Employer Branding T.I.P S05Ep.6 | “Better”, not “More”: employer branding, a strong ally  in recruitment”, with James Ellis, employer brand/talent strategy thinker, keynote speaker, host @The Talent Cast

Hi! My name is Georgiana. I am the CEO and founder of Beaglecat and soon you will be listening to Employer Branding: The Inside Podcast. In this podcast, I regularly talk to employer branding managers and acquisition managers, and human resources managers in tech companies in Germany, Romania, in the US. For more content on employer branding-related themes, go to employerbranding.tech or beaglecat.com. Stay tuned!


Episode 6 of #EmployerBranding: The Inside Podcast (Season 5) is a very special one! 

We were delighted to speak with James Ellis, noted employer brand and talent strategy thinker, author, keynote speaker, and host of The Talent Cast podcast. We talked about some of the core challenges associated with the employer brand function, but also about #myths, #storytelling, human-centric #EVP, and a lot more. 

Our key takeaway is that “the employer brand is a force multiplier of recruiting”. To reap the benefits, CEOs, founders, TAs, HRs, and recruiters everywhere should admit, accept, and face a universal truth: Everybody lies! For employer branding to thrive as a new function, both companies and candidates must stop lying. 

What you’ll learn by listening

  • Employer branding: a product marketing mindset, applied to recruiting
  • Uncovering the reasons behind the slow adoption of employer branding
  • “Better” not “More”: the employer brand is a force multiplier of recruiting
  • Unpuzzling the employer brand function: start with a pilot project
  • When honesty goes a long way: every job sucks sometimes, and that’s ok!
  • Myth debunked: Good culture, bad culture. No, it’s just culture! 
  • Human-centric EVP & why does it matter? 
  • Know the differences: traditional marketing funnel vs. recruitment marketing funnel
  • Storytelling in employer branding 

About James Ellis  

James Ellis is a noted employer brand and talent strategy thinker, keynote speaker, consultant, and podcaster who routinely builds “the uncomfortable and new” from scratch and turns it into “this is how we do it now.” “Change agent” isn’t the right term. “Fearless inventor of your future” is closer. Author of the books, “Talent Choose You” and “The Employer Brand Handbook”, James is the inventor of the Recruiting Content Framework, the Employer Brand Manifesto and the first comprehensive Employer Brand Architecture, reinventing the employer brand of a public Fortune 1000 company, the first person to prove content positively impacts applications, turned a failing brand activation department into a multi-million dollar growth engine, started a media-buying department from scratch, and expanded content and social offerings globally. 

Enjoy listening to T.I.P S05Ep.6 on Spotify!

T.I.P S05Ep.6 – podcast transcription


Hi everyone! This is Georgiana with the new episode of Employer Branding: The Inside Podcast. And today I’m talking to someone whom I’ve been meaning to talk to, for so, so long. His name is James Ellis. And in my opinion, he’s the person to speak to when it comes to employer branding. Welcome, James!

James Ellis:  

I got nothing for that. I was really hoping, on some level, that your mind will just go blank. Like you couldn’t remember my name. I wanted that to happen so bad. Because I do that. I do that all the time. I’m thrilled to be here, all jokes aside.


Thank you so much. I have been following you for quite some time. And I have to say that before, sort of preparing for this podcast, I took another look at your LinkedIn profile. And I saw a lot of things there Employer Branding related. So I said, Okay, this is the person to talk to when it comes to employer branding. Because you have written books, you have a podcast on the topic. You have regular posts on LinkedIn on the topic, you even worked in companies in employer branding-related roles. So please, take me as your intern for whatever you’re doing. Yes, I literally don’t know anybody else who is more qualified than you.

James Ellis:  

That’s a nice way of telling me I’m a loudmouth. And you’re not wrong, But it is a nice way of putting it. I appreciate that. Thank you.


I’m really curious, James, is there any role in one of the companies you’ve worked in that’s influenced you, that’s impacted you highly when it comes to employer branding, but not necessarily?

James Ellis: 

The thing is that there’s no training for employer branding; no official training. Everybody I know who’s good at it comes from different spaces. They come from recruiting, they come from marketing, they come from internal comms, they come from wherever. I have a political science background. I have an agnostic marketing background. I have just cobbled these things together, like bits of string and paper clips to just try and make something helpful.

And I think it’s interesting that we all are trying to put this thing together on our own. We’re all trying to figure it out. We often help each other but there’s no one role where I went, Oh, it makes sense. Right? What it was, it was a very long, effectively 20 years in the wilderness of doing generic marketing, digital marketing stuff; making websites, making social channels, building email campaigns, just digital stuff. And I did it for everybody to b2c, b2b, state governments, education, I mean, everybody, small companies, big companies, I did it for everybody.

nd you start to cobble these ideas together. And you’re like, Okay, I guess this makes sense. You start to see these patterns repeated. And you’re like, oh, this makes sense. And what I realized, eventually, after 20 years, so if you’re thinking of smart, it’s not. It took me 20 years to put this together, I think anybody would have put it together in two. Marketing is the same wherever you go. Know who you want to talk to, know what they care about, say or do something that they’re going to care about, put it in front of them, and have a call to action.

Rinse, lather, repeat, right? It’s just very simple stuff. And we put all sorts of fun, kind of doodads and kind of, you know, filigrees on it to make it more complicated. But what’s interesting to me is that as I kind of tripped, as we all did into employer brand spaces, and recruitment, marketing spaces, I realized there’s something I took all my experience with, oh, yeah, I know how to do this. You just apply these ideas or stick them here. Exactly. No big deal. And then I went way, way, way. Hold on there. Something’s not working. Something’s not playing the way I thought it should.

better job ads

And it took me a little while scratching to kind of realize the difference is the foundational thinking. In marketing the watchword, the word you always use everyone’s favorite word is the word more. I want more budget, I want more eyeballs, I want more sales. I want more views. I want more impressions. I want more clicks. I want more, more, more, more, more, more shelf space, more visibility, anything you want. Exactly, uh, give me more. It’s a full verruca salt kind of situation, right? It gives me all of it. In recruitment marketing, you quickly realize, or at least a recruiter should realize I don’t want more, I want better. I don’t want a million candidates I want two. And I want them to be spectacular so that whatever one I choose is the right one; is a great choice.

And that simple, minor difference changes everything. You take all of the marketing, you go away, hold on, I can’t filter it through a lens of more, because they’re all designed to make you more. Look at all the marketing tools. And all the ads for marketing stuff and tactics. It’s all about more and more. Get more ads, get more leads to get more, but more and more and more. And you realize you don’t want more. So how do you take marketing thinking and apply it? To me? That’s the thing.

So it has been a nine-year career of going if this is true, how does it play out here and learning about that? So there’s no one job where I went, that’s what I did. I did learn a lot in each role and random things in each role working in an agency, you know, for three years and running their employer brand activation team. For 60 some clients. You start to learn what works, you start to learn at scale, you start to figure out what the hacks and the tricks are; you start to realize, okay, there are certain things you do just to keep the ball moving.

And then there are certain things you do that really turn the key that really makes things happen. But the truth is, most of our clients just wanted to keep the ball rolling. They had no metrics or KPIs to say, That’s great branding, they just didn’t know; they just do. It’s Tuesday, we got to tweet. It’s Wednesday, we got to post something on LinkedIn. They were obsessed with calendars, and not outcomes. And so that was my first kind of like, okay, there’s a disconnect, we need to get better at this. We need to think about how does this work? What do we want to get out of it? And that, to me, was the beginning of starting to just it all fell apart. And now I’m just kind of putting it all back together.


You know, I’m I sort of have a similar background, if I can say so. I also started with content marketing on my own about 10 years ago, learning from the Content Marketing Institute and copyblogger.com. And it was sort of pioneering 10 years ago. It happened a lot in the StateS. IT had happened a lot in the UK, but not so much in Western Europe and in Romania, where I’m from. It was practically nonexistent.  And now, I’m not sure and you correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel that I’m sensing a similar movement or a similar delay. When it comes to employer branding. When I talk to companies in Berlin, Germany, and in Romania. Is this really the case?

James Ellis: 

It’s interesting. So you know, the history of employer brand is it was started in England, London, Simon Burroughs kind of kick-started. He took a product marketing mindset and applied it to recruiting and went, Wait for a second, if this is how you sell fish sticks or fish fingers, why can’t we do the same thing to jobs? It was like, click, click, click, everything certainly sticks out that he really kind of launched this idea. The UK embraced it, and it went crazy.

In the US, we said, Yeah, we just like ads. Ads are easier. They’re controllable. They’re sellable. We can track them. Let’s just do ads. And for 10-15 years, the UK thought of an employer brand, US thought about it in terms of ads. And about 10 years ago, they started to switch. So all the really cool ad tech is coming from Europe. And all the really interesting employer brand coming from the US.

Now, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen Finland and Sweden doing really interesting employer branding. Romania is doing some really interesting, and Croatia is doing some really interesting brands. They are in the same way because the US wasn’t there at the beginning. They watched the nascent idea of employer brand grow. And then they said, Oh, I get it. Now we know what to do with it. So that so it’s kind of like, you know, for a long time, you know, this idea that the if you remember a long time ago, in Asia, they had the four tigers, it was Singapore, and South Korea.

And these these these four countries, because they were starting not from with a long history of building roads and building, they started in the 80s. They could leapfrog all the bad mistakes of the 50s and 60s and 70s. And suddenly, they exploded out of what seemed like nowhere. The US did the same thing. We skipped all the bad mistakes, the easy mistakes of the 90s and the 10 that you know, the 2000s. And when it came to 2010, we went oh, now we understand we blew it up.

The UK did the same thing. I think what’s happening is it’s in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, you’re actually seeing the same thing. They’re looking at the US and the UK saying, Okay, we don’t have to make those mistakes. How do you take that to the next level? They’re starting from zero. But that’s not a problem. That’s actually an advantage because they don’t have any bad habits to unlearn. Right? They don’t have any bad tech stacks to kind of rip apart and say, Oh, none of this works. You got to start from scratch. They’re all starting from scratch, which I love to start from scratch.

The only way you learn is to start with a blank piece of paper walking in, in a company where they’re so obsessed with their ATS, that the ATS dictates the way they do things. There’s only so much change they’re willing to do start from a clean sheet of paper, the world’s your oyster, and you can make anything happen. I think that’s fascinating. And that’s where the real innovation tends to happen.


You know, I’ve been speaking a lot with startups here in the tech scene in Berlin. And I have to say, sadly, there are a lot of talks and very little action when it comes to employer branding. I’m not generalizing. But of course, this has been the case, many times. Why do you think that happens?

James Ellis:  

There is a question of economics. In a way, employer brand is a kind of a force multiplier of recruiting. It’s a lot of other things, too. But let’s focus exclusively on the kind of transactional nature of what it does. It’s a force multiplier. So let’s pretend just for simple numbers because I’m not that smart. Let’s say an employer brand makes every recruiter 20% better. They bring in 20%, better talent, they do that at 20% Faster, and they’re 20% more efficient.

If you’re a startup with 20 people and you’ve got one recruiter, why would you add another person to make that recruiter 20% better? Why wouldn’t you add another recruiter to make them 200% better, that makes sense? It’s not till the company hits a certain critical mass; somewhere between 500 and 1000 people that they have enough recruiters.

Adding the next body shouldn’t be a recruiter, it should be the employer brand to make all the other recruiters better. And that’s the thing. Now there’s plenty of stuff in the Harvard Business Review in the blog space and all the articles that everybody knows employer brand is the thing you’re supposed to do. And I’m using air quotes, or bunny ears, depending on where you’re from because everybody knows these things.

But you can’t afford it. Just like everybody knows, you should have X and Y and Z. But if you’re a 10-person company or 100-person company, you just might not be able to afford it yet. You should want it. But that doesn’t mean you can get to it now. So I think what’s happening is that I’m seeing, three years ago, employer brand was the purview of 5000 person companies or bigger, right, big companies, massive company, global footprints, definitely that they always wanted it.

But even regional companies, if they were big enough, they knew they needed enough five people to come in. They saw how much harder it was getting to bring people in, they could justify the value. Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen it come down to 1000. And even lower. I mean, my day job right now has 500 people to it. And it’s only because they’re hiring very specialized data scientists and biotechnologists that they can justify this investment in someone like me, but that’s a very rare thing. I’ve only seen it in two or three other places.


You are indeed right because some of my friends here in Berlin, who are Employer Branding people, running managers, and managers are sometimes tasked with recruitment whenever one of their colleagues in the recruitment team leaves the company. And I find that so sad and so disappointing. But in the end, it is a question of economics, like you’re saying.

James Ellis:  

And remember, most employer brand starts in the recruiting, not from leadership. But usually, it’s a recruiter saying, Why is this so hard? Why am I struggling to get my message out? Why am I putting a message out? My friend, who’s another recruiter, is putting out a different message. Why aren’t our messages connecting? Why don’t we align? Who’s in charge of Glassdoor, who’s in charge of the website? They were all just cobbled together. Someone says we need a career site and some web person just kind of put something together, slapped it up, and they put it out in the world. And they never touched it for two years.

The recruiter says, why haven’t we done it better? And very often, it’s the recruiter who raises their hand and says, Can I kind of just own this idea called employer brand, I don’t know what’s called I don’t want to shape like, I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know what it’s gonna be. But I want to own it. So that’s usually I think what’s happening now is because it is so hot in the trade press. Leadership is asking, which I think is interesting, Because now it’s no longer a bottom up, it’s top down. And it’s when they match and when they meet in the middle, you go, Okay, this is a company who gets the power of employer but has someone internally who’s like revved up and ready to take it on and say I want to own this. And even though they’ve got a heck of a journey ahead of them to learn that maturity model. That’s where it starts.

better job ads


You’re right. And it’s a bit funny for me because it’s ideal when leadership meets recruitment. In between something very magical might happen. But most of the people we talk to in tech companies here in Berlin, go like, we have just 5000 euros. Can we do something Employer Branding related with that money and like. You can do something, but it’s not going to solve your problems. It’s just going to bring you 5% awareness or 1% or whatever.

James Ellis: 

But that is the maturity model. The maturity model that, you know, I kind of helped work I worked on with Richard Mosley over Universum. It’s this idea that you usually start with a pilot project. Every company thinks they’re special, every company thinks they’re different. Everyone’s a family and beyond that, they’re different from every other company.

So what works over there will not work here necessarily, even though they all have accountants, and they all have HR and they all have the exact same structures, whatever. That’s neither here nor there. But it’s the maturity model kind of says, someone internally says I will pilots something and it could be an ad spend. It could be rewriting a job posting, it could be a review site.

It could be there are all sorts of things. You have five houses in euros. Where are you going to place that bet? Where are you going to put it to show that there’s value in thinking in this way? Not is a transactional way like putting in a job post, extracting 100 applications, picking the right person, done. How do you think beyond the transaction? How do you think, you know more strategically. Once that pilot works, and if there’s someone there to advocate to say if it works once, why won’t it work full time? That’s the flip.

So that’s how you go from stage zero to one. You get a pilot from stage one to two to say, let’s make this a real function. Let’s put someone in charge of it, maybe it’s their full-time job, maybe it’s not quite their full-time job. But that is the point person. Then it’s about a full-time person with a budget. Then it’s about a team with a dedicated budget that reports to TA but also has lines of sight into marketing and comms. And finally, the idea of how it really should be, is that the employer brand lives inside a brand team and that can take any kind of shape.

But ultimately, it’s there’s one brand and the employer brand looks through that brand like a lens to say: what is this brand look like to my prospects and candidates? And investor relations look through that same brand, and say, What am I institutional investors care about? And consumer brand looks at that same brand and says, what are my customers care about. But it’s all one brand. And the value, and by the way, maybe 1% of all brands are at this stage. This is very much an aspirational stage for most brands.

But this idea is that when the consumer brand uses the brand appropriately, it supports the employer brand. And when the employer brand uses that same shared brand, it supports the consumer brand. And there’s lots of evidence of this stuff. In the US, I don’t have any UK examples or your examples, the CEO gets in trouble. He says something racist, and he’s the face of the company, you nudge him out. And you say, look at our franchise owners, they’re real people, they’re the ones delivering your pizza. Look at them, not our CEO, who we’re pushing out the door as fast as we can. We’re not racist, how can we be racist? Look at these wonderful franchise owners. That becomes the human face of the brand, which is another word for employer brand. Right?

Your consumer brand is all about “this is the product”. Your investor relations all about this is the company in the future of where this investment is going to go. The only people who care about the human face of this brand, are you the employer brand owners, and I think everybody else is starting to realize there’s power in that, there’s value in that, and in tapping that it’s become the crisis go to PR move. But now it’s you know, why isn’t it? Why aren’t you always showing regardless of the company, I don’t care if you make widgets or sell chicken. These are the people who are doing the work. And if you like these people, you will like the company, and you like the product. So it’s happening, it’s just happening very Higgledy Piggledy, and that’s a technical term, obviously.


Very strong statement coming your way. Please don’t take more than five minutes in answering it. Recruitment is broken. 

James Ellis: 

Oh, absolutely. Next question.



James Ellis: 

Totally. Let me describe recruitment. If an alien came down and said, “What is this thing? I want a job.” Here you have candidate A, and they have put their entire professional career on two pieces of paper or three. If you’re in the media. You’ll notice there’s nothing negative on that piece of paper. Not a thing. If you looked at that piece of paper and took it as gospel, you would say this person is about to win a Nobel Prize. This person is a genius, this person has never kicked a cat.

This person is a wonderful human being and they’re perfect in every conceivable way. On the other side, you have a company that had a job description, which by the way, the job the person who wrote the job description doesn’t understand what the job is. And when they got stuck, they stole language from other job postings and job descriptions. And frankly, some of them were from other companies. Let’s not lie here. So they’re describing a job that isn’t real.

So you’ve got Candidate A describing a person who isn’t real, Company B describing a job that isn’t real. They’re both lying there. They meet. What happens is, if the company says, I think you’re lying, and they say it in the nicest possible terms. So can you describe what you said here that you invented the hashtag? Can you describe what your part of that project was? Because what they’re really saying is, I don’t think you invented the hashtag. I think you were in the room next door to the hashtag and decided to claim it. You’re a liar. And the candidate dances around the question, and the candidate is desperately trying to look at the company to say, “You say this company is a family. You say it’s all friendly. You say it’s innovative. What are you really?”

And they’re both looking at each other, trying to spot the lie. And after three or four weeks of trying to spot the lie and accusing each other and absolutely dancing, absolutely dancing, and not believing a thing, the other person says, they decide you want to join the family. So you’ve explained to me that it was a fist fight for two months of lies, and now we’re best friends. How does that work? If you were inventing a system with which you would pick people, you’d never get to this. It’s stacks of lies on stacks of lies. It is broken. And we have all found ways to optimize or game or hack or trick or whatever to make it work. Okay.

But the data is really clear. If it worked, you wouldn’t have a 50% failure rate in every company. Google has a 50% failure rate, that is people they hire who get through their gauntlet of interviews, and the 12 trillion people who look at their resume and ask them questions, and they still get it still coin flip. How is that possible? Because the system is broken. Employer brand, and yes, this is me being biased. But here I am. I got the microphone. So I’m going to say it: employer brand might be the fix for that. Because what happens is, if you’ve got all this lying happening, and it’s lying on both sides, I’m not accusing anybody in particular, but everybody’s lying. And hey, I’ve been there. I’ve lied. And I’ve lied on both sides.

Employer brand says, because you’re not focusing on the more you’re focusing on the better. It says, Hmm, I don’t want 1000 people to apply. I don’t want 100 people to apply. I really want two people to apply so long as they’re great. How do you make that happen? Well, step one is to accurately describe the job, the company and the culture. And when I say accurately, I mean, not just cheerleading, and we’re wonderful and happy, happy joy, joy, and not big, warm hugs and puppy dogs and daisies and sunshine and blue skies. It’s a job. Sometimes, every job sucks. It’s hard. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. It’s painful. But if you look at a job posting, you don’t see any of that. All you see is the happy.

So if you get the company to say, and I think the fastest way to do that is to simply say in a paragraph, in every job posting – ” this is why  this job is hard.” Just describe it. Is it politics? Is it a process? Is it people? Is it a product? Is it just you’re going to have to work 48 hours every single day to make this work or is it going to look like you’re going to be off on your own, you’re not going to get a lot of support. Is it going to be this a place where the job never changes?

Because every strength is a weakness, every weakness as a strength. Every job no matter how amazing, no matter what your dream job is, there’s a part of that dream job that has to suck. So spell it out. What happens then, is the candidate goes okay. It’s not just oh, it’s not just a bunch of fuzzy bunny stuff that I have to figure out what the heck this job really is. And when they say I don’t know what this job is, and it doesn’t cost me more than two seconds to click Apply.

When you see that paragraph that says the job will suck because of this, the candidate goes, ooh, I don’t want that. And they walk away. Now every recruiter in the world just went, Oh, no, come back. We might need you. But no, you’re not trying for 1000 or 100 people. You’re trying for two, which means you need the person who wants what you have to offer. Right?

Taylor Swift is not annoyed that I don’t buy her rate records and do not go to her concerts. She’s got plenty of fans who adore her work without needing me. Why? Because I don’t like her stuff. Nothing personal. It’s just not for me. But Taylor Swift is extremely popular and extremely successful. It’s not about making everybody love you. It’s about making the people who love you engage with you. So the company starts by saying what’s rough, what’s hard. That means it forces the candidate to say, “Oh, you’re being honest, I guess I have to be honest too.” Not purely on a moral level, but simply to say, if I know the job is 12 hours a day, I can’t pretend I didn’t know that when I applied.

I now know that and I’m opting out, and so they’re gone. But the person who says I totally want that. I’m applying. Now you’re thinking to yourself who would ever want that job? Well, go ask anybody who works for Goldman Sachs. They work 10, 12, and 14-hour days every single day. And then they complain because that’s a lot of workers to complain about. That’s just life. Yeah, but they do it because they’re going to get rich. They’re never going to see the inside of a coach cabin on a plane ever again.

They will always fly first class from the age of four to 30 on. It’s a transaction. Goldman Sachs says “Give us your 20s and 30s, we will make you rich”, and candidates and say yeah, whatever it takes, I will do that thing. And that’s honesty. So when the company becomes honest it forces the candidate to become honest. And suddenly you don’t have 100 applications to sort through, you’ve got a dozen, but the dozen who applied get what you’re offering because you’ve been honest and clear about it. Clarity should be the watchword. Then the people who want to go, okay, great.

Now we can have a real conversation. It’s not about puppy dogs and daisies, it’s about telling me what’s good, tell me what’s bad. And the candidate can say, this is what I like, this is what I don’t like, at the same time. This is my strength. These are my real weaknesses. And let’s talk about how this works. It’s not a fight. It’s very much negotiation, but one in which both sides win. That is where recruiting should be. And employer branding is the one who says, “Let me tell you about what this company is all about, the good and the bad, to begin that process. Because you don’t want a million applications, you want to great people. You’re not trying to pick a fish out of a bowl, you’re trying to find a match. You’re trying to make a connection. And that doesn’t happen by lying.


What does good company culture mean for James Ellis?

James Ellis: 

Wow, okay. I don’t think there’s such thing as a good or bad company culture. I think there is culture. And you fit it and you like it, or you don’t. I like a place where I have autonomy. And I’ll have a little bit of authority or a little bit of wiggle room to make some decisions because that’s the guy I am. And some people want a place where they work together with a very collaborative and communal, where everybody looks out for everybody else. That’s not my culture. That’s not for me. Okay, that’s fine.

And neither culture is bad. It’s simply about I know who I am. I know what I like, I know how best I work. And that’s what I’m looking for. And that’s honesty, right? A company has to say, look, this isn’t a place where everybody’s happy. Tesla’s going through this right now. SpaceX is going through this right now, SpaceX says, we don’t pay the best, we work really hard. And people might say, in fact, there’s data that says engineers think that’s the worst possible, those are the worst things to think about. Right? They don’t want to want work 12 hours.

They want work-life balance, that’s one of the number one or number two kind of most desired traits in a company. They want to be famous, and they want to know that their work is useful, then they go to SpaceX, and they go, Look, we’re gonna work you to death, you’re never going to see your name in the paper, but you’re going to Mars. And suddenly, the culture that you think you don’t want, you do want because of the mission, right? So there’s something you want, I think of it this way. If there’s something you could get from a company, say a to x from a company that you’d be willing to either give 5% of your pay up for it or at least not get a raise, when you got to the next kind of step up.

That’s the thing you care about. For me, I would happily take twice as much autonomy for not a raise. Some people would happily take twice as much status for not a raise. Some people would happily take twice as much communal work and supportive work for not a raise. That is the thing you are motivated by. We’re all I mean, for the most part, professionals are paid fairly again, there are those air quotes, and it’s hard to kind of say, but then everybody wants more money. No one doesn’t want more money. But ultimately, I think it’s the objective values, the things that drive you intrinsically, those motivators, you want more of.

The problem is, because we aren’t crystal clear as a company, what we offer, who should want this and why they want this. It’s all lies back and forth. And then the entire recruiting process, there’s only one piece of data through the entire thing. That is a fact. Everything else is an opinion, everything else is spin, everything else is what I say this what but there’s one fact and that’s called the salary. When you get an offer letter, there’s a fact there. It’s called here’s your salary, this is what you’re going to pay. That’s a contract. And if I accept the job where I’m getting paid 60,000 euros, and you pay me 50,000 euros, that’s a felony, people go to jail for that. Yeah. But if you say you’re a really innovative company, that’s just a spin.

That’s your opinion, who cares? Because that’s the only fact that’s the thing people tend to over-index on. But if you’re crystal clear about your culture, and by the way, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, and SpaceX, crystal clear about their culture, they make no bones about how hard it is to work there. And choosing that means you’ve chosen to work hard, that is worth it to you. The problem is that 99.999% of companies have not made their culture clear. It’s all ‘we’re a team, we’re a family, it’s a wonderful place to work”. There’s a whole company that do nothing but slap the label we’re a great place to work on every company but don’t say they’re a great place to work for whom? For me, for you, for my brother? for my mother? for your your your kid? I mean we’re all different. How can you say you’re a great place to work for everybody? There’s no such thing. But we think slapping that label on makes it all better. We have a good culture there is no good culture. No such thing.


Okay, okay. At some point I came across an article, I think it was in one of your newsletters, and the title was The following: Make way for a more human-centric approach to employee value proposition. How so? Has the previous approach been inhuman?

James Ellis: 

No, but it’s been very marketing driven. It’s been very corporate-driven. Look at most job postings, and it’s very much about you will have 10 years experience you will have a degree in X, Y or Z, you will be experienced in a B or C, you, you you. What the company is saying is “What I offer is so valuable. I own the gateway, you have to meet my demands”. That is not how you attract people. That is not how people go, “Oh, I’m really interested in this.” What they’re saying is, I guess I meet those expectations, I think, assuming they’re real because of their lives, I guess that’s okay.

And EVPs employer brands who build the same way, what does the company want you to think? And that’s not what an EVP is. That’s not what a brand is. It’s what the candidate does think that the job of an employer brand or is to influence individuals perceptions of what it’s like to work there. Let’s not mince words, here. That’s all the job is, is to influence people. I can’t tell you that working for the company ABC is wonderful, because I don’t know you well enough. And you know, I don’t know you well enough. So all I must be saying is BS, it must be just a bunch of junk, I’m just saying it’s a great place.

The company will say that because that’s how they market their products. This is the best widget. This is the best laundry detergent, this is the best coffee, this is the best, whatever, best, best, best, best best, but without any space to say why or how right they think if they bang the drum, look, the difference between the three major laundry detergents is effectively nil. The differences in ad spend, I like the blue bottle, I like the orange bottle, red bottle. They’re the same bottle, they’re the same product inside. You can’t tell me that those laundry detergents are different or significantly different.

They’re differentiated by ad spend. And that’s kind of how it recruiting marketing. Because we started we started using marketing, that’s what we did. We took the more model instead of the better model. What’s happening now is we’re realizing we want candidates to know what we’re all about, and what they’re going to get out of this transaction beyond the salary, beyond the paycheck. So a company offers opportunity, it offers innovation, it offers status, it offers communal, it offers, there’s only eight or nine kinds of big picture ideas and that we as humans are focused on in our own what we’re motivated by what we care about. If and I and to me, I tie it back to rewards, what you reward is who you really are. So if you’re a company that says we’re really collaborative, we work together.

But your bonus structure says the person who makes the most sales gets all the bonus. You’re not very collaborative. You’re individual, you’re individualistic, right? You’re cutthroat now, you’re competitive. That’s not the same as collaborative. So what do you reward? And you might say, Well, how do you reward collaborative thinking? Well, you give the same bonus to everybody. If the company meets certain criteria. Plenty of companies do that. What you reward tells the world who you are and what you value, spell that out in your employer branding, and connect it to the role. And that’s what it means to say, look, if you join us, this is what you get not you must have these things before we can talk to you. It’s this is how we’re going to interact, you get a salary, you get benefits, you get fed this motivation, we get your effort, your work, your passion, that is the conversation.

There are two sides to both of these conversations, and we pretend there’s only one that the candidate wants. And that’s the whole conversation that the company says. And that’s a whole conversation, they have to be inner interlocked. They’re two sides of the same coin. Otherwise, I don’t know what we’re talking about.


And taking all this into account, how does the traditional marketing funnel differ from the recruitment marketing funnel or recruitment funnel?

James Ellis: 

Yeah, that’s interesting, because I think there’s a lot of value and it’s a guy who spent the first couple of years of his recruitment marketing career selling the funnel. I like I sold the funnel really hard. Like I tried to get lots of companies to understand because it was just how to get them from post and pray to stick your job boards anywhere you can, to think about, hey, it’s a journey, understand the journey because your message at each stage of the journey is going to differ, right?

Getting attention is not the same as closing an offer. I can get attention by wearing a chicken outfit and standing outside in the street with a big old sign. Right. Great. Is that going to close the deal? No. But the message you give it offer isn’t going to matter at the won’t attract people because you have to go through this journey before the offer message matters. Just understanding that a human being has a process is incredibly helpful. The problem I find is that we think that’s the end of the conversation. The truth is good employer brand understands that there’s stuff happening before the funnel, and there’s stuff happening after the funnel.

And you can actually leverage those things to make your funnel better. And that’s fine. If you’re only measured on what happens inside the boundaries of the funnel, that’s totally fine. But if you know that as people walk in the door, they’re really engaged. And they’re super excited to work there. And you grab them and say, “Name three other people who you think would be great to work here”, you’re suddenly feeding the top of the funnel for free. And by the way, free is a really important word in our life. None of us have any money. None of us have any resources we have carried away. We all want more things you can do for free. How do you turn employees who really like working here into advocates that are aligned to the talking points in the EVP pillars that you care about? How do you get them to leave on a good note? How do you turn them into boomerangs?

Also at the top of the funnel, how do you influence the business need and the thinking around the business? See, that turns into that requisition. So if you see the bigger picture, it’s not a funnel, there’s stuff at the top and bottom around the funnel. And that’s a great place to influence the funnel itself. But the funnel is a grid. Honestly, the funnel is a heuristic. It’s a quick way of understanding a complicated model. And we all have to also embrace that inside that funnel looks really simple and linear. It’s not like it’s a spaghetti carrot system.

But if you understand that someone has heard about your company, they’ve read your job posting, they’ve watched a video, they’ve clicked apply. Great. You now know who they are, what they’re here for, what they’ve seen. You can estimate or guess and surmise what they saw that made them go, “Oh, yeah, I want some of that”, and clicked apply. Right? If they saw the video about how the company is growing fast, this is a person who wants to join a fast-growing company, great, all of your messages around that should feed that idea. You don’t suddenly say, “Hey, here’s an ad for, we’re a fast-growing company”, and then all your messages are about but we’re really collective we help each other out. Those things don’t work together. That’s not what the ad promised.

That’s what you have to align things too. And then as you go down the funnel, when it’s closing, I’m a big believer, and I’ve seen it happen. You know, if you’ve got a conversion rate at the offer acceptance level, and I think a lot of tech companies I’ve seen offer acceptance levels at as low as 40%, meaning 4 out of 10 people say yes when you give them an offer when you put the big number in front of them. 6 out of 10 say no, it’s because, at that stage, everybody is so wired to that number.

They only focus on the number. But if you know that they clicked on the ad about innovation, and they talked about innovation in the interview, and all the videos watched all the costs of innovation, remind them at the offer. This is the place where you can be innovative. And by the way, here’s the salary that has a dramatic effect on the offer rate. And if you want to justify your existence, just saying I’m going to turn the offer rate from 40% to 50% saves the company, a lot of money.


I’ve seen as well here in Berlin companies that have a 17-step, interviewing process. How’s that for employer branding and nurturing?

James Ellis: 

I thought Google kind of proved that. So Laszlo Block’s book, if you haven’t read it, it’s worth reading. I don’t take it as gospel, as a lot of people do. But I think he’s got data that other people don’t. And to me, the most important data there is once you get past 5 steps in an interview, you don’t actually learn anything new. What’s happening is it’s covering your butt. What you’re saying is, “I don’t know if I want to say yes or no now, so I’m gonna let somebody else make the decision”. I’m looking for someone else to give me a reason to get rid of that person because I don’t feel safe.

And I’m a big believer that every company when they hire, should have two questions. It’s not about how do you feel about this candidate? Rate on a scale of one to 10 what you do. The question is “Hell yeah, hell no”; there is no middle ground. And if it’s not a “Hell, yeah”, “it’s a hell no”. That’s where companies should be. And they’re not willing to do that. So they’re willing to play a political game. So that’s why it’s a 17-step process, which makes no sense.


Indeed! Last question for today. Storytelling in employer branding, yes or no?

James Ellis: 

Yes, absolutely. Look, I don’t know anybody who would say otherwise. And let me explain why. Humans are storytelling creatures. We’re actually two different things. We are pattern recognition creatures, and we are storytelling creatures. If I tell you how big the Titanic was, and I tell you how long it took to sink, and I tell you how many people lived and died, there’s a 98% chance you’ll remember none of that 10 minutes from now. But if you watch the movie Titanic, you will know exactly how big that ship was, how long it took to go down, and how many lives were lost. Why?

Because it was a story. Simple as that. People embed stories. What’s really interesting is that you can leverage it, you can think and stories don’t have to be once upon a time, there was a little fish who got eaten by a thing. And suddenly, It’s Nemo. Finding Nemo stories can be really simple. I mean, this is a dumb question. Do you know what acres are? You have acres in Europe, we think in acres in terms of land size. Okay. What is your metric for lands?


I would like to say it’s a hectare. 

James Ellis: 

That also works. For the US, it’s an acre. And we can say an acre is exactly 6218 square feet. That’s the piece and it’s a number, it’s a thing. And again, 99% of the time, if I asked you in 10 minutes, you will not be able to repeat that number because it will fall right out of your head. But if I say it’s about the size of a football pitch, oh, I know what that is. And you will remember that for the rest of your life. That is a story. It’s not at once upon a time, but it’s a story of I understand what a football pitch is.

It’s a frame of reference, I understand it’s a thing, I might stare at it every Saturday afternoon, watch a game, I get a sense of what that size is. Now you can connect it to a fact. And there it is. That storytelling, that’s it doesn’t have to be complicated. And I think if you dial it down to just simple, here’s the thing you understand how do I connect this thing? I understand this something you understand, that’s a story, you will have people remember things, if you ask and how you tied to employer branding is there are by my last count, and I am counting apparently, 50 million businesses in the world roughly, ballpark, there’s no way of knowing for sure. But 50 million.

And let’s say half of them, could hire you, no matter where you are. You could do remote work for Cambodia, you could do remote work for Belize, you could do remote work for New York, you could do remote work from wherever, there are probably about 20 million businesses who would be able to hire you logistically, and then maybe another 2 million who could hire you because you have the thing that they need. The human brain can’t hold 2 million pieces of information, it simply cannot. How does it pick those companies? What it remembers is a piece of information or a story about those ideas? Oh, SpaceX is that company that goes to Mars.

You may remember it is that company that Elon Musk owns let’s go into Mars. That is all you need to know. Before you decide to apply or not. That is so much information jam-packed in just this little story. Why should you work for Bank of America? Well, here are 17 facts that don’t help me. But if you say it’s the world’s largest bank, and I don’t know that is I’m making that up, pardon my lies. But if you submit that story in a claim that says this is what it is, and you can see how “Oh, I see how that benefits me, I’m going to remember that”. So in a world of infinite choice, your ability to tell a story about what you offer, and why shop someone should care about that puts you head and shoulders above most companies who are simply just spewing facts, right?

No one buys a BMW, because it has a 3.2 cubic meter engine, blah, blah, blah. They buy it because they saw the commercial, it says when I sit in it, and they put my pedal down and I dry fast, I’m gonna feel sexy. I’m gonna feel cool. I’m gonna feel whatever. That’s a story. And that is where we need to live.


Indeed. And in this case, why do most career websites look so bland? And so boring? And why do all job ads look like grocery lists?

James Ellis: 

Oh, goodness. Yeah. I did a quick little study on pharmaceutical companies in the US. I said Google show me the top 10 pharmaceutical brands in the US. It showed me and I went into the career sites of all top 10. And I screen grabbed them and I removed their logos. And I shuffled them and I couldn’t figure out which was which, which was it. The only thing I know is that they all liked the color blue. I mean, they really liked the color blue, and it’s the same shade of blue almost every single time. I don’t know what they’re doing. They love innovation, and they love helping people.

Now, it’s a pharmaceutical company. Their job is to make drugs that didn’t exist before to help people. What they’re saying is, this is a business that their entire career site is we are a business, but they don’t give any information. I think there’s so much fear about going back to that data if you want better, not more. Wanting better means being willing to reject lots more people. It means being selective and most companies are so terrified that some diamond in the rough is going to look at their website and say oh, you said a word I don’t like I’m gone; that they’ve watered it down to the point where there’s nothing that is objectionable in any way shape or form.

But of course, once you do that, there’s nothing attractive there; like you think of your favorite movie. It’s not because it’s not scary. Your face movie might be a horror movie, your favorite movie might be a mob movie, your favorite movie, make a sports movie. It’s a thing that I promise you 95% of the world doesn’t like, but you love it. And marketing doesn’t think that way. They think and more. And their career site is there to say, “Let’s open, let’s cast the net as wide as possible”. Good employer brand says, “No, we know who we want. We want someone who is a go-getter”, or “We want someone who works together as a team”. We want someone who wants authority. Let’s just go, we want the robe. We want the king, we want the jester, that archetypical stuff.

There are so many ways you can take that. We know who we want. And we built our messaging around that. And that trickles. And I think the other side of it is the job posting. Which yeah, it is a grocery list, though it is bullets without a gun. It’s insane. It’s just absolutely crazy. And I think it’s because I have yet to find a company where there’s someone dedicated to writing job postings. So what you have is HR, looking at the hiring manager saying, “Oh, you’re going to write it because you actually understand what the job is”. The hiring manager goes “Well, I actually don’t understand what the market looks like. So they were looking at Pruder.

And the recruiter looks at hiring managers, or HR and says, Well, I’m not, I don’t even know what I’m about to say. And so they’ll point to each other. And they end up cobbling something together that again, it’s unobtrusive and offensive, and it just means nothing. On top of which, let’s be really honest here. The second you write that stuff down is the second it starts to become obsolete. The job that you have today has zero relation to the job you took a year ago or two years ago, and that is getting faster. Exactly. It’s getting faster and faster. So the point where this is the job, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen that way. What you should be saying in the job posting should be saying, “We’re looking for someone who can help solve these kinds of problems”; computer science problems, data problems, programming problems, project management problems, and say, “This is the problem we’re trying to solve”. Because we’re not the experts. You’re the expert, we need you to tell us how to solve this problem.

Like every employer brand, or I’ve ever met has had this situation where they walk in and they know like 10 times more about employer branding and the person hiring them. And yet the hiring manager is asking questions, you’re like, I can answer your questions, but you wouldn’t understand half of the answers because I know too much and you don’t know enough. And that’s true, not an employer brand. It’s true everywhere. All the AI science, machine learning science, and biotech science are so many burgeoning fields where literally they’re inventing the science on the spot. The days of the hiring manager who knows 10 times more than the applicant are long gone. So you don’t even know what the job is.

So if you couch it in terms of “this is the problem we’re trying to solve”; that way, if it’s an employer brand job, you can say the problem we’re trying to solve is our applicants are showing up, but they don’t stick around because they don’t seem to have a sense of why they should work here. Great. I might solve that you might say that solves that problem with content marketing, valid answer, valid approach, it will work, you know, what else will work? And you know what else will work? Writing better job postings; recruiter and hiring manager interview training, you know, what else will work bump, a bump, a bump, a bump?

There are so many ways you can solve that problem and just thinking you have the only answer is crazy. So saying “I need someone who has the skills,” says I’ve decided what the answer is. And I’m looking for someone to solve it. For me, that doesn’t happen anymore. It shouldn’t happen anymore. Because no one understands what the problem is. They understand how to solve it. So if you count job postings, and here’s the problem we’re trying to solve, teach us, and show us the best possible way to solve it. So that again goes to that honesty thing, we talked about in the beginning. That’s how you’re going to hire people because they’re not there to be the cog in your machine. They’re there to solve a problem. And by the way, the people you want to hire love to solve problems. That’s really what they want. The paychecks are just gravy; they just want to solve problems. That’s what it is. That’s what’s gonna attract people.


It’s so simple to frame. If only they wanted to, cool.

James Ellis: 

Let’s not pretend. Let’s go ahead and get let everybody off the hook. I kind of poked at everybody here in this process. I’m letting everybody off the hook. There’s a reason we’re here. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and change. Our job is to create that change. So let’s all as employer branders, recruitment, marketers, recruitment professionals, and recruiting leaders, let’s push to figure out how to make this better.


Absolutely. Thank you so much, James. Really, really useful input. It was so nice meeting you and talking to you.

James Ellis: 

This is a blast. Thanks so much for having me. Why did you wait so long to invite me? Let’s make this about you. What’s your issue?


I don’t have a valid explanation. I don’t have a valid reason. I’m sorry.

James Ellis: 

How often does that happen where the subject of the podcast turns the table and starts interviewing you? What’s your problem?


No problem, I’m gonna be cutting this part.

James Ellis: 

Oh, oh well oh, well.


No, I’m joking, of course. But yeah, this has really really been a lot of fun and I hope we can stay in touch. 

James Ellis:  

The audience can’t see my face. I’m making the face like how are we not friends now? Bring me back this. This has been a blast. I had so much fun doing this. If it’s useful to someone, I want to keep doing it. So let’s talk about what the next conversation looks like.


Thank you, James. Let’s stay in touch.

James Ellis:  

Absolutely. Thanks, everybody.

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