By Anne Holland, MarketingSherpa Publisher
I've hired plenty of marketers over the years, and it's always
been a hit-or-miss business, kind of like test cells in a new
direct response campaign. You lay your bets, cross your fingers,
and anxiously watch performance.
In fact, our new HR director Stephanie Sebeck (hired, in a
stunningly dumb strategic move, only after I made our other new
hires for 2003), tells me it's an HR rule that about 50% of your
new employees won't work out as well as you'd hoped.
Maybe a big company can swallow recruitment costs, training time,
inadequate results, and loss of team morale, but my company sure
So, this August when we'd grown big enough to hire a full-time
director to run the marketing department, I was nervous. There
wasn't any bandwidth to screw up in. Here are the steps I took,
mistakes avoided, and lessons learned on my road to hiring a
-> First review past hiring mistakes
I sat myself down and reviewed all my past hiring blunders --
even outside of marketing. They boiled down to a few common
themes that you might find true too:
o Underestimating the job:
"I've done this job myself in the past, and it was fairly easy
for me, so it can't be that hard for anyone else." Wrong. You
have to start by respecting both your own skills and the
position's true demands. Otherwise you won't make applicants
jump through enough hoops to really honest-to-god prove they can
do the job.
o Picking the nicest person:
"We work as a team here, so I'll pick someone I get along with
easily and quickly." (aka "someone I'd like to have a beer
with.") Nice is, well, nice. But making this your top
requirement is a fast route to making it a lot harder to fire the
person when they almost inevitably don't work out.
Another theme on this is hiring a friend, without first making
them jump through every excruciating hoop regular applicants
would. I've had to fire friends before. Ouch.
o Being really impressed by a resume:
If 50% of hiring is a mistake, it's also true that many people
never get fired (and indeed move up the corporate ladder) because
they are so darned nice and/or because their boss doesn’t want to
lose face by admitting the mistake. Happens constantly.
Signs to watch out for -- a marketer who comes from a teamwork-
oriented company who can't clearly explain (and prove) which part
of the marketing was his or her direct hands-on responsibility.
Some (really nice) dummies are carried along by their fellow-team
Plus, I was once hired because the CEO was deeply impressed by
the brand name of the company I came from. What a shot in the
dark - he couldn't have known how much I had to do - or not -
with that brand's success.
o Being impressed by degrees:
"Wow - an MBA in marketing from a prestigious school. This
person must be awesome."
As someone with only a BA in religious history, I used to be
tremendously excited to hire people with formal education in
marketing. But, after 18 years, I have to say I've seen zero
correlation between marketing degrees and performance in the
field, aside from technical training for statistics or graphics.
(The only exception would be marketers who take classes, often
given by marketing trade associations, that are taught by
experienced professionals in the field, instead of professors.)
However, if you need a leader with bottom-line responsibilities,
and MBAs are important to your corporate culture, and you can
find one with hands-on experience to back-up book learning, an
MBA may be your best choice.
-> Create a skill and passion profile
Next, instead of writing up a description of my dream candidate,
I made two very detailed lists:
o Specific tasks required in the daily job
o Specific tasks or skills not required for this job, that
still fell under the category of marketing.
Why two lists? Marketing often requires a hodge-podge of skills
that aren't something you'd expect to find in one single person.
For example, creatives may suck at spreadsheeting. Fabulous
dealmakers may be too outgoing to relish the hours of intense
solitude great copywriters require. Strategic thinkers can
flounder at routine administration. Team leaders may not be able
to delegate tasks -- to themselves.
Just defining the job as a "Marketing Director" isn't good
enough. You'll almost never find someone who has all those
diametrically opposed abilities. You have to choose your battle
to win the war.
After creating the two lists, I assigned a degree of importance
to each item. What were the supercritical factors? What were
things on the "not" list that generally indicate a personality-
type who won't be great at the stuff on the "must-have" list?
-> Accept applications via a survey form
I knew loads of people would apply because we have a big pool to
advertise the opening to (our readers) and also good jobs were
still scarce in the industry. Time-crunched, I decided to post
an online application that used inexpensive surveying software to
ask a series of questions. (Link below to my original survey.)
Important -- I included both types of skills and attributes on
the survey. So, questions included things on my "not" list.
I worried this might be a little dishonest, but figured it was ok
if I was very clear in the survey introduction about the type of
candidate I was seeking. The "ringer" questions were, I felt,
The survey asked candidates to rate how passionately they liked
or disliked particular tasks. "What are your favorite marketing
tasks and skills, and which do you do if you have to, although
you'd rather not spend all day at them?" Tasks included
everything from copywriting to schmoozing possible partners.
I also asked candidates to describe themselves, by checking off a
list of common marketing director personality traits that in my
experience match various skill-sets. Traits included:
- Highly inventive and creative
- Multi-tasking King/Queen
- A bit anal about details
- Love to execute to plan
- Great overseer and boss
- Prefer to test, tweak, test, tweak
- Outgoing on the phone
- Good at bugging people to do stuff they promised
The ringer in this list was the question about being a great
boss, and also being highly creative. I knew anyone who checked
either of these was probably someone who would be unhappy in the
position, which required routine admin and do-it-yourself tasks.
Anyway, we didn't need another highly inventive person on staff -
- I'm inventive enough. I needed a compliment, not a clone.
-> Getting the word out and learning from results
I posted an clearly detailed call for a particular type of
applicant in our highest circulation newsletter. (Link to sample
The results were fascinating. More than 100 applications came in
over the next five days. Unable to stop myself, I peeked into
survey results the first night and read through some of the
resumes. Oh my gosh - they were really impressive!
Thrilled I made myself wait until the survey closed to look any
Because there were so many applications, I decided to use the
survey software to sort answers based on the absolute three
critical attributes required - a love of spreadsheeting,
enjoyment of routine admin, and search marketing experience.
I was shocked when just a handful of applicants met the
To doublecheck, I reversed tactics and sorted the surveys by
asking the software to hide applicants who loved the stuff we
needed least - such as being a boss, or being highly inventive
The same exact applicants came up on my screen.
Turns out people who love spreadsheeting are not thrilled to
their core by stuff like graphic design. My theory of opposite
marketing personalities was proven out.
Plus, I was surprised to see that none of the early applicants
whose resumes I'd been so impressed with made the final cut. If
I had based my interview decisions on resumes and cover notes
alone, I would have made a big mistake.
-> Asking for industry feedback
I also posted a note to an email discussion group of my industry
peers (folks who belong to a publishing trade association), to
get their feedback on how I could have done a better job with the
Their feedback was so useful, that I asked some of them for
permission to share their notes with you here.
o Try a "Fit Questionnaire":
Todd Petracek, Marketing Director for Paperloop, told me he
successfully uses a "Fit Questionnaire" when he's interviewing
applicants. (Link to sample below.)
"It helps force some honesty (or at least critical thinking) by
forcing people to choose relative strengths and weaknesses (6
strongest areas, one weakest area.) But I don't just ask about
the candidate, I ask what kind of company they're looking for
-- and I show them afterward how I would fill out the survey."
o Beware task preferences:
Peter Hobday of Subscription Strategies Newsletter said he always
relies on questionnaires when hiring because "this method cuts
out 'gut instincts' that so often turn out to be poor ones."
However, he noted, "Questionnaires work best with follow-up
questions because, for example, when you ask someone about their
favorite skills they may answer that they dislike maintaining
admin systems or spreadsheeting, but they may actually be quite
good at it."
"Instead, ask 'How would past employers rate you for the
o Don't blow off non-hires:
Bill Harrison, President Bradley Communications, told me he sends
a thank-you gift to the folks who came close but weren't hired.
"Last time we hired ad copywriters, we got over 200 applications
of which about 20 passed the writing test. We hired the 10 best.
Then we took the next 10 people and sent them a $50.00 Amazon
gift certificate with a 'We'd like to hire you at some point but
were overwhelmed with more quality people than we can take on
right now' letter.
"The applicants were blown away and we ended up hiring several of
them down the road."
-> Samples of my survey, call for applicants and Todd's Fit
Note: Look for Part II of this article in January. It will cover
the interview process, what to do if an applicant is (very)
pregnant, and how my final decision worked out.