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Failing Up Part Two - Talent
Digital Agency
London, UK
Collective's Adam Cleaver lays out what he's learned over 20 years of ups and downs

Mistakes. Some people hide them. Some people embrace them, some people learn from them. Some people do all of the above and more. What is true though, is that out of the back of any mistake can be found a learning, should you want to look for it. 

My partners and I started Collective almost 20 years ago. Over that time we’ve had some brilliant ups, some crushing downs, had to make a lot of difficult choices and, because we’re human, we’ve made the odd mistake along the way. 

And, obviously, we’ve taken on the learnings (most of the time). 

So we thought it might be helpful to lay those mistakes out there for everyone (because, let’s be honest, some of them are funny/idiotic/cringeworthy) and deliver our learnings so you can all take them on and use them in your own progression. Or, at least not make the same ones we did. 

And, as I write more of them, it's become quite cathartic. Like exorcising ghosts of the past. 

In part two I'm going to look at…..


An agency’s success is determined on one thing above all else, talent. You can have the best culture, the best working practices, the best whatever-you-can-think-of, but if you haven’t got the best people, it doesn’t matter.

And finding the right people is really, really hard (unless you’re really, really well known).

How we got it wrong: We started off as four creatives – in our late 20s – all quite similar, with no clue about anything other than creative and finances. Kinda. “We don't need account people. We’ll carry our own bags”, came the cry. 

We did, for a bit, but there came a point where our account management skills were making things worse rather than better. That culminated with us famously falling out with a very well-known and respected ad agency with the words “You keep your money, we’ll keep your fucking website”. This wasn’t the way to operate successfully, apparently.

The realisation: To be honest, we knew when we started the agency that you should have some more diverse skill sets in play (it was just lots of fun not too). But what we didn’t know was the sheer amount of work it takes to find good people. 

Here are a few learnings on recruitment:

1. Trust your gut. As leaders of the business, the culture flows from you. So if you have an inkling that someone won’t fit in, you’re usually right. This was proven when many years ago our MD at the time pushed through a hire to bring a different perspective to the mix. A very rational thought but we ended up hiring someone whose differences proved divisive rather than complementary. There must be a shared belief system or set of attitudes underpinning a different perspective, or you’ll be on divergent paths. 

2. Do at least one interview in the pub. Agencies are inherently social and how someone behaves on the other side of a boardroom table isn’t how they behave day-to-day. Once you’ve covered off all the ‘technical’ components of the job interview, invite them to a more social setting. This was born out for us when an otherwise excellent interviewee let slip some rather disturbing views after letting their guard down. On the flip side, we’ve had people meet the wider team and go out clubbing after a successful social meet (which admittedly is quite awkward when you don’t subsequently hire them).

3. Get your pitch right. Remember interviews are a two way street. Turning up to an interview is very different to being completely sold on the opportunity. So take time to do the sell, and be prepared for some really searching questions in our post ‘great resignation’ world. How are you living your values? What does it feel like to work at your agency? What’s the five year plan? What are you going to do if another pandemic breaks out? How is your work-from-home-office-home-garden-shed-park bench-hybrid-working-policy panning out?

4. Be prepared to get it wrong. Recruitment is an inexact science and despite your best efforts with tests, multiple interviews and a thumbs up from the wider team, sometimes it doesn’t work out. The one question you didn’t ask (do you actually like people?) is the one you should have. Such is life. 

Good luck!

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