Candidates not ready for the commercial world

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Joe Friedlein is the founder and MD of Browser Media, a boutique digital marketing agency that shares NWB’s mission to cut out the bullshit.

Biggest fuck up?

I think that a lot of people would say that my biggest mistake was not being ambitious enough at the start of Browser Media’s life. I founded the ‘agency’ (it was just me at the start!) in 2005, which was a time when search engine marketing was exploding. A lot of agencies that launched in the same era grew extremely quickly, were then sold and made several owners very rich.

There are several reasons why I didn’t choose that route, not least having two children at the same time as setting up the business, so it is not actually something that I consider to be a fuck up. However, many people tell me otherwise. I never set out on a get-rich-quick mission, and I actually think that too many agencies focus on their own exit strategy more than actually helping their clients. 

I personally think that my greatest fuck ups have all involved staff. No monumental single FUBAR situation, but a series of micro facepalms… 

There is no doubt that growing a team can be difficult, but I have definitely got recruitment wrong a couple of times and not been quick enough to address it. A bad apple can really spoil the cart, and I have been too slow to get rid of those apples. Sacking people is OK, however uncomfortable it may feel. Not only does it get rid of the rot, but it is also an indirect pat on the back for the rest of the team. 

On that front, I have been slow to recognise brilliant individual contributions. Pay rises are great, and it is important to reward your staff, but just saying ‘thank you’ can make a big difference, and I wish I was better at showing gratitude to the team. It is really important not to take the best people in your team for granted.


If I had to single out one thing that is a massive annoyance, I think I would have to go with interviewing prospective employees. 

Maybe we are too demanding (although I think that it is OK to be exacting?), but I find I need to interview at least 10 people to find someone who really stands out. I don’t know if it is the individual’s fault or failure in our education system to prepare people for the commercial world, but far too many younger applicants coming to an interview are woefully ill-prepared.

Not only do they have no evidence for the bold claims that they make on their CV, but they often know bugger all about our agency, nor can they explain why they are interested in a career in digital marketing. 

If you are going for an interview, you really should invest time in finding out as much as possible about the organisation and think of some interesting questions. It really isn’t rocket science, and it depresses me how few people actually do this. 

I appreciate the time and effort that a potential recruit has made in coming to an interview and always take the time to give as much feedback as possible, however ‘constructive’ it can often prove to be. I think I have had one person write back to thank me for the feedback and ask for more detail in the past three years. You never know when paths may cross again, so I really do wish that they would show some gratitude for the feedback that we provide and (hopefully) learn from it. 

Maybe it is the fault of our industry and the apparent urge for some agencies to portray themselves as a playground. I am all for work-life balance, but a lot of agencies take it too far and paint a picture that suggests unprofessionalism. I think that’s part of the reason that some of the younger applicants prove to be so bad – all they really want to do is play table tennis for a few hours before collapsing in an exhausted heap on a bean bag. 

We live in a commercial, cut-throat world and when at work, the primary focus should be on delivering amazing work. That includes hard graft. I am not sure the younger generation has worked that one out.

Useful Advice 

I don’t know that 15 years of running an agency really qualifies me as an expert, but I think that my main piece of advice to anyone thinking about going down this path is to avoid trying to be someone that you are not. 

When managing any business, you will be faced with constant challenges and be asked to make decisions almost every day. Some of these decisions will be very difficult. My litmus test is always the “will I sleep OK at night?” question. 

If I am fundamentally uncomfortable with anything that we are doing as an agency, even if it makes us a healthy profit, we will not do it. If we screw up, we will tell clients because that stops sleepless nights worrying about that phone call. 

We are currently working on some company values to add to our website. It is an interesting exercise as the values that we, as a team, have identified (honesty, transparency, humility, tenacity) are all very much personal attributes. 

I like to think that the fact that we have been around for 15 years is testament to the fact that our clients like us as people as much as they like the work that we do. I just don’t think that is possible to achieve if you are trying to be something or someone that you are not. 


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