Advertising Business Recruitment — 13 September 2011
Why we need to hire nutters, pirates and positive deviants to succeed

If you want your company to beat the competition and be the place the best clients and people want to be in – then make sure you’re hiring black sheep. And sometimes be a black sheep yourself. Here’s why.

Too often we hire clones — worthy clones: hard working, ambitious, disciplined, compliant, well educated, often trained and proven in a competitive firm, appropriately groomed, etc. You know the story. Just look around you. Look at yourself perhaps.

To really succeed in a fast changing world where rules of old are being broken every day — as a business or as an executive striving for the most vibrant of career — we have to resist the usual and be brave.

“Our business needs massive transfusions of talent. And talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among non-conformists, dissenters and rebels.” So wrote David Ogilvy in “Confessions of An Advertising Man.”

Tom Peters puts it another way in encouraging us to ‘do it differently.’ The story he tells goes something like this. “Most people who want a career on the high seas join the navy. White uniforms, nice caps, salute the flag…” Don’t!! If you want a career on the high seas, be a pirate instead!”

I LOVE THIS IDEA. Be a pirate! A friendly pirate — where the skull and crossbones are still in the company colours — but a pirate none the less. Taking risk, living on the edge a little sometimes, flaunting rules on occasion, laughing loudly as the wind lashes your face and your pursuers drift into the distance behind you. I want to hire people like this.

Miles Young, the global CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, told us to “Hire more nutters.” “Is a nutter the same as a pirate?” I asked him over a cocktail one night at the Zeta Bar in Sydney. “No,” he said. “They’re different. But they serve the same purpose. Nutters think totally differently to us. They come at things from a very different perspective. Pirates are on the same wavelength, but do it their way and with their rules.”

Positive deviants” is another way I have heard this rare type described. Tony Blair in his autobiography describes them as ‘crazy people.’ “In my experience, there are two types of crazy people: those who are just crazy, and therefore dangerous; and those whose craziness lends them creativity, strength and ingenuity and verve.”

Whether a non-conformist, dissenter, rebel, pirate, nutter, positive deviant or a Blair ‘crazy’, make sure your team has a solid sprinkling of them. They will fuel your ideas, thinking, momentum and competitive edge, and quite simply, make your business a winner. And make sure you have a dose of this magic on occasion. It will take you to positive places in your career you never thought you’d get to.

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(25) Readers Comments

  1. Jay Chiat put it more succinctly when he said, “I’d rather be a pirate than be in the navy.” That’s why Chiat Day fly the skull and crossbones flag in their offices. Pity more agencies don’t practice what they preach. Most multinationals are the domain of adroit politicians and master of musical chairs. No pirate worth their salt would work with such boring bastards. Interesting article.

  2. Can’t agree more Chris.

    From a recruiter’s point-of-view, the strong correlation between very successful and progressive agencies and their receptiveness to candidates that fall under the ‘misfits, nutters’ category is a testament to the point you’re making.

    The challenge, and also a real opportunity for recruiters, is to truly differentiate and add value by being able to identify such ‘black sheeps’ for the right company.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I couldn’t agree more! Infact we’re looking to hire our next nutter!

    MD, Datarati

  4. Anyone in London, UK looking for a nutter? Someone who took a 10 day process and reduced it to 10 minutes, at a cost of £45?

  5. Great theory, but here are the problem(s).

    To hire someone that thinks & acts completely differently than you takes an enormous amount of personal confidence and security. And it takes courage. It takes courage to hire someone who might be better than you. Courage and self-confidence are not very common among corporate executives. For the most part, corporate executives are insecure & weak who focus the majority of the energies on self-preservation. It’s very difficult to find one who would put their job on the line to fight for an idea or a person on his/her team. Most simply can’t bring themselves to hire a real pirate/nutter/etc.

    Next problem: real pirates don’t want to work for the people that want to hire them. Real pirates are only willing to work for people who they would consider better pirates than themselves. Personally, if I don’t care to work for someone who isn’t crazy enough to lead me on an adventure greater than one I could create for myself. When you talk about ‘pirates’, you have to understand their goal – true adventure. Yet, most people that want to hire pirates will try to lure them with traditional bait – salary, bonuses, options, etc. If the ‘pirate’ that you seek accepts this offer — you haven’t hired a pirate.

    Last problem: HR departments. Pirates and butters don’t work for HR departments nor do they care at all about corporate policies designed by HR departments. At the same time, I have met very few HR execs thy would be comfortable hiring a true pirate. Hiring pirates is not consistent with the guiding principals of most HR departments. Remember, pirates are high-risk hires. They are hard-wired to push for blue waters and chase treasures. And they throw caution to the wind in those pursuits. So, yes, they can take you to wonderful places. But they can also lead you to crash and burn on an unforeseen coral reef…

    Saying you want to hire pirates is easy. Actually doing so takes balls. Giving them the environment they need to succeed is a whole other issue. Ask AOL how it’s going with Michael Arrington…

    • Sounds like you need to be boarded Derek! Hoist the mainsall! Navy tub ahead!

  6. With the exception of the Thais, who I would describe as ‘quiet nutters’. Rebel, pirate, dissenter, you won’t find that many in Asia or in Asian advertising. That mindset is culturally unacceptable. That kind of mindset isn’t something you can socially engineer. It has start with politics and culture. If people are deprived of the two you get a bland sterile environment, that’s where the touchy subject of ‘foreign talent’ comes in to play. In Asia, it’s understandably wealth accumulation for security (where there is no social welfare benefit or lack of it), face, pride and the glory of one upmanship. The other thing CEOs can do to improve ‘creativity’ within their own organizations is second all their Asian staff to places where genuine creativity thrives like New York, London, Sydney! – call it foreign exchange or seeding freedom of expression. The next best thing is for Heads of State of dictatorial Asian countries to apply the same thing on a larger scale.

  7. I’d dispute Derek’s generality about HR depts. I run APAC talent acquisition for my international company out of HK. The biggest problem I have at all levels is to get our hiring managers to think creatively about our candidates, to look beyond the obvious resume and to read between the lines as to what certain experiences really mean. As a member of the HR dept, I see it as a critical part of my job and value-add to jolt the conventional “looks-like-me” clone thinking that so characterises most hiring managers – and I encourage my staff to do the same. Banks are the worst at hiring the same small pool of people who have only worked in banking: and look at the gulf between what they see themselves as and what the rest of us see! One very good reason we’re all standing on the economic precipice right now!

    • I don’t envy your job. I salute your courage and optimism. Regarding ‘Getting our managers to think creatively about our candidates’. The problem lies not only in the managers themselves but outside in the environment they’re brought up in. In one country, the way people behave is a sad reflection of their governments generation of cold, calculative, EQ-less policies which the people are conditioned to accept. What Derek is describing is the present and past general state of HR. Like, I reiterated in my last post, ‘creativity’ pertaining to the arts and culture doesn’t rate highly on the self preservation list in Asia, nor is it evident in business when it comes to people. Creativity applied to finance and banking isn’t a problem. In-house HR isn’t all to blame. It’s the people who make the decision to hire which goes back down to the CEO, his directors, managers. IF THEY CANNOT SEE BEYOND THE FAKE PAPER AWARDS AND QUALIFICATIONS KNOWINGLY, ALL WE HAVE IS HIGHLY PAID COCKTAIL DRINKERS TELLING US WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW.

  8. This piece offered a real boost this morning. Recruitment is too often a tick box exercise, and recruiters/hiring managers/etc are encouraged to look for the ‘norm’ instead of the ones who ‘make you go huhhhhh’. Fortunately, there’s more thinking being put into the line of reasoning suggested here. A new book, “The Rare Find: Spotting Brilliance Before Everyone Else”, approaches this from a slightly different perspective. And the wonderful Kevin Wheeler has some unconnected but related thoughts about how the search for only passive candidates eliminates potentially interesting candidates.

    Anyway…great article.

  9. Pingback: What we’ve been reading « imadvertising

  10. *real pirates don’t want to work for the people that want to hire them. Real pirates are only willing to work for people who they would consider better pirates than themselves.*

    Just dropping in to reiterate this sentence from Derek, up there somewhere ^^^

    It’s always fun looking ’round for the ‘better pirates’ though! even if it can be a l-o-n-g voyage …

  11. Pingback: The most important lesson from the life of Steve Jobs (why we need nutters, pirates and positive deviants to succeed) | Wrestling Possums

  12. This isn’t going to happen in Australia. We have a conservative, resting upon laurels corporate culture that is not only opposed to change, but views it as a threat. As a young transsexual office worker with aspirations, I found myself rendered unemployable by Australia’s culture. I’ve spoken to others overseas, and when they were looking to travel to work, encouraged them to go elsewhere. Don’t get me started on recruiters, the seas are filled with sharks, the bl00dy lot of them. After several years, I actually quit looking for work for good……….only not, around 10 years past my youth, just exploring those shark-infested seas to see if anything has changed. However, I still spot the fins, as well as the glib and manufactured corporate promises about “diverse” workplaces………….as long as you’re rich, attractive and tertiary qualified forget if if you’re anybody else, not anatomically correct, or of the general staff rather than professional staff. If I had the wherewithal, I’d get out of here. I see no future in Australia for me………….by way of background I’m actually based at Sydney.

  13. I love this as someone with ” crazy ditzy drama ” type bent it is good to see we arwe needed but perhaps I am simply crazy without the creativity.

    One only needs to look to comedians and actors or even visual artist to find these people by the bucket load in part because we can not hold a normal, boring job.

  14. Excellent discussion.

    Observations subjective to age. After 50, the ego generally takes back seat to creative product.
    Legacy is paramount to history, not talk,drama,flamboyance. Time is premium.

    Thank you for your generous insights.

    Happy 2012!

  15. Pingback: What we’ve been reading – IM

  16. This is a great article. I do and I do not agree with the article. Reason why is that nutters and pirates are good in a company, but often that person whom is labeled as a ‘black sheep’ is considered to be alone and will face the group of people whom are taking turns to pull him/her down.

    A way is that we should try to balance out in being a nutter and following the system smartly. This is important as other areas we might need to be concern off. Politics, government policies and environment will hinder us if we were to be too vocal about it.

    In a good way, we can be a nutter but at the same time we must act as we are following their guides and policies in the company. I always hold my saying ‘keep your friend close and enemies closer’, with this if we know and have the skills to balance I think we will be a good asset to the company. An organization needs a nutter but at the same time they acquire as well an employee to be in the system (following the rules and procedures) in the company.

    Hope this matter can be shared with everyone and I am personally looking for that edge in order for me to progress myself in the job market. For now, I consider myself as a nutter but I need as well to be following their system in order for me to survive in the corporate world in my job market environment.

    Thank you.

    Wan Azhareezal Wan Aziz

  17. Chris,

    Good article. Certainly near & dear. Hiring is only job 1…the hardest part is NURTURING and providing freedom to this folks. Too often the elements that may have been attractive either become too hard to “channel” or there’s limitations put on these folks by rules/culture etc.

    If you aren’t prepared to create an environment where these pirates can flourish you’ve mislead them…and you’ve fooled yourself.

    Arecent article from my blog on a similar subject;


    • Hi Hilton

      I can not agree more to what you have said. I being one of Such examples.My ex company really wanted people who were different and bold enough to put their point on table, but such people do not conform to the general decorum of office, think differently and therefore need superiors who have enough time to nurture them and get them in conformity to larger company’ s vision and Mission.


  18. Rules! What rules? You only need rules when you can’t manage the consequences yourself.

  19. I agree that these people can be invaluable, but how do they market themselves to be hired? How do they find a company who will value them and not just exploit their ideas and run with all the credit?

    My husband’s one of these – genius IQ, can integrate ideas from programming to comparative literature and the maker’s movement. Yet he feels he wouldn’t fit into the corporate culture, so he’s constantly moving from consulting gig to consulting gig as a “visionary” doing the tough work around corporate brand or meaning or streamlining process or figuring out audience or messaging. He never sees the benefit of his work from sticking with a single company.

  20. I love articles like this, they convince me I am still a hireable commodity ;).

  21. Absolutely spot-on. The challenge though, is that economic fearfulness and age discrimination seems to make recruiters more risk-averse, resulting in an homogeneous approach to hiring. Come on guys – break some rules!

  22. I dont agree, but its true that nutters are making project successful, and this is because the ONLY final goal of corporate is to make money.

    Its similar to your toppers in school, no one going to ask how did he scored marks either by study or cheating, every one only respect topper(successful) person.

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