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The direct marketing industry faces an uphill struggle in finding the right people. Even now, the aftermath of the recession is hampering the search for staff with two to three years experience. As Jo-Anne Walker finds out, many believe the

Eight years ago Shelagh Register was a teacher specialising in mentally disabled children – today she is managing director of database marketing operation Information For Marketing.

So when you talk to her about the difficulties of recruiting in the direct marketing industry, particularly database marketing, which has been identified as a problem area, she takes a slightly different view of things. “The direct marketing industry is far too introspective – looking only to its own when it comes to recruiting. Developing a database marketing system requires, above all, a disciplined mind and a detailed approach. These are not necessarily part of the marketing skills set.

“What we do is look for people who have a certain way of thinking and, as a result, we have recruited people from all over the place, and a lot of people from the public sector. The solution to the recruitment problem is to train your own people – that doesn’t always mean hiring graduates,” says Register.

But even though Register may have found a solution to the recruitment problem, it is an issue that will not go away. It has been a sore point for years.

Direct Recruitment managing director Sarah Owens says the root of the problem stems from when recruitment and training came to a grinding halt during the recession. It is the middle management and, on the agency side, account director level that has been particularly badly hit. Owens says: “An experienced and skilled account director looking for a move can easily get ten interviews within two weeks. One girl who was earning 18,000 just two years ago is now on 40,000 for more or less the same work – her agency is so desperate to keep her.

“Salaries are rocketing to attract good recruits and hold the people agencies already have. We are getting back to the situation we had in 1987 to 1988 when agencies were training staff only to have them poached as soon as they became productive,” she says.

Owens claims that one of the most unsatisfied needs is the demand for account directors who are well versed in the technology of direct marketing, databases and systems. “It is difficult to find the right sort of technical staff: programmers, analysts, software experts and statisticians. It is not that they do not exist. There are plenty of ‘techies’, but there are very few that agencies or database companies can put in front of clients; very few who can demystify the services they are offering,” she says.

Owens says the answer to the skills shortage lies in investing in the training of existing staff or adopting the home-grown approach – employing marketing, maths and computing graduates straight from university, and training them.

She also agrees with Register that looking outside the direct marketing industry could be valuable – systems analysts or marketers in the fmcg sector can be a good source.

Institute of Direct Marketing managing director Derek Holder says the skills shortage has been caused by the industry itself because it shed so many staff during the recession.

“Also, everyone believes in in-staff training – but it hardly ever gets done. It’s usually because companies don’t have the time to divert these people or their energies – but they have to make time. Really professional companies should have a training budget to work with,” he explains.

Holder believes the real culprits are direct marketing agencies and suppliers that have restricted their training activities and shed staff. “This has been reflected in the IDM’s overall training programme. We train more than 2,500 marketers a year, and almost 90 per cent of those during the recession have been from client companies. There is a danger the clients will be better trained than the agencies.

“Everyone is seeking personnel with two years’ experience,” he says. “But, given agencies’ policies during the past few years, these people do not exist,” says Holder.

“The only answer to this problem, which incidentally occurs every five years or so – this is the third phase I’ve seen – is to continuously invest in training and create a larger pool of talented people that everyone can call upon. This will normalise salaries, lead to a choice between candidates and ensure real skills are learned by potential employees,” he says.

To be fair, the IDM is making great efforts to make up for the problem and is about to introduce a Graduate Apprenticeship Scheme. Graduates will learn the different job functions of direct marketing as part of a structured training programme for 18 months to two years. Whilst employed by a single company, the graduate will work in all functions of direct marketing and be given a formal, tailored training programme. The graduate will then be committed to work for whichever supplier provided financing for the training.

The IDM has made great efforts to encourage business schools and universities to include direct marketing in their training. Holder says that, historically, direct marketing has not been as extensively taught as it should have been. He claims that more than 56 per cent of marketing lecturers say they teach direct marketing, but that this still leaves nearly 50 per cent who don’t.

The IDM also says that it is moving towards what it calls “number-based” training. This concentrates more on the technical side of database marketing and management.

IDM marketing director Terry Forshaw says that, traditionally, the company has had to concentrate on creative, planning and marketing analysis, and that it has ignored number crunching either through lack of interest or, more probably, because no one knew much about it.

“What we want to do is encourage people to concentrate more on the statistical analysis side rather than just the creative and planning sides. As technology moves forward, the ability to statistically analyse a campaign is becoming much greater. But people must be in a position to know how to do this,” he says.

As much as agencies may be suffering because of a lack of account handlers, it does seem to be the database marketing element that is worst hit. CISF Systems managing director Jo Norman says: “It is very hard to get people that understand marketing but are also technicians. If I’m looking for a technical person I’ll go for a specialist computer programmer. But then they will know nothing about marketing.”

Norman believes there is no proper database marketing training available within the industry. “There are a lot of seminars that are supposed to focus on database marketing. But they always tend to be given by people who are at the top and they are very protective about the information they actually give out. So you end up learning absolutely nothing about what they are doing and how they do it,” Norman says.

While database specialists may be suffering from a lack of personnel, Owens says many direct marketing and sales promotion agencies that still don’t employ database specialists are relying heavily on third parties who need more qualified staff themselves. “Because database and marketing people hardly understand each other, those agencies that do have dedicated database teams often experience very poor communication channels between themselves and account teams. The result can be confusion, lost time and even business,” she says.

Holder says the direct marketing industry should follow the example set by above the line and introduce more graduate training schemes. It is only by moves such as these that direct marketing can really be seen to be seriously investing in the future.v

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