How to hire the right people in the right way

As part of our Top 100 coverage, we speak to consultancies about how to recruit and retain talent.

StartJG's London studio
StartJG’s London studio

While annual fee income and turnover are obvious barometers for consultancy success, signs of a recent recruitment drive are also a clear indicator of growth.

Last year the average number of staff at a Top 100 consultancy was 59, and this year it is 55 – a marginal decrease. However, this belies the fact that some consultancies of varying size have been on a major recruitment drive.

It seems the way in which consultancies recruit and the reasons for doing so vary greatly. Some adopt a devolved approach, where small teams hire their own staff; some turn to talent spotters. The biggest consultancies have entire HR divisions dedicated to finding the right people, but for everyone we spoke to, recruitment is a perennial and carefully managed process.

Recruiting to strategic objectives

Multi-service consultancy Imagination, which tops this year’s table, is getting bigger in terms of profitability but also physically. Last year it took on 71 people worldwide as staffing levels swelled from 555 to 626. Patrick Reid CEO, EMEA at Imagination says the consultancy always keeps the client’s needs in mind when recruiting to ensure growth plans and strategic objectives are supported.

Imagination has an internal HR team, which works in tandem with clients, so all parties can work on achieving a common goal. The process is “rigorous, transparent and broad minded” according to Reid, and one which is “flexible enough to ensure different types of talent can shine”.

The sheer size of Imagination means that it has a diverse range of skills in-house, which Reid sees as a key strength. This is the very opposite of smaller consultancies which find their strength through a core team that offers flexibility and can bring in trusted freelancers when the job demands it.

While Imagination’s biggest challenge is “a lack of great candidates” looking for new opportunities, Reid says retaining staff is also critically important. “First and foremost, people want to work for a company that has a quest or a mission they can support. We spend time making sure that all our team can play a role in fulfilling our belief of transforming business through creativity and have real career growth while doing it.”

Imagination's London studio
Imagination’s London studio

Being proactive in looking for the right people

Things are slightly different at StartJG, which has taken on 27 people this year as staffing levels rise from 138 to 165. The company is divisible by five teams working as “mini businesses” according to StartJG group operations and people director Polly Barnes,who says each team is empowered to make decisions about their staff.

Similar to Imagination, StartJG focuses on ensuring “business development and the right team structure are delivered against client needs”. Barnes adds that the teams create their own resourcing plan to identify areas of need “so we can be proactive in looking for the right people to join us”. Meanwhile talent acquisition manager, EMEA Leanne Nangle’s job is to identify and head hunt “whether they want to change jobs right now or not” says Barnes.

When people are brought in there is a two stage interview process involving line managers, the wider team and senior management. While the ideal candidate is someone who shares the same values as StartJG, the consultancy is also looking at future leadership potential – people who can make a wider contribution to the business beyond their field of expertise, whether commercially, culturally or through problem solving. According to Barnes, because of the breadth of its offer – which covers brand, environmental and interactive services that focus on customer experience – StartJG can find it difficult to find the right people.

Making the job feel like a place you wouldn’t want to leave

All consultancies will say that the best way to retain staff is by making the company feel like a place you wouldn’t want to leave; a place that challenges you and offers career opportunities. To this end, both Imagination and StartJG also offer training and development programmes. “We focus on supporting our managers to develop our people and we make sure we provide staff with the opportunity to develop their careers in a structured way,” says Barnes.

Brand communications consultancy Emperor has brought in 26 people this year and seen its staffing levels grow from 105 to 131. Co-founder Steve Kemp says this is a response to the sustained growth in revenues. “We also have an ongoing recruitment requirement and are always looking for people that can add something to the business,” he says.

The recruitment process is flexible and “varies between positions,”says Kemp.“It is a shared responsibility and involves a combination of line management, HR and directors.”

Personal character qualities go a long way at Emperor and Kemp says that he looks for “common sense, proof of work ethic, ability to communicate and get on with people… They have to be culturally right as well and embrace our company values and collaborative working environment.”

Emperor's London studio
Emperor’s London studio

Emperor uses recruitment consultants and LinkedIn to find the right people but the consultancy is always “thinking laterally about recruitment” says Kemp. “It gets harder to recruit in a buoyant market,” he adds.

There are rewards for employees who find and bring in the right people, and Emperor is happy to look at people with the right skills from different sectors. “We are great believers in ‘growing our own’ and have associations with universities, which gives us a supply of good graduates. Meanwhile, we have recently had some success with an apprentice scheme,” adds Kemp.

Then there’s the in-house Emperor leadership academy; applications are open to anyone and four places were awarded last year. The academy runs a series of residential training modules to develop future leaders at the consultancy. Like other consultancies, Emperor consciously works on keeping its best staff. Kemp says: “The package is important and we have worked hard to make our standard package attractive, with a good pension scheme, holiday allowance and private health. You even get an extra day off on your birthday.” It’s the “softer elements” that hold most credence though he says, by which he means a navigable career path and making sure people know what the next step is.

There is of course the “fun” element, which is cherished and touted by most consultancies. Emperor is no different – they’ve got corporate memberships to the Barbican and a spinning studio, plus there’s a charity cycling trip to Amsterdam coming up.

Recruitment is a constant and exponential process, managed and measured against client needs and new business. Finding the right people isn’t easy so hanging on to your best people and offering them an appetising career trajectory is vital.

You can see the 2015 Design Week Top 100 rankings in full at

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