‘We have an always-on philosophy when it comes to recruiting’: Independent Insights featuring Brighton’s Tina Vonderhaar

Tina Vonderhaar, president and chief executive of Brighton

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Tina Vonderhaar, president and chief executive of Brighton.

When Tina Vonderhaar joined St. Louis agency Brighton 13 years ago, she wasn’t looking for a job in advertising.

At the time, Vonderhaar had just finished a long stint as a consultant at Accenture. But while doing some independent consulting for clients - one of them being Brighton - Vonderhaar liked the agency’s work and team so much that she decided to join them.

It was a move that proved to be fruitful for her, as Vonderhaar is now the owner, president and chief executive of Brighton, which bills itself as a company that combines the best part of an ad agency with the best part of a consulting firm.

As the leader of Brighton, Vonderhaar sees herself and her employees as business partners to their clients, which primarily include brands in the pet care, agricultural and healthcare industries. While the 75-person agency does provide creative and public relations services to its clients, it first and foremost acts as a business consultant to brands who are looking for people with experience and expertise in their respective fields.

Coming from a non-advertising background herself, Vonderhaar prefers to hire people who don’t have traditional advertising backgrounds since she believes diversity of thought is what leads to the best strategies and work. During her time at the helm of Brighton, she’s brought on everyone from a rocket scientist to a musician to help her lead the shop’s various accounts.

The Drum caught up with Vonderhaar to find out more about Brighton’s model, her unique hiring philosophy and how she finds talent in St. Louis. See what she had to say below.

How is Brighton different from a traditional advertising agency?

First and foremost, we're led by a consultant. I’m a consultant by trade. I have a computer science and math degree. I spent 10 years with Accenture doing consulting. So when we work with our clients, we’re coming from a foundation that isn't starting with creative. We get to that for sure, but we're really rooted in strategic business consulting methodology. We approach everything as a business consultant first, primarily because of my background and what I ask of the teams. So I think that to me is the biggest difference. It's just our DNA.

Why do you prefer to hire people who don’t come from traditional advertising backgrounds?

Consumers are from all different backgrounds, and I think you want that diverse thinking. You don't want everybody that's been trained on a certain methodology. It becomes routine.

Say we need to figure out how to get more people buying frozen vegetables. When you bring in a bunch of diverse thinking, you don't know what you're going to come up with. It's the conversation and that journey that turns into the ultimate brainstorm, because you're getting different perspectives from different people.

So it doesn't matter if you say, "oh, yeah, I've worked 10 years on CPG clients, and I boast Anheuser-Busch and Procter & Gamble.” I kind of don't care. Let me see how you think. Can you bring some of your perspective and challenge the thinking around the table so that we're going to come up with an answer that another group can't come up with?

When hiring people from nontraditional backgrounds, do you normally have specific positions in mind that you're looking to fill? Or do you bring them on board first and then determine what their role should be?

It's a little bit of both, but probably more the latter. We have an always-on philosophy when it comes to recruiting, because we're always looking for smart, talented people. We don't go out looking for people who have been at a bunch of different agencies. We look for smart people that can bring a different way of thinking into the conversation.

Let’s say I’m trying to find another account manager. If I meet someone that [makes me] think, "wow, you're really intriguing. You have a lot of good thinking. You're not the right person for this role, but I don't want to lose you because I think there's something there. You can pull in a room with your smart thinking,” many times we’ll figure out where we can put them. I'll come back to the leadership team and say, "I met this really unique person, and I think they would be great.” I always want to find something that they can at least get started on. Cause you don't want them to come in and go, "okay, now what do I do?"

How do you attract and retain talent in St. Louis since it's not exactly an advertising or marketing hub?

That, I would say, is our biggest challenge by far. It's hard to get people to come to St. Louis if they're not from St. Louis. It's just a fact.

People that are from St. Louis, if they go and they leave, always want to come back here. It's a great place to raise your family. So the people who have grown up here and leave and come back, those are the ones we truly want to get because we know that they see the value of St. Louis.

We're also fortunate that we have a really strong intern program. We have some great schools in the area. We have Washington University and SLU, which are fantastic. Mizzou has always had a fantastic journalism school. So we also look to the universities close by.

How do you keep your staff motivated and inspired?

We feed them. We feed them a lot. People joke about the freshman 15 when they come here.

I think what I try to do is create a grassroots-led environment where anybody that has an interest and a desire to create an environment that's fun for people to work at [can] step up and contribute. Because it can't all be the agency owner saying, "we're going to have fun Fridays" or "hey, we're going to have this." It needs to be things that people are invested in.

We have what we call the Brighton Ambassadors, which is a group of five or six people that I meet with on a monthly basis. They have a calendar of events so that we have something planned each month. We do a mini-Masters golf tournament. We do a winery outing. We do all the stuff that a lot of agencies do. But it's run by them. And if somebody says, "hey, I know somebody that does massages in offices," great. If there's enough interest, they take it and they run with it.

One girl is really into yoga and even took a leave of absence to go to India to get two months of yoga training. She came back and now once a month has yoga up in our big conference room that anybody can sign up and go do. So it's really [about] letting people that have a passion and a skill that they want to bring to the agency kind of foster that.

Independent Insights is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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