LIVE ISSUE/HEADHUNTERS’ FEES: Creatives take sides in fracas over headhunters - Last week’s failed debate has turned into a slanging match, Harriet Green says

The Creative Directors Forum wanted a debate about headhunters’ fees, and that’s what it got. Last week, three leading creative headhunters were invited to present their case at a CDF meeting. But after waiting more than an hour outside, they cleared off (Campaign, 16 May).

The Creative Directors Forum wanted a debate about headhunters’

fees, and that’s what it got. Last week, three leading creative

headhunters were invited to present their case at a CDF meeting. But

after waiting more than an hour outside, they cleared off (Campaign, 16


Since then, the debate has become an exchange of spiteful words. One

side mutters about sharp practice in the headhunting industry; the other

wonders if creative directors can be trusted to determine industry


To confuse matters, a number of senior creative directors support the

headhunters. These include the Ogilvy and Mather executive creative

director, Patrick Collister, and the Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe

creative partner, Robert Campbell. More significantly, the Lowe

Howard-Spink managing director, Tim Lindsay, angered by what he sees as

an unelected, unrepresentative body attempting to speak for the

industry, moved quickly last Friday to dissociate Lowes from the CDF’s


So how did it all start? Tim Delaney, the CDF’s chairman, stated in a

draft press release (still to be ratified by the 21 members) that

creative directors were no longer prepared to pay more than 10 per cent

in headhunting fees, compared with the current 15-20 per cent: ’In the

past two decades, the advertising business has seen its remuneration cut

and commission on production has virtually disappeared. At the same

time, the number of people working in the business has dwindled, while

the tasks agencies are asked to undertake are expanding. Thus there is

enormous pressure on costs.’

Delaney added: ’Creative department salaries have risen, the services

offered by headhunters are more or less the same, and yet their fee

structure is completely unchanged.’ In an earlier draft, he was more

vociferous, arguing that headhunters simply move ’people’s books from

one place to the next’.

It’s true headhunters make a healthy living (say pounds 20,000 for

placing a junior team, pounds 65,000 for a senior team); and nobody

disputes the CDF’s right to raise the subject. But has it behaved

fairly? Lindsay thinks not: ’We feel that this is an unfair way of

treating business partners.

Imagine the outcry in our industry if the top 30 advertisers declared

that they were going to halve the fee they paid to advertising


But a CDF member, Andrew Cracknell, the chairman of Ammirati Puris

Lintas, believes that’s what has happened. He insists the CDF is not

ganging up on headhunters but that the debate be viewed in a wider

context. ’There is a feeling that advertising is a soft touch for

suppliers,’ he says.

’Our loyalty is to full-time staff. It would be irresponsible not to

check that the (money) is well spent.’

For Cracknell, the debate is no different to the scrutiny of production

companies, and grumbles about the cost of Cannes. ’We are being squeezed

by clients, who in turn have pressure put on them by shareholders and

banks. Why are we not in turn squeezing?’

Headhunters insist they already feel squeezed. The creative headhunter,

Canna Kendall, says: ’If agencies are squeezed by clients that hits us

because salaries get squeezed.’ But Delaney believes the headhunters did

themselves no favours when one said that their terms of business had not

changed in 15 years. ’Exactly,’ he says.

Another member of the CDF questions the very nature of headhunters.

’Have they ever had marketing jobs or ever worked in an agency?’ he

asks. ’All they do is gossip. Would they ever unearth a great talent?


The three main creative headhunters - Canna Kendall and Co, Kendall

Tarrant and Harold MacGregor - insist their job involves far more than

gossip and moving books from one agency to another. They claim to offer

flexible rates to agencies that use them regularly or exclusively, and

one insists she would not dream of charging at all in connection with

some recent start-ups. As for the charge that headhunters can’t make

creative judgments - that they just send ’hacks’ - Kendall observes that

no-one needs to use them if they don’t trust their judgment.

Another common criticism is that headhunters destabilise the market

artificially to keep themselves busy. But Kendall rejects that.

’Headhunters may go for long periods without fulfilling a brief. A lot

of time is spent in being the industry psychotherapist, or surrogate

teachers and educators, work which goes unpaid.’

Jan MacGregor of Harold MacGregor blames the agencies: ’We are having to

work twice as hard to find the right people because agencies didn’t take

on graduates during the recession.’

Not all creative directors agree with Delaney. Collister sees nothing

wrong with headhunters’ charges. ’Agencies aim at 15 per cent

commission,’ he says. ’It doesn’t seem unreasonable that headhunters

should do the same.’ Campbell says: ’It’s depressing that the CDF

presents itself as a bully-boy cartel. Canna (Kendall) and Liz (Harold)

have helped me develop my career and my business over 15 years; I know

how much money they’ve made out of me. It doesn’t amount to much.’

Graham Hinton, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s

president, is considering formalising the CDF under the auspices of the

IPA. That should make policy clearer. But he remains cheerful: ’We are

not an industry body that instructs agencies how to behave. Market

forces will prevail.’