of their educational background, it is fairly easy to spot smart people. Usually, they are self-taught individuals with laser focus and an insane passion of the particular facet of digital marketing they are interested in. Look for experience to back up the passion and you will easily be able to identify the value such candidates can create. Then make them an offer they can’t refuse.

3 Exceptional candidates are far and few between

As easy as it may be to pick out an exceptional candidate, it’s not every day that you will find someone with undeniable talent and the will to succeed. In most cases you will be dealing with people who fall under the ‘not that bad’ and ‘not so good’ category, and this is where it becomes difficult to filter out the good from the bad, which is why you need a process to help you determine whether someone has the potential to develop into a rock star employee.

4 Digital marketing experience is nuanced

Experience in one market, vertical or particular brand, does not necessarily guarantee that the candidate will be a good hire. For example, the way most agencies handle social media in Pakistan is different from what you can expect to find in the US. In more advanced markets, the focus is on providing value with a solid content strategy, in Pakistan most brands and agencies use social media as cheap billboards and hence you find product pushes after product pushes dominating your newsfeed. Similarly, competition in search engine optimisation varies considerably for keywords and target locations. In some verticals and locations it can be quite easy to attain high rankings on Google, whereas the same brand may face stiff competition in another market. So even if someone has two years experience under his or her belt, this does not necessarily make for a good hire unless that experience is relevant to the kind of work you are going to ask them to do.

5 Hire for attitude, train for skill

I can’t stress enough the importance of hiring for attitude over skill, unless it is an undeniably outstanding skill (in which case you can have a Chris Gayle or Shoaib Akhtar on the team). In the long run, attitude trumps skill as a hiring criterion. This is particularly relevant to digital marketing which requires qualities of self-discipline, self-learning, agility, adaptability, researching (Googling) and generally a can-do-better attitude. With so much guidance available on the web for every aspect of digital marketing, all you need are people with these traits and the opportunity to pick up and build upon their discipline.

6 The cultural fit paradox

Many companies don’t take this seriously, treating it as unnecessary fluff and not a real hiring criterion. Such companies usually suffer from high employee turnover and a low-level team performance. I have worked in an agency which would hire 50 odd resources in a week only to fire half or have them leave the agency soon after. Not focusing on whether the candidate is a good cultural fit, despite of his or her skill, is a big mistake that can cost a company a lot of wasted resources. Determining whether a candidate is a good cultural fit is tricky because you need to have a defined vision/mission, and strong cultural values. Only then will you have something tangible to gauge the candidates against.

In conclusion, digital marketing is a very broad term with many overlapping disciplines. Each discipline has tremendous depth and potential for mastery. The best candidates are those who have a wide breadth of basic knowledge across many overlapping disciplines, coupled with deep knowledge, experience and ability in one or some fields. In my opinion, every candidate, whether an intern or a senior resource needs to be modelled and groomed along these lines in order to be able to create maximum value – especially when it comes to working as a team.

How to pick the ideal candidate

This is an area where every agency needs to experiment with innovative interviews and hiring procedures.

One thing is for sure; the conventional structured approach is not going to work. Over the course of the last two years, we have developed our own way of attracting, filtering and interviewing candidates for various positions. Firstly, the career page on our website explains what it is like to work at Grocode and the kind of people we are looking for. We are not a big corporate agency, we are a startup which works with clients and builds its own products. Hence, we are looking for people who value a startup environment over a conventional corporate one.

By being clear about our culture and expectations we are able to filter in the right people. Secondly, we don’t ask for resumés up front. Instead, we post a series of questions related to each job opening on our career page. Applicants must first answer these questions and then send their resumé. This helps us gauge the communication skills and the basic approach candidates take towards problem solving or expressing their ideas. This is a much stronger indication of strengths and weaknesses than a template-based CV. If needed, we will also have a few email exchanges with candidates before inviting them for an interview to further test their communication skills. The interview session takes different forms depending on the level of the candidate. Internees usually have the most challenging interviews; they are asked to sit in front of a big screen computer and Google stuff in front of us. In other cases, we set them a series of tasks or topics to research which they then have to present to us.

With senior resources, we discuss industry trends, their work and different approaches to digital marketing to gauge how they think. We also like to get the money topic off the table first. How much money would you like to earn? Whatever the answer is, we take it and if during the course of the interview we find the candidate to be a good fit, we usually end up paying what was asked for, if not better.

Rishadullah Shaikh is CEO and Founder, Grocode. rishad@grocode.co