Executive Search vs Recruitment

Cella Porter manages the Research function at Gillespie Manners

You might have heard the terms ‘Executive Search’ and ‘Recruitment’ used interchangeably, and though they share a common goal (finding the right candidate for the right role), there are some significant differences between the two resourcing approaches.  

Traditionally the term ‘Recruitment’ is used to refer to Contingent Search. Executive Search and Contingent search are both forms of recruitment, offering two different ways to unite talent with industry.

At a glance:

Contingent Search

A method of recruitment generally utilized for mid-level roles for which there will be more active job-seekers. Vacancies may be briefed to multiple agencies, with payment only being provided upon the successful placement of a candidate.

  • Generally used for mid-level roles with active pools of candidates.
  • Agencies may or may not work exclusively on an assignment.
  • Fees are payable upon the successful placement of a candidate.
  • Agents tend not to be heavily involved in the screening, interviewing and offer process.
  • Agencies will work on many assignments simultaneously.
Executive Search

A specialized, consultative recruitment service, where firms work on a retained basis to source highly skilled senior and c-level candidates via headhunting. Generally the fee for a project will be paid in 3 parts, ahead of, during and post placement.

  • Utilized for senior and C-level roles within niche markets and requiring specific skillsets.
  • Less available candidates means Consultants will headhunt non-active candidates based on a clients desired criteria.
  • Consultants work on an exclusive, retained basis and are involved in the screening, interview and offer process.


Contingent Search is an effective way to resource roles with widely available candidate pools. Multiple agencies can be briefed on one role or a group of roles by a client and immediately begin their search for candidates. Sometimes an agency will have exclusivity on a role for a limited period. Because Contingent Search is more commonly used for mid-level roles, there will often be a large number of active candidates. This means that recruiters can find candidates on job boards, online databases and via job advert applications.

Executive Search is a specialized solution for roles which require niche or highly skilled senior and C-level candidates. Because candidates are less readily available for these roles, consultants will often headhunt non-active, high caliber candidates in-line with an ideal profile, with specific skills or from specific companies. Executive Search relies more heavily on market research and networking, and will rarely utilize job boards, adverts or other methods of sourcing active candidates.

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The investment for a Contingent Search will generally be paid in one lump sum following the successful placement of a candidate. This means that agencies may be motivated to deliver a high volume of candidates in order to maximize their chance of a successful placement and therefore fee. This investment system means that if a Contingent Search agency is unable to find suitable candidates, or deems the project outside of their scope, they are free to walk away at any point. For consultants it can also mean the potential to carry out work without earning commission if another agency beats them to a placement. As Contingent Searches tend to be conducted for mid-level roles with more available candidates, the placement fee is often lower than with Executive Search, typically 15-30% of the annual salary for a role.

Executive Search works on a retained basis. This means that a firm will partner exclusively with their client to deliver candidates, screen them, and guide both parties through the interview and offer process. Executive Search fees will often be payable in 2-3 parts; upon commencement of a project, delivery of a shortlist of candidates and upon successful placement. This investment approach ensures that a role will be placed, as the Executive Search firms resources have been secured and allocated. It also means that a firm works on a limited number of assignments at any given time, meaning that a project won’t drop on a Consultants priority list should another more easy to place role pop up. Executive Search fees are also typically 15-30% of the annual salary of a role, though these tend to be higher based on the seniority of roles.


Contingent Search firms tend to work primarily on the front-end of the recruitment process, leaving the assessment, screening and selection work to their clients. Consultants will usually work many assignments simultaneously, and may submit the same candidate to multiple clients. For these reasons, Contingent Search tends to be more transactional in nature.

An Executive Search agency will work exclusively with a client on a retained basis, which means they won’t be competing against any other agencies to deliver candidates. This lends itself to a more consultative approach. Often the first step in an Executive Search project is to map the clients market, research key competitors and profile ideal candidates.


Executive Searches at Gillespie Manners follow a Prince2 project management methodology. The process involves research, shortlisting, screening and acting in an advisory capacity throughout the client interview and offer stages. Owing to the niche nature of the roles Executive Search is used for, Consultants are required to build a specialist knowledge of their industries, often attending industry events and training to keep abreast of the markets.


Both Contingent and Executive Search approaches can provide quality results, depending upon your requirements, expectations and the experience and expertise of your chosen firm. When evaluating which method is best suited to your resourcing needs, you should consider the specialty or niche of the role, the level of guidance and communication you’ll require, and the strategic importance of the placement.

At Gillespie Manners, we specialize in providing Executive Search in Supply Chain, Logistics, Automation and Retail Technology. Our team of experienced Consultants routinely deliver senior and C-level projects across the UK, EMEA, US and APAC. If you’d like to discuss expanding your business, please get in touch with us here

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