hen David Ogilvy, the advertising legend, hired a new manager, he had a little tradition. Something to keep them focused on what mattered.
He had grown his agency—Ogilvy & Mather—into one of the biggest and most successful in the world, and had done so by stockpiling talent that produced head-turning work. Ogilvy needed his department leaders to understand how crucial hiring was for success—hiring the right people.
But explaining this in a boring lecture was no way to teach a memorable lesson. He was an ad man, after all.
So here’s what he did instead: Ogilvy would send his newly hired managers a package, and inside that package was a set of Russian nesting dolls. Upon opening the last of the progressively smaller dolls, the new manager would find a note:
“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
Hiring brilliant, creative people has been key to Ogilvy & Mather’s success, but that’s WAY easier said than done. Creativity at times can feel like a black box—we’re not sure what it looks like, but we know it when we see it. But when it’s your job to find and evaluate creative talent, simply waiting around and hoping it shows up will rarely ever cut it.
That’s the challenge facing Kristy Foss and Emily Elyshevitz, Ogilvy & Mather’s Director of Creative Management and Career Development Manager, respectively.
Thousands of aspiring advertising creatives send them their résumés and portfolios every day, hoping to score a job at the renowned agency. Ogilvy’s success relies on their ability to find potential in a heap of portfolios—a process that relies on a mixture of systematic process and gut instincts.
What Is Creativity, Anyway?
A quick word on creativity and neuroscience:
You know that whole business about left brain vs. right brain thinkers? Turns out it’s not all that accurate; creativity isn’t so much controlled by one hemisphere of the brain as it is complex networks of brain areas working together, depending on the type of creative work being undertaken.
Focused attention on complex problem solving? That would be The Executive Attention Network (also the name of my TV pilot about CEO superheros). Imagining and planning future scenarios? The Imagination Network kicks in. Working on a problem with constantly changing information? Your Salience Network handles that.
According to Scott Barry Kaufman at Scientific American, the key to understanding the neuroscience of creativity is less about knowing the different networks, “but in recognizing that different patterns of neural activations and deactivations are important at different stages of the creative process.” You can’t really summarize creativity into a short, snappy illustration. Brain science is complex stuff (shocking, I know).
Here’s the takeaway from that brief science tangent: creativity is a hard thing to nail down. It can’t be defined just by technical skill—following a tutorial doesn’t make one creative. It’s about problem solving and seeing solutions where others don’t.
“Creativity is having courage in your dreams, of things that others don’t understand at this moment, but will come to understand,” says Emily Elyshevitz, who manages Ogilvy’s creative internship programs. “Creativity takes a lot of courage.”
Elyshevitz and Foss are constantly on the prowl for creative talent. Some days, they look at just a few portfolios. Other times, it’s a few dozen. But one thing is constant—they’re always looking.
“If we’re in a hard search, I’ll look all night,” says Foss. “Hiring the right people is very important to us.”
Like any professional with years of experience, examining portfolios becomes second nature. Foss and Elyshevitz have developed a feel for what to look for, and who to bring in. Seeing potential in a candidate’s book is instinctual.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t systematic in their approach.
“I think it’s a little of both (instinct and process),” explains Foss. “A lot of times, we’ll be looking for a specific role on a certain account, so it really depends on what we’re looking for.”
Often, Foss and Elyshevitz are looking for people with experience working within certain verticals that require a special skillset; industries like finance and pharmaceuticals have complex regulations, and it helps to hire someone with experience in that field. But there are other times when a candidate’s book jumps out at them. Foss calls these “Aha!” books: portfolios so impressive that you find a role for that person, regardless of what you originally set out looking for.
“There will be books that come in and make you say ‘I don’t care what we bring them in on, get them in the building, we’ll find something for them,’” she says. “There are certain times where the work is so amazing that you don’t even have an account in mind, but you have to get them in.”
People get pretty creative in order to stand out from the crowd. Elyshevitz and Foss have seen all sorts of clever methods—résumés written on cakes, a 3D action figure of a candidate, puzzles that spell out messages, even a lifesize cardboard cutout of a candidate (so they could “picture him working there”).
“I’ve had all sorts of crazy things,” says Foss. “Some that are tacky and some that are pretty funny.”
Elyshevitz echos the need to stand out. As someone who primarily works with students, she notices a lot of homogeneity among their books. “I need to know your portfolio from everybody else’s,” she explains. “A lot of young people make the mistake of doing a lot of the same thing (as everyone else).”
Part of the benefit of their “always-on” approach to searching for talent is that they can snatch up candidates the moment they’re available and looking. But this approach also means they need to be on the ball at all times. “The most important things are consistency and follow through,” says Foss. “If you’ve met somebody, keep in touch, be responsive, be respectful.”
Snagging the Unicorns
Ogilvy’s most successful creatives possess a special mix of personality and talent that can be difficult to come by. It’s typically not enough for someone to be creatively talented—working in an agency requires more than just the ability to produce beautiful work. To be successful, Foss and Elyshevitz must find those rare individuals that possess both strong creative skills and the
requisite attitude that David Ogilvy himself would seek out.
There’s a few things in particular Elyshevitz and Foss look for.
“What I love about Ogilvy is that people are kind here, and they have strong work ethics,” says Foss. “The most successful people here involve themselves (in the culture) and become a part of the family.”
It’s important that candidates are also able to take risks, but know too when to scale it back and play by the book. For Elyshevitz, having interests outside of advertising is a good signal as well—a hobby, side project, or passion. “I think (outside interests) inform their creativity,” she explains. “It tells me they have the ability to think differently and aren’t narrow-minded in their thinking.”
It can be challenging to find candidates who possess all this. The ability to strategize around advertising problems and execute on those strategies requires a broad skillset. In the past, many students of advertising were encouraged to pursue one path or the other—to be a “thinker” or a “doer.” But Foss and Elyshevitz have noticed a shift in mindset lately, and it’s exactly the kind of “unicorn” candidate they love finding—creatives that can also be strategic.
“Over the last 10 years, a lot of schools went away from the craft and focused more on concepting, and now we’re finding that craft has come back,” says Foss.
“There’s more hybrids now,” adds Elyshevitz. “We have more strategic creatives.”
Sometimes, the best creative talent comes from outside of the advertising world altogether. Ogilvy & Mather put together an “artist-in-residence” program that allows them to bring in craft-driven creators from other fields to test out their talent in the ad world. They don’t want to leave any stone unturned.
“We’ve had poets, songwriters, engineers,” says Elyshevitz. “All types of backgrounds.”
Attract Talent… And Keep It
Jazz musician Charles Mingus has a famous quote on creativity—the kind of thing you see plastered on countless inspirational posters in classrooms around the country:
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
That’s a pretty good summary of what advertising copywriters, artists, and creative directors are tasked with doing at an agency—making a product’s message awesomely simple. Doing that well is hard work, and takes a special kind of person.
But that hunt is both the challenge and pay-off for Foss and Elyshevitz—finding those rare creators who can see what others don’t and bring it to life. Watching those individuals go from applicants, to contributors, to superstars is what keeps them coming to the office everyday.
“When you see a creative that you hired do a Super Bowl spot or win every award known to man for a project you put them on, that’s pretty cool,” says Foss.
“For me with the interns, it’s when they get hired,” says Elyshevitz. “When I hear the creative director say ‘Wow, what a great art director or writer,’ that makes my heart race.”
Getting to that point is a process that starts long before job hopefuls send in their books. Building a talent magnet isn’t about maintaining an air of exclusivity, but through mutual respect to creative talent—and giving that talent a chance to shine.
“People put a lot of effort towards trying to find jobs, or get into this industry and stay in this industry,” says Foss. “So we as an agency have to have that common respect.”
The reward for that respect is an environment that not only attracts creativity, but fosters it. Getting talent in the door is just the first step in the process.
“Creativity means being open-minded… free to come up with anything and everything, really reaching and taking a risk.”