Where’s the usp?

A perceived lack of opportunities to progress is merely one reason advertising is no longer a top career choice for graduates, says Alicia Clegg

It comes as something of a shock to learn that advertising, an industry that exists for no other reason than to showcase the attractions of its clients, has been hiding its light under a bushel. Yet that is the implication of a report, published earlier this year by head-hunting group Kendall Tarrant Worldwide, which urges the industry either to “sell itself better” or risk losing out on the brightest young people.

The report, based on a survey of graduates and advertising and media agencies conducted last summer, is generally upbeat in tone and, coming from a large advertising recruitment company, knocks on the head any suggestion of a crisis. But read between the lines and a picture emerges of a group of companies maybe not in crisis, but clearly having to fight hard to retain their position in the first division of graduate employers.

To begin with, advertising agencies are receiving fewer applications than in the past – 50 per cent fewer, according to Kendall Tarrant’s data. The reasons for this are fairly self-evident. With the explosion of new media, graduates have more career options than ever before – from direct marketing to sales promotion and interactive channels. And as students leave university toting debts of well over £10,000, professions offering higher starting salaries, such as packaged-goods marketing, management consultancy and law, look more attractive too.

Hard come, easy go

But it is not merely that advertising is attracting fewer applicants than in the past: increasingly, the profession is losing people to other fields a few years down the line. Within ten years, two-thirds of the graduates interviewed by Kendall Tarrant expect to have moved outside the sector, with nearly 40 per cent planning to leave within five years.

So are these bright young people being failed by advertising agencies? Or is their restlessness a cultural phenomenon – another expression of the “want it all and want it now” outlook on the world, said to characterise “Generation Y” (people born between 1978 and 1984) employees the world over.

Footloose professionals are part of modern life. But in advertising, the gap between expectation and experience is surely wider than in other less glamorous industries. Chris Warren, managing director of direct marketing agency Tullo Marshall Warren, says: “Advertising has a sexy image, but the reality for most graduates isn’t dreaming up ads, it’s administration and liaising with clients.” He adds: “Account managers in direct marketing have more to cut their teeth on, because they see the clients’ data and do a lot of the strategic thinking. That’s not the case in advertising, because planners still exercise a divine right over strategy.”

Warren is partisan. But the picture he paints is familiar to many in advertising. Victoria Moffatt, head of Ogilvy’s E-mail Centre of Excellence, speaks from “bitter experience” recalling her induction with J Walter Thompson in the mid-Nineties. She says: “A couple of years in client services is vital grounding, but there is a real problem at the junior end of account management. People aren’t challenged to come up with strategic ideas, and so many talented individuals become disillusioned and go off to do other things. It’s simply an insult to take on top quality graduates and ask them to do the photocopying and bag-carrying.”

Several years on, one might have hoped that new graduates would be getting a better deal than Moffatt’s contemporaries. The caustic comments made by some of the respondents in the Kendall Tarrant report suggest a mixture of experiences, but some agencies, such as Abbot Mead Vickers.BBDO, are undoubtedly moving in the right direction.

AMV client services director Ian Pearman says: “We realised that account managers were doing too much administration, so we created a stronger project management department to take on some of the routine tasks, and merged planning and account management at the junior end of the business, allowing graduates to make a greater contribution to strategy.”

What’s to like about it?

So why has there been so little progress generally? Primarily, one has to conclude, because in many parts of the industry the traditional distinctions between “thinkers, doers and creators” are too ingrained to be abandoned readily. But what of other graduate gripes, such as salary and career progression? Here, the picture is more problematic.

In line with other industries, many of the leading agencies offer graduate debt-busting packages comprising interest-free loans and signing-on payments of anything between £1,000 to £3,000. Basic salary is clearly an issue, however, with even elite agencies barely topping average salaries for new graduates and lagging the highest payers, such as management consultants and banks, by as much as £10,000. So what is the solution?

Many in the industry are dismissive of professions that pay much higher salaries to wet-behind-the-ears graduate staff, viewing the extra cash as merely a bribe to make up for a lack of intrinsic job interest. But this trivialises a serious issue, denying the competitive reality of the graduate market.

Leo Burnett Group director of integrated communications Elliot Moss says: “Historically, advertising was remunerated similarly to the top-paying professions and was seen as a lot more fun. With tougher times, the perceived value of an advertising career has reduced – less money and less fun.”

Another approach advocated by some in the industry is to fast-track star performers, enabling them to enjoy more responsibility and fatter pay cheques earlier on. However, fast-track schemes can create problems of their own, forcing those who show early promise to climb the ladder at a speed dictated by the company (which may be too fast or still too slow for them) and sending a negative message to the rest of the cohort. TBWA chief executive Andrew McGuinness says: “Managing talent is about giving people responsibility as and when they are ready for it – irrespective of when they joined the business – and recognising that people develop at different paces.”

Giving young graduate employees both the support and the opportunities that they need to realise their aspirations and potential is at the heart of the matter. But the challenge is not simply to build a meritocracy in which the most talented are enabled to soar to the top; it goes further than that.

Generation Y graduates are, by common consent, high-maintenance employees, demanding intellectual stimulation and considerable salaries. But beyond the wider demographic trends there are issues peculiar to advertising – a sense that young professionals are losing faith in advertising itself, no longer seeing it as something which is at the centre of business and pivotal to a company’s success.

The three-year itch

After three years in advertising, almost half of the graduates included in the Kendall Tarrant survey said their experiences had not lived up to their expectations. Many were contemplating alternative careers, typically in marketing, which was viewed as offering the opportunity to “take control” of the brand and more involvement in strategy. So what has to happen now?

Firstly, advertising has to inspire people with a sense of what it, and it alone, offers. The Kendall Tarrant report suggests asking potential recruits: “Are you up for the challenge of transforming businesses and brands through ideas?” The proposition is fine as an opening gambit, but to deliver on its promise the industry must address at a practical level the areas in which it is under-performing as a graduate employer, or risk intensifying the disillusionment that many recruits experience a few years into their career.

To begin with, agencies have to rethink the way they develop their employees. Advertising is no longer the only show in town, but part of a vastly expanded media industry. For the sake of the industry’s clients, all of these media elements have to work together – so more time needs to be spent on preparing graduates to work across media disciplines. Some agencies have started on the path already.

Last October, Leo Burnett introduced a one-year graduate training programme. The scheme extends across the whole of the Leo Burnett group – which includes a mixture of above- and below-the-line businesses – and is geared towards developing the knowledge and experience that account handlers will need to run fully integrated media campaigns.

Similarly, Ogilvy has announced that from September 2004 all graduate recruits will join a group-wide “360-degree” training programme. Again the aim is to expose recruits to a variety of media, enabling them to pursue career opportunities in any part of the organisation, which spans advertising, sales promotion, direct marketing, design and interactive media.

Overturning the traditional discipline-based approach to graduate recruitment and development is, of course, part of a much bigger picture – the drive towards media-neutral planning and the creation of the fully integrated agency of the future. It is also part and parcel of the challenge that all media companies face in competing for the best graduates against the likes of management consultants and multinational corporations.

With the concept of the “job for life” dead and buried, what young professionals demand from employers first and foremost is transferable skills and limitless opportunity. Can the media industry offer this? It can – but only when its constituent parts (advertising, PR, direct marketing, sales promotion and interactive media) pull back from their turf wars and offer a more rewarding career path.

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