How not to sell jobs

3rd August 2016 / By


3rd August 2016 / By

You know what marketing is. You know what advertising is. But how on earth do these things apply to selling jobs?

This was a question I did not know the answer to two years ago. But having spent some time in two specialist employer branding agencies, I have a good idea of what employer branding is today, and I hope an even better idea of what it could be in the years to come.

What employer branding is

Unlike agencies in the consumer world that have very specific functions – ‘Advertising’, ‘PR’, ‘Shopper’, ‘E-commerce’… – Employer Branding agencies offer a real smorgasbord of services. Think advertising campaigns, social content, blogging, events, web design, video, branding, media planning, media buying and more. In fact, it’d be more accurate to call it Employer Marketing really.

Clients come to agencies from all kinds of household names and with a variety of challenges, but core to all of them is the desire to attract the most suitable people into their business to help it succeed. Each understands the importance of assembling an engaged, diverse workforce and aims to maximise productivity and minimise costly staff turnover. And while we aren’t talking product-marketing levels of investment, we aren’t talking peanuts either.

But what is the point of all of this when there is already a job shortage I hear you cry? Isn’t there a queue round the block for every vacancy? Maybe. But companies don’t just want to get bums on seats; they want people who ‘fit’ their culture. People who share their beliefs. People who’ll help their businesses thrive.

Just like in any category, the competition is fierce for people to choose one business over another.

Think about how many retailers, how many councils and how many law firms there are – they’re all vying for the same brilliant people. And just as in any category, the ‘product attributes’ are often undifferentiated. Many employers offer the same basic packages, career progression opportunities, working cultures and added benefits, so it’s up to agencies to help them differentiate themselves. Sound familiar?

The issue with most employer marketing agencies today is they approach this problem by looking inwards. They spend a lot of time and energy speaking to people inside businesses to build a picture of what it’s like to work there. But they spend so much time looking in, they completely forget to look out. And as we know from consumer advertising, that’s where the real insight is. 

What employer branding could be

For a long time, employer marketing agencies have been too occupied with job posting, PPC advertising and banner buying. Some might even say they’ve acted as an extension to the HR departments of the clients they represent.

But we can, and should, be so much more.

Attracting and retaining the right people for a business is as much about reputation management as it is about getting someone to click apply. And just as in the consumer land, you need to play the long game. That means having a smart long-term marketing strategy, a clear understanding of your target audience(s) and an insightful creative position, executed brilliantly.

But to do the kind of creative work that will get noticed on modest budgets, in the ocean of great marketing, the industry needs to remind itself what choosing a job actually is: a life changing decision. The drink you choose or the clothes you wear, while intimately linked to your self-image, will not fundamentally affect the place you live, the people you see daily or the spouse you meet – your job will. Once we connect with this, we unlock our potential to do amazing things.

Unfortunately, while new technology is embraced, creativity is often limited. Too often clients and agencies fall back on the same tired strategies and executions so over used in the category. Sometimes agencies even borrow insights or assets from the consumer campaigns our clients already run. Sometimes they’re even awarded for it. But that’s selling the industry and the challenge it presents short.

We need to be creatively brave and strategically strong.

One role that is conspicuously absent in the employer marketing space is planning. Yes, there’s ‘research’. Yes, there’s ‘strategy’. But the industry has yet to discover what real planning means, and so have yet to unlock its power. Planners are at the centre of all agency output in consumer land. Thousands of hours and pounds are spent on understanding audiences and devising brand strategies that speak to them. Whenever you watch an ad and it touches your heart, or makes you cry, you can bet that’s due in a large part to the incredible planning and human insights packed into the creative brief.

Once employer marketing hires its first true planner, the industry will change.

And if we don’t do enough insightful research and strategic thinking prior to doing the creative work, we sure as hell don’t do enough afterwards. Market research is practically absent in employer marketing, where as nothing would get out of the door without being pulled apart by consumers and put back together again by agencies in the product world. An attempt at ‘validation’ is sometimes carried out inside the business in question – but that’s like asking someone wearing Nike Airs whether they like Nike Air advertising. The answer is obvious.

There is a long way to go to bring employer marketing up to the standard of the rest of the industry, but there are plenty of ways to get there. And while I’m working in it, I’m going to push for every one.

In the meantime, here’s an example of great a idea that could easily serve as employer marketing but was not made inside the industry. Yet.