6 Steps To Hiring the Perfect Agency Executive Leadership Team

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You’ve built your agency with grit, coffee, and more sleepless nights than you care to count. Perhaps you’ve done it all solo or with a few long-standing friends or business partners by your side. When they make a lifetime movie about your agency’s stratospheric success, the montage of your gutsy, hard-working crew hustling to build your empire is sure to make audiences smile.

But this ain’t the movies. Your startup days are long over and it’s still just you and the old gang at the top. Is it time to rethink that? You bet.

Hiring the right executive leadership team is essential for marketing agency growth and success. And though it’s incredibly important, it’s no secret that executive recruiting is uniquely challenging. 

In this article, we’ll explore the steps to assemble an exceptional executive leadership team that will catapult your agency to the next phase.

Understanding the Importance of an Executive Leadership Team

A strong team of senior leaders is the cornerstone of agency success. Not only do they set the vision, culture, and values for your agency, they also impact employee morale, productivity, and overall company performance. Ultimately, your agency will be impacted by the strategies they devise and implement–and this will have a ripple effect across your agency.

One of the turning points for Lawnline Marketing to become an established agency from a startup is when we started creating a leadership team. As you grow, you can't do everything yourself. You have to remove things from your plate and you've got to trust other people to be able to handle your business. Putting in directors over the various departments and allowing them to run their departments and manage their team, manage their people, manage their workloads without me having to have my finger on it all the time.

Tony Ricketts, Founder & CEO, Lawnline Marketing

Your executive team will influence your agency’s success in four main ways:

1. Strategic Direction and Decision-Making

A formal executive team provides clear strategic direction for the agency. These leaders collaborate to set goals, develop expansion strategies, and make critical business decisions that directly impact your agency’s growth and profitability. 

With their own focus and collective expertise and insights, the executive team ensures that the agency is focused on achieving its long-term objectives, strongly differentiated from competitors, strategically leading in industry trends, and poised to maintain or increase a healthy bottom line.

2. Operational Efficiency and Resource Allocation

Aside from painting that big picture, an experienced executive team oversees how vision gets turned into action. They optimize the agency's operations and allocate resources effectively according to those long-term goals. They ensure that the agency itself is structured for peak efficiency. Ultimately, the executive team will make the decisions and set the context as to how the agency acquires, manages, and retains clients and staff. 

3. Industry Expertise and Thought Leadership

An executive team comprised of individuals with diverse experiences and expertise contributes to the agency's thought leadership and industry relevance. Their knowledge helps the agency stay ahead of emerging trends, technological advancements, and changing consumer behaviors. By leveraging their collective insights, the executive team guides the agency in adopting innovative marketing strategies, excelling in a lucrative niche, and delivering exceptional results for clients.

When we pivoted into this industry, we were building a client base and we started to learn it. But we made a conscious decision to hire industry insiders and people with high levels of expertise. Whether that's account management or customer success, we pulled in industry insiders and that, to me, has been a decisive advantage for us.

Trevor Shirk, CEO & Founder, Terrayn

4. Relationship Management With Clients, Partners, and Investors

At many digital marketing agencies, the executive team plays a crucial role in building and managing relationships with clients and other key individuals, companies and entities. They serve as trusted advisors, providing strategic counsel and ensuring that client and investor expectations are met. With their oversight, agencies land bigger, higher profile clients, foster long-term partnerships, acquire financing and investment, and negotiate for highly sought after projects.

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As you can see, these are key roles that can only be played by an executive team with a certain breadth and depth of experience. The same strategic decision-making and networking just isn’t possible by the nonmanagerial staff; they may not have the experience, authority, and certainly not the bandwidth to accomplish what a well-hired executive team will accomplish for your agency. 

The Unique Challenges of Marketing Agency Executive Recruiting

Unfortunately, executive recruitment for digital marketing agencies comes with its own set of challenges. None of these are insurmountable, but hiring executives does require recognition and strategic planning to overcome the potential pitfalls. 

The Competition for Top Executive Talent Is Fierce

If you think that the market for top nonmanagerial employees is competitive, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the market for experienced, savvy executive candidates is even more ruthless. You’ll need to present your agency–and the role–as particularly appetizing. And you’ll need to offer a competitive compensation that is commensurate with the desired experience and accountability of this role. 

Actively Recruiting Passive, Qualified Candidates Is Tough Work

Unfortunately, your average executive director and other senior candidates are not following your company’s job alerts with baited breath. In fact, approximately 97% of top executives expect to be headhunted, or passively recruited from their current job with vacancies that are a strong match to their interests and skills. 

This poses unique challenges for marketing agencies, who may not have a recruitment team that are used to actively sourcing quality candidates at this level. Recruiters also face other challenges getting in touch with qualified candidates in a discreet manner. Not to mention, active sourcing involves a far greater lift in terms of the upfront work that needs to be done to vet candidates.  

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Executive Recruiting and Hiring Costs Big Bucks

One of the biggest challenges for digital marketing agencies who are building an executive team is swallowing the big price tag of hiring one or more executives. Even if the cost of recruitment is handled in-house rather than through an executive search firm, the best executive talent doesn’t come cheap.   

Agency Tip: Sometimes, hiring executive recruiters is the way to go. Only you know the urgency of your situation and how much your agency stands to benefit from a speedy conclusion to the executive search process.

The Candidate Pool Is Shrinking as Baby Boomers Retire

As the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964, or mostly aged 60+) retire en masse, they take with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. Left to pick up the mantle are Gen X and Millennials. While these workers are gaining the experience to step into these roles, many find themselves at a pivotal point in their personal lives caring for children or aging parents that make it more of a challenge to take on the demands of an executive role. 

It’s not that there are no Gen Xers or Millennials who are able and qualified to step into these roles, it’s simply that the scale at which the Boomers are retiring leaves more executive positions open than qualified, eager candidates ready to fill them. And that smaller talent pool makes it that much more challenging. So be prepared for an executive hiring process that won’t be completed overnight.

You have to be investing in your people and your culture to grow your agency, which will then translate to your clients.

Stena Lambert, Director, Vortala

6 Steps To Hire an Executive Team for Your Agency

Let’s recap: You know that your agency needs intentionally sourced executive leaders at the top with the specific track record to take your agency to the next level. And you know it won’t be a cakewalk. Like everything in the world of digital marketing, there are challenges unique to hiring for these roles in this field. 

So how do you move forward? How do you start an executive recruitment process that will end with the hiring (and long-term retention) of the right person for this role? 

Follow these steps. 

Step 1: Define Your Agency's Needs and Goals

Before embarking on your executive search, assess your agency's current state and future aspirations and map these to specific skills, experience, and qualities you require from your executive leaders. It may be beneficial to conduct a SWOT analysis to narrow in on the attributes that best complement your agency’s objectives or primary challenges that need to be overcome. 

Agency Tip: If your agency has a board of directors, it’s imperative to discuss your agency’s executive needs with board members, to ensure any candidates you bring forth are aligned with their vision for the agency.

Step 2: Build, Train, or Hire Your Executive Recruitment Team

Next, you’ll need to draft your recruiting team. That is, determine who is responsible for sourcing and interviewing candidates and which individuals will ultimately be the hiring managers who have the final say. 

This involves evaluating the urgency of your situation, your existing recruitment team, and your budget. If you don’t think your in-house human resources team can pull this off, you’ll need to delegate someone to vet executive search firms. 

Agency Tip: If you’re not using an executive search firm, it’s worth the effort to mindfully delegate all or a portion of this task and to establish clear parameters as to how this work should be accomplished, what success looks like, and ultimately, who is accountable.

Step 3: Craft an Effective Job Description 

Creating a compelling job description is a critical step to attract top-tier executive talent. Your executive job description will need to communicate the responsibilities, qualifications, and desired outcomes (e.g., scaling your agency!) for your executive leadership positions, while also appealing to the values and motivations of high caliber prospects. 

Reverse engineer a good job description by instead describing your ideal candidate and how they’d operate on a day-to-day basis. Who is this person? What are they good at and passionate about? How do they approach problems? 

Just like a TikTok video or a landing page, you have mere seconds to capture the interest of your audience. A well-crafted job description will quickly and easily attract the right candidates and make them want to know more about your agency.

Agency Tip: If you’re not confident in your executive job description, consider running a test. After all, you’re obsessed with metrics in your day-to-day agency work. Why not measure the quality of candidates from one job description versus another? You may gain insights that could help with future executive hiring. 

Step 4: Source and Attract Top Talent

Great executives don’t grow on trees. Working from your needs and goals, consider various channels and strategies to source potential executive leaders, including job boards, networking, and executive search firms. 

A range of factors will influence how you search for executives, including the compensation package you have available, the urgency of your search, how long you intend for the recruitment and hiring process to last, and where the job is located, among others.

Step 5: Conduct Effective Interviews

Interviews play a pivotal role in assessing the leadership capabilities, problem-solving skills, and cultural fit of executive-level candidates. But interviewing executives is not the same as interviewing entry level or mid-level workers.

Ensure that the person or people who are accountable to interview the executive candidates have been trained on the industry-wide best practices, as well as the best practices for your agency. Consider collaborating on a list of interview questions that will give candidates the opportunity to show the depth and breadth of their experience, and their leadership style. 

Implementing a scorecard is another way to ease the comparison between candidates. This will level the playing field for communication internally–you’ll certainly want to discuss with trusted members of your team if there are any deal breakers that would eliminate a candidate from consideration.

There's a system to determine if they are a good fit or if they aren’t. There's an acronym. It's GWC. Do they Get it? Do they Want it? And then do they have the Capacity to do it? And if they can hit all three of those check marks, then it might make sense to put them in that position. And what you'll find is that most people will check two of the three check marks. That's just not enough to make it work. Or if you do decide to put them in that position, it may end up crashing and burning later, and you may have to make a swap out.

Nathan Hawkes, President, Arcane Marketing

Step 6: Evaluate Candidates and Make the Right Choice

It probably goes without saying that thorough evaluation and due diligence are paramount in the selection process. Remember that not everything can be boiled down to quantifiable data. You can–and should–compare years of experience, education, results and other metrics. 

But at the end of the day, you’ll also need a way to measure or score qualities that can’t be crunched into numbers, such as confidence, commitment, passion, and temperament. There are just some attributes that you’ll have to assess through the lens of personal opinion and first impressions. That said, remember, it’s not about who is most likable; it’s about who your agency needs to grow into the agency it’s meant to be.  

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As you go through the process above, be sure to keep these dos and don’ts in mind, for a better executive search process and a more successful outcome. 

Agency Executive Search Tip #1: Conduct “Informal” Research

One of the best ways to form a picture of the person you need to hire is by getting to know people in similar roles. If you can, chat with executives in similar positions at other agencies, to get to know what sort of experience, mindset, skills, and personality traits you might be looking for. 

If you can’t chat with the executives themselves, it’s also beneficial to have a conversation with recruiters who have previously hired for similar roles.

The senior leadership team at Squidgy are all time-served agency workers.

Andy Robson, Agency Founder, Squidgy

Agency Executive Search Tip #2: Work Your Network

Don’t hunt for an agency executive in a vacuum! Tap into leadership organizations, referrals, clubs, LinkedIN groups, conferences, and other avenues to source your candidates. Hiring at this level is often personal; that’s the whole point of building a strong network. You can even ask for referrals internally, if you employees know good leaders that they want to recommend. 

Further, scout out whether there’s anyone currently at your agency who merits being promoted into the role. It’s not a decision to make lightly, but it’s worthwhile to consider. After all, you have more information about who that person is, their culture fit and how they think and work… more than you’ll ever have on an outside hire.

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Agency Executive Search Tip #3: Maintain Confidentiality and Exercise Extreme Professionalism 

Headhunting executives should be handled differently than when recruiters reach out to non-managerial staff. If you’re having your in-house team do this work, ensure that they understand the nuances and know how to represent your agency well. You’ll need to be discreet and direct. Do not do anything that would cause trouble for your potential candidate with their current employer (such as emailing them at their company email address). Discretion is key!

Agency Executive Search Tip #4: Be Hyper-Considerate of the Candidate’s Time 

You’ll make the best impression if you are deeply considerate of the candidate’s time (as well as your own). Executives are busy. Start by ensuring that you have a concise and clear job description to send them. If they take the bait, conduct a quick 15-minute screening call to inform them about the role and to ask about key skills and interests. Only then should you schedule a full interview.  

Agency Executive Search Tip #5: Know When to Go Slow and When To Move Fast

It’s crucial not to rush your hiring manager to search for the right executive to fill the role. Being patient and waiting for the right candidate will certainly pay dividends over hiring someone who is not the right fit for this role or your agency. Remember, the goal isn’t to wrap up this search ASAP. The goal is to be confident that the person you hire has what it takes to go the distance and push your agency to the next level.

That being said, there’s a time to be patient and a time to move fast. Skilled executives are in demand. When you find the right person, send an offer quickly, before they move on to the next opportunity. 

Agency Tip: It’s a good idea to make sure your hiring team is prepared to move fast when they need to. Things like paperwork should be pre-drawn up as much as possible so that there’s no wasted time.

Hire the Right Executive Leadership Team for Your Agency

In summary, a formal executive team is essential for a marketing agency's success. They provide strategic direction, ensure operational efficiency, attract top talent, cultivate industry expertise, and strengthen client relationships. By investing in a strong executive team, agencies position themselves for sustainable growth, navigate industry challenges, and maintain a competitive advantage.

Building an exceptional executive leadership team is a transformative process that requires careful consideration and strategic execution. And once you’ve landed the ideal hire, you can’t rest on your laurels (too much). Now it’s time to onboard them well and retain them for the long term.

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Elyse Gagné bio

Written by

Elyse Gagné

Elyse Gagné develops branding and content strategies that unite businesses with their customers. A podcast junkie, you'll find her learning about the latest technologies and brand storytelling techniques while she gardens or hikes.

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