You don’t need unicorns – you just need to know how to grow horns

finding new business talent

I started my career in new business. I’m now chief executive, and I’m still just as passionate (maybe even more so) about hiring new business talent than when it was my sole focus. Partly because it’s always been a tough area to hire for, and one that so many agencies struggle with. But mostly because we’re no longer focussed on hiring for the current business landscape – we’re hiring for the new business landscape of 2019 and beyond. If you’re not doing the same, it’s important to start.

In an ever more complex industry, you need new minds, new ideas and new viewpoints, otherwise new business will grind to a halt. It can be hard to find talent that ticks all the boxes.

For most agencies, the plan is simply to recruit the unicorns. They forget that unicorns are hard to mould and, for that reason, our focus is more rounded. We look for the grassroots attributes that ensure people fit our culture first. From there, we help them grow horns.

I never use psychometric tests when hiring. I enforce my own criteria, which revolves around four key points.

1. I ask them, ‘what does a bad day look like for you?’ Most of them will say, ‘one where I’m not winning’, which is a good sign. If they’re passionate about losing pitches, you know it’s in their DNA to win. That said, I also need to see that they can fail-fast and bounce-back from disappointment.

2. They need to be able to do the practical elements of the job well, so I often ask them to demonstrate that they can write a good RFI. Grammatical skills and storytelling are so unappreciated in new business, but they’re critical skills that I look for.

3. I ask myself, would I be able to sit next to this person on a train for two hours? If it’s a ‘probably not’, then I know that I won’t be able to work with this person. And CEOs need to be able to work closely with their new business teams.

4. Lastly, I look at how fast they walk. Silly as it sounds, this test tells me what their energy is like. Do they walk with drive, conviction, belief, purpose? Are they hungry?

While not everyone will look at prospective employees’ ankles, nailing the combination of culture and hunger is so important for new business. Why?

The industry has changed so much. When I started, we had a couple of key case studies to refer to. Nowadays, the key to new business is strategy and breadth. Clients have serious business challenges they need help solving, and it’s not just a case of 1 + 1 = 2. There’s data, customer experience, digital, programmatic, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and everything else to understand. Then, all things considered, they need to be able to stitch it all together, making sure that the agency’s broad knowledge makes sense to the clients, as well as our clients’ customers.

But beyond all of this, you must hire on personality and potential. In reality, what you’re pitching every time is your culture. That culture doesn’t come without the right people - and these people rarely come through the door fully fledged. They need time to grow into the environment; they need to feel like it’s okay to make mistakes, just not too many. And when under pressure, they need to be able to rally, influence and command in order to use the great talent that’s around them.

It’s for all of these reasons that we don’t want ready-made unicorns. Anyone hiring them will be sorely disappointed when they realise they have, in fact, hired a horse in a party hat.

Pip Hulbert, is the chief executive at Wunderman UK.

Hulbert spoke at The Drum's Pitch Perfect conference on driving new business and where to find the right talent to support that earlier this month.

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