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The Method In Our Madness

Jon Steel, WPP Fellowship Director.

Five years have passed since I last wrote on WPP’s website ( on the process of narrowing down candidates for entry to the WPP Fellowship. In The First Cut is the Deepest, I reflected on the difficulties of reducing a very large pile of applications – 1700 in total – to around one hundred for first interview in January, 2009.

From the 108 candidates we interviewed in 2009, we selected around thirty for final interview. Nine were hired as WPP Fellows. It’s strange to think that they have already passed through their three years on the program; it’s also very pleasing to note that eight of the nine are in permanent, senior positions with WPP operating companies in London, New York and Seattle. The ninth received an offer she couldn’t refuse and is currently working outside the Group, also doing very well. (I will keep trying to tempt her back.) Each of the nine took full advantage of the opportunities of the Fellowship, working across the full range of marketing disciplines and geographies. They have all achieved a level of responsibility and influence that would probably have been beyond their wildest dreams when they first submitted their applications. It’s been a privilege for me to work with them.

Five years ago, looking at a very large pile of applications that I had decided to reject, I voiced my fears that I may have missed the potential of some of those candidates. That may have been the case, but looking at those we did select in 2009, and indeed in the years before and since, I console myself with the thought that as long as we end up with great Fellows, we can afford a mistake or two along the way.

I am writing this in November, 2013, just a few days after completing the list of those I intend to invite for interview in January, for entry to the Fellowship in 2014. We have just sent out the invitations to the 90 selected; we have also written to just over 1900 applicants who have not made the cut. As pleasant as it is to hit ‘send’ on the note to our chosen interviewees, it’s also very difficult to be the purveyor of bad news. I still have visceral memories of the letters I received from advertising agencies in 1984, telling me that I had not been selected. When you put so much of yourself into an application, it hurts.

As hard as it is to say no, it’s clear that we can’t interview 2,000 people. We thus have to find a way of cutting the numbers, and what follows is an attempt to give an insider’s view of how we do it.

We begin by sending batches of around fifty applications to each of forty current and former Fellows for screening. I brief each of these Fellows carefully on what I am looking for, and ask them to send back the five best applications from their batch, in rank order.

Our first priority is to identify candidates with a high level of academic achievement. It doesn’t matter what they have studied; they simply have to be good at it, and demonstrate passion for the subject and their choices within it. These days, too many school leavers enter university to fulfill someone else’s ambitions. We’re more interested in those who are studying to satisfy their own desires and interests.

The next question we ask is whether they have an engaging personality. In our business, while intellect is important, in isolation it is not enough to guarantee success. Good applications have to feel like we are having a stimulating conversation with an interesting, interested person. This starts with the first question, where we ask, “In no more than 300 words, please introduce yourself.”

Many candidates fall at this first hurdle. Some spend the first 150 words talking about how hard it is to introduce themselves in 300. (We know that, which is why we asked the question.) It’s even harder to do it in the 150 words that now remain. Others simply list facts, all of which appear elsewhere in their application. It’s such a wasted opportunity.

One candidate who failed to be selected for the interview stage asked me what I thought he had done wrong, and I referred him to the very first line of his application: “I am an extremely hard working, driven, ambitious individual who has a keen desire to succeed in the fast-paced and dynamic field of marketing.” I asked him to imagine that he was on a blind date. If he opened his pitch for a relationship in that manner, how likely would he be to get a second date?

Too many people wrote in the manner and language of business, at the expense of their own humanity. Of course, it’s important to us to hire people who are interested in business, but marketing communications is all about making connections between brands, people, and the world in which those brands and people exist, for commercial purposes. An instinct for what motivates and drives people is much more important – and harder to teach - than principles of economics or how to navigate a balance sheet.

Another important attribute of a Fellow is empathy: the ability to put oneself into another person’s situation and look at the world as they might see it. Many candidates showed a distinct lack of empathy, determined as they were to see the world through the lens of their own interests and experience. This manifested itself in many ways. Some simply told us what to think: “I am highly creative;” “I am an intelligent and original thinker.” Like the stand-up comedian who opens with, “I’m going to tell you the funniest joke you ever heard,” they would have been advised to lose the line and concentrate instead on showing us how creative they are, demonstrating their intelligence and originality, or making us laugh. Remember, it’s not what you say that’s important, it’s how we receive and process it. Thus it’s also not a good idea to write in clichés (If I had $100 for every mention of fascination with ‘what makes people tick,” or the ability to “think outside the box”, I could retire a couple of years earlier than planned). And don’t assume that everyone understands the same cultural references. One candidate suggested that his introduction should be read in the style of a well-known British football commentator, which is fine if the reader, like me, grew up watching football in Britain. But WPP is an international company, and the Fellowship is a global recruitment and training program. Many of my colleagues from the Americas and Asia would not know John Motson if he walked up and punched them on the nose.

I also ask those doing the screening to make sure that the candidate pays attention to detail. We are in the communications business, and someone who is serious should have written correctly, and checked their application. Spellcheck is never sufficient, as evidenced by phrases this year like, “weather or not,” and “using my creative flare.” One candidate told us that he wanted to change the world, which is why he was studying to be “a layer.” Others didn’t even bother to use spellcheck: one described raising £1500 for “Leakemia” research.

In their personal introductions and responses to the essay questions, good applicants will either have a different perspective to the majority, or will express the same opinions in a much more compelling way. Fellows need to be storytellers, and some, from the very first sentence, are much more interesting storytellers than others.

"My name is ______. And I am from the middle of nowhere."

As ever, our essays were not easy to answer. The people who stood out did so by going beyond the usual responses, but also in the first instance by actually answering the question.

When we asked which of today’s taken-for-granted human activities might be considered curious in fifty years’ time, we were asking people to look back from 2063, not forward from today. The best answers told a story about time and progress, and gave dimension to the time period itself:

"Fifty years is a long time when plenty of things will seem curious in ten."

"In fifty years’ time I will be 72. That’s as old as Bob Dylan is today."

On the question of whether a conventional career inevitably involves “taking,” many applicants spent far too long on definitions, and not enough on answering the question. Many of the answers were one-dimensional, dealing solely with the “giving” of charity or corporate social responsibility. I was personally surprised how few people noted that in paying taxes, whether willingly or not, we are all contributing to society.

As for the hypothetical question posed to a candidate regarding his or her father’s involvement in a charity scandal, the majority of responses made me wonder whether many candidates had even paused to consider why we might have asked this question.

One person responded, “None of your business,” which is fair enough. It does not, however, get to the heart of the question. How can you answer this in a way that suggests its irrelevancy to your candidacy, yet also, more explicitly, demonstrates loyalty to your father, and your ability to learn important lessons about chain of command, responsibility, transparency and honesty?

The final requirement I communicated to our screeners was that successful applications should demonstrate commitment not just to this opportunity and to WPP, but to marketing communications in general. It’s not necessary to have completed multiple internships in relevant companies, although that would indicate that a candidate knows what they are getting into. Without such experience, the key is to show the relevance of the things that have been done. Good candidates have presented compelling cases for how working behind a bar, being a professional actor or playing college sport has prepared them for this industry. Unsuccessful candidates often talk about interesting experiences, but fail to relate them to our business.

In explaining the reasons for being drawn to a career in marketing communications, it’s not enough to say, “it looks interesting,” “my mother suggested it,” or “because I don’t want to work in an investment bank like all of my friends.” Over the years I have met a lot of engineers who don’t want to be engineers, and lawyers who don’t want to be lawyers, but they succeeded in persuading me that the reasons why they did not fit with their initial profession were the very same reasons why they were well-suited to marketing communications.

Those were the criteria on which we selected the 250 or so best applications, and I then applied the same criteria more harshly on that group to further reduce the numbers. I spent several days doing this, reading every application and then going back over the majority to make sure I was making the correct comparisons.

I also have my own preferences and prejudices, and it’s hard to put those to one side. For example, I hate bullet points. An application needs to be written in well-crafted prose to impress me. One or two might have got through with lists of courses taken at University, but their introduction and essays had to be very good to compensate for the interruption in the narrative. I don’t like people who write, “I think,” and “I believe,” before everything they say. The whole application is meant to represent your opinions, so such statements are redundant. And I detest personal introductions written as poems, largely because most are just bad poetry. If you’re going to risk writing a poem to show your creativity, make sure it’s a good one.

Having said all of that, I still enjoy every minute of this process. I enjoy the opportunity to meet smart young people who seem to have crammed more into twenty years than many do in a lifetime. I love to read essays that make me respond by saying, “wow, I never would have thought of that.” And I am stimulated by numerous conversations that I can’t wait to continue in person. Most of all, I enjoy those moments when, after a few ordinary applications, the words rise from a new page and engage me, enthrall me. This year, one from the United States was so well written it took my breath away. Every word was carefully considered, every statement perfectly balanced. One paragraph into the introduction, as the writer described losing her passport in a neon bloom of pink jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea, I knew we would be meeting her. If she doesn’t make the Fellowship, I for one will line up to buy her novels.

I’d like to thank everyone who applied this year, and hope that at least some of the above may be useful for future applications. To those who have been selected for our interviews in January, I wish you all the best. Please prepare carefully, and when you come for interview, try and be yourself. Don’t pretend to be the kind of person you imagine we are looking for, because every year we hire people who are different from each other, and generally different from all Fellows who have gone before.

Thank you for your interest in WPP, and best wishes from all of us on the Fellowship team for a happy, healthy and successful 2014.

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