It’s been a difficult year for agency recruiters with the economic impact of the COVID-19 restrictions wreaking a level of havoc that nobody could have foreseen this time last year.
However, SEEK’s co-founder and CEO, Andrew Bassat, provided us all with a good belly laugh when, as reported by industry news service ShortList, he told SEEK shareholders at Monday’s AGM that he was confident the recruitment industry now understood the reason for the recent pricing changes and was “broadly supportive” of them.
Either Bassat has been self-medicating with the SEEK Kool-Aid or his lackeys are too terrified to tell him the truth. The truth is that the anger from SEEK’s recruitment agency customers has never, in my experience, been so white-hot.
Bassat’s relationship with reality, as viewed via his public utterances, has never been an especially close one.
In August 2017, Bassat asserted to ShortList, after the announcement of SEEK’s 2017 results, that Seek was not working in competition with recruiters. “I think our track record over 20 years is we could not have been more recruiter-friendly, we could not have done more to seek win-win solutions in what we do”, Bassat was quoted as saying.
The many agency owners who were, and remain, furious about SEEK’s capture and sale of candidate data when candidates apply to job ads that agencies and direct-employer have paid for, were incredulous that Bassat could say something so inflammatory and demonstrably untrue.
Last April, Bassat’s comment about “..the strong personal values…” of SEEK’s incoming COO, disgraced former Commonwealth Bank CEO, Ian Narev, was either ignorant or arrogant*.
Andrew Bassat clearly has plenty of form with public relations blunders to indicate that;
a) he doesn’t care what his customers think, or
b) he cares but is badly advised, or
c) he ignores the good advice he receives, or
d) he isn’t paying close attention to much of anything, operationally, now that Ian Narev is Group COO (and the St Kilda Football Club presidency is a more interesting immediate challenge for Bassat)
Regardless, right now agency anger has reached a boiling point where owners, across the country, appear set on minimising their SEEK use and, ideally, completely stop posting job ads on seek.com.au as soon as commercially possible.
Deon Haar, an owner (or co-owner) of a handful of recruitment and recruitment-related businesses, including TPC Talent (Aus), Talent United, Supply Chain People and Source Junction, expressed a view that broadly represents the local recruitment industry’s attitude to SEEK.
“Andrew Bassat saying agencies are broadly supportive of SEEK’s price increases is like saying Melbournians were broadly supportive of the lockdown because people were staying at home. The reality is, in both cases, unhappy customers, or unhappy citizens, have very little choice in the matter.
It’s nothing short of idiotic, almost insulting, for Bassat to say recruiters are happy to receive the flogging on price they have been forced to cop.
I mean, really, is he saying that the SEEK account managers are reporting back to him “Yep, Andrew, it’s going swimmingly; I am loving the conversations with my agency clients about their new contracts and the 50% to 100% price increases. I am looking forward to more of the same tomorrow; bring it on.”
Haar went on to tell me that other owners in industry-based networks that he is part of are all determined to dump SEEK as soon as possible.
I spoke to another owner, Newcastle-based Howard James who was also willing to go on the record (unsurprisingly, almost nobody wants to go on the record about SEEK, wary of the potential difficulties experienced by others who have taken the fight to Australia’s dominant job board).
James cancelled his SEEK account seven years ago. After using SEEK’s ten-pack option for a number of years (providing no carry-over credit if not used within the stated time period) he now begrudgingly purchases a five-pack when he has exhausted other sourcing options.
James is of the view that the day SEEK intervened in the direct relationship between the advertiser and the candidate, by capturing (and storing) the candidate’s resume before the advertiser was given access to the same resume, was the day SEEK became the recruitment industry’s biggest competitor.
“SEEK was built on the recruitment industry but the way they are evolving is pure arrogance,” James said.
As to a solution, James isn’t expecting too many agency owners to wean themselves off their ‘SEEK addiction’, as he calls it.
“They perceive that they can’t do without SEEK however my view is that the sooner that all recruiters carry a banner on websites, social media, and their other communication channels, that says Find our jobs everywhere – except seek.com.au, the better for our industry.”
An industry vendor, whose commercial relationship with SEEK dates back a number of years, said; “Since the start of 2020, we’ve seen a dramatic interest from ANZ agencies wanting to explore alternative job boards to SEEK. Indeed has seen a surge of interest in their sponsored Job adverts and are increasing their presence in the ANZ market. As SEEK pursues its anti-agency agenda we predict that this agency trend away from SEEK will only continue into 2021.
Agency owners aren’t stupid- they’ve had enough. SEEK’s perceived zeal in biting the very hand that has fed them so well for so many years, coupled with the timing of the new pricing model- talk about kicking agencies whilst they’re down, just beggars belief.
“SEEK will be phasing out job ad templates across Australia and New Zealand, and by the end of March 2021 they will no longer be used in job ads.” SEEK’s 11 November email blandly announced, going on to list the relevant dates;
As a result, all standard ads will display the same format.
The email assured customers that SEEK is at “…..work on new products that are better aligned to the current needs of both hirers and candidates.”
While recruiters wait to be told what new options will be offered in 2021, SEEK helpfully suggested customers upgrade to the StandOut Ad or Premium Ad products, which both include the option to include your logo and a cover image (as per below).
Stand Out Ads enable the ad to scale for devices in a way that the existing templates don’t, due to the product’s UX/UI design.
Of course this upselling is entirely consistent with SEEK’s oft-stated growth strategy of improving the profitability of existing products.
Source: SEEK 2020 AGM presentation, slide 4
“Aligning price to value” is investor jargon for ‘price hikes that improve overall revenue, even if some customers spend less and we lose other customers altogether’.
In the real world of agency recruitment ‘aligning price to value’ means a 50% to 100% price hike with additional costs for features that will be hard to resist in ensuring your job ad doesn’t quickly sink into the general, easily ignored, mass.
As a result, recruitment agency owners are now racing each other to see who can be the quickest to cut their SEEK spend.
A taste of how this is being done was provided last week when SMAART Recruitment’s founder and Managing Director, Maarten Roosenberg shared how his collaboration with Weploy co-founder Tony Wu was bearing fruit, via Wu’s latest offering TalentTap.
Talent Tap is a software platform designed to integrate with an Applicant Tracking System to help recruiters better utilise their existing database of candidates and to reduce the reliance on advertising.
Wu said that other early-adopter agency customers have “..been able to reduce their job board spend dramatically..”.
Indeed (owned by the world’s fourth largest recruitment company, Recruit Holdings, headquartered in Japan) are sharply aware that they have a golden opportunity to provide a realistic alternative via their no-contract, free-to-post and then pay-for-performance business model.
Indeed’s ANZ Head of Sales, Ricky Fritsch has been working hard to make up ground on SEEK since he arrived from the US in January 2018. Undoubtedly, the local recruitment industry is very keen for Fritsch to succeed and it seems that owners are now prepared to invest a greater slice of their marketing spend with Indeed to see if they can deliver a better value-for-money stream of candidates, compared to SEEK .
The RCSA is doing their bit by responding to members’ requests to help improve their direct sourcing capability.
The Secret Source Collab, being held next week and hosted by respected industry identities Mike Beeley and Andrew Rodger, is “…a live online forum where recruitment and staffing professionals will have the opportunity to engage with guest hosts and other industry colleagues and learn how to engage and source passive talent whilst developing techniques that support the sourcing process overall.”
The demand for such events will only increase as more agency owners decide their “SEEK addiction” requires serious rehab, rather than short-term willpower, to be dealt with permanently.
LiveHire turns 10 next year and founder, Dr Mike Haywood believes 2021 could be a breakthrough year for the company in their relationship with the local recruitment industry after many successes with internal recruitment functions.
Haywood has been, until COVID hit, based in the US driving the company’s growth in North America, primarily focused on showing recruitment agency owners the potential to evolve and massively scale their service offerings through company-branded talent communities.
Haywood struck gold with the Ian Martin Group, a $100 million-plus recruiter of IT, technical, and engineering professionals, headquartered in greater-Toronto, Canada, who decided the time was right to pioneer a different approach to recruitment.
IMG have used the LiveHire technology to underpin their Managed Direct Sourcing (MDS) product which is being aggressively marketed to IMG’s largest 100 enterprise customers. IMG chief executive, Tim Masson reported that, with only a third of the year gone, the company had hit 70 per cent of the previous year’s total hiring as customers transition all their recruitment from other staffing providers to IMG’s MDS product.
Back in Sydney, for the time being at least, Haywood eyes a significant opportunity in the huge SEEK price hikes, and has set his sights on identifying a handful of local agencies that are willing to change their business model, in part or in full, to go down the MDS path with their clients.
The potential of such a model is a dramatic reduction in job board advertising for both the recruitment agency and the ultimate employer, with SEEK being the likely biggest loser on both counts.
However, back in the present, SEEK investors don’t care about the aspirations of LiveHire and the anything-but-SEEK attitude of the local recruitment industry. In the four weeks since the recent low of $21.14 (in response to the Blue Orca report), SEEK’s share price has surged 24 per cent to new highs, exceeding $26 for the first time.
Although the ASX200 has improved nearly nine per cent in that same period, it appears that the expected greater impact on a (largely) employment-driven company, of the more positive recent economic news, has analysts and brokers bullish about SEEK’s medium-term value.
Last Monday’s SEEK Annual General Meeting (AGM) did deliver a slightly sour note to temper the post-Blue Orca surge as the voting on the respective resolutions; Remuneration Report and Grant of Wealth Sharing Plan Options and Rights to Andrew Bassat, saw just over 16 per cent recorded in the Against column on both resolutions.
At the 2018 SEEK AGM the Remuneration Report recorded 20 per cent Against vote, while 32 per cent opposed the issue of long-term incentives to Bassat, indicating that there remains a significant minority of shareholders unhappy with SEEK’s existing reward structures.
The moving-on of five senior SEEK executives, and the return of another executive, over the past twelve months, including four departures within five months of each other during the COVID lockdowns, has been a rather curious post script to SEEK’s year.
Nicole Brolan, until April this year, SEEK’s chief product officer, joined cloud-based accounting software platform Xero as their executive general manager for global services, after nearly sixteen years with SEEK.
Antony Ugoni, most recently SEEK’s director of global matching and analytics, joined international health care group Bupa, in July as their chief data officer, after just over seven years with SEEK.
Isar Mazer left his role as COO of SEEK Investments in December last year, after just over eight years at SEEK. Mazer also resigned his other SEEK roles as Chair of subsidiary, Sidekicker and board member of SEEK’s Chinese job board, Zhaopin.
Ian Narev’s April 2019 appointment as Ilczynski’s successor occurred a mere six weeks after the mid-February announcement of Ilczynski’s upcoming sabbatical.
Unsurprisingly, Ilczynski, who started his extended leave in July 2019, did not return to SEEK at the completion of his sabbatical and officially departed in April this year after nearly fourteen years with the company.
SEEK’s shedding of a combined 55 years of SEEK-specific expertise across five executives appears to be a non-issue for Bassat as nary a public word was offered in recognition of the service, contribution, or loss that any of Brolan, Ugoni, O’Shannessy, Mazer or Ilczynski represented to the company.
Just as silently Bassat welcomed back Jason Lenga, in February this year. Lenga left his role as managing director of SEEK International in June 2015 after sixteen years with the company, to join New York-based hedge fund, Tiger Global Management. Lenga’s LinkedIn profile lists his current role at SEEK as Managing Director – Strategic Investments (part-time).
Given Lenga’s return and Mazer’s exit, the local recruitment industry will watch with interest as to whether these moves have any short-to-medium term impact on SEEK’s other local assets that provide services to the recruitment industry. JobAdder (categorised as HR SaaS within the SEEK Investments portfolio) being the most high-profile of these assets.
Respected JobAdder co-founder Brett Iredale departed his executive role in July. The option SEEK would undoubtedly have on Iredale (and co-founder) Darren Watt’s remaining JobAdder shares most likely means that in the not-too-distant future SEEK will become the 100 per cent owner of JobAdder.
Given Lenga’s extensive experience in analysing and growing businesses outside of Australia what might Lenga recommend to Bassat and the board about the future of JobAdder?
Will the SEEK board see more value in retaining ownership of JobAdder over the longer term or will there be a temptation to offload JobAdder via an IPO, with the proceeds used to reduce SEEK’s level of debt?
The upcoming product offering provides an insight into how SEEK is providing more options for JobAdder customers that will, both companies no doubt hope, increase customer loyalty (or agency ‘SEEK addiction’ if you prefer) and ultimately the value of both JobAdder and its parent company.
You can be sure that SEEK will continue in their quest to ‘Align Price to Value’ by making it harder for recruitment agency customers to leave, regardless of steep price rises.
The alternatives are too problematic for many recruitment agency owners and executives to seriously consider.
You can be just as sure that TalentTap, Indeed, LiveHire, and many other industry vendors are racing to prove that they can each offer a commercially viable alternative to the recruitment industry’s long-term ‘SEEK addiction’.
*In evidence to the Banking Royal Commission, Matt Comyn (since promoted to CBA, CEO), said that when, in 2015 and 2016, he lobbied his then-boss (Ian Narev) to stop selling customers useless consumer credit card and personal loan insurance, he was told to “temper your sense of justice”.