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How do you solve a problem like... standing out to agency recruiters?

As recruitment ramps up post-pandemic, what exactly is an agency looking for in a candidate?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

With ad spend roaring back, there’s a lot of hiring going on. At many agencies in the US, UK and APAC, we’re seeing headcounts return to, and go beyond, pre-pandemic levels – especially with holding companies such as Publicis returning to growth.

But even with demand for new talent high, standing out among the crowd is never easy. So what can agency staffers with an eye on their next gig do to stand out? What are you looking for in your next recruits? Will a one-sided CV cut it in 2021?

How do you solve a problem like... standing out to agency recruiters?

Siobhan Brunwin, people director, MullenLowe Group UK

Hiring is on fire right now. After the very steady, samey past 18 months it’s no surprise that there’s lots of itchy feet, with many people looking to take on a new career challenge. Entry-level roles are particularly tricky as lots of agencies didn’t hire any of these folk last year so the competition has doubled – chances of standing out in this space are much harder. Catching a recruiter’s eye isn’t a one size fits all job – some people are much better at designing wacky CVs, or it might be an innovative use of social media in your application or even a video. Think creatively: it’s the creative industries after all. Make our lives easy: be clear and tailor it to the job you’re applying for. Show personality and intrigue us. Why are you better than the next candidate?

Kate Herbert, head of people and culture, We Are Social

We’ve recruited more than 70 people so far in 2021. When it comes to looking for candidates, we first consider their passion for our business and the industry. We are less concerned about how they fit with the job description; that is something that we can discuss in the interview.

Candidates should keep CVs short and snappy. Tailor it to the role you are applying for and organize the experience so it’s easy to find. Alongside past employment details and examples of previous work, show potential employers what you were most proud to achieve at each role. Include any unconventional experience you may have. Side hustles, fun projects, even failed ventures – it shows a willingness to try different things and learn from experience.

Rebekah Sollom, early careers lead, Dentsu

For our early careers roles, we don’t require industry experience or a degree. But we do look for people who are passionate and motivated to grow their career within media, digital marketing, creative or data. Work experience in customer-facing roles is a plus, but if candidates don’t have that they can really stand out by writing blogs, learning to code or creating websites. Attending free courses in paid search or Google Analytics, or building Excel skills, are other great ways to boost profiles.

David Peña, talent specialist, RPA

For junior- and entry-level candidates, having an inspiring ’North Star’ is a great way to stand out. I want to know why you want to get into the industry, and what are the challenges you see in advertising that you want to take on and fix? What are some ads you’ve seen lately that were tone-deaf? Really think about it. Advertising isn’t just about being creative and using metrics, it’s about connecting people and championing change, community and social causes. If you can take some time to reflect on your North Star, I guarantee you will stand out.

Mark Stangroom, talent acquisition director, Incubeta UK

Across all functions and levels of seniority we look for four key skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creative problem solving. Additionally, we look for job-specific skills, as well as personal traits that demonstrate our core values. To reduce the impact of subconscious bias, Incubeta operates a blind application process, which means identifying skills at the application stage without looking at CVs. Instead, we use job-specific questions online, and at the interview stage ask everyone the same predetermined questions. These are some of the steps we take as an agency to boost diversity and ensure we have an endless flow of talent and creativity.

Sasha Martens, president and founder, Sasha the Mensch

Zig when everyone is zagging. I would urge talent to take a step back and look at this moment in time. With so much movement in the industry, loyalty will be rewarded to those who focus on growing within their current environment. Not to mention it will be attractive to future employers to show a pattern of job consistency, especially during this turbulent period.

Kasia Oslowska, head of people and talent, Armadillo

This is about your personal brand. Be an individual, not just someone who looks good on paper.

Be as creative as possible with your application. A bland Word document doesn’t do anyone any favors anymore. And forget the one-page rule for applications – that no longer applies. Always make sure you can offer proof of your skills through your achievements: as a CRM agency, we love a clear and measurable result!

Ensure you know as much as possible about the company values and the interviewers. It might sound obvious, but it’s not always demonstrated. You can incorporate this research into your answers, and it will give us a much better grasp of why you belong here.

Alicia Richardson, senior talent partner, Engine Creative

Knowing your unique value proposition to instill a sense of enthusiasm on how you look to play a part in progressing the industry forward and adding to the growth of the business and culture is imperative.

Employers are keen to find proactive learners who have persevered in the face of challenges, including those who have a passion outside of the day-to-day role. However, if your LinkedIn profile is not updated, recruiters will be reluctant to start a conversation. It’s essential not to wait for opportunities to come to you. Approaching the type of companies you want to work for and roles you want to progress in can pay off.

Jeremy Leonard, chief executive officer, Lead

The high demand for in-house digital marketing employees is driven by the pandemic, as brands realize they can execute campaigns faster and more cost-effectively themselves. This creates challenges for agencies, as companies can pay staff significantly more.

However, for specialist agencies like us, brands are also upping spend here, tapping into our PPC, search, social knowledge and skill set and more attentive servicing. Whether candidates have agency or client-side experience is less important than motivated self-starters with analytical minds. We’re interested in digital experts who can activate and analyze campaign performance, and optimize campaigns on the fly and in real-time.

Barry Lowenthal, chief executive officer, Media Kitchen

For us what really attracts talent and clients is less about the mechanics of media planning and buying, and more about what we stand for. There are three values that are core to who we are: how we hire (you must be great and nice); how we develop big ideas (they only become truly great through collaboration); and how we talk to each other (we are direct and rigorously transparent). If you share our values and you’re deeply curious, you will make a great chef!

Stephen McGilvray, executive creative director, FutureBrand

One-sided CVs don’t cut it in 2021. A website is standard practice and a cut above a PDF or Google Slides. I view portfolios on the move – so those presenting a digital-first mindset sit well with me.

I love when candidates think holistically about brand experience and take a multi-sensory approach to brand identity. Brands need to feel alive to truly engage. We look for designers who think conceptually, with an understanding of the power of brand and the ability to work comfortably with strategy. These people exist, and when you find them it’s a glimpse into the future standard.

Andy Southcott, managing director, Captivate

Great thinking plus genuine, overt enthusiasm is an almost unbeatable combination when hiring. The best agencies are home to dynamic, engaging, interested and interesting people.

You should go into the interview with the goal of being the best hour of the interviewer’s day. Worry as much about demonstrating joie de vivre as you do about demonstrating competency. And remember this cuts both ways. Don’t move somewhere that doesn’t inspire you.

Katie Broadhurst, operations director, 20ten

Culture is the most important thing to us – consistently valued by new staff.

While we aim to understand the goals and career trajectory of all joiners to help them fit in and flourish, we love it when new employees come in with bundles of energy, are proactive and carve out their own position. We encourage ideas from all levels: if a junior member of the team has a killer idea, we let them own the creative process so they can see their idea come to life. Our strategy seems to be working as we’ve doubled employee numbers through lockdown, with more to come.

Michele Prota, chief talent officer, Forsman & Bodenfors

We look for candidates who can show how they used creativity to solve problems, and how they came up with ideas that changed things – for clients, for culture, for our industry and for business. Creative is not just the creative department’s job, so special points go to people outside of art/design/copy who have a strong instinct for creativity.

F&B has the power to change things; opinions, ideals, attitudes and what people choose to do. We are all equally responsible, so everyone puts work out, helps each other and listens. We’re currently looking for candidates who can run with this philosophy from day one.

Fancy joining in the conversation? If you’re an agency expert with an opinion, email me at to be included in future debates.

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