What kind of people do you hire as marketers?

Discipline-based skills aside, are the character traits you search for, uniform across your business, regardless of department and function?

If so, what are those character traits?

I’m guessing most of us look for people that present well; that come off well in the presence of clients or who are almost pre-determined to come up with a 6-7/10 piece of work every single time, organised types who understand the appeal of ‘under budget and ahead of deadline’?

Hiring a safe pair of hands

Essentially we all look to hire capable people who we think can get the job done without screwing things up too much.

That’s quite reasonable.

But I wonder what the effect on our businesses would be of hiring differently.

Like many of us in B2B, when I ran my marketing services agency Rebeltech with my co-founder Nicole, we’d attend a tonne of events, looking to meet people and extend our network. There would always be some speaker up on a conference stage, telling their story, and talking about how important it is to “embrace failure”.

We agreed of course. It’s almost become a cliche that one of the universal qualifications for anyone working in startups or with technology is that you respect and even admire failure.

One time, Nicole and I were listening to a well known CEO discussing the importance of failing fast and in the silence of the audience, Nic leaned over and whispered to me: “Is it me or do people only talk about the importance of failure later, once they’re successful?”

It’s true. There’s rarely room on a conference stage for someone telling the story about the value of failure while they’re still neck deep in the shit.

It would arguably be more useful a keynote, if only because of its potential for showing by audience size the weight of value we really place on failure.

In startup and entrepreneur circles but elsewhere too, our love for the notion of failing sometimes feels skin deep. We talk about it but I don’t feel it reflected in the way we hire.

We’d rather a safe pair of hands – someone we can trust to do a job well, without making mistakes – than someone we deem talented but risky.

In 2010, when I was editor of Marketing Week, I met Andy Fennell – now chairman at design agency Bloom and an equity partner in five start-ups in New York and London but at the time Fennell was chief marketing officer at drinks giant Diageo.

As CMO, Fennell strived to build Diageo’s marketing and business around transformative creativity. Given the disproportionately impressive results he was seeing from the effort, I asked him why so few large businesses exploit the opportunity to be creative. He said that most big businesses don’t allow the time, resources or culture to benefit from the failures necessary to develop an innovative, entrepreneurial streak. “To get anywhere near achieving a culture of creativity that can make your business stand out,” he said, “you need people who are more excited by what is possible than they are scared of looking foolish if they are wrong.”

Have you ever tried hiring ‘lazy but honest’ people? 

Imagine interviewing a candidate for a job at your company. You ask the job-seeker to tell you a bit about themselves. The candidate replies: “I have a natural lazy tendency”.

Is the interview over?

Or has the answer sparked enough curiosity to follow-up and investigate further what’s behind such a frank admission? Hell, even if you’re intrigued, does it matter? An interviewee just told you they’re lazy. Even if you come to believe they’re perfect for the role, you’re not going to be able to recommend the lazy candidate to your boss.  

Are you?

I predict most of your marketing hires look and feel like their colleagues across other teams and functions; bright, shiny, happy,  hungry and eagerly compliant people who fit perfectly into the jigsaw puzzles that make up your company process and culture.

There’s an argument to make for ensuring your marketing function is partly populated (if not actually led) by creative but lazy, unpolished, ‘last-minute-before-the-deadline’ types. 

Such people come with an attitude that can make them challenging to work with and manage but they bring an elusive and intangible advantage that can give your company an edge.

Lazy but creative people often juggle five or six ideas in their heads at a time. Typically, maybe five of the six will go unrealised or are bad ideas doomed to fail. The sixth one will often be a world-changing idea of the sort your ‘compliant 6-7/10’ types could never conceive of or even get near to.

In team sports these people often get labelled as ‘mercurial’ – those that might do little for most of the duration of a competitive game but then regularly pull something magical out of the hat to inspire victory. Manchester United and Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov who played at a ‘luxury tempo’ but had a genius touch, Boca Juniors and Villareal playmaker known as the ‘lazy magician’ and Southampton Forward Matt Le Tissier who admitted in his autobiography Taking Le Tiss that he cheated on daily fitness runs in training, would all know what I’m talking about.

“For me, lazy means smart,” says Rory Sutherland. “People talk a lot about someone ‘taking the easy option’ or ‘the lazy man’s option.’ But I like working with people creative enough to see others running around doing the logical, high-energy solution and think ‘fuck, there’s got to be an easier way'”.

Lazy people come with advantages for a business. Lazy people generally ‘delegate and leave well alone’; they trust others to get a job done rather than micro-manage it to misery. They challenge and question everything and can often be the annoying catalyst for better processes.

The lazy avoid things they deem to be unproductive like pointless meetings and don’t seek to ‘look busy’ – rather they focus on getting their work completed and their goals ticked off so they can leave work.

And by the way, if anyone is honest enough to tell you in an interview that they deem themselves lazy, you can bet you’ll never have to worry about getting a straight answer from them in the future. It’s lucky for lazy people that honesty is such a valued character trait because even when under pressure, some of them are just too lazy to think up a lie. 

What characteristics or personality traits would rule out a candidate for you?

Psychiatrist and academic, Dr Thomas Szasz believed the “mental states” of the creative genius and of the destructive genius or criminal are “essentially similar”.

Former member of Take That and 1990s solo artist Robbie Williams told Adam Buxton on Buxton’s podcast that his only talent was “his personality”. “I can’t add or subtract. I’m dyslexic so I can’t spell. I only had two career paths. One was to get into Take That and then become me. The other was to sell draw, then ecstasy, then cocaine to feed my own habit and end up in jail.”

Williams won 18 Brit awards, sold 75m albums worldwide and has received many awards including one for his “lasting impact on British culture”.  

He’s British establishment. But according to him he could just as likely have become a drug dealer and prison in-mate.