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Look Before You Leap

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Imagine relocating your family cross-country for a job that turns out to be a dud. That's what happened recently to a client of Amy Hoover's. The vp of Atlanta-based recruiter Talent Zoo says the creative exec realized the firms' partners were planning to sell the company because of a conflict between them, and he left the job. "He admitted he didn't do his homework," she says. "It pays to do due diligence."

Even in this slumping economy, where the first instinct is usually to grab at a job offer and hold on tight, it's essential to know what you're in for. Above all, get a handle on the agency's internal politics and its culture. Then learn about its history, turnover rates and what's expected of new employees.

Notes Hoover: "You have the 'Beggars can't be choosers' thing going on [now]. But at the same time, you don't want to be miserable. ... It's not fair to the agency, and it's not fair to the person."

"Anybody worth their salt does research on their own now," says Melissa Lea, who in June left her post as new business director at Arnold in Boston to become evp of business development at Mullen. While she initially balked at the prospect of a longer commute, Lea was won over by the culture after several hours-long meetings at the Wenham, Mass., shop.

Talking to as many people within the agency as possible is key. "I've had a few candidates who have requested interviews with other members of the team," says Hoover. "It's not uncommon to want to know the real scoop from people who are living it."

Get a sense of all the pros and cons of life at the shop. "It's very important to look beyond the base salary," Hoover says. "For instance, you can't put a value on weekly massages, but your quality of life improves."

Next, go to outside sources. If possible, says recruiter Paul Gumbinner, "talk to former employees to find out how the company treats its employees. Then there's what I call the passion quotient. Find out whether agencies are passionate or humdrum."

After getting a call from a recruiter about a position as group creative director on Audi at McKinney + Silver in Raleigh, N.C., Jonathan Cude queried several people who had worked with the agency's top execs about their experiences. Cude, then a copywriter at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., was impressed by the Audi team and ultimately decided that at McKinney, "one person can make a difference."

For senior creatives, Cude points out, it's essential to find out how feasible it will be to make an impact; juniors, on the other hand, must get a sense of what they can learn from their bosses.

Research the relevant questions to ask by combing through the agency's Web site, digging around the Internet and searching through old news reports. "In the age of the Web, any level of research you can do to enhance cultural familiarity and unearth some skeletons is good," advises John Karrel, managing director at recruiters Glocap Search in New York.

Adds Gumbinner: "I always tell people they should go on a company's Web site, that they should evaluate whether the agency is creative, strategic, account-driven, etc." Then, he says, get a sense of what news the agency has generated. The big account win your interviewer enthused about may have been offset by a notable defection that wasn't mentioned.

Perhaps most important, know who came before you and why the person left the job. "Find out what happened to the last person who occupied that position," says Gumbinner. "It's amazing to me how many people don't ask this."

Gumbinner says he's seen too many candidates take a new job with blind faith. "Even in the best of times, most people don't do enough research," he says. "They interview with three or four people and accept a job, which I'm always amused at because I think it's crazy."