Stop asking candidates to make a marketing plan for your job interview process

Jane Elizabeth
Dec 8, 2018 · 15 min read

Let’s take an example from real life

After a successful phone interview with a startup, my friend received this email.

I hope you’ve been well! I had a chance to connect with Beter, Bohn, and Bephen, and we are all very excited to continue exploring the opportunity with you. For next steps, we’d like to do a two-part process — a project portion and an onsite portion.

Below is the prompt for the open-ended project. Once you have completed, we’d love to invite you to come meet the rest of the team and discuss your thinking with us. Can you please let me know a few times that might work next week?

Let me know if you have any questions. Looking forward to it!

Objective: This exercise is designed to replicate some of the work you’d do at AI-Blah-Blah. We’ve intentionally limited the task description to keep things open-ended and to better understand your thinking.

Project prompt: Develop AI-Blah-Blah’s 6-month marketing plan if the objective is to create an inbound lead strategy. Include execution strategy and rationale, as well as sample press release, content, or campaign (no design required)

Output: Presentation of up to 7 slides + sample.

Sources: Anything you need! A confidential overview is linked below, and let me know if a quick product demo would be helpful.

Timeline: Within the next week (let me know if this is a challenge)

My friend responds:

Hi Boe,

Thanks for the note. I loved connecting with Beter, Bohn, and Bephen and I’m excited about what you’re building.

At this point, I think it’s best for me to cheer you on from the outside. I can tell from this exercise that the role isn’t at the right level for what I am seeking to do next. It’s disappointing, but it’s always better to identify misalignment now rather than later in the process.

Wishing you the best in your search,

Super-star Marketer

Boe responds:

Hey Super-Star, thanks for the note. Can you elaborate a bit on the misalignment? Want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Thanks! Boe

My friend, ever the trooper, gathers “user research” from other successful marketing leaders she knows.

Hi Boe,

Sure, I like you and the team, so I’ll elaborate more in the spirit of helping with your search process.

The biggest misalignment is the simplest part of the assignment: asking for a press release/content. I’ve already provided multiple writing samples per your earlier request to see my portfolio, so I’m not seeing the right boxes being checked in what you are asking versus the kind of senior role I am aiming for in my search.

Additionally, I understand the marketing plan question, but our approaches are misaligned. The prompt is pretty specific (>7 slides, 6 mos plan, inbound lead strategy at the core, etc). I have been thinking of how I’d approach your marketing plan question for the purposes of an interview, and it falls completely outside your assignment.

It seemed concerning, so I paraphrased the ask (and of course didn’t mention the name of your company) and put this question out to a community of female executives. Here are the responses I received:

“Just brought this up in a C-Suite meeting. Everyone thought it was silly they would ask for a marketing plan (which is a pretty damn big deal) and there was a high likelihood they would take your expertise without offering you the job. I think this request says something about the culture of the company and I would look elsewhere. I would also feel comfortable giving them that feedback.”

“My field (ux design) does these take-home exercises, too. I dislike them as both a hiring manager and a candidate for many different reasons. I keep it high level, like what information you’d consider. And if they decide to pass on you for not giving them what they really wanted, I’d say good riddance and move on.”

Back out now. You can say that based on this ask, you don’t think their organization would be a fit. Think of it like this — it could be a worse disappointment if you go through the motions, get the job and it turns out a terrible fit.”

“This is super hard because a MP [marketing plan] means and looks like different things to different audiences. Give them the absolute minimum they need to hire you.”

This stuff makes me nervous. A friend once had a similar request. They took her hard work, said thank you and we decided we didn’t need the position filled after all.”

I hate this approach! It feels unfair because, as you pointed out, plans aren’t just whipped up. With limited research and understanding on current challenges or business goals, it’s hard. Most of the time they want to know that you understand how to develop one and they’re trying to see how you think. But that’s not how this is structured.”

Would they ask a candidate for general counsel to review a pending legal action and make recommendations? Consider this article.”

If they have unrealistic expectations for interviews, imagine how much worse the role could be! Go with your gut. Also, somehow these things work out for a reason, I have a feeling an even better role will present itself.”

“This request is beyond the expectation of a candidate interviewing. Their loss!”

“Wow. Just catching up. I know I get hyped about every opportunity, but this has a lot of red flags. I’ve been given info and asked to make presentations, but it always came across more situational and I’ve never felt like I became a free consultant during an interview process, which is exactly what this looks like.”

“The marketing plan question seems to be increasingly popular. A friend of mine was just faced with the same dilemma. I’m the wrong person to ask about adapting your mindset and “just doing this,” because I think it is a horrible practice by employers. Unless they’ve turned over their full budget, strat plan, customer insight data, competitive data, etc. there’s no way you have what you need to write a good plan. (I know you know this). The danger is that you write a plan based on limited knowledge and assumptions, and it is off base or seems naive because you lack the insight to properly do the work and you don’t get the job as a result. Or, they love the plan and execute it themselves.”

“I’m working on hiring people for home renovations and this would be like saying, ‘hey paint a room for free so I know you can.’ That’s not how it works, you have to look at past work and examples, you don’t get freebies in the form of people ‘proving themselves’ in the interview.”

Some of these quotes are a little strong, of course these Directors/VPs/c-suite women didn’t write these comments with the intention of saying this directly to you. But collectively, their sentiment resonates with me, and I hope seeing it word-for-word is helpful input.

I wish you the very best in finding the right person for this role, and I hope this clarification helps.

Sincerely, Super-star

Here’s the best part. Boe can’t help but respond nearly immediately. He defends his position, because why would anyone not want to work at AI-Blah-Blah?

Hey — thanks for the candid feedback here! Really appreciate it. There’s some good thoughts in there we will chew on, but I’ll share a few of my own — hope they’re helpful as you continue your search!

- I regret you didn’t just have a candid conversation with me about your concerns, which could have been a quick, transparent way to come to resolution.

- Asking c-level execs for feedback is great most of the time, but unless they are running or have ran an early stage technology startup, their thoughts when it comes to hiring may not be reflective of common approaches practiced by tech startups in the valley.

- Zero intent to get free consulting. We use this as a way to see how the candidate approaches actual work they’d be doing.

- think there was misalignment in expectations of project. We expect candidates to take 2–3 hours coming up with initial high level game plan, but I get the feeling you didn’t take it that way. Again, a convo could have clarified.

Guess what? Despite the opening line of his email, Boe’s not really thankful for that candid feedback. This guy didn’t like that he was called out, and never really heard the feedback. My friend felt strangely relieved by the response, specifically because of the line, “We use this as a way to see how the candidate approaches actual work they’d be doing.” My friend hoped the actual work would be grounded in meaningful research, and market insights, all done on a reasonable timeline, so if this assignment is reflective of the actual work, she made the right call in backing out.

The problems with homework assignments

Ideally, a professional relationship is entered into with fairness and respect and is an outcome of a mutually beneficial interview process.

When you create assignments like this, you just seem like a schmuck who is leveraging the power imbalance of the job search process. Some poor candidates will do this because they really need a job and they think THIS will be the one.

I have been that candidate many times, and I feel burned by being taken advantage of. I’ve spent hours putting together marketing plans when I was probably never a serious contender for the job. In fact, Pinterest once asked me to do this and they never even bothered to acknowledge the plan I sent. And that friend who said “no” to Boe’s garbage assignment for AI-Blah-Blah recently got caught up in another one of these assignments, but this time she went for it.

She spent $360 paying a babysitter to take care of her children so she could make a marketing plan as a homework assignment for a 10-person startup. The assignment took 18 hours when you account for research, follow-up questions, calculations estimates (for a budget, leads, churn, and ad spend), actual plan creation, layout, editing. Her San Francisco babysitter charges $20/hour, plus she paid for museum admissions, lunches out, and transit for the babysitter and kids since these were such long timeframes to have the kids out of the house.

Of course, she considered asking for an extension, but why risk coming off as difficult to work with? There are lots of things to negotiate with a new job, but more time to do a homework assignment wasn’t one she wanted to get a concession on. She thought she’d just focus on nailing the assignment, pay what it took to get the space she needed to work, and the money and sunk time she spent would be absolutely worth the investment in the long term. I reviewed her plan before it went out the door — it was solid. Well, that investment in time and money was not worth it for her.

While hiring managers may think they are getting an honest take on the actual work the candidate can deliver, they also introduce risks when they set an assignment.

Top talent may refuse homework assignments. Because, spoiler alert, a difficult job as the one-person marketing team at your small, underfunded, untested startup is not really a prize to be won.

Or top talent may be so busy acing their current job that their fake marketing plan is less developed, less researched, and not as stellar as the person who has more time to invest. In fact, you are making it harder to find that ace marketer because they may not invest as much time in the important aspects to make a well-researched plan.

These assignments also introduce a bias toward people who are parents or who care for a dependent in the hours they are not working. Some parents, especially single parents, juggle childcare issues. Compare this to someone, like a recent college grad, who has far less experience but far more available “after work hours” in the evenings to do tons of research, cross-pollinate ideas, and make a killer homework assignment for your candidate process. The best work doesn’t always bubble up. Plus these assignments create systems that miss the people capable of the best work in normal professional circumstances.

I’m not unconditionally against testing as part of the interview process.

Interview tests have the potential to take away bias. It’s harder to get a job as a woman or a minority,* so a test is more objective than an in-person interview. If tests are reasonably scoped, it can give minority candidates a chance to shine. Tests can also validate expertise on critical skills, and help to give an honest take of a candidate’s abilities. But one pitfall for employers starts with when homework is given early in the application cycle.

Homework assigned up-front create an asymmetrical time investment between the company and the candidate. After 30 minutes chatting in a first-round screening call, the company asked me to invest 2+ hours in creating a three to six-month marketing plan directly relevant to their current needs — and something that doesn’t exactly come together in just 2 hours. But even if I did only invest 2 hours of time, that’s 4x more time than the company has invested in me at this point (apart from the basic company research and cover letter I already spent time on). This makes me think the company either doesn’t value my time or value the skill and expertise involved in marketing. It’s like asking a developer to put together a quick app for the company in 2 hours.

I’m not Rumplestiltskin, so I can’t magically spin straw into gold. Making a relevant marketing plan requires careful research and thoughtful planning. Additionally, I want your job, but I have other demands, and I’m also afraid you’ll use my ideas for free. Don’t make a candidate do a bunch of work before you’ll even talk to them.

For example, here’s a recent exchange I had:

Hi Bosh,

Thank you for the opportunity to move forward and continue the process.

I am excited to learn more about Acme Co., but I can’t make a decent 6-month marketing plan for your company in 2 hours without more information. I could slap together a strawman based on my past experience, but it would be all form and no substance. I’m not sure how that serves either of us.

Additionally, I regularly get requests to do assignments like this, but I judge how serious an employer is about my candidacy by whether they will invest the time to meet me in person first. I go the extra mile for a company that demonstrates that level of interest. If you would like to meet in person, I’ll prepare a plan for how I would approach this role — and we can discuss it.

Let me give full credit to Nick Corcodilos at Ask the Headhunter blog for giving me that golden line about getting regular requests to do assignments like this.

The response:

Hi Jane — Thanks for your candor! I totally understand where you’re coming from. We are certainly serious about your candidacy for this position, however we unfortunately don’t have the bandwidth to interview all candidates in person without seeing some technical work product. We similarly view this as a way to identify candidates that are serious about their interest in Acme Co. and the role.

You are welcome to spend extra time on the report if you feel it critical. Hopefully you understand and will undertake the effort to put something together — curious to see what you have to offer!

You know it’s trouble when an email starts with “Thanks for your candor!” This exchange leads me to believe that the company doesn’t really know what they want, or how to efficiently evaluate what candidates bring to the table. So, they are just shaking the tree to see what falls out and who is willing to spend the most time jumping through hoops. They benefit greatly from seeing lots of custom consultative work and fresh ideas, and the surface-level risk to the employer is minimal. I also love that they invited me to “spend extra time” if I felt it was needed.

What’s more troubling is that this approach discounts 10 years of experience and other evidence I’ve carefully pulled together, like a top-notch portfolio and a blog on marketing.

Employers, what is the true purpose of your assignment?

What skill set are you trying to test? Is your assignment just asking the painter to paint the room “so you know they can?” Or, are you trying to rule something out that you could simply just ask the candidate about directly and save 18 hours of work? For example, if an employer said “I don’t want to hire someone who is verbose. They need to communicate concisely to mesh with our founding team.” Great. Just ask about their communication style. You don’t need to go back and forth over a complex homework assignment to get there. Come on, employers, you are smart enough to figure a lot of this out without the big homework assignment.

One hiring manager I know asks people to put together a 90-day plan. This gives people who might not be strong interviewers the opportunity to demonstrate their thoughts, and they might have great ideas. Additionally, that a candidate’s 90-day plan can’t be used by the company. This organization also offers to pay candidates their rate for this work. That feels fair, too.

Employers, here are the rules:

  1. No homework before an in-person meeting with the hiring manager.
  2. For entry or mid-level jobs, homework should test a specific skill like copywriting or editing that you were not able to glean directly from the candidate’s portfolio of work. A SQL query or even “look at this website and tell me 10 things that could be better and why” could be okay. Reminder, do not ask them to write a press release if they provide a whole portfolio of press releases. If you need to confirm the work is their own, then use the reference check to verify. Or ask the candidate if they work with a collaborative editorial team or if their samples are entirely their own. Sometimes you don’t need to do more validation of skills if a few simple questions and actually digging into the portfolio will give you what you need.
  3. It should take no more than 45 minutes and be self-contained. There needs to be enough information to do the homework without a bunch of outside research. Encourage the candidate to only use the info you provide, since they can spend hours reading your corporate website, watch every video you ever created, reading your past press releases, reviewing all your blog posts, scanning external reviews, and more. That process alone can take hours depending on the size of the company. Strong candidates will do that kind of research before the interview, don’t make them fish for more bits of potentially valuable data in every piece of content you have ever created. Give them what they need, and tell them not to spend time looking for more.
  4. It must be truly hypothetical. If you just want to get a sense of how I think or approach a challenge, then design something to test that.
  5. Offer to pay candidates their rate for their work. If you aren’t willing to pay for your potential candidate’s time, why are you asking? If you are serious about this candidate, but you have some concern that wasn’t covered in-person, in their portfolio, in their cover letter, in past samples they may have brought to the interview, in reference checks, etc. then please be specific about what you need to see and pay for it.
  6. In higher-level roles where you are testing strategy over a specific skill, keep the assignments focused on in-person conversations about strategy, not specific strategy-related documents (like a whole marketing plan) handed off over email. When I share ideas in a meeting in-person, I can see how you are reacting real-time, and I can change my approach mid-stream if my proposed plans aren’t resonating. We can mutually determine if we make a good team in these settings. When I don’t know you well, and I go away for 2 days and come back with a documented plan, I may have missed one early critical step that could have been course corrected in an in-person strategy session. You learn far more about how I think, and I learn very little about how you think.

In other words, “make a marketing plan to launch my new product” is not testing a specific skill and it’s not the best way to see if we work well together. It’s asking for free consulting. And think of other practice areas. No one would ask a painter to paint a room for free to prove they can paint. No one would ask a lawyer to write a brief and do a mock argument about a company’s pending litigation.

Employers, let’s make this process fair.

Marketers, let’s join the graphic designers and the movement #saynotospecwork and start a #saynotofreework movement for marketing.

Candidates, if you have to gracefully say “no” to homework, or have a homework horror story, share it here in the comments. I’d like to develop a cheat sheet for candidates to say “no” to bo-bo homework at the right times, and in the best possible way.


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Jane Elizabeth

Written by

For marketing folks at startups who use data, tell stories, want better results, and to be happier at work.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Jane Elizabeth

Written by

For marketing folks at startups who use data, tell stories, want better results, and to be happier at work.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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