by Ritika Puri

You probably aren’t surprised to learn that the mastermind behind Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX is a fan of riddles. That’s why candidates at these companies are likely to encounter some of the most challenging questions of their lives. Here’s one in particular, according to Business Insider and Elon Musk’s autobiography:

  • You are standing on the surface of the earth
  • You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north
  • You end up exactly where you started
  • Where are you?

If you’re interested in the answer to this exact question, watch this 2-minute video. Don’t worry if you’re stumped—the video walks through two answers, in detail. Instead, think about the intent behind the question:

Employees within Musk’s portfolio of companies are often in high-stakes, decision-making scenarios. There are not only dollars on the line but lives, too. Imagine what would happen to a project within Tesla, SolarCity, and/or SpaceX if a calculation was just slightly off. The outcome could be dangerous. That’s why leaders within these three companies need to be confident in their hires’ geo-spatial intuition. Intense work environments need people who can solve tough problems—which brings us to the world of media and advertising.

Bring Meaningful, Fun, and Illuminating Riddles to Your Interviewing Process

Even though sales, ad operations, and media planning leaders aren’t designing cars or sending rocketships into space, they still require mental agility—making strategic decisionson the spot even when large budgets are at stake. When you’re making a hiring decision, especially if you’re evaluating a newcomer to the industry or career changer, you need to be confident that you’re hiring someone who can grasp complex topics, test new waters, and spearhead initiatives.

Consider asking a riddle like Musk does in his interview process—but remix the idea. Unlike the worlds of solar energy, transportation, and space exploration, the “right” answer isn’t what you necessarily need from prospective hires. Given the rise of ad blocking, competition within the media space, diminishing publishing revenue models, and even click fraud, the ideal hire in this industry will be someone who stays calm under pressure and can gracefully navigate curveball situations.

What’s the best way to know how someone thinks? Ask a challenging, open-ended question. When your candidates respond, read between the lines of their responses. Look for the following signals:

  • Does the candidate remain calm when facing an out-of-the-box question?
  • Does he or she take time to formulate a thoughtful response?
  • What types of follow-up questions does he or she ask?
  • Does he or she demonstrate an intricate understanding of your business model?
  • Is he or she open to bringing new ideas to the table?
  • Does he or she maintain a smile and enjoy the process of solving a tough challenge?

Test These Questions with Candidates

Focus on asking questions that encourage candidates to open up, illuminate their expertise, and share their problem-solving skills. The following three questions will be applicable to ad tech roles across teams from operations to sales, at all levels from entry-level to senior management.

(1) You’re running or helping a client run a large-scale advertising campaign, in which you’re directing social media traffic to a direct response landing page for free trial sign-ups. Until yesterday, the campaign has been running steadily with predictable lead generation rates. But suddenly, the campaign took a lead generation dip. What happened?

This question will help you evaluate candidates’ problem-solving skills. Pay particular attention to the following:

  • How many scenarios candidates can list
  • How quickly candidates are able to list possible solutions
  • Whether the candidate is able to source examples from and speak to past experiences

Here are some potential answers:

  • There could be an error in the tracking code, or the campaign may have paused
  • There may be more competition among advertisers who are targeting the same audiences that you are, and it may be time to begin increasing your campaign bids
  • Your campaign has achieved full market penetration, and it may be time to start seeking lookalike audiences The social media ad network may be experiencing a technical error

(2) How would you improve company X’s ad targeting algorithm?

At first glance, this question seems like one for engineers. But it’s not. Ad tech is a complex space precisely because of the technology. Employees across teams will need to understand the backbone of your technical infrastructure. When evaluating answers, look for:

  • Whether candidates ask follow-up questions to understand how ad targeting algos work
  • Whether candidates are able to quickly build upon this knowledge
  • Whether proposed solutions are valuable and constructive

Look for people who have an interest in getting to know technology better. These potential candidates will become exponentially more valuable to your organization as ad technology evolves.

(3) What technologies do you see becoming more important to advertising and digital media within the next several years?

From ad blocking to the introduction of new paid channels, the advertising ecosystem is going through continuous evolution. Top performers, regardless of their professional roles, will have their ears to the ground, eager to read research reports and attend conferences.

It’s important to keep perspective that it’s impossible for even the smartest ad tech professionals to answer this question. The digital media ecosystem is diverse, with many proprietary tools in development. More so than the prediction being “right,” evaluate how candidates justify their answers. Here are some examples of “good” answers:

  • I expect the third-party data industry to play a larger role in ad targeting because marketers need precision to reach audiences in a personalized way
  • Video will play a more prevalent role in advertising because consumers are attention span strapped and need to digest more information in less time
  • Wearables will play a more important role for advertisers to harvest data and better understand their customers

Final Thoughts

Whatever you do, don’t put your interviewees on the spot. Have fun with the discussion. Be encouraging. Enjoy the process of getting to know how your candidates think, learn, and respond to different scenarios. Be encouraging, and let your prospective direct reports challenge you.