What it takes to get high-paying jobs at strategic consulting firms like Finsbury and Kekst CNC, from handling tricky questions to nailing writing tests

  • Firms like Finsbury, Kekst CNC, and Gladstone Place Partners have carved out a lucrative but little understood industry within public relations, working on high-stakes crises like WeWork's downward spiral and blockbuster mergers like Disney-Fox.
  • These firms seek out people who thrive under pressure and have an appetite for business and risky work.
  • Insiders at these firms explained what it takes to get hired, from common questions asked during the interview process to writing tests.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Firms like Finsbury, Kekst CNC, and Gladstone Place Partners, occupy a profitable niche of the agency world: Strategic communications, which involves crisis, litigation, financial, and other high-stakes public relations.

This part of the industry is made up of firms like WPP's Finsbury, Publicis' Kekst CNC, and Gladstone Place Partners, who handle some of the largest deals in the world and other high-stakes situations.

Gladstone Place Partners handled the Walt Disney Company's acquisition of Fox assets. Kekst CNC managed WeWork after its IPO flamed out. Finsbury, which is merging with sister WPP agencies Hering Schuppener and The Glover Park Group, helped GrubHub as restaurants went through massive layoffs during the pandemic.

Some of these firms also offer high pay.

For example, Sard Verbinnen & Co., which declined to comment for this story, pays its associates $95,000 to $115,000 in total compensation, including a base salary and bi-annual bonuses, according to a source familiar with the firm. Senior associates net $130,000 to $160,000 per year.

At Teneo, a VP can net as much as $205,000 in base salary, according to visa information analyzed by Business Insider. At FTI, a senior consultant makes $100,000, while a managing director can make $420,000.

Business Insider spoke to former and current employees at these agencies, including recruiting heads at Kekst CNC, Finsbury, and Gladstone, who talked about their interview processes and shared tips for job candidates.

Finsbury got more than 600 applicants per month before the pandemic hit

Jobs at these firms are competitive. Finsbury, for example, is used to getting than 600 applications in a month, said Karla Wagner, head of talent and human resources for North America at Finsbury. More than 1,500 people applied for summer internships.

Strategic communications firms also have a more rigorous screening process than the rest of the PR industry because their work has longer, more stressful hours, insiders say. So standing out requires some creativity.

At Finsbury and Kekst CNC, committees of account and human resources staff vet applications on a full-time basis, and consider a candidate's interest in business and media and working on high-stakes accounts more than their knowledge of things like finance, litigation, or business, insiders said.

A former Finsbury partner, who worked at the agency for decades, cautioned candidates not to emphasize their need for flexibility.

"If it's important for you to have your nights and weekends free, these are not the right firms for you."

Diversity has become increasingly important in hiring. Gladstone CEO and Chairman Steve Lipin said he doesn't want to hire new employees because of familial relations or because they had an internship.

"We don't just hire people like ourselves because that's self-perpetuating," Lipin said.

Hirers want to know how candidates dealt with adversity and what they learned from it

In the interview process, candidates should expect questions about how they have dealt with challenging situations rather than hypothetical scenarios.

At Finsbury, hiring managers have a list of 100 questions to pull from that are designed to demonstrate how candidates maintained composure during a stressful situation and if they can counsel clients wisely despite the strain.

Common questions include: Tell me about a time you didn't hit a deadline; tell me about a time when you led a project and your team members didn't carry their weight; tell me about a time you led a project and didn't have the support you needed.

"When our clients are stressed, our job is to ease their stress levels," said Vanessa Esparza, SVP of human capital at Gladstone.

The firms told Business Insider they usually have two to three rounds of interviews depending on the seniority of the position — one with peer-level colleagues and another with direct managers and other higher-ups.

Having confidence and the ability to present is critical, Lipin said.

"You have to have an air of confidence in yourself and your capabilities, and you shouldn't be shy about that."

Writing tests challenge applicants to present their ideas and strategy

Writing tests also are a routine part of the screening process for candidates, tailored to their level.

At Gladstone, for example, junior candidates will be asked to write a media summary, while people applying for senior roles have to put together a whole communications plan.

The former Finsbury partner said these tests are meant to assess how a candidate strategizes and if they can frame a message that conveys the information all audiences can understand.

Finsbury writing tests are case studies that involve current topics "ripped from the headlines so candidates have access to as much research as they need," Wagner said. More senior candidates have up to three days to submit a response.

A crisis PR firm, who asked not to be named, provided the following sample writing test to Business Insider:

Draft an advice note/communications plan for one of the following situations, keeping in mind the company's various stakeholders, including employees, media, investors, customers, etc. Also include a suggested press release or holding statement.

·       The CEO of company X is announcing financial inaccuracies discovered for last year's Q2 reporting.

·       Your client has discovered a cyber security breach and the CFO/CTO will make a public announcement in the morning. 

·       Company X will report missed earnings for the third straight quarter.

2.       Please write a deal announcement press release based on the following information.

·       The Doncaster Company Inc., a large media production company, is acquiring its main rival, Birmingham Inc. in a deal worth $62.5 billion.

o   Transaction consideration is all stock, with an exchange ratio of 0.5 Doncaster shares to be paid for each Birmingham share

o   Main assets that Doncaster is acquiring:

§  Birmingham's acclaimed and award-winning film and television studios, which have produced over 10 Oscar- and Emmy-winning films and shows in the past five years

§  Birmingham's cable networks, including NatureTV, MusicTV and its international networks in the UK, Germany and India

o   As part of the transaction, Doncaster will be spinning off or selling Birmingham's US sports cable networks: CFBTV, DS1 and NFLTV

o   Doncaster's strategy:

§  Doncaster needs more awesome content to power its new streaming service that it will be releasing in 2021

§  With lots of competition in the industry, bigger is better

§  Buying Birmingham will make Doncaster an international business (currently it is only really US focused)

o   The transaction will need to be approved by a number of antitrust regulators, including the US authorities, the EU and others – with such a big transaction it is likely to receive a lot of scrutiny. Approvals process will probably take 1 year.

o   $2 billion in annual synergies, starting in FY 2020

o   Birmingham shareholders will have a 25% stake in Doncaster following the transaction

 

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