Sunday, 5 September 2010

The other side of the fence...

The fence may or may not be this colourful. Probably not. Photo via Fredosan

It's been a few years now since I (Will) got into the business as, first - a rubbish account handler, and secondly (and more happily), as a Junior Planner.

As you may have read, I've just finished recruiting for a Junior Planner of my own, and I wanted to share some of the good and bad things I've seen when conducting a fair few interviews, as I think they might be useful for those interviewing for Junior Planner jobs.

Or not. Heh. Anyway, here are some random thoughts:

1) Know what you're interviewing for

Most of the folks who sent their CVs in were bright, vivacious, interesting people. They'd done interesting stuff, and would undoubtedly be cracking employees. But we had to turn a lot of them down. Why? Well, for all of their intelligence, most of them hadn't explained WHY they wanted to be a Planner. Some hadn't even explained why PR over other professions, and that's pretty schoolboy stuff. I understand that the 'PR Planning' discipline is reasonably new, but do your homework. Your CVs show you're all bright people - so be able to tailor your responses in light of what the job actually is, much in the same way as you would have done for that degree essay. What would interest your interviewers, and why? What are the current debates? What's your point of view? The more interesting, the harder it is to cut people out of the first cull of candidates, even if they don't have a lot of relevant experience.

2) Put up your (lateral) dukes

Following on from that, we shortlisted a number of people. We would have been happy employing the vast majority of them, based on some excellent CVs and well thought out covering letters, particularly given that most didn't have a lot of experience in the area. Many had interesting thoughts about brands and society, but those candidates who did really well, and thought out their answers were able to emphasise their lateral thinking credentials. I don't think you necessarily have to be able to quote De Bono chapter and verse, but being able to explain how seemingly every day things could link to comms solutions makes candidates stand out. Even if you can't easily quantify the answers, don't worry too much - the interview's more for understanding how you think, not for getting the 100% right answer - this isn't school; there are rarely wholly 'right' answers.

3) Don't second guess

This leads us onto the third point, about second guessing. For many candidates, this was one of their first interviews - and many fell into the academic trap of trying to assume what I and my colleagues wanted to hear. As per the last point, there isn't one answer; I'm more interested in figuring out how you got to your answer, and what you considered. Planning is all about making the closest to the 'right' answer you can with the information available. Sometimes there's not enough, and you need to be ballsy enough to admit as much, rather than blundering on (which I was want to do in my first few Planning interviews, I admit). Just namedropping some Black Swan, some Lehrer or some Steel doesn't automatically guarantee you're through to the next round. What was it about their thinking that you liked? What didn't you agree with? Be contrary - it's more interesting than rehashing the past, folding your arms and assuming you've passed the test. We asked a number of off-beat questions in the interview, where candidates were asked to think on their feet, where no amount of theory would really have helped - and this helped us separate those who could measure their OWN, individual answers.

4) Balance is everything

I vividly remember an interview I had at one of London's top ad agencies. I remember answering the questions correctly, having a lot of relevant experience and, in short, thinking I'd got it. Then the feedback came, which pissed me off, frankly. They told me that whilst I'd answered the questions well, I wasn't 'interesting enough' for them. It still rankles with me today, and I vowed never to give such shitty feedback when I interviewed. The kernel of truth in that thought, is that I was INCREDIBLY ad focused, and didn't show enough of my personality. Sure, I could quote ad theory 101, but they wanted some sense of what I'd be like to work with. The successful candidate didn't have any ad or PR experience, but wrote such an utterly fantastic covering letter, giving us a real sense of what she'd be like to work with, and was so engaging in person (both from a practical 'doing the job' and a 'Christ, you're interesting perspective') we were bowled over.

5) Be nice

'It's PR, not ER' or 'Relax, it's just Advertising'. Both slightly glib quotes, but both wholly applicable to comms interviews. Especially Planning ones. Decent Planners are able to detach and see how that slightly spurious brand benefit would work in the real world, whilst balancing the business objectives of their client. There's no need to get stressed and difficult when things aren't quite going your way. And an interview, though a snapshot in time, is all we had to go on to find out how candidates would get on. Yes, there's a lot of work in the job, and a lot of deadlines - but smile, and be pleasant. We're all human beings, and know the job (and life) gets difficult. And what's more, if you can't be nice, you'll find it bloody hard to be empathetic, which I think is the greatest trait a planner can have - to be able to understand how other people think and feel. If you don't have that, you'll find it hard to get into Planning.

I hope those were helpful. More than happy to answer any interview queries (especially if you have an upcoming ones) in the comments.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You mentioned a bit about candidates making an impact in their cover letter. I'm in the process of applying to planning positions, and I was wondering if you could mentioned what are some stand out characteristics of a good cover letter?

Will said...

Hi Anon.

Thanks for your question. I think one of the key attributes was a sense of what someone's like as a person - to be able to see why they want the job, what makes them tick, and why they're an interesting person.

It's got to go beyond the atypical 'I want this job because I'm really passionate' to talk about what you've done in the last few years, and what it is about planning that inspires you and makes you think you'd be a good fit.

We placed a lot of emphasis on the cover letter because of the amount of writing required in a PR Planning job (arguably more than a conventional Account Planning job).

So, in terms of a checklist:

1) Stuff about yourself - potted history etc.
2) Why Planning?
3) Why you'd fit.
4) Any little personality flourishes or things you can point to - maybe you love making Mixtapes...link to one. That sort of thing.

I hope that's helpful.

rb said...

Very helpful. Thanks!

Francesca H said...

This is a really interesting read- especially in light of some of my own, to use your phrase, shitty interview feedback from one of the big agencies which said I was 'too creative' and that my experience was a little 'too interesting' for the role.

Hopefully, by following some of your practical advice about explaining why it is I want to be planner, I should be able to temper my 'interestingness' and knock one agency's socks off in the not too distant future!

Chris Hall said...

Hi Will.

Enjoyed the post.

You mentioned as someone who is now recruiting:

"We asked a number of off-beat questions in the interview, where candidates were asked to think on their feet, where no amount of theory would really have helped - and this helped us separate those who could measure their OWN, individual answers."

Could you give some examples of these?

Would you also say these were some of the most important questions of the interview?

Will said...

Hi Chris.

I don't want to give the game away too much (heh), but in terms of the slightly more random questions, they were to do with made up companies and fictional situations - we asked candidates how they'd solve the company's problem and why.

And yes, without question - they were amongst the most important questions; anyone can revise a canned answer, but thinking on your feet and laterally is a skill not everyone has.

Will said...

Francesca - 'too interesting' is a bullshit comment, I think. You've been hard done by.

I think your situation really depends on the person who's interviewing you - temper your responses a little - some planners love more theoretical stuff, others are interested by the nitty gritty. The more interviews you do, the easier it becomes to tell. :)