The horrors of hiring: Asia agency bosses on interviews gone wrong

Frustrated agency bossHiring people isn’t every agency manager’s idea of fun. Mumbrella Asia asked a bunch of bosses around the region to share their most frustrating, bewildering and amusing recruitment stories. 

Singapore is probably the most important strategic market in Asia for the media and marketing industries at the moment. But for a number of reasons it is probably also the hardest market in which to hire good people. 

Government policies in Singapore are increasingly restrictive, making it harder to hire foreign talent.

The education system churns out high scorers, but employers complain that what is coming through the system isn’t what is promised on paper.

One PR agency boss bemoans an entitled young workforce who “don’t want to put in the time to learn and grow to be able to give back productively and effectively to clients, peers and employers.”

Because the majority of the workforce still live at home with their parents, they are casual about getting and keeping a job, she observes. Some complain about attending the occasional after-hour work event, as if this is an unreasonable demand for a job in PR.

Wearing flip flops to workAnd because of Singapore’s hot weather, candidates feel that it’s ok to come into interviews in a state of undress, she adds. “Job seekers with two years’ experience wearing spaghetti t-shirts, slip dresses and Havaianas; bodycon dresses with an open neckline, ready for a night out at Zouk rather than a job interview.”

Big corporates have gone on record saying there’s just not enough of the right talent in Singapore, and their cries of frustration are echoed elsewhere around the region, from Manila to Mumbai.

Mumbrella asked a few agency bosses – mostly in Singapore, but also in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, India and Hong Kong – to recall the times when they had a memorable interview experience with a candidate for the wrong reasons.

Turns out it happens quite a lot…

Joseph Barratt, founder of Singapore PR agency Mutant Communications

Two weeks ago I had a guy turn up 15-20 minutes late for an interview wearing a t-shirt for a junior, corporate PR role. I turned him down for the role. He was persistent so I gave him some honest feedback, first point in the list was he had turned up quite late and seemed very casual about the interview.

His response came through this morning: “Are you now going to tell me you’ve never been late to anything before?”

Ad agency boss, the Philippines

Interviewer: What would say really matters to you in life ?
Candidate (female): I am sorry, I don’t understand what you mean.
Interviewer: Well, what is important to you… when you think of your life what things do you want most or what values do you hold most important?
Candidate: I never do it on the first date.
Interviewer (after a bewildered pause): Sorry? What?
Candidate: But I do do it on the second date.

Tobias Wilson, CEO, APD Singapore

Syed Alwi Road

Syed Alwi Road

My favourite one was when the agency was based at Syed Alwi. An interviewee was 15 mins late so I reached out to the recruiter to see what was up. The candidate had arrived in a cab, took one look at the area and called the recruiter, screaming “how could you send me here, it’s basically Little India”.

Second fave came from an article in the Straits Times. A graduate had been put under pressure to leave Singapore as they didn’t have an employment pass. I tracked them down and offered them an interview. They accepted, then didn’t show and didn’t answer their phone.

Ad agency boss, Malaysia

Self awareness, especially of one’s weaknesses, is hugely important. But I once interviewed a guy who spent the first 25 minutes of the meeting telling me how terrible our organisation was – from capability to ideology to culture to credentials to website to leadership to client base to work. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. It was an astonishing rant.

I finally managed to get a sentence in and asked him if he could think of anything about our organisation which he thought was positive.

Answer: No, nothing.

I asked why he wanted to join us in that case. He said because he was the only person who could fix the mess. I asked how he would do that. He said he would start by firing me. Maybe he was a lunatic, or maybe a genius. I decided not to find out.

Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director, Formul8, Singapore

We hired a junior suit, who within a couple of weeks he was on the perpetual MC [medical leave] route. Finally we asked him what was up with him, he said he had multiple sclerosis for a few years (despite writing that he had a clean bill of health on his interview application). When asked for his medical report, he said he didn’t have one, he “just knew” he had MS even though no doctor could diagnose it! We figured that he probably didn’t have MS, but he definitely had some mental issues, so we parted ways. It was obviously a ploy to get out of serving his notice, as we heard he joined (and left) a network shortly after, I wonder if he pulled a Parkinson’s on them…

Agency strategist, Singapore

Complicated coffee cupThis candidate came in for a digital strategist role. I didn’t interview her, but my colleagues did. First, she ordered HR to make her a coffee. But it was a complicated order, like only this much milk – it had to be skimmed milk, two lumps of sugar on the side, etc. She then asked to see what group she would be working with and after the interview, decided to sit in the corner and watch the group for half an hour, which sounds like good reconnaissance work but she took no notes. She just stared at them for half an hour while they worked at their desks. When she was finished, she asked one of them to call the lift for her – the one she was sitting right next to while she was watching them.

Singapore PR agency founder

Interviewed a social media executive. I asked why he was applying. He said, “I’m actually trying to move away from social media.” I asked if he knew this was a specialist role in social media. He said: “Yeah, but I know companies struggle to hire Singaporeans so I figured I could offer my services while I work out what direction I want to go in”.

I said: “So let me get this straight, you want me to hire you, to invest resources into getting you up to speed, to do a job you don’t want, so that you can do everything you can towards leaving as soon as possible?”

Mark Ingrouille, head of international operations, Thoughtful Media

The time I hired a male group account director for a very conservative client in Bangkok [Ingrouille was formerly CEO of McCann Thailand]. He had interviewed well, worn a suit and was well presented. Turned up on his first day wearing a short skirt, high heels and heavy make-up. He’d decided that this was his opportunity to ‘come out’ as a transvestite.

The time a guy came for an account manager interview in Singapore and we were surprised that he was accompanied by an older woman. It turned out to be his mother. When I didn’t hire him, she appeared at the office the next day and started hitting me with an umbrella for not hiring him.

Lamp post tieThe time in Singapore we hired a creative director who didn’t turn up for work on his first day. We tried to track him down, but nobody could find him. Then we got a call from the police. They told us they had found a guy who claimed to work for us chained to a lamp-post in a street close to our office. Apparently he’d been out celebrating the night before and his ‘mates’ in drunken revelry, had chained him to the lamp-post and left him there.

Pat Law, founder and MD of Singapore-based social media agency Goodstuph

“Do you provide parking?” said a candidate to whom I have yet to even offer a job.

“Can I have a hug?” said a candidate when I asked if she had any questions.

'What's your awards budget?'

‘What’s your awards budget?’

“Hmm. Great. I think you’re good enough for me” said a fresh graduate with a remarkable level of confidence. I was very honoured with the validation.

“What is your budget for awards?” said a candidate with funky hair.

Singapore PR agency boss

Executive-level interviewee who had previously interned, to rave reviews, under one of our senior managers at another company. We wanted someone quickly and she sounded like she would fit the bill. She literally says she can start “right now”, I said two days would be perfect. It was more or less a done deal, we offered her what she was asking for, we discussed her starting in two days. She leaves and a few hours later I send her the contract.

She responds the next morning saying that she needs a week or two to consider the offer and suggested a starting date which was in five to six weeks. Long story short, she was going to shop our offer around to other companies to get a better deal. I retracted the offer immediately.

PR agency owner, Hong Kong

I was interviewing an account coordinator. She was a fresh grad more or less. Typically ACs are interviewed by account directors but if I am not snowed under I like to meet some candidates to get a sense of what they’re like, and whether they’re up to the mark.

I interviewed the girl who spoke good English, was well groomed and seemed to talk sense. So after 15 minutes I asked her whether she had any question about the job and/or the company to which she replied: “By the way, what are the working hours for this job, more importantly what time do I have to come in for work?” I checked her address on her cv and application letter then, and since it was not in the suburbs getting to work shouldn’t be an issue.

I was a bit puzzled and taken aback that of all the questions that she could ask, such as what’s the corporate culture here like or do I get training or client profiles, the working hour bit is a first question!

I asked why was she so concerned as my agency like most companies has normal working hours from 9am to 6pm so I expect staff to be in around that time, and definitely no later than 9:15am. For obvious reasons, we need to scan the news to keep abreast of potential issues, media coverage of clients and their competitors on a daily basis.

She turned green and said: “Oops I am actually looking for a job where I can wake up naturally.” I didn’t quite understand what she meant by that, so she clarified: “I prefer a job that is more flexible and I can come in when I wake up by my own biological clock as it’s healthier for the body and not confining and rigid.”

It’s clear that there is a major gap in expectations and we both knew it would never work out. I politely thanked her for her time and she did so graciously as well.

Joseph Tan, CEO of MullenLowe Indonesia

Met an account director candidate that was highly recommended by the headhunter and rated as an A-lister. I ask him which piece of creative work has a profound effect on him. He told me that he is not into creative work and as an account service person, that’s not his job. Guess that’s the problem with suits nowadays, isn’t it?

Singapore PR agency boss

I love PREnthusiasm is great, but it’s not everything. We had a young woman come in for an interview for a junior role. She was so excited about her potential career in public relations that she responded to all questions with variations of “I love PR”.

The conversation went like this:

Us: So what attracted you to the world of PR?
Her: I just love PR so so much, I want to do PR so bad.
Us: But what specifically do you like about it?
Her: Basically when I go to sleep at night I dream about PR. I just love it so much.
Us: Er, what skills do you have that lend themselves to a career in PR?
Her: It’s hard to pin down, PR is such an amazing field and I’m just so passionate about all of it. I love it. Like I said, I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about PR.

I feel horrible and like a cynical old man, but it was pure enthusiasm without substance.

Singapore PR agency boss

BusCandidate turned up 25 minutes late looking very relaxed and happy with herself. We ask if she had trouble finding the place, “No it was easy” she responds. Confused we point out that she was quite late for the interview. She said nonchalantly “yeah, I caught the bus” as if no further explanation was necessary.

Ad agency boss, Vietnam

A senior colleague of mine interviewed a guy for a creative position and grilled him at length on whether he was art-based or copy-based and so on. The questions seemed fair enough and the candidate proved remarkably inept at answering them, claiming he was more “powerpoint-based”. My colleague concluded he was a bit of a fool, only to discover later he had been interviewing a candidate for a client service position.

Singapore PR agency boss

University gradWe had a candidate for a junior exec role. I asked about salary expectations. She said it was unclear whether we were looking for a diploma or degree holder. I said I didn’t care, I just wanted someone who would do a great job.

She told me that was unfair for her because she went out and got a degree so she could earn more, and therefore, she should automatically earn more.

I countered that I felt it was the wrong approach, that in theory, over time, she should be able to command a higher salary due to the skills she brings to the table but it’s not necessarily automatic. As a business owner, I don’t care whether someone has a diploma, degree or zero education at all, I simply want the best person for the job.

She disagreed and left.

Later that night I receive a long, long rant (1,200 words) email extolling the virtues of degree holders and why they should be paid more for the same roles. The fact that I failed to understand that meant I was obviously corrupting the system allowing diploma holders to believe they were worth more than they are.

Singapore PR agency boss

Extremely enthusiastic junior emailed almost once a month for 10 months wanting a job. I finally interview him and it turns out he sees the party side of the industry, not the hard work behind it. He spent almost the entire interview talking about seeing the account director (who would be his boss) drunk once on Club Street and talked about going out all the time. The AD was not impressed.

David Ketchum, founder, Current Asia

“Mr self-interested” was interviewing for a VP job in our agency in Sydney at the time. The conversation started out well enough with the usual summary of experiences and interests, and then I asked him where he saw himself in two to three years. He said “In two years or so I want to start my own agency. It’s a dream, but I’m not ready now.” I said: “Interesting. What type of agency?” and he replied: “Very similar to this one. I already have a partner in mind.” I was becoming suspicious and also a bit amused. So I asked what he hoped to get out of his time with us. He said: “I want to work hands on and understand how to build and run a business.” Not a word about what he would do for our firm our clients. Strangely, he did not get called back for another interview.

Singapore PR agency CEO

One guy applied for a job and his resume was so incredibly amazing that he was either an absolute superstar or had completely fabricated it. We suspected the latter. But we called him in for an interview out of curiosity. The achievements, while incredible, became unbelievable when you looked at the dates (and spoke to him). At the age of 24 years old, in a previous two-year period, he had apparently been a professional no 1 ranked athlete in his country, editor of a global lifestyle magazine, started and finished a masters at a prestigious university, and been CMO for a large corporate brand.

Despite these significant achievements in just two years, we couldn’t find him on Google and he had no info on LinkedIn. I know there are some super high achievers in this world but after interviewing him, I’m pretty sure this guy wasn’t one of them. I asked him why he was applying for a mid-managers role in a boutique agency. He responded that he didn’t need to work and wanted to take things easier.

Andrew Au, managing director, Imagination Singapore

One assumes in this day and age that everyone knows how to use Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint). Imagine my surprise when it turned out that an experienced project manager we had hired did not know how to use these basic tools. Since they are essential to project management, we unfortunately had to part ways. Henceforth my advice to everyone is to ask what appears to be a silly question (“Do you know how to use Microsoft Office?”) as it may not be so silly in hindsight.

Singapore PR agency boss

One candidate asked why from the street looking up to our office, that our lights are out after 6:30 pm when most agencies still have people working until 11pm most nights. Stalker, much?

Sam Balsara, founder, Madison Media, India

Balsara: It's really me

Balsara: ‘It’s really me’

The most common one I have is that sometimes when I call a mid-level person on the phone, that person refuses to believe it’s me at the other end of the phone and says something like “C’mon, good try” or “Pull the other one”. It takes a while to sink in that it is really me.

Consultant and former digital agency strategist, Singapore

A candidate came in to be a content strategist for a digital agency and my first question was what he thought about digital. He started by saying he thinks digital is bad for people, then said that he refuses to own a smartphone, and that he has disconnected himself from all social media.

I respect his lifestyle decisions but as a digital consultant, you have to be able to intimately understand digital and understand how and why people use it.

There were other peculiar things that he did, but I can’t remember them in detail. Such as how he prefers not to research too much on the company and prefers taking a walk to have inspiration come to him.

I don’t know how you make sure the message is on point without knowing a bit about the company but he seemed to think his method worked brilliantly.

Loke Qian Li, director at SMS24/7, Singapore

First example: The Thief. A married man with three kids interviewed for an entry position. He claimed that he had a wide range of contacts from his previous job and he could bring along at least 10 business chances with his appointment. Unfortunately, I was not around for the interview and could not probe deeper before my business partner excitedly hired him.

Soon, he claimed that he was down with hand, foot and mouth disease and he could not report for work, but he would like to work from home. He later claimed to have worked the entire day from home to produce a two-line report and call a single person from a company. I called his bluff and he angrily threatened to report us to the Ministry of Manpower of making him work without pay, which was totally unfounded as it was still two weeks from pay day when he made the threats.

What followed was a nightmare as he refused calls, SMSes, emails and he ran away with some company equipment. The authorities refused to handle this case and he is probably touting his services to other companies. It’s probably best to treat boastful applicants with due caution.

Second example: The durian. (soft-fleshed ‘kids’ protected by a hard shell, a.k.a. the parents). I heard this from one of my clients. A young man came for the interview… with his entire family. Before my client could speak, the entire family thanked her for employing the young man, who was more interested in his phone. Needless to say, he was not hired. My client was later told over the phone: “You are so stupid! I curse you!”

Got any nightmare stories from the job market? Let me know – at robin.hicks@mumbrella.asia – and I’ll add them to this piece. Or feel free to jump in the comment thread.


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