How to Hire a Creative

By thesanfranciscoegotist / /

As someone who has spent nearly my entire career in ad agencies, I’ve hired my share of people. I know the kind of person I look for. I know the questions I like to ask. And I’d like to think I have a pretty good track record when it comes to finding creative folks. But I spent some of last year as a freelance Creative Director on the client side for the first time, and I’ve come to the realization that companies building out internal creative capabilities have a hard time identifying the right creative people. They often put stock in the wrong things and use traditional recruiting tactics that don’t necessarily work for creatives. So as you hunt for creative talent to bring aboard, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Know Your Terminology. In ad agencies, job titles are pretty uniform from shop to shop. Everyone knows what a copywriter does, for instance. But that’s not true on the client side. Many companies don’t understand the differences between creative job titles or they classify them in different ways. I often see job posts for creative directors when the job descriptions are really just art directors. If you want an editor, don’t advertise for a producer. I once interviewed for a job at an established 200-person company where they wanted me to write, design, do mechanicals, manage photoshoots, and be able to code the website. You can’t hire the right creatives if you don’t understand the nuances (or the basics) of what each one does.

Talk Opportunity Over Execution. Yes, every creative wants to know if they’ll be doing emails or brand campaigns. Companies need to be honest about the type of work they need produced. But I’ve found most creatives are much more interested in the opportunity a job offers. Will they get to help define the brand’s look? Will they have freedom to try different things and learn new skills? Is there a chance to go beyond the brief and pitch new ideas? Don’t make your job posts a list of executional bullets. Make it clear the creative opportunities to be had.

For The Love Of God, Stop With The “Projects.” When I first started talking to client-side businesses, I was shocked that the majority asked for free work as a condition of employment—always pitched as “well, everyone who works here does a project.” First off, asking for free work sucks and puts job seekers in a bad position. Asking for what would be $100,000 worth of work from an agency, and giving me 6 hours to do it? It’s offensive. (That’s a true story, BTW.) Creatives have portfolios and examples of their work to prove to you they can do the job. You don’t need to fish for free ideas using a project with an artificial timeline that’s rarely briefed well. Which leads me to…

Learn To Evaluate Creatives’ Work, Not Dwell On Their Resumes. Evaluating creative can sometimes be tough even for other creatives, so I get that a recruiter or an interview panel might not be able to judge one portfolio from another. Best thing to do? Talk to them. Have the prospect get up and speak about their work, why they made the choices they made, and what their creative thought process is. That’ll tell you more about them than a list of the places they worked. Just because someone worked at a big-name agency doesn’t mean they’re a good creative.

It’s Ok If They Don’t Have Exactly The Experience You Want. As creatives, we spend our entire careers learning new clients, brands and products as quickly as possible. It’s a big part of what we do. I cringe when I see job posts that say, “must have SaaS experience” or “B2B experience only.” I hate to break it to you, but your business isn’t so unique that a good creative can’t figure out how to advertise it. I’ve come up with concepts for complex, high-tech medical devices after only a 2-day client meeting. I’ve written brand copy for wine marketed specifically to women. I’ve worked on the account of a think tank that was solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. Hiring a smart creative person with no experience in your field is always better than hiring a mediocre creative who has your business category as a line item on their resume.

Ask Different Interview Questions. Creative people think differently and often work differently. So why do you ask them the same questions you ask all the other employees? Skip stuff like “Tell me about a professional challenge you overcame.” Instead, ask them what creative work they admire (bonus points if they know who did it). Ask designers if they had one typeface to use on everything for the rest of their career, what would it be and why. Have them tell you about their favorite concept that didn’t get produced. Questions like these show you their passion, their love of all things creative, and how their minds work.

With more and more companies building out internal creative teams, hiring both established and up-and-coming talent is more important than ever. You just have to go about it the right way to ensure you find the best people.

Matt Morin is a freelance Creative Director/Copywriter in San Francisco


  1. The Voice of Reason February 19, 2020

    Man, this really hit home for me. I have a full-time agency job, but in the past 6 months I’ve been feeling around for something different. Getting that itch to pivot. Was thinking of diving into client side but after 4 on-site interviews with 4 different companies looking to hire a writer for their in-house marketing teams, I’ve come to the conclusion that they just don’t get it. I mean, in general, in-house peeps just don’t get how to interview a creative person for a creative role. I could talk at length of the general f#ckery baked into the standard corporate interview process which a lot of us have had to endure at some point in our careers…but the biggest head scratchers I’ve consistently had at all 4 companies were as follows:

    #1. They have my resume, I’m assuming that they’ve read it, yet they never mention anything about it. They never reference what companies I’ve worked for, which cities I’ve worked in (some are exotic locations), which clients I’ve worked for, or reference any of the funny quips I’ve sprinkled all over the resume, partially to add levity to the poor HR people’s day who have to slog through stacks of resumes…and partially to see if they’ve actually read the resume and if they would reference said quips in the interview. Without fail, each and every time at the 4 companies I did on-site interviews with…and at each one I had to sit in front of 4-6 people, who each had 30 min of time alone with me….not one person (approx. 20 people total) even mentioned my resume one time. Are you [email protected] kidding me? You have a gold mine of material right in front of you and you choose not to reference it one time?? Are you for real??

    #2. Again 4 interviews at 4 companies and talking to about 20 people total for 30 min.each…not one person asked me any questions about my portfolio. I hope they looked at it, in fact I know that most did because I have a website tracker on my portfolio and I can see who’s been peeping. So they’ve looked, they are interested enough to have me come in and sit through hours of interrogation, and they again have a gold mine of stuff to talk about in the form of my portfolio, and yet again…not one question or comment about it. Are you f#cking kidding me again?! Instead…as Matt in the article commented, they ask standard, dry, process questions and never anything personal that relates to my resume or portfolio. It seems that they all have really heavy-handed HR departments that prep them on which kinds of questions to ask and they all end up revealing nothing about what the candidate can truly offer the company.

    #3 But, probably the biggest head scratcher is in the form of the dreaded copy test. 2 of the 4 companies wanted to know if I’d do a “copy test” for them. I agreed even though I’ve got a solid portfolio and a decade of experience under my belt. Well one I did a test for got me an on-site interview with 6 people. And guess what…after 3 hours and 6 people…not one person even mentioned my copy test. Are you f#cking kidding me?! This company again never mentioned my portfolio or my resume in 3 hours of questioning.

    The other company I did a copy test for also never brought it up during the 3 hour interview process. Truly mind blowing I have to say.

    In the end I got two offers but decided to pass on both based mainly on the general insanity of their interview process. I’ve come to learn through this pain that creatives are best left with their own kind at agencies. Agencies get it. They get creatives. They understand that creative folk think and work differently and need to be interviewed as such. And from my experience interviewing at agencies, they go deep into your portfolio and somewhat dabble in your resume. When I’ve been in a position to hire creatives, pretty much all I focus on is the portfolio…it’s really all that matters..where you worked, what clients/projects you worked on, where you went to school…it’s all nice to have but really all that matters is, can you do the work? Is your portfolio filled with compelling and unique pieces, that grab the reader and motivate them to take action? Nothing else matters…except when you are trying to get a job in-house…for those jobs, none of it matters…and as a creative that’s pretty disheartening.

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