Iain Ferguson, chief executive of KLP, is blunt about the difficulties his company – and the whole sales promotion industry – faces in its search for trained personnel.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen too many unprepared people. Frankly, a trained Alsatian could do a better job than some of them,” he says. “The quality of staff declined so sharply during the recession that we made a decision to grow aggressively our own.”
The problem has only recently come to light, as the UK claws its way out of recession. It is not confined to the sales promotion industry: it affects all aspects of marketing. During the worst of the recession, most companies – whether clients or marketing services providers – cut back drastically on their training budgets.
At the time this was not a problem. There were more trained and experienced staff than the number of positions available. Now, as agencies and clients begin to build up their strength again, properly trained, experienced personnel are at a premium. Paul Woolf, managing director of Cramm Francis Woolf, says: “We used to be able to recruit trained staff from the larger sales promotion agencies. We can’t any more, because these agencies stopped investing in training. For smaller companies like ourselves, this imposes an additional burden.”
Larger agencies, of course, will say that they see no reason why they should spend money training people who then get poached.
But Ferguson admits larger agencies were not above luring trained people away from rivals – but mourns that they no longer can. He says: “We used to be able to just go out and buy talent, but we can’t any more.”
Woolf accepts that smaller agencies used to be parasitic: but it is no longer the case, he says.
“We now have to do our own training. We sent four people [out of a staff of 36] on the ISP Diploma course last year,” says Woolf.
The Institute of Sales Promotion Diploma is reckoned to be the top qualification available in this country. As a home-study course, it covers all aspects of sales promotion in depth, including law, techniques and creativity, and features a real-life brief to respond to. A record 260 people registered this year. To supplement the diploma, the ISP runs a series of seminars dealing with specific issues.
Graham Griffiths, general manager of Promotional Campaigns, is chairman of the ISP’s Education Committee. He is also an alumnus of Kingston University, where he did a BA in Marketing. Griffiths says Kingston University and the ISP have had close links for many years now – “ever since 1978, when I was the first student to do a placement in a sales promotions agency”. Kingston advises the ISP on what the diploma should include, while the ISP provides guest speakers for Kingston and also encourages its member agencies to take students on placement.
As far as Griffiths is aware, Kingston is the only academic institution in the country to have made sales promotion such an integral part of its course: he says that well over 100 Kingston students are now employed in the sales promotion industry.
Woolf believes that the ISP Diploma is not as good as it could be. In particular, he feels that it has perhaps become a little too clever in recent years. He also thinks that it needs to move away from the “do this at home” structure to one which incorporates some form of continual assessment. But although he criticises it, he also admits that it is probably the best “institutional” sales promotion training course available anywhere in the world – including those in his native America. “It’s better than what we had in the US. That was appalling,” he says.
Griffiths admits that the diploma is not the be all and end all. “It’s a very good basis. Once you’ve been through the process, you’re going to have much more confidence. It’s not final, though – it’s up to people to build on that throughout their career.”
Another problem Woolf identifies is one which he says particularly afflicts sales promotion consultancies which are part of a larger marketing services group.
“In my old company, Promotional Campaigns [part of Ogilvy & Mather], we used O&M facilities and training modules – but they were often set up specifically to meet the needs of advertising agencies.”
Woolf has more right to comment on training than most other sales promotion people: he has a master’s degree in training from the London School of Economics.
At Cramm Francis Woolf, he has instigated role-playing sessions for his staff, code-named “Tight Corners”, in which they have to handle difficult problems (explaining to the client why the artwork’s late, or why there’s been a budget overrun of 25 per cent).
Even Woolf’s partner Brian Francis, one of the founding fathers of the UK sales promotion industry, has been put through the mill.
Ferguson says that KLP did not cut back on training expenditure during the lean years. The agency sends all of its account handlers – “and a significant proportion of front-desk and even accounting staff” – through the ISP course. KLP is also developing other courses with external bodies – it is involved in an initiative with the University of Strathclyde. It also runs internal courses, particularly for production, print and computer training.he says: “We allocate a decent amount of budget to training: and we have a board director at each of our locations who takes on the responsibility for training. It’s always a formal programme, rather than anything haphazard, with recognised coaches in each location.”
Ferguson points out that much of the training which KLP finds necessary is due to a fundamental change in the nature of the work which sales promotion consultancies are undertaking. “We’ve seen the mass of the business move towards consultancy work rather than that of a purchasing agent.” Such a shift requires different skills, he says.
Simon Mahoney, joint managing director of sales promotion consultancy SMP, says that all his account executives are expected to sit the ISP Diploma course, and that any job applicants who already have the diploma are immediately shortlisted. He says: “In addition, ongoing training is the responsibility of each and every member of the agency.”
SMP account executives are asked to evaluate a current promotion on a weekly basis, with written comments on the objectives, how they were interpreted, the mechanics and the potential response. Senior managers in his agency are also sent on a series of courses including two residential ones which concentrate on management techniques and public speaking.
The recession has not been the only factor, however, which has led to a dearth of trained personnel in the sales promotion industry. Susan Howston, associate director of specialist employment consultancy Direct Recruitment, says it has also been caused by the speed of change in information technology.Howston claims that far too many staff in both agencies and client companies are “techno or data phobic”, and that those who do know about and are able to handle technology or data are not marketing literate and quite simply do not have the interpersonal skills needed.
She says: “Candidates who can identify and specify what is required of a database system and can brief technical teams accordingly are being paid extremely well because they are so few in number.”
Woolf agrees with her assessment. “There is a continuous need for training in information technology. We’ve just had to have our whole design studio retrained to handle new software – and we’ll probably have to have it done all over again in a year’s time.”
Training is now accepted as a requirement throughout the industry, it seems. Whether agencies like it or not, they are having to spend more time and money on developing their staff. Obviously, it would be easier and cheaper for them if they were able to recruit ready-trained staff from elsewhere, and poaching from other agencies will always happen. Ferguson accepts that the more you train staff, the more likely they are to be offered jobs elsewhere.
But he still believes that it has to be done. “It is a difficult challenge to keep trained staff. But because you risk losing them, isn’t a good reason not to train them.”