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Are you trying to hire unicorns for your agency?

Agency owners tend to be good at a little bit of everything — that’s typically how they ended up as owners in the first place. They’re used to rolling up their sleeves and digging into client work, business development, management, and just about anything else that’s needed.

As they staff up their teams, they often look for people who can check several boxes at once. Part of it is because that’s what they do, and part of it is because that’s what they need.

Most small agencies don’t have the budget — or need — to hire lots of individual specialists.

But it is important to recognize the must-haves vs the nice-to-haves with new hires since someone who checks every box you’d like is pretty rare indeed.

In this episode, Chip and Gini talk about the unicorn hunting problem and what you can do about it as an agency owner.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Be really careful about trying to find unicorns to fill the positions in your agency. You’re unlikely to find them, particularly at what you’re willing or able to pay for them.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “In the past I may have wanted to find a jack of all trades employee, and that is probably not possible – and yet we still look for those people.”
  • Chip Griffin: “It’s really important to understand when you are hiring, what is your primary need? And then, what are the nice-to-haves if you could?”
  • Gini Dietrich: “When you can combine 1099 and full time employees, you can get what you need without breaking the bank.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And this is our 200th episode. 200. 200. Unbelievable. So I’m not going to tell you what the topic is. We’ll figure it out right after this.

I was so fixated on the episode number I couldn’t remember what the topic was, I couldn’t give a more interesting segue. I had to remember what we agreed 30 seconds prior that we were actually going to talk about. So.

Gini Dietrich: Unicorn Hunters.

Chip Griffin: Unicorn Hunters.

Gini Dietrich: On our 200th episode.

Chip Griffin: Now we’ve got people completely either intrigued or confused or perhaps both.

Maybe both. Yeah. I mean, but when you’re going to have your 200th episode, you might as well talk about unicorns.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. And hunting them. And hunting them. Sounds kind of fun. Let’s do it.

Chip Griffin: I mean, it’s either going to be an interesting topic, or it’s going to be proof that we’ve just lost our minds.

Gini Dietrich: I think we lost our minds a long time ago, and people are along for the ride.

Chip Griffin: Okay, that’s entirely possible, too. Yeah, I think that’s the case. Anywho, so, unicorns. Why are we talking about unicorns, Gini?

Gini Dietrich: Well, there are some of us, myself included, who in the past may have wanted to find a jack of all trades employee and that is probably not possible and yet we still look for those people or expect our employees to be jack of all trades.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, I think it’s a particular challenge for small agencies because we have limited resources, but we have lots of things that we want to do. Most of us who are owners have developed a fairly wide range of skill sets, and that’s why we’ve become owners. And even if we didn’t have the skill sets initially, you have to develop them in order to build the business.

So you start to learn how to do a whole bunch of different things. And so naturally, when you say, okay, I want to go out and hire somebody, you’re… You, you want to have someone who’s good at strategy and good at relationship building and good at business development and good at operational details and all of these different things.

And it’s really, really difficult to find people, particularly because most of the time you’re looking for someone who is lower cost, which means less experience. So finding someone who has got all of those capabilities, even if you say, Well, I just, I just need them to have, you know, sort of a morsel of it and I can develop it right now.

Even finding that kind of unicorn is really, really challenging.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And for me specifically, you know, we do the PESO model and for a long time, I was always looking for somebody who could do content and media relations and social media and boosted content. And as it turns out, people don’t work that way, right?

That is a unicorn.

Chip Griffin: It is really, really true. I mean, and the problem is enough people like that do exist that you sit there and say, well, I know so and so or, and I know that they can do those things. So that’s really what I’m looking for. So, so unlike a unicorn, you will find a few of these people in the wild.

The problem is you can’t do it reliably and repeatedly. And so it becomes one of these things where you ultimately are setting yourself up for disappointment if that’s what you’re actually going out and looking for. And so I think it’s really important to understand when you are hiring, what is your primary need?

What are the, what is the, true must have for that position? And then what are the nice to haves if you could, right? I mean, I need someone who’s a good writer. If they happen to be able to do media relations, great. If they happen to be able to do business development, great. Fantastic, but those are the gravy or the icing on the cake.

They are not the main course.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and one of the things that I have discovered in my own business is when you hire people to be an expert on something they can become an expert on that thing. So to your point like if they can also do business development or they are also great at balancing the checkbook or they’re all like whatever happens to be that’s an added bonus.

But you know, we really look for if we’re hiring… if we have a client that we’ve, a new client we’ve brought in and we’re going to do an entire PESO model program for them. I’m looking for a person who can develop content in that specific niche. I’m looking for somebody who’s done social media in a B2B environment and can grow an audience.

Like those, I’m looking for those specific people versus trying to find like an account manager or an account executive who can do it all. And manage the client and do the day to day and you know. So I look for specific skill sets now and it is hard because you’re right from a resource perspective, but I think when you can combine 1099 and full time employees, you can get what you need without breaking the bank.

Chip Griffin: Right.

And that’s, that’s the other thing you have to look at to your point is that you have to have it as an agency, a certain set of capabilities and and all of that, but it’s not necessarily that one person who needs to have everything. And so. If you break down your list of must haves and nice to haves, if they, if they are 80 to 90 percent of the way there on the must have, maybe they’re only 40 or 50 percent there.

They can help on some of the, say, business development type things, but they don’t necessarily carry the ball forward entirely on their own. That’s still a win for you, and you need to look, particularly if it’s, if it’s someone who can take stuff off of your plate. Remember that you’re freeing up your time, so you don’t necessarily need to have someone who can do everything if you’re able to then devote some of your time to the things that they’re not handling.

Gini Dietrich: And one of the things that I do with new business is I’ll say, okay you know, this person is great at concept development. This person’s great at email nurture campaigns. This person’s great at social media. This person’s great at Google ads. So I bring all of those people together in new business meetings.

And, you know, we brainstorm and bounce ideas off of one another to craft a plan, but they’re not the ones that are required to go to the meetings and to, you know, sell the prospect and then convert and do all that. They’re part of the ideation and part of the, this is, this is what I think I can do as my part of the bailiwick.

And this is how long they think it’s going to take so that we can price it out. But they don’t have to go through the whole process of, you know, entertaining clients and prospecting and then converting. But they are part of helping to win that business because of the ideas that they’ve created.

Chip Griffin: And I think the other piece is, you know, looking at it in terms of, you know, I talked about what you can free up from your own time and how that might be helpful in another part of the mix, but they may free up time from other people on your team. And this is particularly true as you continue to grow. And so if you’re looking for someone who can do writing and media relations, look around to the rest of your team.

Maybe they can, if they’re a great writer, maybe they can take some writing burden off of someone who’s better at media relations. Which frees up their time to work on that. And so you really do need to look at this in terms of the entirety of the team, the entirety of the business, and figure out how to put the pieces together instead of relying on that one new hire to be that, that rock star, all star who’s just going to knock it out of the park on everything you throw at them.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I, I mean, I think you’re right that there are enough unicorns out in the wild that we do see. Oh, and I think we look at ourselves, too, and go, well, I can do all that.

Chip Griffin: Right, exactly. A lot of owners are unicorns.

Gini Dietrich: But the reason I could do all that is because I had to, you know, to build a business, right?

And I also don’t work for someone. So to find a unicorn who’s willing to go work for you is almost impossible. So it’s finding, it’s, it’s building the team around, to your point, your, your must haves, and then figuring out a way to fill in the nice to haves.

Chip Griffin: Well, and, and frankly, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re probably not as much of a unicorn as we think we are, right?

We, we probably are overestimating our abilities in certain areas where we’re just, we’re doing it simply because we have to, but not necessarily because we like it or are good at it. And it really is the best use of our time, right? So, so we need to be careful at trying to say, yeah, we want to get people who are just like us in that regard because they, they may or may not exist.

I think the other thing we need to look at is if we’re going to look for someone who is a unicorn, you need to be prepared to pay appropriately if you do find that person, right? You know, think about it in sports terms, if you’re a sports fan, you know, if you want to try to find a baseball player who can hit for average, hit for power, is a great fielder, is a good teammate.

All of these things, you’re going to pay a lot more for that player than someone who can, you know, simply get on base pretty well, but, you know, maybe doesn’t have any power and, you know, feels like they’ve, you know, got cement shoes, you know, you’ve got to be mindful of the fact that, that the more capabilities, the more skills, the better someone is at a bunch of different things, the more they can command in the market.

And so therefore You can’t lowball your expectations of the cost to your organization. And, and frankly, if you find that unicorn, it may be worth it to you to, to overpay in your own mind to get them.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, yeah, like one of the things that I just discovered several years ago is we were we were looking to add on the paid media piece to our PESO model program as we were, you know, figuring it out and fulfilling it for clients.

And I couldn’t find anybody who could do what I wanted them to do. And so I I went through a bunch of professional development and training to learn it myself, and I can do it, but I don’t love it, and I don’t have the time for it, and what I discovered is you have to be in there every day. Tweaking and making improvements and all of that.

But what it did is it gave me the opportunity to have enough of an understanding to be able to find and hire the right person for that job. Where before I was like flailing, I was like, well, they say they can do it. And then I was discovered that they couldn’t, they couldn’t really do it. So it did give me enough of, of a knowledge to be able to hire an onboard and train and retain that type of person, but not enough that I was like, Oh, I can do this.

Right. I cannot.

Chip Griffin: Well, and the thing is, even when you can find somebody who has all of these skills, they may not want to exercise all of those skills on a regular basis. Totally fair. Totally fair. You can find plenty of people who are good at writing, good at media relations, good at social media, but maybe they don’t want to do all three all the time.

Maybe they have one of those that maybe they would prefer just to be heads down, writing and churning out, you know, volumes and volumes of great content. I mean, you’ve got to keep that in mind because we’re all worried, not just about recruiting, but also retention. And you might be able to recruit that unicorn, but then how are you going to keep them?

How are you going to bring them in and make sure that they are happy and satisfied with what they’re doing, that it’s providing real value to you? And that you can continue to give that person a career path and a progression that makes them want to stick around.

Gini Dietrich: And think about it from your own perspective as well.

If you’re pulled in a million different directions every day, you know, first you’re doing content, and then you’re doing social, and then you’re doing… Business development, and then you’re talking to clients and like you, you, you don’t have time to focus or do one thing really well, you start to burn out.

So if you have this person, that’s your unicorn and that’s what they’re doing every day is being pulled in a thousand different directions. And this team needs this from them. And this team needs something entirely different. And this client is upset about this and they’re being pulled in all these different directions.

They’re going to burn out. That’s just how humans work. So you have to figure out a way not just to retain them and give them a career path, but also give them an opportunity to… Focus in on something that they really want to focus in on so that they don’t burn out, so that you’re not stuck a year from now going, I gotta go find another unicorn.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and, and, you know, I think the other thing we ought to touch on is that, that some owners, when I say this to them, they push back and they say, well, but, you know, I, I don’t need someone who’s a writer 100% of the time. I don’t, I don’t need someone who’s doing just media relations. I really need somebody who’s doing, a variety of different things, and I would rather it not be contractors because contractors are more expensive and I’m looking to build up my team.

And to that what I say is, there is a difference between hiring a unicorn and hiring a generalist. A unicorn is great at all of the things that they’re doing. A generalist is serviceable at a number of different things. And so, if you’re going to hire someone who is a generalist, you then need to be realistic.

They’re probably not going to be a one draft and done writer. They’re probably going to need some more editing and some more supervisions. Same thing with media relations or strategic planning. They’re going to need a little more hand holding. I mean, they’re going to still help, but a generalist, almost by definition, is not going to be able to do things at the same level as a specialist or a unicorn would be able to do.

Gini Dietrich: I love that. I actually think that’s a good topic for another episode when we talk about… Generalist, specialist, and fractional. Like, when do you know? When do you bring in your generalist? Or how do you know if it’s a unicorn? Because they’re great at everything. When do we look for a specialist versus that unicorn?

Those are the kinds of things you have to be thinking about. And I do think that You know, people tend to get stuck in their ways and say, well, I’m not going to hire contractors or I’m not going to hire full time employees. Like be open to opportunities. If you only need somebody to do social media or graphic design for 25% of the time, there’s no point in having a full time employee for that because you won’t have enough work for them.

So really be open to different kinds of structures to be able to get you what you need in order to fulfill your contract with your clients.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and that I mean, that is a great topic for another episode. So I guess we won’t end at 200. We’ll have to have a 201st episode, maybe even a 202nd. Who knows? We take it week by week here.

No, no real long term planning with this podcast. In fact, the topics come up basically 30 seconds before each show, because that’s the fun, way to do it. I mean, we do accumulate a list and I can see out of the corner of my eye that the Gini is typing in this topic here. So that we have, we have this available for a future episode.

Maybe we’ll have another one about, you know, live editing of documents because that was something we talked about in our pre show today. I don’t know. I don’t generally like it, but I’m glad you put this in there because otherwise I would forget by the time this episode concluded to include it.

So but it is, it is an important consideration. And I think people do, as you say, get set in their ways and they say, this is the way that I do it. And there’s value in taking a fresh look at it. If you’re someone who’s always used contractors, take a fresh look at employees. If you’ve always used employees, take a fresh look at contractors.

And there are, there are good and bad times to use each of those. And I think that it’s, it’s really all of this does come back to understanding what your true needs are and not putting together your, your wish list or your, you know, your gift list of, you know, when I was a kid, I always used to like to go through like the Sears catalog and stuff and say, Oh, these are all the things that I want, you know, and you got this list of 200 things on your Christmas list.

Well, that’s, that’s great, but that’s, that’s not really what you should be putting together when you’re looking to hire a new employee. You should be really honest and say, okay, what is going to make the biggest difference? What do we need in order to be providing excellent client service in order to grow the business in the way that we want?

What are those key needs? What can I get off of my plate? What can I get off of other key employees’ plates? Build a description around that, as opposed to, gosh, it would be great if we had somebody who understand, understood AI and social media, and they’re great, and they love to pitch new business, they love to cold call, and oh, they can close that business too, and they can do, I mean, because we could all sit here and come up with a list of what the ideal agency employee would be. And frankly, if we could find a team of 10 of those people, we could probably just retire because they were firing on all cylinders. So the problem is that you’re unlikely to find those 10 people. If you do find those 10 people. They’re probably not all going to get along with each other because the truth about unicorns is unicorns tend not to like other unicorns or other people, because, because then they’re not unicorns anymore.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: So, so, so you need to think about all of these things when you are out there and recruiting. And so, so I guess the, to me, the key message that I would leave you with is be really careful about trying to find unicorns to fill the positions in your agency. You’re unlikely to find them, particularly at what you’re willing or able to pay for them.

And so you really need to understand what your true needs are, your must haves versus nice to haves, and you will be able to build a team much more quickly and much more effectively than if you were just sitting out there waiting and waiting and waiting for the perfect one to come along.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think you’ll be happier and less stressed too because you’ll have people who are really great at their job. And so you don’t have to, you know, I think we talked about this last week, you know, you don’t have to keep taking stuff on from them or being the bottleneck because they’re really great at their job and you can trust them to do their job. And then all of a sudden things are to your point, firing on all cylinders and it’s working a lot better.

So I think you will be a happier business owner by finding people who are great at their jobs and hiring them. Even if it’s at a fractional or part time or 1099 perspective versus trying to find that unicorn.

Chip Griffin: And we like happy business owners. It’s a core part of our philosophy. You should not be a miserable agency owner.

There is just, there’s, there’s no reason to do that. So don’t find a unicorn, find the right fit instead. And with that, we will draw to an end this 200th episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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