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From Swan Lake to staffing specialist: an interview with Liza Knapp-Fadani

Former professional dancer Liza Knapp-Fadani knew exactly what it was like performing a solo act when she was asked to start up Investigo’s Creative team in our New York office. As well as understanding first-hand a creative’s passion for their art and how they respond to their surroundings, Liza also has a few recruitment moves up her sleeve. But has it been more Swan Lake or Black Swan? Now a Senior Consultant, Liza spoke to us about her time with the company and how the healthcare advertising industry’s responded to the current crisis.

You just about managed to complete your first year with Investigo before the lockdown. How was it?

I’m absolutely obsessed with Investigo. I love it here. I’ve made myself a part of several committees, including leading the Cultural Roundtable committee! I interviewed for six different recruitment agencies, Investigo being the first, and I compared all the others to Investigo. I knew straight away I would join Investigo.

The first year is generally your growing period, where you learn a new market. It’s always considered the hardest. They put me on a brand new team, essentially to start Creative. No one else in the company knew about the creative space, so I was starting from scratch. But Craig (Brown, Director, Life Sciences), who was the reason I joined at the start, gave me 100% support. I’d never done permanent recruitment in the past, just contract. I’d never used LinkedIn Recruiter either. But I built up a very strong desk in my first quarter and brought in a lot of revenue for the business, which turns into a lot of commission – also something I’d never seen. The fact I was getting rewarded with commission made me realize right off the bat that if you put the effort in, you 100% get rewarded for it.

I then had a few months of hearing a lot of nos, with nothing on the horizon, which was difficult after starting off so strong. Thankfully, this year started well and we managed to keep it going during the pandemic. I realized I can do well here, develop here, I want to be a director here. I want to grow and I have the support to do that. I’m only in my second year, but I’m in the top 10 permanent recruiters.

I managed to build up the desk to be quite successful, even in a pandemic. The company brought in a new associate director and two other people on the team within the past few months, and we’re still looking to expand it.

How is your market being affected by the current crisis?

My focus had been strictly the healthcare advertising market (which I have become an expert in) and earlier this year, I started to expand into the consumer advertising market. The good thing about the healthcare advertising industry is that it is relatively recession-proof, regardless of whether you’re a researcher, a scientist or on the comms or advertising side. In April things were still chugging along. The whole point of an advertising agency is to promote new drugs. No matter what, people need healthcare, people need their treatments. Pharma advertising was doing really well, but a lot of larger network agencies that have huge consumer branches – the likes of Ogilvy and McCann have a health vertical and consumer vertical – saw a big dip in revenue on the consumer side. Because of that, the health verticals had to implement restrictions on hiring, promoting and giving raises. However, the smaller, independent agencies (and some large networks with very profitable healthcare verticals) were still doing well. Nothing changed and there were very few lay-offs or furloughs. So in general, larger network agencies paused, but they’re now starting to pick back up again as healthcare advertising is always relevant.

From the candidate point of view, people were too afraid to leave roles, especially on the copy side. Copy in creative is a very niche and sought-after skill set. Although it’s a valuable skill, candidates didn’t want to take a chance. Advertising is fast-paced and there’s a lot going on. It’s very up and down, even more so in a pandemic. Things can go wrong quickly. If a company loses a big account, they oftentimes have to lay off dozens of people, even in a healthy economy. This made candidates lock in, even if they were unhappy. This was especially the case in the first few months where companies made pay cuts or paused promotions. It’s getting better, but some people are still not ready.

How are your clients reacting to a challenging climate?

Now as candidates are locking themselves into their current roles, the recruitment challenge is making them feel they’re moving into a secure situation. How do you attract the best talent and make it worth the risk moving into a new role? Advertising has always been very much in person, face to face, no working from home and a culture of creatives being together, working off each other. But if you speak to them separately, a significant percentage of copywriters, for example, say they work better in their own environment, maybe absolute silence. It’s hard when the point of advertising is an office that’s vivacious and energetic.

To attract talent, companies are becoming more flexible. Agencies who I thought would never work remotely are now doing it. They’re also bringing in exciting new benefits like wellness contributions, paying for childcare. Some are able to be more generous with salaries, offering more money than I’ve previously seen for these roles. They’re moving with the times. Who can have the best set of benefits, the best offer in general? An industry not usually known for its flexibility has become very malleable to how it approaches offers.

What’s the demand like for creative candidates in the current market?

Right now, it seems to be pretty much back to normal on the healthcare side. In March and April it was pretty normal, in May and June it was still happening, maybe with a pause from some clients. At the end of July and in August, it was busier than ever. I’m working on about 20 roles right now. Demand on the healthcare side is back to where it started before lockdown.

On the consumer side of the advertising industry, there’s still a bit of a lull. Consumer advertising took quite a hit at the beginning and hasn’t really bounced back. They’re turning to freelancers so they’re not locked into a full time employee. It’s better than May or June but the demand is still not quite there.

On the other hand, in both healthcare and consumer advertising, there has been a push for more business development/account candidates because they are the ones generating new business and therefore new revenue.

What are the big trends you’re seeing in your market?

On the copy side, a lot of healthcare clients have been much more open to hiring people with a consumer background. Healthcare advertising’s so niche from a content point of view. When hiring any level but entry, companies require a lot of experience. Candidates have to have worked in healthcare, as agencies don’t want to spend time training them. This is definitely the case at some agencies but we’re seeing a lot more flexibility, candidates from a consumer background with an interest in growing into pharma. We saw this before the pandemic but as the candidate pool shut and the consumer candidate pool opened, candidates started seeing healthcare advertising has good stability and is starting to do more exciting things. People never interested in healthcare in the past finally were, and clients who weren’t previously interested in consumer candidates were suddenly open to hiring them. During the pandemic, advertising became a lot more empathetic and humanized. Candidates with a consumer background have brought in more of a consumer voice for those empathetic campaigns.

There’s also now more flexibility to train in healthcare, as well as flexibility in the workspace. Candidates have the freedom to work either fully remote or partially remote. Clients have more of a focus on wellness, health, benefits and retaining employees, treating candidates not as a number but as actual people. It’s a really positive trend in what’s traditionally been viewed at a tough industry.

What skills do candidates need to thrive in the current market?

In general, the ability to write and create for digital, including virtual conferences, meetings etc. Experience in AR and VR is helpful. There’s still a big market in advertising that’s print, especially conferencing, so transferring those skills to the digital and virtual space is huge, and relevant for every industry. They need the ability and willingness to work remotely. So many people don’t want to as they’ve been doing it for so long. It’s hard for a lot of people. Some create really well by themselves and others create well in big groups. The ability to stay focused, inspired and engaged in a remote capacity is extremely valuable. A lot of the time, this comes from the employer. They need to be putting in the same effort, showing an empathetic voice that suits the current situation. A huge part of healthcare advertising is speaking in scientific, clinical ways. Candidates get frustrated with that, as high science people are still people. On the front lines, you need empathy – sticking within the restrictions of high science work, but still having that empathetic voice.

What will be the major challenges for employers in the year ahead?

Candidates are sometimes attracted by the promise of remote working, and are then told they’re needed in the office four days a week. Employers need to understand we’re not going back. It’s never going to be a five-day week in the office and if companies return to this they will fall behind, as very few candidates want to do this anymore. Employers need a good balance of being in the office and having remote capabilities. Sometimes, more traditional advertising execs/senior leadership have a real problem with remote working and don’t think it’s a viable option for creating. It’s being able to let that go. We have now had six months to see that remote working and remote creating is more than possible. It’s important we make sure that once we get back in the office and have a vaccine, we don’t forget all that we accomplished remotely.

Another challenge will be maintaining and keeping business while allowing the work to change with the times. Every agency wants stability as well as new business, now more than ever. But the pandemic has changed how we do things, and the work will need to adjust accordingly. The challenge will be managing that change while attracting new clients and keeping current clients happy.

The third challenge will be attracting new candidates. Every agency will be working on having the most attractive overall package – the most flexibility, the best benefits, the most support during (and after) the pandemic. In general, there has been a huge push towards caring more about personal health, wellness and flexibility so the agencies that change with the times in that respect will attract the best candidates. The pandemic has changed advertising, and from what I’m hearing, the industry thinks it will be for the better.

If you’d like to speak to our experts about your next creative job or hire, or you’d like to find out more about what it’s like working at Investigo, get in touch now at Liza Knapp-Fadani