Assessing creative freelancers, by Terra Dehnert of Aquent

Coroflot – Creative Seeds: Guest Post: Assessing creative freelancers, by Terra Dehnert of Aquent Guest Post: Assessing creative freelancers, by Terra Dehnert of Aquent.

AUGUST 28, 2009 | POSTED BY: CARL ALVIANI

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In addition to the afternoon panel discussion and networking session, the San Francisco installment of the Creative Confab will offer something new: a pair of morning workshopsaimed specifically at skill-development for both creative jobseekers and employers new to the creative talent search. While I will be conducting the first, we’ve secured the services of some of the Bay Area’s most qualified creative staffing pros to cover the second.

Terra Dehnert and Corey O’Brien are Account Managers at Aquent, Inc., where they interview and assess hundreds of creative professionals a year, for placement in an extraordinary range of positions in web and interactive design, copywriting, graphic design, design management and more. As a preview of their workshop “The Subtle Art of the Creative Talent Search,” Terra has put together a set of pointers on interviewing and portfolio review based on her experiences.

When my clients approach me looking for creative freelancers, they tend to come at the last minute for unique and highly skilled individuals — of which 5 exist in the universe. Today one of my top retail clients praised the work of a designer I sent out for a 4-hour project. Another needs a proofreader and a production artist to put the final touches on their annual report, one of the most highly visible projects they produce each year. Obviously, I can’t send creative talent to these clients that would make even an inkling of a mistake. Luckily for me the company I work for has developed hands-on assessments that make sure our talent head out the door, armed with skills to impress… and usually a pretty stylish outfit to boot.

As more and more of our business focuses on temporary creative positions, more and more of our energy is spent assessing the candidates hoping to fill them. Over the years we’ve worked out a formalized process for doing this, which has the freelancer completing a timed project with the software or programming language they will be using on the job, whether they’re a Powerpoint Designer or a Flash Developer. The assessments are structured so that even Aquent employees who are not fluent in these programs can easily grade the results, giving a score and detailed feedback to both client and candidate.

Now, in reality you can’t “test” every skill. I’ve had great success placing Copywriters, Creative Directors, Art Directors and Project Managers — all specialties where we don’t have a set assessment. So if you’ve never built out a creative team and don’t have the resources to develop software assessments, don’t fret; there are plenty of other areas that can be covered during the interview process to ensure you’re making a strong hire.


Conducting a solid portfolio review:

Every designer, copywriter, creative director, even some project managers, should arrive at an interview with their “book,” be it paper, website, slideshow or other. Here’s what to look for:

1. First and foremost, what type of work has this person done? Is their book only filled with catalog samples? Only one page collateral pieces? Very simple websites with no animation? Basic sites with tons of animation and no content? Marketing emails? Only online banner ads? Think about what you want to accomplish with your creative team and make sure the people you interview are showing this type of work. In terms of copywriting, the types of industries they have written for is crucial. For project management, the number of projects they can handle at one time (I’d say anything under 12-15 would scare me away based on the clients I work with).

2. Delve into the projects shown in more depth. Two questions I like to ask while discussing a specific piece or project with a talent are:

a) Who was on your team for this project?
b) What piece of this were you responsible for? Did you hand it off to someone else for production (print) or coding (web)? Did you write all of the content? Certain pages? Certain topics?

In the instance of interviewing a copywriter, sometimes they have come up with the concept for a website, but not necessarily been responsible for the heavy long content. Many times the title Art Director or Creative Director can vary: some are solely conceptual or just work on photo shoots, not necessarily responsible for the ultimate layout of a piece within Adobe Creative Suite. Others have worked with smaller clients where they utilized all these skills. Designers’ duties can range from production (laying out a piece under a campaign someone has already thought up and getting it ready for print) to taking an entire seasonal campaign from initial concept to final product. It’s up to you to find out what that title means.


Asking in-depth interview questions:

Unless I have a question about dates or a specific company, I barely glance at the resume during an interview other than to jot down notes. One area I do cover every time is to ask what was the most challenging project an interviewee worked on. Many times there’s more than one, but I ask them to pick out one in their mind and talk me through it, from the beginning all the way through to the deliverable or deadline.

On another obvious note, you can ask about their favorite or least favorite project (and yes, least favorite is different from most challenging). Not only do both these questions get them talking about the work they’ve done and what they love (and hate), it gets them talking about their interactions with peers, managers, and vendors, as well as outside and internal clients. You can gauge a lot about someone’s personality based on whether they take responsibility for a missed deadline or haughtily put it off on an incompetent co-worker or boss. Once people start talking about situations they don’t like, it becomes obvious how they’ll act when asked to do something out of their position’s usual scope, or when they receive negative feedback. On the same token, if someone can’t get totally jazzed over their favorite project there is definitely something wrong.

You can also use the same approach when talking about companies. Which was their favorite and why? Did they like working independently or within a team? Culture and personality are huge when it comes to creative positions, as people tend to take the work much more personally than other types of positions — it’s their art, and their passion.
Asking the right reference questions — with the right people.

There’s no doubt that any person interviewing for a job is going to give names of references that will speak highly of them. But there are questions you can ask to at least get a little more background information, and what to expect if you bring them onto your team. Picking the right person to question is crucial. I ask all of my talent for two direct supervisors and one peer. Supervisors can speak more objectively about where a candidate may be lacking or need some assistance without feeling guilty about it. Peers, on the other hand, see the important day-to-day interactions and work that supervisors are often not aware of.

Here are four great questions to ask references:

1. What makes this candidate unique in comparison to other [insert position here] you’ve worked with?
2. What do you feel are the candidate’s biggest strength is in terms of their [design, copywriting, web development, etc.] abilities? (Yes, we always start with the positive)

3. If we were to offer the candidate training (which Aquent often does for free) what area of training do you think would help him or her most in career growth? (Stop. Pause for commentary.) This is my ultimate favorite reference question — like I mentioned before, no one ever wants to say anything negative in a reference call. But this isn’t negative! It’s so great that we’re talking already about giving this person training that the reference always tends to open up. This will at least give you an idea of the areas in which this candidate is still on the learning curve, or may need/want to grow down the road.

4. Was there ever a time you witnessed this person receive negative feedback on work from anyone? Peer? Manager? Internal or external client? What was his or her reaction?

Developing a strong creative team is one of the most important things you can do for your company and your brand. Almost all of the articles I have read on companies that have lasted through past economic downturns speak about having a strong brand and cutting-edge advertising, thanks to their creative teams. These are the companies that weren’t afraid of rebranding or launching a new campaign during an economic downturn. When you have a strong, efficient creative team that’s inspired to come up with new ideas, they will build a strong brand and great campaigns.

Even when hiring freelancers, it is extremely important to make sure they are the right fit for you, your audience and the growth of your brand. Although assessments are great, in-depth interviews are just as effective at building a creative foundation for your company. Down the road, think about developing specific assessments with your creative team to make sure you see work developed to the highest standard possible.