THE SCOTSMAN: The Big Interview with Denholm Associates CEO Nicki Denholm

Nicki Denholm and Leonardo DiCaprio
Nicki Denholm and Leonardo DiCaprio


Denholm Associates chief Nicki Denholm explains why finding the ‘sweet spot’ in the skills gap is key to recruitment success.

Nicki Denholm was a keen tennis player growing up, competing against Judy Murray at one point and spending most of her youth believing she was going to win Wimbledon. However, by her mid-teens, she reached the conclusion that she would never be triumphant on Centre Court and, while her fondness for sport remains, she is now serving up suitable candidates rather than aces as chief executive of recruiter Denholm Associates.

Her own career started in brand management for the fast-moving consumer goods sector, before she was offered a job in recruitment. She rose to the role of director with the company, then decided to set up a business doing things differently – operating like a professional-services firm rather than a recruitment business, and focusing on customers over financial targets. Denholm Associates, headquartered in Leith, was founded in 2002, concentrating on executive search, recruitment and talent attraction for roles in sales, marketing, creative, data and digital communications.

It celebrated its 14th anniversary this month, but Denholm says it has plenty more to do. “Over the course of the next few years we have some fairly ambitious targets to hit,” she says. The chief executive says the firm stands out from other recruiters by exclusively focusing on marketing commercial roles from second jobs to the likes of chief marketing officer, marketing directors and chief executives.

She says the market in which it operates has changed “hugely” over the past few years as digital becomes an ever greater force to be reckoned with. “A lot of the work we’ve been doing has been with our clients around their digital transformation and helping restructure their teams so we’re in a pretty buoyant space, but equally one where talent is scarce.”

Scotland has an oft-cited annual requirement for 11,000 digital workers, while a UK government study published earlier this year found that 72 per cent of large companies and 49 per cent of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps. Denholm says: “Where the mix of marketing and technology meet there’s a lot of gaps. Nowadays, to have an element of both is really quite critical, so that’s where the ‘sweet spot’ in the skill gap is.”

She stresses that gone are the days when a job ad would be placed, and you’d simply expect a response. “Every role is now about searching – we have to go out and find the best candidate, and that candidate is not necessarily looking because if they’re good they’ll be being looked after by their employer. “People say there is a shortage of certain skills, and there is, but I believe they’re out there. You’ve just got go out and find them, and then you’ve got to be able to attract them to your client’s business, and that is a fundamental part of what we do,” she says. Denholm says that while companies are often good at marketing to their consumers, they don’t necessarily consider their brand as an employer, and a disgruntled worker can now air their grievances to a potentially global audience via social media.

To help clients showcase their employer appeal, the recruiter has launched BrandBox, an online “talent attraction tool” enabling them to build a bank of candidates “warmed up to” their company, cutting the cost and speed of future hires. The service is “beginning to get some traction,” she says, with clients using it including tourist agency VisitScotland, Famous Grouse maker Edrington and drinks distributor Maxxium.

She says companies are often not sure what their attractiveness as an employer or “employee value proposition” is, and so Denholm is increasing activity in this area, talking to employees and finding out about what people “brag about to their friends” about a workplace. A lot of her day-to-day work is focused on this part of the business, with CEOs now taking their reputation in the marketplace as an employer “hugely seriously”.

She says she’s learnt that companies actually share many similar problems regardless of size, while popular attractive qualities for candidates include companies that make it clear to an employee what their role is in “bigger picture” of its activity, with personal development also important. “Also, I think employers are having to pay so much more attention to things like flexible working. I find it hugely frustrating that there are so many talented women who go off, have a family, come back and cannot find the right role because they want work-life integration. They want to be able to do both, and why shouldn’t we be able to do both?”

A study published in May by Glassdoor Economic Research found that in the UK, the gender pay gap jumps by 14 percentage points for women when they have children. Other key employment issues flagged by Denholm include health and wellness in the workplace. As an employer herself she says she has to practise what she preaches, with a focus on output over input and offering flexibility.

“I actively don’t encourage people to be sitting doing what, in the old days they used to do, which is [sit] there from nine in the morning till nine at night. That’s completely unhealthy.” She studied business administration at Heriot-Watt University, working as a tennis coach during the holidays, and said that the academic course provided “good grounding”.

“I can’t say I was one of these people who had their career mapped out and I knew exactly what I wanted to do – I didn’t – but somehow I’ve landed on something that I think plays to my strengths.”

She does admit that a difficult point was the aftermath of the financial crash, steering the business through choppy waters with three children under the age of two at the time. Nevertheless, she says: “I’m glad I survived through what was a very tough time in the recession, and actually we’ve come back stronger because it’s made us much more focused.”

She notes that in the firm’s search for fresh talent, candidates can be outside the UK, and admits she had “a bit of a sinking feeling” when the Brexit vote result was announced, “but actually in the last two months we’ve had the best summer we’ve ever had from a sales perspective… I’m feeling optimistic.”

The firm’s roster covers financial services, with the likes of Standard Life and Clydesdale Bank owner CYBG, as well as AG Barr, Skyscanner and agencies including Whitespace, and the Leith Agency, which was co-founded by her husband John Denholm. “We’re involved probably in every sector in some way, shape or form,” she says, also flagging “FinTech” as a key growth area for the business.

More active business development in the north of England is also targeted, with the firm saying in June that it was targeting the “Northern Powerhouse” cities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. “One of the things that we will definitely be considering over the next year is an office down south,” Denholm adds. “We just need to be sure that the timing is right and that we’ve got the critical mass to do it.”

Also on the cards over the next year is growing the firm’s headcount, currently 25, by about half a dozen. However, while the firm has “reasonably ambitious” targets, she doesn’t ever see it growing beyond 40 to 50 people.

The recruiter reported a 20 per cent jump in fee income to £1.5 million in 2015, and by the end of this year looks set to grow this to almost £2m. As job candidates are often asked where they see themselves in the next five to ten years, where will Denholm Associates be?

Its chief executive says that she would like to see it “in some shape or form, whether I’m there or not, as a really successful business. “If Denholm is surviving and thriving that would make me really proud. The next five years are going to be critical for us. Things tend to be cyclical. I’m hoping that there’s probably a window of three to five years where the market will hopefully remain fairly strong and we need to capitalise on that.”

Curriculum vitae
Born: On a farm in Kirkgunzeon, a village in the southwest of Scotland.

Education: St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh.

First job: Tennis coach.

What car do you drive? Land Rover Discovery. With three kids and a dog, we need the space.

Favourite mode of transport: My feet. I love walking and running.

Music: An eclectic mix. Billy Joel at the O2 to Justin Timberlake on my headphones when I’m out running.

Kindle or book? Kindle.

Reading material: Autobiographies/business books.

Can’t live without: Apart from my family, exercise has to be top of the list.

What makes you angry? Women not supporting other women in business.

What inspires you? Talking to people who are passionate about life.

Favourite place: Pre-kids, The Cliff, Barbados. Post-kids, Kippford, Dumfriesshire.

New Spirits Division



Andy Brady is a seasoned HR recruitment specialist, with over two decades of expertise in the field. With a foundation in Human Resource Management from the University of Derby, Andy swiftly transitioned into specialised HR recruitment. His diverse portfolio spans FMCG, Manufacturing & Engineering, Financial Services, the Third Sector, and Supply Chain, working at all levels from entry to executive positions.


Recruitment AdministratoR

Zoe joined Denholm in 2022 as Recruitment Administrator, after working in administration roles for nearly a decade. Most recently within the recruitment industry, she joins us with experience of supporting consultants, clients and candidates at all levels. Zoe has a passion for helping people and applies her positive attitude and approachable manner to support our team and deliver the best possible service to our clients and candidates at all times.



Drew arrived at Denholm as an award-winning creative, having headed content strategy teams for marketing/advertising agencies in the UK/USA before a successful career in HR, people and culture. He has years of marketing experience and building teams on both sides of the Atlantic, priding himself on going the extra mile for clients and candidates alike. Drew always works with passion as our specialist in account management, planning and strategy, digital marketing, full-spectrum creative and traffic/studio management.



Callum has been working in recruitment since 2018 where he has solely focussed on the Technology, Change and Transformation market across the UK and ROI. He works closely with his clients and candidates to build long-lasting relationships across several industries, including Technology, Financial Services, Professional Services, Healthcare, Education, Public Sector and more. He specialises in engineering roles across Software, Infrastructure, Systems, DevOps and Cloud, along with Software Testing.


SENIOR CONSULTANT - Technology, Change & Transformation

Euan has been working in the world of recruitment since 2012, working to deliver bespoke services to both clients and candidates. Prioritising ‘future-fit’ candidates for clients, he works as an extension of his client’s business ensuring great representation in the market. He consults with each client to ensure excellent candidate journeys. Euan works focuses primarily on business analysis, project management and technical support opportunities.



Liz has over 14 years’ experience in recruitment working across primarily the high-tech, pharmaceutical and FMCG sectors. She joined Denholm on December 1st 2021 following a relocation from Ireland to focus on Marketing recruitment. Liz’s experience ranges from high volume recruitment to executive search and she prides herself in her ability to fully understand a brief and her accurate matching skills. Frequently praised as being a clear communicator with a strong customer service ethic, Liz is well suited to the culture here at Denholm, where the client and the candidates’ needs are paramount.



Alana has been working in recruitment since 2012, predominately within the FMCG & Consumer markets. Having recruited in both the UK & Asia Pacific markets, Alana has a sound knowledge of local & international recruitment. Partnering with brands to attract & hire the best sales talent in the market, Alana focuses on mid to senior level Sales appointments within the Consumer space. With a strong commercial & sales background, Alana identifies and engages the best commercially focused talent for our clients.



Scott started his career working for one of the leading Advertising & Comms agencies in Edinburgh where he spent 7 years before moving in to recruitment in 2011. As such, he is well-networked in the Marketing & Comms space across Scotland. With a friendly and consultative approach, Scott is genuinely passionate about providing a positive journey to both candidates and clients alike and believes communication plays a big part in this.  A “thinking-outside-the-box recruiter”, he is known for helping candidates portray the best version of themselves and helping clients find talent for those hard to fill roles.



Andy has been recruiting in Technology, Change & Transformation since 2001. Delivering tailored resource solutions as trusted advisor to clients ranging from start-ups through to global blue-chip organisations across contract, permanent, fixed term, and managed service/statement of work solutions. He has experience providing candidates for Helpdesk through to CIO and takes great pride in providing excellent customer service and ensuring each candidate journey is a positive one. An expert in his market he can provide guidance across current market trends.



James has a decade of experience within the FMCG sector where he has partnered with a wide range of businesses placing key appointments at all levels including Director/ Board level. Driving growth across our Manufacturing & Engineering function, James specialises in Production, Operations, Engineering, Quality, HSE, Technical, NPD and Supply Chain. With his passion and expertise in these areas, James supports candidates and clients by working closely to understand their needs and wants providing exceptional service.



Having worked in the recruitment industry since 2000, Angela brings a wealth of experience as a Recruitment Professional and a proven track record of delivering a high-quality search and selection service to both public and private companies in the UK and internationally. Angela believes in a partnership approach to recruitment, ensuring a detailed understanding of employer/jobseeker requirements and delivering a bespoke service underpinned by professionalism, pragmatism and strong market knowledge.

Our Community

As well as working in close collaboration with our clients, and the online marketplaces, we are active members of groups that have been established to combat illicit trade. These include the Scottish Anti-Illicit Trade Group, the European Intellectual Property Office, The Scottish Business Resilience Centre, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, and the China Britain Business Council. Members of our senior management sit on the boards of ACID (Anti-Copying in Design), the Scottish Ministerial Trade Board, and the European Union Intellectual Property Office’s Observatory Panel for SMEs, amongst others.

Each team member nominates good causes or charities that are supported on both an individual and corporate basis. Wherever possible, we support the employee’s involvement whether through time or fundraising events.

Our Environment

We deliver purpose-driven work from an extremely welcoming environment near the City Centre. We actively encourage the responsible use of resources, from using public transport to reuse, recycling, and, of course, a minimal impact office environment. We have benefited from the advice of the Energy Saving Trust and Resource Efficient Scotland. Our waste contractor also provides us with a monthly report on volumes and types of material and the carbon emissions avoided through recycling.

Over 80% of our employees can walk or cycle to The Lair and, pre-pandemic, 10% were using public transport as their normal daily commuting mode. Without doubt, online meetings will replace considerable miles, going forward, saving resources, time and energy. Where possible, when possible, the train remains our preferred option. 

Our People

Our people are our most important asset, and their mental well-being and happiness are core to our success. We love our diverse workforce, actively embrace flexible working (even pre-pandemic!) and encourage a healthy work-life balance. We have been recognised as one of the most diverse SME workplaces in the UK and are holders of the Scottish Business Pledge which exists to promote a fairer Scotland. We have also just been included in the 2021 Culture Leaders Top 25 – an accolade of which we are very proud!

We are a fully inclusive and nurturing employer and, despite being in tech, the majority of our team are women, leading to accolades in the Computing Magazine Women in IT Awards and the Amazon Growing Business Awards. We currently represent 15 nationalities and speak 20 languages. Age is no barrier, and we recruit for attitude, providing and encouraging appropriate learning and training for each and every role.

We are also proud members of IP Inclusive, a network of professionals working to make the intellectual property industry more diverse.

Our Purpose

Our aim is to combat illicit online trade by identifying and removing counterfeits for sale. Counterfeits not only damage brands, their reputations, and revenues, but can cause significant harm to the end customer – whether as a fake toy or a fake medicine – and the consequences can be life threatening.

Counterfeiting is a significant economic and social issue.

The OECD reports that counterfeit and fake goods make up more than 3.3% of the world’s global trade. Those involved in the trade of counterfeits have been linked to people trafficking, prostitution, and drug dealing.

As such, reducing illicit trade is about much more than brand protection but also about human rights, safety, and social equity.

And this is what we do, every day.







Communication Advisors

We’re a passionate and professional team who thrive in issue-rich environment and we’re looking for Senior Communication Advisors, Communications Advisors and Communications Executives to join their fast-growing team. 

You’ll have previous agency experience at Senior Account Manager or Account Manager level and be passionate about delivering excellent results for clients. You might be a specialist in PR and media relations who produces compelling editorial content across a range of topics and sectors or you might be a public affairs expert who understands the policy landscape and helps clients build influential relationships. Whatever your specialism, you’ll be an excellent writer, full of creative ideas, with proven client management experience and the ability to provide expert advice our clients.

Your key duties will include:

  • Supporting the key account lead with day-to-day client liaison, providing strategic counsel on day-to-day account matters when required
  • Active involvement in planning and delivering global PR, marketing and digital campaigns
  • Managing content programmes, including mapping out content themes, spotting industry trends and story angles, writing copy when required which may include opinion articles, web and social
  • Building strong media relationships, creating pitches based on your story ideas and delivering content in-to suit the client’s target media and securing opportunities
  • Planning and running client’s social media programmes, and management of their channels
  • Continuously identifying opportunities to grow brand awareness and profile our client’s businesses within their target sector through events, webinars, thought leadership
  • Producing comprehensive and timely reports on client activity 
  • Supporting in the development of client proposals to help grow or win parts of the business

In addition, to be considered for this role, you must be able to demonstrate:

  • Proven background in account handling and direct client liaison – 4 years’ minimum
  • Experience in an agency setting focusing on B2B communication or PR
  • Strong communications skills, verbal and written
  • A background in delivering creative, digitally led B2B communications such as LinkedIn campaigns
  • An innate understanding of earned media, with the ability to create stories and generate coverage across traditional media, digital and social
  • Experience working on content management programmes, with an awareness of the changing way business audiences consume information and an appreciation of search, paid and wider customer marketing activity, and how it all fits together
  • A history of working with clients in a variety of sectors is welcomed but experience in the tech and energy industries is advantageous.

Communication Lead

We’re a passionate and professional team who thrive in issue-rich environment and we’re looking to add a Communication Lead to our fast-growing team. You’ll be a trusted advisor to clients across several sectors in all aspects of communication, external affairs, marketing and issues management. Coming from an agency or consultancy environment, at Account Director level or above, you’ll report directly to the Managing Director and be responsible for a small and busy multi-disciplinary team. You’ll have first-class project management skills, be solutions-driven and excellent commercial acumen too. Alongside the senior team, you’ll work to drive the strategic growth of Aspect.

Your core duties will include:

  • Working with the MD to develop and deliver growth strategies 
  • Attracting and retaining profitable clients across a range of sectors 
  • Leading the creation and execution of strategic communication programmes
  • Inspiring, leading and developing multi-disciplinary teams
  • Developing strong relationships with clients, colleagues and associates
  • Producing high quality pitches and proposals to secure new business 
  • Curating, nurturing and managing a team of talented associates.

You’ll be a skilled communicator, interested and knowledgeable about the key issues shaping the external environment. In addition, to be considered for this role, you must be able to demonstrate:

  • 7+ years of senior leadership experience within an agency or consultancy
  • Experience in Energy, Renewables, Financial Services or Life Sciences would be very desirable
  • Outstanding writing skills and the ability to engage and excite an audience
  • An impressive track record of client attraction, retention and growth 
  • The ability to thrive fast-paced environment managing multiple projects simultaneously
  • Strong influencing and leadership skills to motivate and inspire those around you
  • Excellent planning, evaluation and project management skills
  • To develop new processes, systems and ways of working to drive performance


You can give us a call for more information about our Outplacement Support or you can simply download more details here.


You can give us a call for more information about our Career Transitioning Support or you can simply download more details here.


Our Careering out of the crisis guide will give you some expert tips to start taking positive action towards a happier and more fulfilled working life.


Get our best practice guide to successful virtual hiring and onboarding today.


CVs and interviews will take you to Level 2. Our behavioural profile will take you to Level 3, vital to identifying future potential.


Appears to...

  • Appearance
  • Expressiveness
  • Manner
  • Presence


Can do...

  • Knowledge
  • Acquired skills
  • Training
  • Experience
  • Education
  • Credentials


Will do...

  • Capability to learn
  • Aptitude
  • Attitude
  • Self-motivation
  • Stability
  • Persistence
  • Maturity
  • Temperament
  • Behaviour patterns