Jason Cobbold: Talent, Curiosity and the Pub Round the Corner.
Jason Cobbold, CEO of BMB Agency, shares some the lessons he’s learned about the value of hiring more curious people (in both senses of the word)
Few roles offer the same odd combination of challenges as a career in advertising. One day we get to think about launching 5G technology, the next how to bring mindfulness to knitting, and the day after how to create demand for a new pack of biscuits. Few industries demand an appreciation of Byron Sharp and Billie Eilish, of brand KPIs and TikTok sea shanties. Because, in spite of the pressures we all face in our respective agency roles, we are still compensated for our ability to soak up the random and then apply it to real life problems. We are paid to be curious about the brands we work on, and the culture that surrounds us. When Einstein once said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious,” he could certainly have been talking about our business (he definitely wasn’t).
But it has always struck me that, for a business that draws on such a broad canvas for its work, we lack real curiosity about ourselves. Agencies have long boasted an unusual medley of right-brain and left-brain talent, mixing rigour and anarchy, out-there thinking, and a constant neurosis about timelines. And yet where we find this talent has barely been questioned or changed over the years. The IPA, industry body for advertising in the UK, has long tracked the make-up of its member agencies. While we continue to move in the right direction, we still basically fish in the same small pool for our people.
And yet, we’ve all had the amazing feeling of finding that surprise hire – the one that came through a completely different channel, that didn’t have the perfectly formed professional CV, and turned out to be pretty awesome. A while back in a previous role, my team bumped into an ex-professional footballer and his wife in a local pub. They got talking. We ended up hiring him, and he quickly turned out to be a brilliant new business operator. He then went on to found one of the most successful start-ups of recent years in the US. The point is that no normal hiring process would have got us to that point, but this moment of randomness enriched our small business enormously.
So why don’t we embrace this more? Perhaps we don’t have the time? For a business that’s obsessed about human behaviour, it’s strange how we consider the hunt for talent a bit of a chore. Rarely do we take the same risks with our people as our ideas.
Recently, we’ve subscribed to the talent operating system, GENIE, that’s changing the game for how we think about talent. Their AI matches businesses to a pool of amazing creative minds in an instant. GENIE does the heavy lifting, uncovering fresh and diverse talent. It takes us out of our comfort zone and removes the time consuming side of recruitment, from search to admin. GENIE has become a central part of how we find talent to solve our clients’ creative challenges and continues to surprise with its ability to connect us to interesting minds in interesting places. What we love most is it’s given us the ability to build our very own network of talent effectively inside our business – great teams we can access in an instant. Every ambitious creative agency needs a GENIE.
Whilst embracing technology can make being curious about talent a hell of a lot easier, here are a few other things I’ve picked up on the way about when it works (and when it doesn’t):
Too often, hiring processes screen out the unpredictable. We look at a candidate’s CV for evidence of what someone can do. Worked in automotive? Ah, you’ll be good for working on an automotive account. We’re a bit like an old algorithm serving ourselves back a diet of the same food. And so it’s on us to stop and think differently about what will make someone effective in a business. Perhaps this takes a bit more time, invites a longer conversation and more thought, but it might just be worth it. All well and good for us humans, but the “us” can also be smart technology. The best learning algorithms today, like GENIE, are actually built to explore and make these same clever connections.
While I am not suggesting hiring footballers from the other side of the world every time, the world is more open than it has ever been to finding talent. As an agency, we are able to embrace ideas from teams and individuals in Sydney, Mumbai and Los Angeles, with the same enthusiasm and ease. If cultural fluency is a part of what makes an agency’s ideas interesting, quick access to minds operating in different contexts must make our problem-solving better. These are hard points of difference for an agency.
The temptation of the curious mind is to wander far away, but sometimes the most enterprising choices we can make are right in front of us. The neighbourhood school, the local apprenticeship, the wealth of amazing people around us, whose abilities are not necessarily packaged up into well designed CV, that agencies fail to see.
Of course the most interesting finds are often made when we’re not looking. Moments of happenstance. But to profit from this requires an always-on, open mind. Too often we get hung up on hiring for a role, with a particular capability, at a defined point in time. But the best individuals don’t come along in nice patterns like this. Genuine curiosity means we will have more square pegs, but perhaps we’ll be better for it.
The curious mind does not mean the best decisions get made. Just that different ones are made. But for us to celebrate when it works, we must also accept the possibility of failure. Not in an abstract way, but in a very real, live-with-the-consequences way.
Our product relies on the eccentric mixture of personality that conceives, makes and sells it (a business, as an old friend of mine used to say, “where the serious people meet the silly people”). So let’s not sleepwalk, outsource and systematise our way into conformity on this. Let’s instead take on the human responsibility – our time, our ingenuity and the best of our technology – to make fresh and surprising choices. Let’s really practise curiosity around people. Because practice here makes us happily imperfect.