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Employee number one: how these agencies are recruiting their first staffers


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

December 14, 2023 | 10 min read

One of the most important decisions made by a fledgling agency is the identity of its first recruit. We speak to agency founders about how they found the right employee number one.

A woman sitting at a boardroom table laughing

Getting the first hire right can be difficult, whether it's for a new market or an entirely new agency / Unsplash

For brand-new companies, or businesses establishing an outpost in a new regional or international market, the first hire inevitably sets the standard of work produced, the pace of new clients brought on board and the tone for a burgeoning team culture.

So, how do you choose them?

Moira Seymour has been considering that problem for a while. She’s managing director of 50,000ft’s London office and currently the Chicago-based agency’s sole British employee. After being recruited in May, she’s now tasked with building a team that can service UK clients, expand its international footprint, and find a cultural fit with their American colleagues.

“The people that you work with form the company’s culture. There’s a lovely culture already within 50k and we want to replicate that,” she says. 50,000ft has its back office in Chicago, meaning that Seymour can focus on hiring talent that will work directly on client accounts in the UK.

“Our first hires will be a creative director and a strategy director. People that can take on a piece of business and work with me,” she says. At the same time, this team will likely start off mostly remote. Seymour has herself met only a few of her colleagues in person, something which has spurred her to look for talent which she can potentially work with face-to-face, at least some of the time.

“There is something really important about being in the same room with the team when you're working on a project,” she says.

Given the importance of getting those first few hires right, it’s natural that some agencies move with caution. In Seymour’s case she’s focusing on mining a career’s worth of contacts and making new connections. “All of the conversations I’m having are exploratory. It’s a case of talking to people who might be interested in a new opportunity,” she says.

But agencies in the earliest stages of business growth might find the need arising ahead of time. Aperture, a performance, marketing and advertising agency with a line in consulting, began hiring its first staffers when client demand outpaced the capacity of its founder’s freelance network. It made its first hire in June and its third in November.

The first recruit, founder Hannah Parvaz tells The Drum, was tasked with helping to build out the rest of the team; before that point, Parvaz hadn’t even put herself on the company’s payroll. “When she got hired, I hired myself.”

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LinkedIn had helped generate client interest for Aperture, but it wasn’t possible to grow the company and meet those client needs simultaneously with herself the only permanent staffer. Parvaz says: “I had decided to post more content more regularly. And the level and quality of inbound [leads] we were getting meant we needed to scale up and scale out. I might be OK and good at some things. But I wanted to find people who were truly experts.”

The platform also provided the recruits to solve that problem – though Parvaz cautions against relying on too much razzle-dazzle or social spin. “We started chatting and I laid out everything I would have wanted to know about. I wanted her to know what she was getting into,” says Parvaz. “You need to have full transparency on things, if you’re going to help me run the business. If I’m hiding stuff from you, we’re not going to be able to get where we need to be.”

For those without an established LinkedIn presence (or the taste for posting), there’s always recruiters. Jemima-Faye Goodall, business director at Racket Club, says she’s planning to bring in third-party assistance to help find the agency’s first UK hires.

The South African full-service agency is expanding into Britain for the first time and needs client services staff to help it bring on local brands. Its creative talent is, for the moment, back home in South Africa. Goodall says she’s prioritizing “character” in those first recruits.

“I’m looking at experience. I’m looking at character. Skills can be taught, but in client service roles [success] comes down to personality,” she says. Given the importance of getting those first hires right, she’s got a shopping list of personality elements. Racket Club’s ideal client services bod will be “personable, confident without being arrogant, willing, self-aware,” she explains. “It’s important to have people who are willing to take responsibility when things don't go right.”

A culture fit can be at least as important as past experience, though. When Steven Erich and Eric Kallman set up San Francisco-based agency Erich and Kallman, they looked for people “who believed in what we believed about the power of advertising, and folks just out of school who were being recruited by these same agencies but wanted an experience where they were producing work from the start,“ president Erich recalls.

He notes, however, that trying too hard to find people that fit a pre-existing mold can itself be an error. Looking back with hindsight at the company’s early years, he says the pair made “plenty“ of errors in hiring.

“We still make mistakes,“ he adds. “Hiring isn’t a science, and the whole ’cultural fit’ thing is often not right. We do best when we bring in super talented people that might not fit with our ’culture’ but do what they do as well as anyone.

“Eventually, the culture of the agency morphs into something that includes the richness and diverse thinking and abilities that each person provides. And then we make another mistake. That will never end. And we'll keep on learning.“

Working with freelance staff can reduce some of the risk involved for agencies, given it can cost less in time and cash to find freelance talent. Aperture still employs a regular freelance copywriter, for example. Some agencies lean into this to fuel their business growth.

Helsinki based Samppa Vilkuna set out to create an agency model that would respond to this precise problem when co-founding Superson. It relies on freelancers and a small permanent staff in each of its offices, meaning it’s been able to scale reasonably fast when entering a new national market. In its most mature market, Helsinki, where Superson has been established for 10 years servicing regional and global clients, the central team is just 12 permanent staffers, while in Singapore it’s around 7-8 permanent employees.

“Superson’s borderless approach not only empowers our own growth but offers our clients the unique advantage of scaling their operations without traditional time constraints and costs. Furthermore, it grants them access to a reservoir of talent that might otherwise remain untapped through conventional agency channels or in-house teams,” Vilkuna explains.

Its most recent expansion – a southward move to build an EMEA ‘hub’ in Amsterdam – will likely be capped at a similar number of staff. Each team is anchored on a client partner, creative director and project manager. Vilkuna, who is also chief exec, says the business “is deliberately lean and scales with its clients.”

He adds: “Our model presents an agile framework, uniting global talent without the financial and logistical burdens of age-old agency structures. This ensures we stay aligned with the dynamic needs of our clients and the creative community at large.”

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