Recruiting Creative Talent: 7 Top Tips from Digital Marketing and Advertising Agencies

If you’re a candidate eager to enter the digital marketing and advertising industry, versatility and a knack for collaboration are key qualities to master. Crafting a great branding strategy may require the collaboration of a graphic designer, web developer, consultant, and marketing channel expert. So no matter which skillset you bring to the table, you have to think like your team members to be successful. One moment you need to think creatively; the next, it’s time to dive deep into analytics.

So how do the recruiters in this industry find these uniquely talented candidates? When we chatted with Interbrand Senior Director of Talent Acquisition Julie Alperen and PMG People Operations Manager Leah Gilligan, they shared 7 recruiting takeaways they’ve gleaned throughout their careers. Much of their experience has been in the digital marketing and advertising agency industry, but we think their advice is applicable to recruiters in all fields.

  • Understand the industry. For real.

If you ask Julie, one major key to successful recruiting at Interbrand is studying the industry’s nuances. “You can’t be a total expert on the jobs you recruit for,” explains Julie. “But you can get involved in online communities and attend meetups to learn more.” At many digital agencies, the objective is to build branding and communication strategies for clients. Candidates won’t expect you to be a brand strategist yourself, but you’ll want to speak knowledgeably about your company’s industry and focus.

Coming from a traditional, print-based agency, Leah initially had to learn terms like ‘paid search’, programmatic media,’ and ‘display’ – areas of focus unique to the digital marketing and advertising realm. “You can’t sell the agency without knowing and understanding the lingo of the industry,” she explains. So when she first started at PMG, Leah sat down with the head of every department to understand their team’s focus. 

Now, she attends various training sessions organized for her coworkers – just so she can learn about Google Analytics, social media marketing, and the other advertising tools that they use. Beyond that, she makes sure to stay up to date with industry news. “Before I talk to candidates with many years of digital marketing experience, I have to be informed,” says Leah. “You can’t be great at sales if you don’t know your stuff.”

  1. Find the sweet spot between creative and analytical.

Most PMG employees love to both build relationships and nerd out about data. One moment, they’ll be helping clients with strategy; the next they’ll be executing paid search campaigns. To find candidates with a passion for both areas, Leah has a few suggestions.

“When you’re hiring more niche skillsets, you often have to dig a little bit deeper into their previous work,” she explains. To gauge candidates’ knack for data analytics, for example, Leah asks them to explain projects they’ve worked on that are data-heavy.  She asks questions like ‘What is the most analytical or data intense project you’ve taken on, and how did you tackle it?’. Or, if she’s evaluating creatives, she looks at their portfolios to understand their skills and style.

Leah also likes to to see candidates’ innovative spirit, a quality that is highly valued at PMG. She’s found that the question ‘Tell us about a time when you went above and beyond the original ask’ can unearth that passion.

  1. Figure out your candidates’ biggest needs, and always put those first.

Julie sees herself as every candidate’s main advocate throughout their recruiting process. Therefore, she commits to crafting great candidate experiences whether she knows she’ll hire the person or not. She may answer to Interbrand, but she holds that candidates should never settle for anything less than the perfect fit – even if she thinks they’d be a fantastic asset to the team.

What does Leah think digital agency candidates want most? Opportunities to learn. As technology constantly disrupts the industry, candidates want to know how your team is staying ahead of the curve; how are you anticipating trends and then setting your employees up for success? “There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve plateaued; candidates want to avoid that feeling,” adds Leah. As the recruiter, you can shed light on professional growth opportunities.

  1. Channel the creativity of the talent you recruit.  

The most qualified agency talent has recruiters coming at them from all sides – all the time. Still, Leah sees too many recruiters launch generic messages in the hopes that they get one message back. Instead, tell candidates why your team is different, or talk about a few interests you have in common. Did they disclose their passion for graphic design in their Twitter bio or blog? Bring that up. “Of course you have templates; I have a standard template that I use often,” admits Leah. “But you’ll get a better response rate if you know who your candidate is.”

As Interbrand hires candidates country-wide, recruiters don’t always get the chance to meet them in person. That means Julie and her team have to work even harder to develop meaningful relationships with candidates over email. “It’s easy to get caught up in automation, but you have to form a personal connection,” advises Julie. “Customization and follow-ups do take time, but tools like Lever really help with that.”

  1. Stay cutting-edge; your team and your candidates expect it.

When Leah started her agency career in 2013, her team didn’t have an ATS. She was storing each position in a different folder, and the entire process felt overwhelmingly scrambled. Also, she wasn’t able to give her leadership team tangible reports about her recruiting success. Using Lever at PMG has been a game-changer. “If you don’t have an ATS, you need to get one,” says Leah. “Top agencies are all about data these days; you have to use it to your advantage.” Ultimately, purchasing the most intuitive but innovative tools will set your team apart.

After being around for 40 years, Interbrand has cachet in the marketplace. Julie knows that their well-established brand can also be a detriment, however, because they’re not always perceived as the most cutting-edge agency. Candidates don’t necessarily see them as the exciting, innovative kids on the block. “Yet we’re doing new kinds of work all the time,” explains Julie. “The key is to do that cutting-edge work, and then tell candidates how we’re doing it.”

  1. Prioritize alignment with your agency’s culture.

Both Leah and Julie have found that agencies starkly contrast with the corporate world. Employees have to work closely with each other to craft the most dynamic marketing strategies, meaning a cohesive team is essential. “Agencies, particularly PMG, are built around culture,” explains Leah. “So as a recruiter, you have to get to know who they are as a person – would they enjoy coming to work each day? Would they bring value beyond a great skillset? ” With only 100 PMG employees, Leah is very deliberate about getting to know every single candidate’s personality. “Putting a bad apple with good apples is only going to spoil the batch,” says Leah.

Julie’s perspective mirrors Leah’s. “For us, and for agencies in general, the intangible parts like getting the right culture fit are really important,” she says. “When I was in finance and tech recruiting, it was really just about skillset. Here, we’re concerned about both.”

  1. Use your intuition, but also leverage your team.

In Julie’s experience, recruiting agency talent is more intuitive than recruiting programmers or project managers. Above all else, she has to look at the candidate’s work and how they actually think. Still, she has to work with her hiring manager to learn what they’re looking for.

Julie suggests that you partner with your hiring manager to learn their must-haves, nice-to-haves, expectations, and timing issues. “They’re probably going to say: ‘I must have all these things in this way,’” she warns. “Your job is to say: ‘At this budget, you’re not going to get all of those things’”. You have to feel your hiring manager’s pain when they’re down a person, but you can also push them to be clear about they want. That way, you can do your job as effectively as possible.


Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights, Leah and Julie! We’re sure that recruiters both in and out of digital marketing and advertising agencies will find them incredibly useful.

One tip of particular note? The importance of channeling the creativity of the talent you recruit. If you need tips on how to freshen up your reach-outs, download our free guide to sourcing and nurturing talent!