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Cracking the Code: Digital Agency Interview Strategies

Dwight Zahringer

Digital Agency Interviewing Tips

The “web” is what we build and market businesses on or in. It’s evolved dramatically, and we’ve had to navigate this however, many principles remain the same. To score digital agency interviewing tips, read on (or listen to our podcast below).

After over 23 years in the agency biz, I’m comfortable saying we’ve lived through a lot.  Landing big accounts means big billings, fast scale, and revenue growth. We’ve managed millions in ad placements and built some amazing software. I’ve not been afforded the feeling of landing a $150 million account (we’re a boutique). I’ve never had to hand out 45 pink slips after a large partner killed a contract. We’ve won projects from a competitor but lost some, too. I’ve watched many 2-3 person teams grow up fast as competitors, and many take a run and close. Two sides to every coin, right?

I’m proud to say we’ve survived since the early days of the web. Today, we are proud to say we lived through COVID-19. But it’s nothing to brag about. We continue to grow because we love doing what we do. We’ve been told our value is our experience, reliability, and customer service. We’re honest, and these principles have allowed us to thrive.

This all starts with the interview

We hire when it hurts (that was an expensive, learned trait). We test everyone and get a good grasp of whether they fit our culture. We’ve evolved over the years and still rely on the gut response.

  • Does the hiring staff feel good about this person?
  • Will they mesh with the current staff?
  • How will they present with a partner?
  • Do they “get” the agency life, which is about giving and taking?

We also give chances. We don’t take excusing a staff member lightly. Empathy drives this to seek answers. Where are we wrong? What could we do better? Can we coach up? We have a process for this, and it works pretty well.

When someone is excused from PA, they’ve made this choice. Whether they make the call or we do, the employee owns that decision. On our end, as with many employers, it comes down to a business decision. Those are complex, but they come down to how that person fits the culture and makes the machine hum (hint: we kill predatory cancer fast; the longer you keep it around, the more it infects and spreads).

My three P’s

History has taught me about the web and SEO business. A partner’s longevity is as good as their perception of ROI (return on investment). If we are lucky, we can manage that to 90%. The other 7% is internal processes, people, and financial feasibility. That final 3% is the mess of ad platforms, plugins, software updates, skewed data, and unknowns.

We invest as much as possible in controlling what we build and advertise for a partner. Our guiding lights are four principles:

  • People
  • Processes
  • Products

The fourth mantra drives all we do at PA: “Who does what by when?” I teach every staff member this and embed it into their daily lives. If you attack every task by answering this question, you can successfully conclude it. “Lisa will gather the digital assets from partner X by Y and give them to Z to have them prepped for the website beta on Friday.”

It has the details and is complete. If you leave it open, you assume it will get completed. Keyword there is assume: makes an ass out of you and me. We don’t want this.

Many businesses operate under this premise: airlines, logistics companies, and doctor offices. Now, are they always on time? Of course not, but they follow a process to go back through the “Who does what by when?” This is living and breathing.

People: Where it starts

Who a person is, what they stand for, and how they demonstrate is everything. We all have flaws, but we teach people how to treat us more often. What makes the “right” person depends on several factors. A few traits that come to mind that make a perfect person in any position are honesty, friendliness, calm speaking, and using logic rather than emotion when tackling a problem. If you have these traits, you are 80% there.

People are good at being protective and private. I am. There are things about me I don’t care to share with anyone. I’m imperfect and make lots of mistakes. However, I strive to show up as I am, be consistent in how I do, and be cognizant of my participation in the teams’ goals here at PA. I always look to be better and expect the same of others we employ in our family.

You know who you are. You know your flaws and what makes you good. Make the best and bring that into the office. Yes, of course, we all have bad days. a string of no sunshine and challenges in life. Those can’t be who you are all the time. And you can only fake it for so long.

We get this.

We have an open-door policy, after-hours availability, and many ways to seek help, understanding, or resolution, though we cannot fix your personal issues, sinister ways, or immaturity. Those can be masked, but unfortunately, you can’t hide them forever. They’ll creep out and eventually, with comfort, be released for your coworkers to see. They will likely be your demise at work and in life, so work on them.

Processes drive the world

Mass of confusion. So many businesses dip in and out of this. You play a part or are a victim of a disaster or circumstance. How you handle any task (everything in life is a task btw) is how you are graded on the result. Fender benders. Misspelling on a printed piece for a partner. A 400 error on that website.  These all result from a process taking place. This same process continuously needs to be refined to make a better product. Make it faster, with more profit.

This could be a route home from work. How you clean your home or manage finances. The logic considered, the people involved, and the desired outcome against a timeline. At PA, we aim to have processes for everything. They continuously evolve as “things” change. There are better mousetraps, and we realize this. You, the trusted team member, are expected to bring your opinion. Be ready to have it challenged — for the better of the company, the product, for our partner. In the end, we all want to win. A better process means clear directions, the desired result, and a timeline.

Products are what we build

How we live and make our bread. PA builds software and makes it pretty and functional, so our customer’s customers on the internet want to interact and do business with them. This is complex yet simple. This is what customers come to PA for.

If we do not build a functional site, something in the process is broken. It could have been an htaccess file comment, a server setting, a misspelling on a digital ad, an incorrect ad campaign setting, bad conversation tracking on a confirmation page, or a module conflicting with custom code. Sure, we are guided by the representation of another product we integrate. What is given to us that is not our responsibility, what vendor provides to us to integrate all can cause a problem. We need to determine its location and potential solutions or options to present. This is our obligation to any partner, and it must be done promptly and affordable. Partners pay for this, making us attractive to a new one.

As you may have guessed, these products are built by people working in multiple processes. There it is, this is the machine that makes PA who we are.

Asset vs. liability

Before you go to an interview, consider the following:

In any relationship, there are a few stages that you will go through. The initial excitement and the following honeymoon stage. By this time, more comfort is established, and you get a good idea of who each other is and what to expect. The same happens in every job or relationship you will enter in life.

Pro tip: appropriately show all the assets you bring professionally.

From the employers’ perspective, you are ultimately a liability, but they want you to be an asset. The differences between the two are important to understand early in life. What do you have that makes them or someone else get what they want? If you are a machine operator and understand how a machine works, how to fix it, and it makes the employer money, you’re an asset. You are a liability if you are just an operator with skills they can teach to a replacement in a day. Your performance now needs to outweigh your costs.

You are an asset if you are reliable, pleasant to be around, contribute to a good environment, and can be trusted with partners’ best interest. If you are a producer but have a crappy attitude, come in and leave early, waste more time, and cause grief, you are a liability. Even if you do great work, you are not productive or reliable and will be a liability in the employer’s eyes.

The employer’s responsibility is to provide the wall on which you can place your ladder and seek more in life professionally. Don’t be complacent about sitting on the steps for prolonged periods — climb!

Learn this fast. Be an asset. Always keep moving your value to the asset line — you’ll keep the cards in your favor. No one wants liabilities because assets make them money!

Believe or leave

I cannot lay claim to this saying. I read it somewhere, and it stuck. It’s another mantra, along with “who does what by when.” It means you need to believe in what PA stands for and participate in making things work here. This includes being your best and contributing to productivity, better processes, and a positive culture. If you can’t, it’ll show, and the inevitable happens.

Every person has motivators and a timetable. There are various reasons why a person will stay or go, and the same goes for partners. Some we can control, some we cannot. This is part of the gig.

Digital agency interviewing tips to live by

I started this article with only this in mind. We’ve done our share of interviews, and 90% do not make it to the second consideration. Use these tips, no matter where you interview, to keep you closer to a new gig and, more importantly, place you in your new employer’s asset column.

Here are our digital agency interviewing tips

  • Are you qualified to get an interview? Did you overstate your qualifications? If you did and made it to the interview, be ready to have them discussed and challenged. The last thing we both want to do is waste each other’s time. Do you have grit? Now is the time to do your presentation and show why investing in you will quickly move you to the asset column.
  • Show up early. Take the time to scope the location out. Do you need to be mindful of traffic for that time of day? Do they have parking, or do you need to pay a lot or bring quarters? Can you locate them on Google Maps?
  • Be presentable. Be appropriately dressed and, most importantly, be confident. Do you need a suit? I don’t know, but for us, you don’t. We want personalities and people to be trendy and comfortable.
  • Be prepared. Got a resume? Ready with a laptop with your portfolio? Is the URL correct? Do all the scripts, portfolios, or presentations load correctly on Chrome or a mobile device? Need to take notes? Have a pen?
  • Nervous? Say so, start small talk, and get comfortable. We get it: interviewing can be daunting, and we want to meet the real you. It’s an interview, not an interrogation.
  • Know about the company. We will ask you about who we are, your thoughts, and how we could improve things. If you are interviewing for a web developer position and the website has errors (all do), then you should kindly point them out. Suggest what you’d do better and why. Does our social suck or copy lack flair? Tell us. If you come in to be a part of the PA team, make us believe you are ready to buy into who we are. If not, you’ll obviously want a paycheck, and you can get that on contract somewhere else.
  • Come with the questions. Get creative and make them relevant. It’s ok to ask where you’ll be working or what a day for you could look like. Get into details and make us think you are interviewing us too. You come as an asset, and we should be so lucky to have you consider PA for your new home away from home.
  • Certifications & degrees. They are meaningless to many, but we want to hear about them. What have you learned, and since, have you put it into practice? If you achieved 4 Google partner certifications, we’d want to know about the campaigns you managed. If you are savvy at social media, we’ll want to hear about the strategy, how you executed the campaign, made changes based on metrics, and the resulting CPA/KPIs. Did you cut up a WP site from 8 different PSD files and hand-coded them all? The site had to be custom-integrated with third-party APIs, and you did this with how many people? That is exciting and cool stuff- let’s discuss it!  Everyone has a variety of experiences, and we want to see how you tackled the opportunities presented to you.
  • SEO or digital? Expect to talk about what you know. Campaigns executed, results. Late news on platforms. What is the significance of Panda and Penguin? Which came first, and how did they shape our industry? History is important in how it paved the landscape we play today. Just starting? Be prepared to answer entry-level digital marketing interview questions.

If you made it past the interview and liked what you experienced, send a personalized email or handwritten note to the people you met. Don’t do a template- make it from you, relative to your experience, and ask about the next steps. Think about how you could stand out and do it.

If you made it this far, you may be convinced to give us a shot. We always seek talented, like-minded creatives to join the PA family. Maybe you needed some tips or another perspective on working in an agency. It’s not for everyone, but if you like to be challenged, collaborate with people, and enjoy the challenges any business can bring to the online landscape, then maybe a digital agency position is right for you!

Join us in brightening your digital future