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Recruiter, Schmecruiter

A publishing- and media-world human-resources vet explains why recruiters just don't make sense anymore.

By Susan A. Patton - March 10, 2004

What role does a recruiter play in media people's search for new employment opportunities? And how valuable is that role? These are common questions, and, ultimately, they have pretty straightforward answers. The role of recruiters can be defined easily—it's to find people for jobs the companies can't fill without the outside help. Why can't they fill these jobs without help? Well, actually, these days, they can. For media professionals in this age of high-speed Internet access, the value of recruiters has dwindled to almost zero. In fact, using a recruiter can add unnecessary baggage to your candidacy and lessen your chances of succeeding in your job search.

I have worked for more than 20 years placing professionals in publishing jobs and also in advertising, financial-services, and consumer-packaged-goods positions. In addition to my work as an agency recruiter, I've held corporate human-resource positions. With that background, I have an unobstructed view from the employer's side of the hiring desk.

If you're confused about the role of a recruiter, it's easy to understand. Just follow the money. Understand that the recruiter is paid by his or her agency, and the agency is paid by the hiring company if a placement is made. The recruiters, therefore, are working for the employers; job candidates are merely the recruiter's inventory.

So what does this mean for your media job search? If you're just inventory, how can a recruiter help you?

Sometimes, the recruiter will want to go out of his or her way to find you a successful placement—because a successful placement can result in a windfall profit for the recruiter. But, usually, that's only if you are an ideal candidate. Ideal candidates have superlative academic credentials, probably from an Ivy League school. They have premiere professional experience, having worked for recognized, credible publishing companies like American Express Publishing, Conde Nast, Primedia, Gruner + Jahr, or Hearst. They are currently employed, require no relocation, are earning industry average or below. They present themselves in an attractive, articulate, professional manner.

But, truthfully, if you're one of these perfect candidates, you would be far better off eliminating the recruiter and directly contacting any publishing or media company you are interested in working for. Here's why.

If your resume is sent by a recruiter to a company that wants to hire you, they are obliged to pay the recruiting agency a fee of between 20 and 40 percent of your first year's salary, often for doing little more than faxing over your resume. But if you're that perfect candidate, the company will want to hire you if they have an appropriate opening, even if they received your resume directly. You may have some salary-negotiation leverage by having saved them a recruiter's fee.

Almost all of the premiere publishing companies advertise their open positions on, because the cost of placing a recruitment ad on mb is relatively minimal. (And, no, didn't ask me to say this.) Employers want you to respond to these ads, and they review replies carefully. In the last year or two, publishing candidates and employers have come to recognize as the job board of choice for the industry. Everyone knows this, including recruiters, whose business has been significantly hurt by the popularity and effectiveness of this job board. In other words, it's unlikely that recruiters will know of openings that you can't learn about on your own.

Even better, your new employer will love you just a little bit more if they don't have to pay a recruiting fee to hire you. Corporate human-resource departments dislike paying $20,000 to a recruiter on an $80,000 hire. In fact, corporate HR people dislike recruiters altogether because they are unyielding pests. Ask any corporate HR person, and they will tell you that with the exception of one or two recruiters they may occasionally use, agency recruiters are a constant annoyance and huge time wasters. Unlike unemployed candidates who regularly call HR looking for a job, recruiters relentlessly call HR looking for a fee. And being linked with a headhunter that HR is actively avoiding will only hurt you.

But let's say that you are not a perfect candidate. Would it make sense to work with a recruiter? Maybe, but understand that the recruiter's allegiance is not to you—he or she doesn't get paid to find you a job. Theoretically, the recruiter's fee is in compensation for the research, identification, and recruitment of experienced candidates who are gainfully employed and wouldn't have considered an opportunity at the hiring company had the recruiter not put forward such a compelling sales pitch. Recruiters often present so-called "off-spec" candidates to their clients, people whose resumes came in unsolicited, because they don't have perfect candidates to present or aren't willing to do the research to identify and recruit perfect candidates. Sometimes they need to fill out their slate of candidates with a few duds, which serve to enhance the attractiveness of their other candidates. And if you're not that perfect candidate, you might just end up as that dud. And do you want to be the hiring equivalent of the unemployed actor thrown into the precinct-house police lineup?

The unemployed, the over-aged, the recent graduate with no experience, and the candidate interested in changing careers all simply have to work a little harder on their own behalf. These candidates increase their chances of being hired by contacting companies directly and not burdening their candidacy with additional recruiting fees.

Ultimately, regardless of whether you're a perfect candidate or a slightly less-than-perfect one, you're always your own best advocate. Forget about the recruiters. Go for it yourself!

Susan A. Patton is a human-resource consultant to media companies including The Conde Nast Publications, American Express Publishing, and The Knot, as well as a personal career coach to senior media executives.

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