From 4 to 135 Employees: How CPC Strategy Hired the Right People to Scale Up

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From 4 to 135 Employees: How CPC Strategy Hired the Right People to Scale Up

One of the greatest challenges any agency faces is finding the right people to manage client accounts and deliver results when it matters. It’s a challenge that CPC Strategy—a digital marketing agency that grew from 4 to 135 people in 11 years—solved with a rubric to help hire people with relationship building and culture fit over skillset.

CPC Strategy’s founding team got its start working for online retailers eBay and PriceGrabber. Retail is all about the customer, so CPC made a point of cultivating the right staff to manage the intersection of data, people, and money. Their success in doing so eventually led them to a 2018 acquisition by Elite SEM.

“I might be biased, but hiring digital marketing talent can be a bit challenging, because you have to find team members who can balance both the human element in terms of client and team communication and the quantitative elements necessary to drive forward the optimization of digital marketing campaigns,” said Nii Ahene, CPC Strategy’s Co-Founder and COO.

The core values of the company — learn, create, inspire — are the drivers behind the CPC “foundation of people and partnerships.” Individual staff members are chosen because they embody those values in addition to understanding the nuances of their particular channel and how it fits into the marketing strategy.

“Account managers are talking with our clients to understand their goals and budgets,” explained Nii. “They are then mapping those client goals and budgets to specific campaigns, allocating based on where we believe we can find the strongest ROI, and then optimizing as data flows in to be able to say, ‘Hey, let’s turn this up,’ or ‘Let’s shift more budget to specific areas.’ We’re seeing this go extraordinarily well.”

Finding those people was easier when the co-founders did the hiring themselves. But once others needed to take over those duties, Nii and his team needed to figure out how to pass on that knowledge and discernment.

What resulted is a strategic hiring process that offers important insight into eCommerce hiring. This article dives into the specific techniques Nii shared with us.

Nii Ahene is CPC Strategy’s co-founder and COO.

Nii Ahene is CPC Strategy’s Co-Founder and COO.

Bonus action list:  Get our [sg_popup id=”211″ event=”click”] 2-page PDF summary [/sg_popup] of action items you can take to grow your marketing or PR agency based on Nii’s advice.

Standardizing Talent Acquisition with a Hiring Rubric

In the early days, CPC Strategy’s founding team was able to screen resumes and sit in on all interviews.  As the company scaled, more people had to be involved in the process — supervisors, team members, etc.

At first, Nii found it difficult to articulate the “gut feeling” they used for hiring the right people. So, the team set out to create a detailed hiring rubric that anyone could use to identify the values and qualities that would make someone a good fit for the fast-paced CPC environment.

Some of Nii’s basic screening info included expected qualities like grade point average, problem-solving ability, and programming experience. But those are for basic screening, not final factors in a hiring decision.

The rubric varies slightly from role to role, based on the specific combination of traits a professional needs to be successful in that particular role. He used a new position to explain how the concept plays out in the hiring process.

CPC Strategy

CPC creates a list of the most important traits for each position and builds a rubric to help hiring managers identify the candidates who will be a likely fit.

“When we have a net new position, meaning a position that we haven’t hired for before, we get the stakeholders — people who are going to be either working directly with the individual or collaborating with them — to list out the top 5-10 traits that we look for in the individual,” he said.

That might be communication skills, attention to detail, or a strong quantitative background.

“We then put that in a spreadsheet and rank the traits from 1-20,” said Nii. “We aggregate between all of them, and we know what collectively we think the number one trait is, whether it’s coachability or adaptability or another factor.”

CPC Strategy's Interview Questions

A sample of some of the questions asked during the interview.

Questions are developed to address each of the traits. Approximately 20 questions are asked either in a phone screening or an in-person interview. The answers for each candidate are scored on a scorecard by everyone who conducts the interview.

This allows the team to use questions to “map the traits” in a quantitative way.

The process and “common thread” of essential traits has dramatically improved the fit for individual employees with the right positions and the overall mesh of staff teams.

“We’ve been able to get a little bit more consistency in each and every hire,” he explained.

Hire the right people: CPC Strategy follows a simple rubric to get great employees

Finding people who will work well in and contribute to existing teams is an important criteria for the CPC hiring process.

“Putting a systemized process in place to understand and define a ‘good hire’ versus, ‘This is somebody who may not have the traits needed to thrive in a fast-paced agency,’ is resulting in better retention and client service,” said Nii.

Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring

Nii willingly admitted they “made some hiring mistakes.” This section explores a few of the most common mistakes they battled.

1. Hiring Experience Over Raw Talent

Looking at resumes and not hearing what people say during an interview “is definitely a mistake.” Just because someone has 10 years in a specific space doesn’t mean they know how to effectively execute the work. They might have developed habits that won’t align with the organization.

Early career professionals with raw talent but limited experience can be an asset if the infrastructure is in place to nurture them. Nii acknowledged that some positions require extensive experience. But maintaining an internal process for cultivating raw talent is equally important to scaling a fast-growing organization.

2. Not Handing off HR Duties to a Professional Who Can Build on Company Values

Every company needs someone who can hire new team members who will build on the values that brought the organization success. But many companies fail to invest the necessary time and resources to equip hiring professionals with the resources they need to make great hires.

As CPC Strategy approached 50 team members, Nii realized he would be stretched too thin if he continued to be that “someone” who orchestrated the company’s recruiting, hiring, and team retention strategy.

“We believe HR is more than just compliance and posting on job boards,” Nii explained, “so it was very important for us to find an HR professional who not only understood our hiring values and vision, but could help us, as first time founders, navigate through the organizational challenges of building out management teams and onboarding programs at scale.”

When they went looking for a new Human Resources professional, they followed the rubric they’d used successfully so many times before. In it, they focused on problems they wanted the new hire to focus on in the first 90 days at CPC Strategy.

Hiring guide used by CPC Strategy

An excerpt from the 90 Day Scorecard Nii used for hiring the CPC Strategy Manager (now Director) of HR.

The result was finding “a phenomenal team member who was instrumental in helping us scale from 50 to 135 employees in under 3 years,” Nii said.

3. Avoiding Outside Help

Consultants provide needed market info and a sanity check (“not everyone wants to be like you,” Nii reminded us referring to the fact that entrepreneurs can lose sight of a different kind of mindset).

After identifying a specific area of concern, be it position descriptions or benefit explanations, an expert can more quickly analyze information, apply best practices, and make recommendations tailored to your company’s unique needs.

When Nii explained this last point, he underscored the way CPC prioritizes staff.

“I think one of the hardest parts of scaling any organization was understanding compensation, especially when you’re a newer entrepreneur,” he said. “Doing a market analysis and salary survey with a third party organization was one of the best things our Director of HR, Brianne Kennedy, did to be able to create a backed-by-data compensation structure.”

The leadership team was concerned about where they stood against other companies so that staff could grow professionally without having to leave to do so.

“It helped us feel a lot more comfortable about building career paths that map to the market,” he said. “And staff understand how they are comped and what they have to do to get to the next level.”

Opportunities for Finding Staff

Fair compensation is critical, according to Nii. It tells employees they are valued and that their work is valued. But the company’s culture needs to go further.

He believes it’s beneficial to invest in students and cultivate their skills, regardless of who they choose to work for after graduation.

Offer Paid Internships

Nii is a powerful advocate for paid internships. In addition to being a source of future staffers, internships help a company leverage the creative talents of young people. Their talents are valuable to the company, and, therefore, should be paid for.

He also recommended that you:

  • Establish terms and an agreement up front
  • Build in a review that provides feedback to and from the intern
  • Develop a pathway to employment
  • Stay in touch with the interns you’d like to see on staff — don’t wait for them to reach out.

To find interns and cultivate outreach opportunities, establish long-term relationships with local colleges and universities.

Present at Classes and Workshops

While attending career fairs is a good idea, Nii said it’s equally important to meet with students in a more personable context. He and his co-founders regularly make presentations to classes at local schools.

“We have very close relationships with both San Diego State and the University of San Diego here in town that allows us to get in front of sharp, brilliant people who want to get into your industry,” he said.

This contact gives students the chance to consider the kind of career path CPC Strategy offers, and it establishes a means for the company to connect with them throughout their careers.

Scope out On-Campus Clubs

Connect with related campus clubs and entrepreneur groups. The benefit to students is obvious. But it also makes it clear to the administration that CPC Strategy is really interested in the students.

“It’s about really trying to be a part of that fabric of the school,” explained Nii.

Staying People-Focused While Being Acquired

CPC didn’t start out with a plan to exit to another agency. The decision to be acquired by another company came down to corporate culture and the opportunity to take CPC’s work to the next level.

Nii explained that when Elite SEM’s management team approached CPC Strategy, the reputation of Elite SEM as a “Best Place to Work” by numerous workplace surveys was a key factor in the decision to move forward with an acquisition.

“We wanted to find a partner that cared about people as much as we do. We also wanted to find a destination that would allow us to continue to invest in our people and our talent moving forward.”

Because of that, all co-founders will continue to be involved in cultivating their extraordinary staff while growing the company.

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