Marketing has a ‘ghosting’ problem
Two months ago, staffing firm Aquent Studios was working with an ad agency client to fill a digital marketing strategist role. The firm found who they believed to be the perfect candidate after five rounds of interviews, negotiated a higher salary for the individual and had them sign a contract, only to be alerted by the agency that, on the first day of work, the person never showed up and could not be reached through email, text or social media.
The new hire, by all accounts, “ghosted.”
Ghosting, a term typically used to describe unresponsive dates who disappear without explanation in the online dating world, is now afflicting employers in the marketing industry. Recruiters at ad agencies and staffing firms filling roles at agencies and brands’ in-house agencies said they are seeing an increasing number of applicants drop off during the interview process, fail to show up for the first day of work after securing a job or simply quit without giving their notice, never to be heard from again.
“While it’s hard to quantify, it’s happening more and more,” said Kristen Herberg, vp for Robert Half-owned The Creative Group, which recruits on behalf of agencies like holding companies Omnicom and Havas and businesses like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. “While a ghosting epidemic isn’t exclusive to the marketing industry, it’s putting a strain on ad agencies and companies’ in-house agencies that are already in a talent crunch,” said Herberg. “It can be a very frustrating experience.”
Herberg chalks the trend up to the tight job market. The unemployment rate is currently set at 3.7 percent, the lowest it has been since 1969, and for the past eight straight months, the number of job openings has surpassed the number of people looking for jobs, the Labor Department reported in October. Candidates for marketing positions feel like they have the upper hand, not to mention the opportunity to choose exactly what they want to pursue, said Herberg.
“Those seeking employment often receive multiple offers in a matter of days,” she said. “Some professionals may accept one job offer but then receive a more attractive offer afterwards, or they could be waiting around for that better offer. To avoid an uncomfortable conversation with the hiring manager, candidates may avoid rejecting a job altogether or ghost the employer.”
This has only intensified as digital marketing has grown, and there are more roles to fill, especially as brands continue to bring marketing in-house and agencies scramble to keep up with specialized offerings, said Dan Weldon, director at Aquent Studios, which helps staff both ad agencies and brands’ in-house operations, and said he sees ghosting happen now about once a month.
Recruiters and marketing executives said they mostly see ghosting happen at the beginning stages of the interview process or within the first six months an employee is at a job. This is especially true at ad agencies and companies that have one-month to six-month probation periods, where the notice to leave is usually set at only one week, several said. It also doesn’t help, of course, that in the state of New York, where the majority of the nation’s ad agencies and marketing jobs are located, it’s the law to offer an employee an “at will” contract, which grants the employee the right to leave a job at any point.
One executive at an international media buying agency, who asked to keep his name and title confidential, said he has seen employees ghost their roles at the beginning stages of their jobs either because they are upset about having to do a totally different role, have an encounter with a bad client or end up messing up in some way on a campaign, often when it comes to overspending.
“People create insane fuck-ups and then just walk away and don’t say anything,” this person said, adding that the turnover rate at their specific agency is less than two years. “There are too many roles, and not enough supply of talent, especially on the digital side of the business.”
Candidate ghosting is also a response to recruiters and companies themselves ghosting on job seekers, a longstanding complaint of candidates, especially when unemployment spikes and there are not enough jobs to go around.
“Recruiters, both independent and agency, ghost people all the time,” said Michael Rimpel, svp and group partner at Universal McCann. “Now that the power dynamics have shifted, you’re seeing posts from recruiters who have ghosted people, shocked that people would do the same to them.”
“There’s some backlash from the talent community having been treated similarly,” echoed Weldon.
That’s the reason one creative director said they did not feel any remorse for ghosting on an ad agency last summer instead of telling the recruiter they were no longer interested in the role they had applied for.
“After the second interview with this agency, I stopped communicating with them and accepted a better role elsewhere,” said this person who opted for anonymity to protect his reputation in the job market. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal — it happens to applicants all the time. It’s happened to me more times than I can count.”
But job seekers, beware: Whether fair or not, ad agencies, brands and recruiters are not often willing to reconsider people who have ghosted on them for future roles down the road. The creative director above said they did not care whether they might have ruined any future chance of working at the agency because of so many available options, but in an industry as small as marketing, agencies and recruiters are likely to remember such misdemeanors and people talk. Even the act of not responding to an email could be warrant enough to cost an applicant an opportunity.
“They’re dead to me,” said Ian Wishingrad, founder and creative director at digital agency BigEyedWish, speaking about two job applicants who recently ghosted on the agency in the middle of the interview process.
Of course, that’s not the case for every agency or company, especially those desperate for talent.
“While a candidate who ghosted might have burned a bridge, an agency might be willing to look past that because they will do anything it takes to get someone who can help their clients, or if they need someone to win a new piece of business,” said Weldon. “The industry is very self-serving. Agencies especially are losing business.”
With so much competition, it might seem like there’s not much recruiters and hiring managers can do to secure talent in today’s competitive job market, especially for the long haul. What recruiters suggest is focusing on highlighting companies’ desirable benefits such as flexible work hours and unlimited paid time off. It also helps if candidates are referred by current employees. Since there is more of a connection, there’s less of a chance the person referred will simply stray without notice.
“Many of our employees have worked together at previous jobs and can vouch for one another’s skill set which helps foster trust and accountability,” said Natalie Dalton, vp of people at media agency Empower.
Another tip: develop authentic relationships with applicants by being fully communicative throughout the interview process. Reflecting on why Aquent Studios’ client’s new recruit might have ghosted on their first day of work, Weldon said he believes the firm could have done a better job developing a stronger relationship with the candidate.
“If you’re not building relationships with applicants right out the gate and they just feel like cogs in the wheel and there’s nothing personal about it,” he said, “why would they feel inclined to respond or have any loyalty or sense of commitment?”
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