What I learnt about CVs from a year as Head of Account Management at Saatchi & Saatchi

After over a year as Head of the Account Management department at Saatchi & Saatchi London, I have seen a lot of CVs.  And it’s the second time I’ve tried to do the tricky job of finding great talent, the first time being at Dare. I have seen a ton of CVs in that time, at all levels and across most specialisms in Account Management, so I thought I would share what I look for and find helpful in choosing people to interview.

CVs are shit , but really important…
A creative agency is a simple business. It is about great work, and there are two ingredients that create that work,  culture and talent.   So the quest to find great people is crucial, it is not just about filling a gap, your people are the talent and they create the culture.  The sad fact is that the humble CV is a really bad place to start that quest, given how hard it is to get a sense of what someone is all about from two sides of paper/PDF.  However, there is a limit to the talent you can find through personal recommendation and networks, and churn in advertising remains high, so the CV is a necessary evil.  So lets take a look at the context and then look at what works and doesn’t work….
CVs are all the same…
You would be surprised how similar most CVs are, until presented with hundreds of them.  By the time a CV reaches the inbox of a head of department at an agency , along with the other couple of hundred other emails received that day, to sit alongside the 10-20 other cvs received that week,  it has been through a filtering process . Firstly the person who wrote it has filtered themselves, deciding they might be the right person for the job.  Secondly, they’ve written their CV to match what they think are the agency heads expectations following a formal format.  Thirdly, the recruiter has filtered the candidates to put forward ones they think might be suitable, and have even edited the CV along the way sometimes without telling the candidate, to fit their in-house style. What this means is that most CVs are converging on the same space, and so there ends up not being much between them – it ends up being wall-to-wall well educated people , with relevant experience, at interesting companies, presenting themselves in a professional manner.  The context makes it very hard for great talent to stand out.
The jazz-ing trap
So given this tough context and the need to stand out, it is often too tempting to jazz up the cv in some way to get some sort of cut-through. Maybe using some unusual fonts or colours , or maybe some quirky headlines or the dreaded word art.  Or maybe even turning the CV into a surprising object like printing it on a chocolate bar wrapper or record sleeve.  However the sole impact of this kind of thing is to cast doubt on the quality of the candidate.  All it makes you think is “well if they have to do that to get noticed then they can’t be very good”. It’s the CV equivalent of putting a neon starburst on a shop window display.
The only way to avoid this trap and to still stand out is to ruthlessly focus on the quality of the content.  Here are some simple rules to keep in mind to try and achieve that:
The first rule is – make sure it is crystal clear.
What I need to get instantly from a CV is the length of time someone has been working in total since leaving education, the companies they have worked at and roles they have done in simple chronological order and what job they have performed at each. Include the date you graduated so it is obvious how many years you’ve been working.  If I have to do more than skim read to get that info, then I am clicking on to the next one, because I can’t get a handle on your experience level.  Oh, and keep it to 2 pages at the most, because anything longer is just noise rather than signal.
The second rule is – assume nothing.
You might think the companies you’ve worked at are the best in the world, and they may well be, but there is still good possibility I have never heard of them, and this particularly goes for CVs from people from other countries.  Same goes for the brands you’ve worked for, people you’ve worked with and campaigns you’ve created. Context is everything.   So if I read “Jung von Matt” , I be like “who??” but “Jung von Matt, Germany’s leading  independent creative agency” I be like “now we’re talking!”. Or “The Beldent Twins campaign” should become “Twins – an innovative social experiment for Beldent, the LatAm regions biggest gum brand”.
The third rule is – don’t tell me what you think I want to know about you, tell me about the real you
Substance is crucial. I personally like it when people list their interests,  it tells me a bit about why they might be fun to work with and what they might bring to the table.  But do you seriously think that it tells me anything to list “reading”.  You might as well put down “skilled at breathing air”.  Now “obsessed by graphic novels” or “addicted to horror maestro James Herbet” those are interesting interests.
I would also apply the same principle to the “introduction” paragraph that a lot of people include.  To be honest it is better that this is left to the covering letter or intro from the headhunter and to let your experience do the talking.  But if you must include it then make sure it has some substance.  What is it about you that is interesting? Nearly everyone is “highly motivated and energetic, strategically minded, with a passion for creativity”. Instead try and say something about what makes you, you. What are your strengths and weaknesses, what do you really like and dislike.
The fourth rule is – make it tangible
When it comes to your experience, focus on what you have done that is tangible. What work have you created, what impact have you made, what results have been driven.  Again anyone can list a load of skills they think they have acquired and nearly everyone will think they have acquired the same skills.
The final principle to keep in mind is  the acceptance that it is all a very unfair process. Hiring managers in all walks of life get tons of CVs, and they are very hard to pull apart so the smallest thing becomes a reason make a decision yes or no.  Typos are just that type of thing.  Of course everyone makes them, this blog is probably riddled with them, and of course it means nothing about your talent and suitability if you make a typo.  But if a decision hangs in the balance then it helps someone decide yes or no.  Same thing goes for inconsistencies and uncertainties.  If you took a break mid-way through your career to do nothing and sit in your pants, then say so, and ideally the reason why.  If you leave a blank with no explanation then the mind starts filling the blanks, like, maybe that time was spent in a maximum security prison or something.
So there you have it, some of the things I’ve noticed about what works and doesn’t work in a CV this last year.  Good Luck!
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