Most C-level executives, even those in technology-driven businesses, would agree that human capital is their organization’s most valuable asset. They recognize that hiring standout managers can transform an already successful organization into something greater. But how do executives go about hiring those managers who have the expertise to grow their business? And what strategies do they use to retain top talent for years to come?

I queried four leading industry executives to get their insights and perspectives on hiring smart, creative leaders in today’s quickly growing digital market:

How important is domain expertise?


John Nardone, chairman and CEO for targeting firm [x+1], sets the bar high when he recruits top talent — his company deals with one of the hottest aspects of digital marketing today. The “problem,” Nardone admits, is “there is no place to recruit from when you are working on the bleeding edge.” To cope with this issue, [x+1] looks for people who can operate in real-time bidding and real-time “decisioning” in digital analytics. Expertise in this area is scarce for good reason, so the company looks for bright people with related experience from other industries.

But experience isn’t the only criteria potential hires are measured on. Peter Zillig, CEO of Euro RSCG New York — the fifth-largest agency network in the world — believes that domain expertise is important when hiring. But Euro RSCG is really looking for something more amorphous.

 

“[We look for] people that we know are going to coexist inside what we call the ‘one agency culture,’ which is an idea culture that goes beyond specific domains,” Zellig said.

What are the top priorities when forming a hiring strategy?


While skill sets are still considered a vital component when hiring, recruiting the best and the brightest out there and being able to work in a constantly changing marketing environment are perhaps even more important.

“First and foremost, brainpower wins,” Nardone said. “Acclimating to the culture comes second. If you’re bright enough, you’ll learn fast. We move in an extremely fast-paced environment. That works well for some, but it doesn’t work well for others who need more stability.”

Gregg Bernard, the newly hired SVP of business development for video-sharing site Vimeo, agrees with Nardone on the cultural element. “It’s not as simple as finding someone in a functional role, it’s about finding someone who has the right attributes and — of critical importance — finding someone who is a right fit for our culture. This is common at a lot of companies, but every company has a distinctive culture.”

Bernard added that it’s important not to discount an executive from another industry. “In some cases, it’s beneficial to hire from outside the industry to get a fresher perspective and a different take on things as media, entertainment, and technology all continue to evolve,” he said.

Dave Williams, CEO and founder of social engagement advertising platform BLiNQ Media, sees the value of having senior leadership manifesting a career path for new recruits.

“If you don’t have strong senior talent, the junior talent tends to see that pretty quickly and sometimes it’s not as motivating for them from a long-term career perspective,” he said. “Most of the people at BLiNQ have been in the industry for the last 12 to 14 years. It’s really important to have a senior staff because when you’re hiring junior people and trying to groom them, they can see a career track in the company and also people they can learn from.”

Have hiring practices been proactive or reactionary?


For some companies, the tough economy has created an ideal situation to hire talent that may not have been open to new opportunities. In the last few years, some very talented people have found themselves on the street. A company like BLiNQ, which specializes in Facebook advertising, seized on the economic downturn.

“The economy may have created an opportunity for us over the last couple of years,” Williams said. “It’s allowed us to build a strong talent pool of employees that may not have been available in a stronger economy.”

For many growing companies, the economy has allowed more flexibility in terms of compensation as well. As was the case in the late 1990s, senior job seekers are receptive to equity. Williams believes that employees should have a stake in the success of the company. “We think that it helps motivate everyone toward a common goal,” he said.

Industry leaders no longer simply interview candidates when they are looking to fill a role. According to Zillig, “We are very interested on an ongoing basis of just meeting great talent in the industry. It’s always good to talk to people and have an ongoing understanding of the kind of talent that’s out there.”

Nardone agreed. “I always encourage my teams to be very active in their communities of practice,” he said. “Participation on committees in industry associations like the IAB and on panels at events with people who are working on related kinds of projects from other companies makes it easy to get to know them. Even if those are the people you necessarily may not want to hire, they may connect you because they travel in the same circles.”

Are there critical skills where you are finding a dearth of talent? And if yes, how does that change your hiring strategy?


What executives find difficult to find right now are people who have genuine experience in traditional advertising as well as the new digital social world. They are also looking for talent that is flexible in their thinking without being mired in one or the other.

“There is a very small sweet spot of senior people who truly understand both sides of the coin because they have actually worked both sides of the coin,” Zellig said. “The talent that is hard to find is the talent that truly understands both worlds and can literally co-exist between the two and cross ideas within the two.”

And according to Zellig, he is working hard to break down the walls between the two worlds. Euro RSCG New York placed its digital business in the heart of the agency three years ago to “create a culture, internal understanding, and intuitive behavior that is all about this new world of digital and social, and it becomes impossible to escape.”
 


Summary


Industry leaders aren’t looking for yes-men employees, at least not in the fast-paced environments of today’s marketing and media landscape. When senior executives talk about “cultural fit,” they generally mean that the managers they hire must be able to run their own business lines as an owner would. An entrepreneurial manager can anticipate and act on what’s next in the market for their company and manage upward instead of taking instruction.

Innovation isn’t just something that company owners do — it’s what successful managers do all the time with their company’s most important asset: people.

Erika Weinstein is co-founder and president for Stephen-Bradford Search.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.