INTERACTIVE: HEADHUNTERS - Prime movers or parasites?

By DAMIAN LANIGAN,, Friday, 26 January 1996 12:00AM

Are advertising headhunters important career catalysts, or parasites who seek to undermine staff loyalty at every level? Damian Lanigan on the people business

Are advertising headhunters important career catalysts, or parasites who

seek to undermine staff loyalty at every level? Damian Lanigan on the

people business

‘Leech’, ‘meat-packer’ and, perhaps worst of all, ‘estate agent’ - all

of these terms remain widely used synonyms for headhunters in the

advertising industry.

They are often used by unsuccessful candidates in the face of thwarted

ambition. This may be understandable but, worryingly, such language is

also used by the heads departments at major agencies - the very people

headhunters hope to provide an indispensable service to. It is not

unusual for the headhunting cottage industry to even use these terms

against its own. The question is, why does the topic provoke such strong

reaction and vitriolic language?

Much of the bad feeling can be ascribed to the way in which some

headhunters have historically done business. However, the sometimes

fractious nature of the agency/headhunter relationship is often caused

by aspects of agency life that many agency managers find it hard to face

up to.

If in the past headhunting has been marked by a lack of integrity and a

little sharp practice, then far too often shops have also been guilty of

the rather more serious failing of managing their employees badly,

thereby promoting the employee promiscuity that they so often blame on


To begin with, what are the accusations agencies most commonly level at

the headhunter community? One oft-mentioned bugbear is the seemingly

random showering of department heads with CVs.

Gary Stolkin, a former senior agency manager turned headhunter, says:

‘There is a long-established, unwritten rule that, once a CV is supplied

to an agency, headhunters have the right to charge that shop if the

candidate is hired at any time in the subsequent 12 months. Inevitably,

this has had the effect of making headhunters CV-driven. It assumes that

faxing the CV is enough, which I think gives the wrong cues.’

Gay Haines, chief executive of Kendall Tarrant, the industry’s largest

player, agrees: ‘I think it’s a very tacky rule.’

Despite such opposition, agencies still feel that the consequences of

the 12-month rule are still with us. Andrew Cracknell, chairman of

Ammirati and Puris/Lintas, says: ‘Most of the time, headhunters do

provide a useful service. But the approach can be indiscriminate. It can

be particularly irritating when CVs are sent to me that are obviously

way off the brief, or I have to do most of the filtering myself.’

An issue that provokes even stronger feelings is poaching - where

headhunters solicit the employees of agencies to whom they also supply

staff. Andrew Ward, head of client services at TBWA, speaks for many

when he says: ‘If we find out that a headhunter we use regularly has

been poaching our good people, then that headhunter will be delisted.

You can’t stop soliciting completely, but often headhunters are given

access to privileged information about agency staff. It’s totally

unethical to use that information against the agency by luring someone


Some headhunters are prepared to be open about the issue. Isabel Bird,

who runs Bird - which specialises in advertising jobs of board director

level, upwards - and also works in related media and marketing fields,

makes a distinction between different types of headhunting. ‘There is

‘search’, and there is ‘recruitment’. Recruitment companies work for

lots of candidates and lots of clients. Agencies will brief more than

one recruiter to find candidates who, by definition, will probably be up

for several other jobs. Our business is executive search, a client- not

candidate-led business. We are contracted exclusively to find the right

candidate for a specific client brief. We make clear undertakings that

we don’t, under any circumstances, touch our clients’ people.’

Kendall Tarrant is equally forthright, although its size obviously

affects its position. Haines says: ‘Everybody knows exactly where we

stand on this. We deal with all the agencies in town; that makes it

impossible for us to agree not to work with candidates in specified


‘Equally, agencies can make it hard for headhunters by demanding that

they have total coverage of the marketplace. It’s the headhunter’s job

to know where all the good people are in every agency,’ she continues.

If headhunters pride themselves on knowing the whereabouts of excellent

candidates, some claim that they are less knowledgeable about the

agencies themselves. Ward explains: ‘Perceptions can lag way behind

reality in terms of agency culture and quality. Headhunters sometimes

have preconceived ideas about agencies that are way out of date. It’s

vital that they come to us with a willingness to listen, otherwise they

just can’t be effective at finding the right people.’

The candidate’s view is often just as damning. Emma Cookson, an account

planner with Bartle Bogle Hegarty who has moved agencies three times

without recourse to a headhunter, says: ‘I certainly don’t think I’ve

lost out by getting my jobs without an intermediary. I’d much rather

speak directly to a potential employer. Also, when I have been sent to

an agency by the few headhunters I have dealt with, my briefing has

often been superficial and out of date.’

However, many people do end up being a candidate at some time. Stolkin

says this can colour advertising people’s impressions: ‘Headhunters deal

in rejection. Most candidates will experience this at some stage and

seek to dump some of the blame for it on the headhunter.’

At a different, but no less wounding level, agencies can suffer

rejection. Stolkin adds: ‘Apart from a select few, agencies do find it

hard to recruit per se.’

Headhunters who inform agencies that they aren’t as desirable to

candidates as their competitors will inevitably be perceived as irksome.

Petty gripes and squabbles are an intrinsic part of commercial

relationships - just ask agencies about their clients, or clients about

their agencies. Often, however, the roots of minor dissatisfactions stem

from more serious dysfunctions. This is certainly true in the case of

the agency/headhunter relationship. The feeling is that at least some of

the disaffection surrounding this relationship is ultimately caused by

agencies’ weakness at managing people.

The agency world has acknowledged that its assets go down in the lift

each evening. What it hasn’t figured out is why so many of these assets

go up in someone else’s lift the next morning.

The headhunters themselves feel very strongly about this. Haines

explains: ‘Too often, the headhunter is the scapegoat. The most common

reason for people wanting to move is that they feel under-valued by

their agency. Agencies can be particularly bad at giving people a long-

term view of where they fit in.’

The recession exacerbated personnel problems. Fewer people, working

longer hours and for more demanding clients resulted in a greater degree

of staff unrest. But sometimes a personnel issue is as simple as setting

aside time to talk things through with an individual.

Stolkin recognises evidence of this: ‘Agencies are very bad at the

therapy stuff. Candidates will come in to see me and talk unprompted for

an hour or more about their situation, then they stand up to leave and

say ‘I feel so much better now’.’

Harry MacAuslan, head of account management at J. Walter Thompson,

challenges agencies to improve the whole area of staff recruitment and

retention: ‘How much do agencies really seek to differentiate their

offering to potential candidates? It’s part of life that some people

will move on, but the onus is on agencies to secure loyalty from their

staff.’ He points to one key ingredient in starting to establish such

loyalty: ‘Training your people is absolutely vital.’

There is some irony in the fact that the self-professed experts in

branding haven’t, in many cases, answered some of the major questions

relating to themselves as brands in the employment ‘marketplace’. How do

I make myself attractive in that market? How do I differentiate my own

offering? How do I seek to ensure long-term loyalty?

But some, on both sides of the agency/ headhunter divide, detect a

change in the air. Bird argues: ‘Agencies are getting better at asking

the important questions in relation to their people. How to build teams?

What makes somebody a leader? How to get employees to understand their

roles within the organisation more clearly?’ Agencies might profit from

making more use of headhunters because they are experts at knowing what

makes an employee tick.

In the meantime, there is definitely scope for improving the existing

situation. In particular, there appear to be too many ‘grey areas’

hindering agency/headhunter relationships.

One suggestion is that headhunters should band together and issue a

clear code of practice, perhaps under the auspices of the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising. This could regulate their activities at

the broadest level and establish guidelines on, for example, poaching

and remuneration. Introducing a performance-related element into

remuneration is one idea mooted to help to introduce a sense of real


It also seems quite clear that headhunters must get to know their

agencies better, and the general advertising disciplines more

thoroughly, so that candidates’ and agencies’ expectations can be more

closely adhered to.

There needs to be a lot more openness on both sides of the relationship,

perhaps through the introduction of annual assessments of the

headhunters’ performance by their key agency contacts. Formalised, clear

agreements between agencies and headhunters, particularly on the key

issues of poaching and remuneration, would help to eliminate any

remaining doubts.

The term headhunter may also need rethinking. While one dictionary does

not actually list the word ‘leech’, it reads: ‘A headhunter is a member

of any of certain primitive tribes who preserve the heads of slain

enemies.’ A little harsh perhaps.

This article was first published on


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