Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

26 August, 2014


By Surya Balakrishnan

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college. He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer. He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy.
He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him. However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

So wrote David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy, now part of the largest advertising company in the world, in a memo to one of his partners. Self-promotion to be sure, but it’s self-promotion that rings true - many corporate success stories do have unexpected beginnings.

One, re-popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, was Sidney Weinberg, whose big break came at the age of 16 when he bluffed his way into a job at a brokerage firm. The job wasn't as a broker though, or even as a janitor. Instead, Weinberg held the role of assistant to the janitor at the small firm, named Goldman Sachs. By 1930 he was senior partner, had saved the firm from bankruptcy and had the best reputation in the business. As Gladwell puts it, "Weinberg was Goldman Sachs," TIME Magazine called him "Everybody’s Broker."

A more recent example is Alex Stevens, Managing Director of Fonterra brands, responsible for 30% of the world’s dairy exports and New Zealand's largest company. Stevens spent 13 years studying and practicing medicine, only leaving his surgeon’s training in his late 20s. And prior to entering the PR industry, PR firm GolinHarris' CEO had a resume which showed he had been "kicked off his high school tennis team, spent a few years trying to get his own record company off the ground, started a business providing rides home for people who’d had a little too much to drink, substitute-taught home economics to junior high school students and worked as a doorman."

To be sure, unorthodox backgrounds are no guarantee of success. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina studied Philosophy and Medieval History at Stanford and saw HP become the largest PC maker in the world, but its stock halved in value during her tenure. But then neither is the perfect pedigree. John Sculley, fresh off his success as Pepsi's youngest ever President, had to be cajoled into leaving the company for Apple, a four year old company set up in a garage. It took Steve Jobs' legendary pitch – "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?" – to finally convince him, and outgoing Apple President Mike Markkula thought the addition would bring much needed stability and reliability to the company. Instead, Sculley would fire Jobs from the company he founded. Similarly, Steve Ballmer, whose business skills were meant to complement Bill Gates' technical knowledge at Microsoft, was so unloved by shareholders that he made almost a billion dollars when the Microsoft shares he owned rallied on the news of his resignation. More generally, only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs have degrees from an Ivy League school.

So given that all hires are risks, no matter their qualifications, isn't hiring a little more broadly one of those risks that is worth taking?  Not just those with liberal arts degrees, or no degrees at all, but those from different walks of life or without the usually required 'industry experience.' Companies have already shown that they are willing to make an investment – by definition something that doesn't always pay off – to secure the best talent. Over the past few years growth in spending on corporate training has consistently been in the double digits, to say nothing of the fact that CEO compensation has risen 875% since 1978, more than twice the growth rate of the stock market.

To be sure, the wider you cast the net, the more expensive a search becomes. But firms are already putting more time and resources into the hiring process, just in the wrong places. In a survey conducted by jobs website Glassdoor.com respondents reported that the average job application process lasted just 12 days from start to finish in 2009 but now lasts up to 23. This is a result not just of more rounds of interview but of new tactics ranging from phone interviews to personality tests to brain teasers. Indeed, the Fermi problems once so beloved of large corporations now seem downright conventional compared with questions like "What is your least favorite thing about humanity?" and "Do you believe in Bigfoot?" both real question asked by major corporations. It seems to me that if we’re willing to go as far as ontological queries about mythical forest creatures, thinking a little less narrowly about the kind of people we interview in the first place would also be worth trying.

Two caveats. First, clearly not every job hunt would be benefited by this approach. If you're looking for a systems administrator or a head neurosurgeon, it's probably best to stick to those with the relevant training. And second, in every case given above, from Ogilvy to Weinberg, someone did eventually hire them and they went on to become anecdotes later generations could use to prove a point. But there is definitely a sense that – in an age where automated keyword screens are used to throw out resumes before they even reach human hands – many of these people wouldn't even make it into the interview pool, let alone be hired, at the companies they helped to build. Technical skills aside, most companies also claim to be searching for qualities far less easily quantified, like 'leadership.' And as William Deresiewicz, essayist and former Yale Professor, points out "leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning." Creativity, another supposedly valued attribute, is similarly difficult to pin down. Both are almost impossible to determine by looking at a resume.

One final point. Big companies are increasingly worried about being ‘disrupted’ by smaller ones, who can be more agile, innovative and efficient. It seems likely that at least part of the reason for this is that small companies are willing, or have no choice but to, take people with more unusual backgrounds i.e. the very people who are most likely to think differently. That’s especially important when it comes to innovation because you don’t need original thinkers when all you want to do is replicate something (you need people who are able to follow a process properly) but you do when you want to do something new. After all, as Schopenhauer said, talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.