Interview With A Recruitment CEO: Lee Smith, Ultimate Asset

There’s a balancing act between being an expert at recruitment, and being an expert in your market.

Most agencies are built off the back of first hand, in-the-trenches recruitment experience. And are then bolstered by what knowledge they can extract by osmosis from their candidates and clients through networking, making placements, and absorbing insight.

But when it comes to highly technical markets like Digital, you can’t beat the depth of knowledge that comes from living and breathing it.

Working in it, as opposed to for it.

Recruiters making the transition from sector to agency are able to position themselves as extensions of their client’s teams, due to their expert knowledge of the intricacies in different roles, cultures and ways of working.

So a level of specialism’s already likely to have been established before going knocking on clients doors.

I spoke to Lee Smith, CEO of Ultimate Asset Digital Recruitment APAC, to find out what it’s like moving into recruitment once you’ve been there and done it in the market yourself.

Lee’s been a Founder, MD, and CEO of Canadian and Singaporean digital media agencies. And if you’ve not made the move from sector to recruitment yourself, having a head honcho who has could give you a major edge in cracking the market.


What’s the market like at the moment?

The industry’s gone through several iterations of very specific skillset changes. Although there’s still good demand for functional capabilities, we’re also now seeing solid demand for horizontal leadership to extract the best business outcomes out of strong vertical capabilities.

Digital natives are now up for MD and CEO roles with a modern and complex remit like never before.

What are the main benefits for a recruitment company hiring from sector?

It’s about leapfrogging the unknowns and getting to the heart of the brief in terms of practical experience needs, expectations for growth and generally just removing bad candidates quickly.

Hiring people as a Recruiter and having people work for you as a client are obviously very different.

Being able to screen for the negative but probe for the positive, lining up ability, attitude, willingness and diligence is more achievable when you have a wider view of the role. Hiring from sector helps us get there much quicker and much more accurately.


How important is it that recruiters learn from someone with an industry background?

Recruitment’s hard work. It takes diligence, solid focus, robust processes, thick skin and fast reflexes. With the right attitude, many people can be trained to be good recruiters. But without insight into the sector, recruitment skills may be aimed in the wrong direction.

Learning from the industry is critical in how these recruitment skills are focused. Knowing the ins and outs of client budget cycles, client relationships, skills deficiency trends and areas where clients are investing are critical inputs to achieving a return on all those diligent relationship skills.

What have been the main challenges transitioning from industry to recruiting for it?

Loaded question I suppose. I’m often surprised at how little attention some clients pay to the process. Or how much of it’s guided by panic.

In Asia, notice periods are painfully long (2 to 3 months) and that can set off priorities of volume over quality.

The other challenge I’ve seen involves the increasing amount of non-exclusive relationships that create a race to submit CVs as fast as possible by multiple recruitment partners.

Exclusivity everywhere isn’t practical. But there’s a lot of time and effort wasted in “shotgun brief” processes that could be better spent on understanding client cultures – and their briefs – better.


How have you found your network’s responded to you since making the move?

Fortunately we’re very close. And we’ve supported some very senior and very successful placements to date. A solid partnership there.

How’s being on the client-side affected your view of recruitment agencies?

I once received a load of CVs and a terms sheet in the same email from someone at a recruitment agency that was 200 meters down the road. Never met them, not even a call for a coffee.

Now, I’m sure that’s not the norm. But my view was “why would I even respond if you haven’t even spent five minutes asking me what I need?”

I suppose the opportunity here is to help keep the Consultants focused on knowing what the client wants beyond the brief. Quite often, briefs are basic. And it’s the Consultant’s job to fill in those critical nuances and get to the definition of a superstar candidate.

Much like on the agency side, we often rewrote the marketing brief because we knew what the client wanted, but they spent no time putting it in writing properly. That’s where trust and good repeat clients make the effort worth it.


Talk me through some bad experiences with recruitment agencies…

It was more on the client side than the candidate side, but I experienced bad practices on both sides.

As a client, there’s an extremely high level of expectation when engaging a recruitment partner. Unfortunately, there are still recruitment businesses that spray the market with CVs or make initial introductions then dump and delegate. The duty of care for a properly managed assignment is a substantial undertaking and not to be taken lightly.

In my experience, the signing of terms was where I saw the most effort from the recruitment companies I met as a client.

On the candidate front, I saw many, many unprepared and under-experienced individuals who thought they would command the digital conversation because they executed a few campaigns or knew some basics about DSPs or a few other buzz words.

It’s critical to test individuals on their practical experience. Not just who they know or what vocabulary they use.

I sometimes feel sorry for some of the candidates I screen: they come in the room expecting to scratch the surface on topics, then get a very thorough squeezing. Most don’t even get to know who the client is, never mind an interview.


What do you think agency recruiters can do to better service their clients?

Go and do some industry training in some of the hot areas that are in high demand. Ask if you can sit in on a team briefing for a client campaign. Interview other stakeholders about what type of person would make a difference in their team. Follow social media. And read industry news.

What’s the piece of advice you most commonly give recruiters?

Ask yourself if the candidates you’re sending are good or great. And bring in others to screen candidate skill areas you’re less familiar with.

Bring more value than the client expects.

Pass on any project you can’t deliver well. You’ll earn more respect for what you’re actually good at.


What’s the number one thing you’ve learned over the last year?

If you find a Recruiter you trust and who can deliver, go deeper with the relationship. It’ll pay off.

When hiring a recruiter, think about how badly your client treats you sometimes, then think about how to extract the best from people.

Results are great. But results with relationships are more sustainable.

And what annoys you most about recruitment?

LinkedIn is by far, the least developed industry tool I’ve encountered. So much potential, annoyingly ignored.

The rest of the annoyance is about the relative unfaithfulness of the industry and the shift away from relationships towards the speed of transactions.

For a decade and a half, Ultimate Asset Digital Recruitment have established themselves as specialists in the digital media, marketing, and tech spaces. And have worked with everyone from Twitter and Google, to Adidas and Red Bull.

Lee’s based in Singapore. And Ultimate Asset have offices in Sydney, New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London as well.

Join Lee’s team by clicking here. And find out more about Ultimate Asset here.

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