MEDIA FORUM: Why are media companies recruiting outsiders? - Media companies have made one or two left of field and adventurous appointments in recent months. So why are they hiring people with no media background? Alasdair Reid investigates

There are one or two senior media company bosses who have an almost legendary ability to whinge about how difficult it is to hire the right people. It's not necessarily the fact that the good people are expensive (though you suspect this lies somewhere at the heart of the matter) but that the right people can't be found at any price.

There are one or two senior media company bosses who have an almost legendary ability to whinge about how difficult it is to hire the right people. It's not necessarily the fact that the good people are expensive (though you suspect this lies somewhere at the heart of the matter) but that the right people can't be found at any price.

The whingers are the ones who've probably forgotten, rather conveniently, that there was a period not so long ago when they stopped recruiting completely - and that media companies have effectively lost a generation. And they're also the ones who don't quite believe that run of the mill financial services companies in the City take on graduate trainees straight out of college and pay them pounds 25,000.

But they (the whingers) are probably in a minority these days. Over the past couple of years, media specialists, especially those at the leading edge of the business, have taken a rather innovative approach to recruitment.

Last week's appointment by Media Planning of Jeani Rodgers, a partner at HHCL & Partners, is a case in point. Rodgers will become the director of innovation at Catalyst, the agency's strategic planning unit, taking over from Simon Sadie, who is moving to become the managing director of the group's new-media unit, Media Contacts.

Rodgers has experience in public relations and at HHCL she worked for the agency's non-advertising communications division HHCL EM, where her responsibilities included advertiser-funded television and radio. But she doesn't exactly have a traditional media background.

What are the pros and cons of hiring senior people who don't come up through the usual channels? What skills and insights do they bring? What are media agencies hoping to achieve when they choose this route?

Marc Mendoza, the managing director of Media Planning, reveals that he considered many candidates: 'The others we considered were traditional media people. They were inventive, innovative and creative but they weren't different and we feel we have to differentiate ourselves. Sometimes we have to fish outside the traditional media pools.

'With account planners, only a few want to work in media agencies and only a few are equipped to do so. You have to be robust because often you are being asked to force new things through and you have to be persuasive to do that. When what you are proposing requires a leap of faith from the client, it needs confidence too.'

But is there a potential downside? Of course, Mendoza says. 'They have to be intelligent enough to know that innovation has its place within a communications strategy. And, yes, there can be a culture shock. The risks are all concentrated within the first six to 12 months and, from the agency point of view, it's not appropriate for everyone. If what you are about is the maintenance of the old ways of doing things then this is not for you.'

Jerry Hill, the group chief executive of Initiative Media, would agree with that. Initiative has made one or two adventurous appointments in recent times. Not counting his own, of course - in any case, it's rather more common for media sales heavyweights to cross over. But it has also managed to poach Peter Barton from Marks & Spencer and Marcus Whewell from Procter & Gamble. They are now Initiative's commercial director and new-business director respectively.

Hill says that this sort of move is inevitable - media companies are looking for innovative solutions as they chart a difficult course. He adds: 'The communications industry is caught in a vice between a 'land grab' fight for influence over the marketing pound on the one hand and, on the other, a fundamental need to differentiate themselves in an over-supplied market. One of the manifestations of this will be the inevitable movement of talented people from one discipline to another in an attempt to deliver this strategy. Their success will ultimately be measured in the real business effect of their contribution rather than the slick promise that adorns the new-business credentials.'

In other words, this has to be more than a gimmick. But what is the real business effect? Alison Wright, a partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, joined the agency from HHCL. She was brought in to meet clients' changing demands.

She explains: 'The important thing is how clients approach communications planning these days. Increasingly, they think first about contact planning - how they intend to take things out to the consumer. If you do that, the channels you select then dictate the creative approach. That's a big change. The other factor is that media agencies have embraced new media very readily - and it's the people who control the purse strings who can make that happen. Media a decade ago was very process-driven. Now it's ideas-driven. To do it well you need good brand understanding. We believe strongly that media can give you a competitive advantage but only if you start with brands.'

But was there something of a culture shock when she first joined? 'Manning Gottlieb obviously feels very like a creative agency in its approach but, yes, there was a bit,' she admits.

'They are more data-driven than creative agencies. The issue is to avoid number blindness - to see past the numbers to what the real ideas are.'

Did Paul O'Neill, a partner at Michaelides & Bednash, feel that? He was previously on the client side with BT as well as being the new-business director at Delaney Fletcher Bozell. He says that the transition was very easy - but he argues that M&B can't be pigeon-holed alongside mainstream media companies.

He states: 'My background is very much about thinking about brands, on the client side as well as within an agency. I got to the point when I found the advertising landscape a bit narrow and I wanted a new challenge.

I thought I'd find that in America, probably on the West Coast, but when I met George (Michaelides, a co-founder of M&B) we immediately clicked. I come from a background of brands, problem-solving and ideas. That's exactly what M&B do. But I don't think I would work in a classic media agency where everything is in predetermined boxes.'

But what skill-sets was he expected to bring? 'I think what they were looking for was an eclectic skill-set and an eclectic perspective. I think I have brought that wider viewpoint. Companies can't innovate unless they have people from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. They need people who are not set in their ways.'



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