Employers hire on a bell curve. Most hires are pretty good, and they fit somewhere with most employees, on the fat part of the curve, doing their jobs, but nothing to brag home about.

Now and then, along comes an exceptional talent with skills and knowledge to put the experts to shame. He’s on the thin leading edge of the curve… maybe off it altogether. A guy with chops that young turks would kill for. Possibly a mentor to your entire company.

What’s a company to do with someone like that? Well… Does he have grey hair?

I’m 61 years old. I have 30 years’ experience, up to the VP level, in four of America’s top 10 ad agencies. My next logical career step is with one of the “Top 100” advertisers. I’ve sent letters to most of them and have never gotten a response, other than directions to go to their career website to view open positions and apply. Maybe this is a polite way to say I’m too old. I’ve mailed letters and an index card with my elevator pitch on one side and a grouping of impressive logos of  firms I’ve done advertising for on the reverse side. I’m out of ideas. Is there a way to get past the gatekeeper (in this case their careers webpage)?

I know my answer. What I want is fresh answers and advice for this reader from you.

He also mentioned in his note to me that over the past three years he applied to 750 companies online. Even if this guy turns out to be less than he suggests… don’t you think a handful of companies would interview him just to see if he’s for real? Just how stupid do you think employers are?

  1. Can you approach the company with an offer of a free mentoring session for their newest young hires or a brainstorming session with a few select managers? Coming in a side door like this can let you demonstrate to the company what you have to offer rather than just describe it in a resume or even over the phone.

  2. This just proves something I have thought for a while. Organizations can not see talent when it is dangled right in front of their face, because it does not fit a very narrow box of what they think they need. Reminds me of the movie Hitch, where guys have to hire a consultant to cut through the BS, so they can show how great they really are, when they were just as great all along. So yes, I think employers are pretty stupid.

    In any case, the client needs to get the attention of someone that could really appreciate him. Perhaps narrow his search to a smaller pool he could research and understand. Then send the people he would like to work for a prepaid Starbucks card attached with a note that says something like “Let me tell you what I could do for your company over coffee” and include an index card with the logos and what you accomplished at every place.

  3. Why is he applying directly. With that kind of experience, he’s bound to have dozens of great client contacts that ought to be able to help him find an in somewhere – if not with their own firm.
    Doesn’t sound like he understands the value of personal brand.

  4. He’s in advertising, he claims?

    If any profession has the homework written out for you, it’s exactly Advertising, Sales & Marketing. The age of Mass Media is over. If you want people to buy from you, your message has to sound like it’s speaking exclusively to them.

    Moreover, you need to find which prospects can really buy. Wasting your time with those who can’t or won’t frustrates both you and them.

    That’s okay, I understand why this happens. You may be able to market and promote countless other products over the course of 30 years. When it comes to marketing and promoting the best product out there named “You,” the ego gets in the way. To advance at this, detachment is necessary.

  5. One other thing, I don’t find the experience-based marketing campaign appealing at all. I know a lot of people use it. I can’t stomach it not as source, not as destination. I can’t use that message of “If I succeeded at 35 ad agencies, I will succeed at yours.”

    No, I’ve gotten assignments at some places because I was too stupid to know what wouldn’t work and the client liked it anyway. Experience is overrated, and some of the youngest marketing firms play that asset immensely, like this one: http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2007/06/15/is-industry-specific-experience-overrated/

  6. As an outsider to advertising/marketing world I always assumed it was one that was always based on personal relationships even moreso than the rest of the business world.

    Why is this guy not using his personal network? If this guy can’t pick up the phone and call someone directly within the Top 100 agencies then I doubt he is truly who he says he is. The reason he is having to work his way through the gatekeepers is because he either does not have (or doesn’t know how to use) his network.

    It is not about the creativity of his approach – at the end of the day he is just another name on a piece of (cleverly designed) paper to them.

  7. Going to the company’s website to post a resume is the way hiring is being done now. I have worked at several large companies and this is one of the requirements.

  8. Sandra wrote:
    “Going to the company’s website to post a resume is the way hiring is being done now. I have worked at several large companies and this is one of the requirements.”

    Which tells me that many big companies are run by idiots. They invite a lot of people they do not know anything about to write some bragging sentences on a web form to apply for jobs that these candidates don’t know anything about. Needle in haystack, anyone?

    Furthermore, since such online applications usually demands information on age, they are an efficient way of disciminating against older people without ever having to explain why – often without having to give any feedback at all.

    Cynic? Generalising? Sure, but no smoke without fire.

  9. I completely agree with Joseph Jackson, and in fact he stole my thunder. If someone is a veteran in their field they have a reputation. This particular individual needs to discover if his reputation in the industry will help him or it’s killing him. Judging from his approach to securing a opsition and his lack of success, I would guess he has some damage control to address.

    I believe it to be foolish and counter productive for someone with this much industry experience to appoach HR. Like Joseph communicated earlier, if this individual cannot call a dozen ad company presidents or SVP marketing types, he’s not taken care of his relationships.

    Lastly, I remember being young and stupid thinking that my good work would stand on its own. I shunned self promotion and attention. What I didn’t understand until much later is that you can produce good results and be recognized by sharing the spotlight. Maybe this guy is really a top ad exec who no one wants to work with. Again, he needs to “discover” his reputation and address it head on.

  10. Some great advice in these comments!

    My take is this — and it’s meant for most execs, not just our exec in this case. Top talent has usually been recruited into every position and/or networked in. Other than interviewing there is not much they have had to do to obtain a new position.

    Now comes the tough economy — and even though they have been through other up-and-down markets, this one is flooded with top talent looking to land and is also run by increasingly younger management. And companies, as a rule, are still as stupid as ever when it comes to missing opportunities to grab top talent, because they can, and then figuring out what to do with them.

    So what happens? Recruiters aren’t calling, the job seeking top exec with a lifetime of intellectual capital that is priceless to the right organization, is left spinning in the wind, disoriented, and feeling disenfranchised, depressed, and even helpless. A bad / hard place to be.

    Since very few people know about good job search coaches, or about the very few people who deliver common-sense actionable guidance, the exec stays stuck and frustrated. Whatever he does doesn’t work because the only thing he knows to do is use on-line resources and maybe some direct contact through networking. He’s completely out of his power zone – and reactive rather than proactive, to boot. Not the way he’s operated in career, that’s for sure!

    But what happens if he reframes his situation and his mindset?

    We always say we must be the CEO of “Company YOU” so as CEO, if your company was struggling for survival, what would you do?

    Well, you could wring your hands, be confused, keep doing the things that are keeping it failing, OR you could gather the troops, brainstorm a strategy, target the places that will be the best resources for recovery (in this case, a job) and then as any good leader of a pursuit team does, do the research, make the connections, ID company needs, ID your value, and get in front of a true decision maker so you can deliver the punch of that powerful value prop.

    Caveat – a value prop is only powerful if they need it — so do your homework and deliver a value prop that will make them salivate. And play the EQ card — think of how you can make that boss look good — how can you be a resource not a threat? Make the case. And of course, as Nick always says, do the job to get the job. Show how you will operate. Prove performance, not just potential.

    Bottom line, do the things you would always do for a mission critical pursuit at work, just reframe and do the same for YOU. You’ll be back in the power seat, feeling productive and positive, and moving your career forward.

  11. It sounds from the description that this guy is trying to change sides of the fence. He’s going from being in advertising companies to trying to work for the advertisers. In that case, he must have contacts, people at these companies who were his clients or the clients of someone he knows. He needs to meet with these people in person and impress them with what he can do for them because of his industry knowledge.

    I would not encourage anyone to expect to get results by applying on a company’s Web site. As both a hiring manager and a sometimes job-seeker, I know that a lot of these applications don’t get through to the hiring managers. The last time I was asked by a recruiter to apply on a company’s Web site, I heard nothing back until I finally figured out who the hiring manager was and then contacted a professional acquaintance of mine who knew the hiring manager and asked my colleague to personally recommend me. I then heard from the hiring manager immediately.

    Many times when my department is hiring, I don’t get the online applications from HR and I certainly don’t get them all. Recently I discovered that a friend of mine had applied online to a job posted in my department. I’m sure she was disappointed and surprised I never contacted her, but I never received the application. And it is one I would have wanted. HR people are usually supporting a lot of people, they don’t have time to go through all the applications, and the ones I have worked with never look at old applications to see if anything fits. (So don’t expect your online application will be looked at when a new opening comes up a month or two later in a different department.)

  12. “Recently I discovered that a friend of mine had applied online to a job posted in my department. I’m sure she was disappointed and surprised I never contacted her, but I never received the application. And it is one I would have wanted.”

    Whew! Krista, that says it all.

    I had to truncate the reader’s story at the top of this thread because it was long. He told me that, “I’ve tried networking but I don’t know that many people who are still in the business world.”

    I’m not sure what that means. It seems to imply that being 61, his friends are all gone from business. But there are lots of new friends to be made. Without knocking the guy — it’s not my intent to criticize him, but to help — it seems that his notion of advertising is sending out information and hoping to attract attention, like conventional ads do. Does advertising contemplate making personal contact?

    Maybe we’ll have to wait for the next season of Admen? ;-)

  13. Excellent feedback and suggestions in these posts!

    Something to remember about employers is their primary focus in this world is not to hire people, but to make money (or in non-profits to help their target population). I know this sounds cynical, but employees are resources to help achieve that goal (just like the employer is a resource to help you pay your bills and hopefully do something you really enjoy). This doesnt make the employer stupid, just focused elsewhere.

    So how do you, potential employee, capture their attention? Do your research ahead of time:
    1. Focus your marketing material (cover letter, resume, 30 second commercial) specifically to the reader. What is his/her name? What are the pains the company is experiencing? Yes, this is time intensive, but so is blindly emailing your resume to 750 employers. And this captures attention.
    2. Show them how you can help achieve their goal, how you can affect their bottom line, meet their pain.
    3. Be a strategic commodity. Dont blast your resume everywhere – your resume will then be viewed as that spam email that is automatically deleted or junk mail immediately thrown away.

    And these steps dont even cover the power of networking, which so many other posters have already covered.

  14. I truly appreciate all the advice in this blog. Without trying to sound ungrateful or negative, I’ve tried almost everything on this blog.

    One of the biggest problems I face is that the market where I spent 20 of my thirty years in the business world is Houston, where the marketing community has collapsed after the defection of Exxon, Texaco, Conoco, BP, and Chevron. Most of my experience in is the consumer oil/energy world. I’m competing for each position with the 400-600 people who worked on these accounts in positions similar to mine. Most of them are freelancing or simply job hunting because they are established and don’t want to uproot their family. In other words, there IS no network — it’s a free-for-all.

    The jobs from my past that I’ve had are simply too far in the past to get something out of them. At least since 1985. I’ve worked for seven different (large) companies and only two are still in busines. That’s the nature of the ad agency business. In fact, I’ve given up on getting a senior level ad agency post; 61 years old is 30 years past the prime age in this industry.

    As far as contacting clients for a face-to-face, the big ones are spread out across the entire country. (In the good old days most were HQ’d in NYC). Trying to get a meeting with these companies would cost a small fortune on travel, etc.

    And, yes, I’ve tried to rehabilitate myself with these companies in the new markets. The marketing world is full of companies who feel the previous company didn’t know anything at all and they want nothing to do with these people.

    I’ve found Krista’s comments the most appropriate for my situation.

    Again, my primary problem is getting past the HR gatekeeper or the company’s careers website. The larger companies have their shield up so it’s nearly impossible to find out who might be the direct contact or hiring authority.

    One of my HR friend suggests calling and saying you want to invite the person to a ‘gala’ and need the name to send the invite to. This sounds deceptive but it’s not anything that the large companies don’t do when they age-discriminate on the career websites.

    And, yes I do know how to market myself as a Brand. I’ve been doing that. Customized letters, a resume full of measureable results/accomplishments, a succession of positions with increasing responsibility, etc. And, I’ve joined the social networking world with LinkedIn.

    Right now the job seeking world isn’t very much fun with a 10% unemployment rate.

    Much of this sounds like excuses but I’ve tried everything and nothing is working. But, like they say I’m not looking for 600,000 jobs — just one.

  15. I’m wondering how many of the people on this blog are over 40. It’s going to be a different world for you when you get 20 years older and nearing social security.

  16. It sounds like you arn’t acquainted with Skype or IM, to name only two free live computer webcam applications: unsing these, you can interview for jobs all around the world without leaving home. And you arn’t limited to American companies either: a Canadian friend of mine was just this month recruited by a hotel in the Philippines thanks to IM interviews.

  17. 61,

    I think I can know how you feel. I spent two years after grdauating lloking for a job – first by spamming companies and all that stuff, then I stumbled across the headhunter through the Motley Fool site, and focused. Eventually, I decided to go fo a PhD at a university (the position was paid) and after two years of planning, drafting, applying, the professor got the money and I got the job because I knew most about the position. Which i turn gave me a ot of contacts leading to my present job.

    Now, I am only 34 (although I have seen my parents facing the age discrimination wall) and in a totally different business, but the point is: May be you should shift the focus from “I need a job” to “I want to work with that, there”. Find one company to love, immerse yourself in their business and give them an offer they cannot refuse.

    Not easy, granted, I know how two years of unemployment feels, one can become desperate at times.

  18. 61,

    I commend you for keeping motivated. The sad reality, as you and others have alluded to, is there is more talent available than opportunity. The total unemployment rate is closer to 15%, so there are no jobs for 15 out of 100 jobseekers. I’m sure some superstar talent gets caught up in those 15 unemployed, due to location, circumstance, industry, age, etc.

    In addition to what you are doing, I would consider freelancing (as you mentioned some of your colleagues were doing), contract, or volunteer projects. It will keep you relevant, and keep your portfolio active and up-to-date. Not ideal, but it can at least provide some income and connections.

    Also, I would make sure you have a searchable website with samples of your work. Post advice and comments on LinkedIn and ad/marketing sites to show off your expertise and promote your value. Advertising is one industry where an online presence is crucial, and you must be fluent in web 2.0.

    I know we didn’t get your entire story, so maybe you have tried these things also. Either way, I wish you the best. The down cycle will turn at some point and make sure you are poised to take advantage of it when it does.

    August Cohen

  19. Great comments here….a few more thoughts for 61 — have you thought about trying something totally new….sounds like you’re looking for what you had (replacement) and it isn’t working right now — how about “reinventing” yourself and using your vast skillset / knowledge base to do something completely and totally different? If Plan A isn’t working for you right now, perhaps this is a good time to consider a Plan B, C or D…add some new “options” to the mix. The advantage you have is that as a “seasoned” ad pro, you have a lifetime of practice and experience in creating innovative ideas and solutions…maybe look at the “challenge” in a new light, drawing upon your expertise to solve the riddle. What are you interested in? What are your best skills? What’s something you really care about? What new business could you start on a shoestring? Who could you partner with if you don’t want to do a business on your own? What’s an idea that you’ve been simmering for years? What’s the one thing above all else you would like to achieve in the next five years? What advice would you give your best friend if they posed a “what should I do now that I’ve run out of ideas” type of career question to you? Your next big idea may be found by answering some simple questions.

    Wishing you continued success along the way. And how about a follow-up story to let us know where you land!


  20. I’m closing in on 50 next year and currently have full time employment that keeps me very busy. But at the same time I never ever stop networking or looking for other opportunities regardless of how comfortable I am. I have contacts from 30 years ago via Facebook – people I went to high school with simply because you never know when someone knows someone who is looking for your skills. I don’t buy into age discrimination. Best advice I ever got about work in this life is to be the best at what you do and you will never be looking for work.

  21. It seems to me, from the snippet of information we have, that there are a couple of flaws in his overall search strategy. The first is what others have said – the apparent non-existence of a strong network.

    The second may be the lack of a branded value proposition. If he isn’t selling what a company is willing to pay for, then he’s missing the mark on his real value to a prospective company. It’s not experience, advertising, marketing, or spin … it’s what a candidate can do for a company that will positively impact the bottom line that a company will buy.

    Cindy Kraft,
    the CFO-Coach

  22. I appreciate you including me on this blog. I think some of the advice is useful. From seeing the answers, I’ve gotten re-energized and started a calling campaign to the recipients of my approach letters sent out over the past 60 days. So far today I’ve talked to six people. I found out one guy who I sent a letter to is ‘gone’ so I transferred to HR and found out they will be looking to fill his job soon. I jumped on it and emailed my resume to the HR guy.

    I am also looking at opportunies outside or starting a new career and yes, I am currently freelancing with a small ad agency.

    The message of having a strong network is coming through loud and clear. One of my poor career choices has been to not stay in touch with people I’ve worked with before. I’ll work on rehabilitating these contacts.

    I WILL work with Nick’s advice to work the people who can introduce me to the company and make that my cold call rather than trying to go directly at the hiring authority.

    I think I have a pretty good Branded Value proposition on my resume. I also attach an index card to the mailing with the Branded msg. on it and a bunch of logos of brands I’ve worked on.

    I KNOW there are jobs out there. It’s all about timing.

  23. 61:

    Something else that could help your viability is coach an mentor youngsters who are working into the field you desire.

    A city the size of Huston has professional organizations for just about everything. Gaining a reputation as one who has helped others is a significant aspect of networking.

  24. Hold cow, has everyone missed this…an index card with his past company logos and elevator pitch? Can this reek any more of “old style”? What about a link to a slick website or at least a high quality printed mailing piece that demonstrates his creativity. If he wants to be seen as somewhat close to being contemporary, he needs an on-line brand and promotion. I would agree that his personal contacts and networking are absolutely critical to his success in getting a foot in the door. But if he is resorting to mass mail/cold calling tactics, he’s got to try something that is high quality and unique.

  25. Hannah,

    Good points… but let’s not swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. “What about a link to a slick website…”

    How many people do you know who invested in “slick websites” to create a “personal brand” that reeks of phony? Even online, one’s reputation is based on the contribution a person makes to his or her professional community. I learn more about someone from their posts on a discussion forum than from their website…

    Not to knock websites too much… ;-)

  26. “Something to remember about employers is their primary focus in this world is not to hire people, but to make money . . . This doesnt make the employer stupid, just focused elsewhere.”

    It does make them stupid if they can not recognize talent that could make them plenty of money when it is right in front of their face.

    Fred Astaire had a screen test that supposedly said “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” Your telling me this person was not stupid? This kind of stuff goes on every day at companies because they focus not on the strengths of the candidates (and employees most of the time), but on what they lack. It is the strengths that make employees excel and make companies money, not having everything on a checklist.

  27. 61,

    Thanks for the additional information regarding your situation. Houston is definately a tough market, and the competition for positions is intense. In hindsight I was probably a little callous in my last post, so I apologize.

    So moving forward, following Nick’s adice will be fruitful for sure. Also you may have already thought of this angle but just in case you have not…as an industry constricts opportunities to outsource non core functions grows. In today’s economy you can find more companies willing to consider sending more work to their vendors. Have you reached out to those companies that service the oil and gas industry. It’s possible these vendors are feeling the growing pains. With today’s technology, you should not limit your search to Houston employers. Think of companies that have Houston based customers. There is a growing trend to work remotely, so don’t limit the universe of potential employers.

    Also I have found in targeting an employer, you need to find “the stone in their shoe” or discover where their pain as an organization exists. Once you have that information, you can position yourself as the person that knows how to remove the pain.

    Lastly, in addition to qualifications, I believe ATTITUDE will impact your success in receiving offers more than anything else. Through good times and bad be grateful for your problems, because you sure don’t want to trade them for someone else’s.

  28. He is likely applying in a liberal state. I heard it a dozen times and figured it was from some racist jack-*** on trip until experiencing it myself as a headhunter. The response to my inquiries were that candidate one off my list was “too old”, candidate two and five were “white”. They had a strict policy towards hiring “white” people. Candidate three didn’t fit what they were looking for but candidate four did despite not having a formal education did. What state was it? Illinois – Chicago Suburbs but that doesn’t mean this same situation wouldn’t happen in California, Washington, or New York. I stopped providing services in Illinois due this occurrence.

    Tell him that unfortunately in today’s world age and skin color is still an issue. It sounds brutal but its true. He needs to leave his state move to another not on the list I mentioned.

  29. Either they are indeed stupid or they are trying to get something for nothing. I’m leaning towards the former. The more you keep applicants from opportunities (especially applicants that have repeatedly applied), the more you will struggle if one day you decide to finally hire them because all their knowledge and skills have been washed away by time to the point where they are a complete newbie – even though they used to have the knowledge and skills. Yes, many people depend on networks. But why depend solely on networks? Why not actually pick out applicants who have applied? Eventually, you will meet them in person (whether they’ve networked or not) and the both of you can determine whether this is a good fit or not. I can only guess that hiring managers are pathetically sensitive to meeting people and are just not as much of a people’s person as they expect their applicants to be. Hiring managers also tend to forget that they used to not know as much when they started out, but they expect their applicants to be very experienced without being too old. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They are the hypocritical Goldilocks of the hiring process, which not only hurts the applicants but their business as well because they are without the service of the position they are hiring for. I’ve applied for jobs where they did not take down the position for months even though I had applied, or they did take it down only to re-post it not long after. Instead of assuming I can’t/won’t do the job, perhaps give me a chance. Employers need to stop expecting perfection and stop pursuing the perfect candidate, because there is no such thing. Nobody is perfect, including themselves (especially if they struggle to hire people). It may be an ugly truth to them (usually it is), but it’s the truth nonetheless.

  30. I don’t think employers are stupid. I know for a fact they’re stupid. I have plenty of stories. For instance, I’m hunting for a job, and I have limitations on what kinds of work I can do because of a medical condition. I search indeed for jobs that accommodate my situation, and after I apply for them I show up at the place to speak with a manager about it. Lo and behold, they have other positions/shifts they want filled. When I explain to them that I cannot perform the functions of these other positions, or that I see at least 2 different doctors a week, they look at me like I’m insane for applying. I always tell them “I responded to this post,” and show them a screenshot of it. Naturally they never admit to their stupidity, it’s always somehow my fault in their delusional minds.

    This happened to me 5 times this week alone.

    I repeat: I don’t think employers are stupid. I know for a fact they’re stupid.

    • @Caleb: What an indictment. While I don’t advocate legal action (too costly, in money and soul) except in certain situations, I encourage you to seek out ways to call attention to this problem. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me it’s a special case of employment law violations and consumer fraud. Advertising something that doesn’t exist is not defensible. Add in the ADA factor and if you don’t have a legal case, you may have a public relations case. Find a consumer advocate on a TV news program and share your stories. I wish you the best.