How to Avoid Hiring Monkey-Brained Marketing Talent

June 10, 2014   /   by  Michael Westafer

The Digital Jungle is Full of Monkeys

My first real job was with a mid-sized advertising agency in the southeast. There I witnessed an awkward workplace transition from the old way of doing design and layout to the new way of the computer and desktop publishing. My first Creative Director lacked modern technical skills, so he stood behind me while I made the magic happen. “Push this over there. Change that font here.”

At the end of three years I had produced a lot of great art, won a few ADDYs and was quickly promoted and transferred to another branch office. After a few weeks in my new job the company hired a big-wig Creative Director from a fancy-schmancy agency in the Northeast. During his first week my new boss conducted a review of my portfolio. I was nervous, but proceeded to show him my best work while explaining the roles I played in each piece. When I was done, he looked me straight in the face and said, “Any monkey can push a button.”

I was devastated. I was very proud of what I had accomplished during those three years and for a while I wrote his comments off as the mutterings of a pompous bleep-it-y-bleep. Looking back, however, I can understand and appreciate what my former director was trying to communicate. Although he could have improved his delivery, the message was quite clear. My role in producing the designs was very elementary, lacking creative strategies and higher-order thinking.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1980) helps explain the monkey-brained skill level I possessed some 15 years ago. According to the model, skill acquisition happens over a period of five different stages:

  1. Novice – “Just tell me what to do!” Lacks experience and flexibility; adheres to rigid rules.
  2. Advanced Beginner – “I’m ready to take on something else.” Lacks vision, but can apply rules differently depending on the situation.
  3. Competent Practitioner – “I’ll make sure it gets done on time and on target.” Still uses rules, but understands long-term goals.
  4. Proficient – “The XYZ model will solve that issue.” Uses patterns, past experiences and intuition in place of rules.
  5. Expert – “I know where we’re going, what it takes, and how to get there.” No longer adheres to rules, but has an intuitive grasp of each situation.

Individuals rarely make it beyond level 3, as it takes passion and commitment to go pro.

To avoid swimming in a sea of monkeys I consult the Dreyfus Model when evaluating my team and hiring new talent and vendors. As a result, I have been fortunate to identify and hire digital marketing talent that intuitively understands our clients’ unique situations, can identify the right solutions and forecast future outcomes. And this has made all the difference.

Disclaimer: No monkeys were harmed during the making of this blog post. Roger West respects the rights of all monkeys, foreign and domestic. Roger West does not imply malice, judgment, discrimination, or rejection toward monkeys of any kind. This includes gibbon, langur, spider, howler, squirrel, white-faced and any other primate species.

Michael Westafer

Michael Westafer


As the CEO and founder of Roger West, Mike brings over 25 years of marketing, leadership, and business strategy experience to our team, clients, and partners. Under his leadership, the Roger West has grown from a scrappy startup to a full-service, award-winning agency. He believes in getting things done, making big things happen for clients, and delivering expert fist-bumps.