Calling all grads ...

The ever-increasing competition for the best graduates makes getting the right people more difficult than ever. To help them select only the best, agencies are moving away from recruitment methods such as the milk round and interview, and employing new tactics, John Tylee writes.

If you want to see what happens when Pop Idol and The Apprentice meet advertising, then tune in to five on 21 February to watch a reality-TV show called Selling Yourself.

The programme follows the fortunes of five graduates on a roller-coaster ride from euphoric highs to deep disappointment as they vie for the prize of an account executive's job at McCann Erickson Manchester.

The show's format is familiar enough: two recruitment specialists with a withering line in questioning; an initiative test involving a bucket of ping-pong balls and coat hangers; agonising suspense as the candidates await their fate and a joyous winner getting the news from the agency's chief executive, Sue Little.

Of course, opinion will always be divided about whether putting hopefuls in a goldfish bowl is any way to pick the right graduate trainee. But a programme such as Selling Yourself indicates the lengths to which agencies will now go to secure their future senior managers.

It is not that advertising is not still a popular choice with university leavers. Agencies are deluged with hundreds of applications every year.

The problem is how to get the pick of the crop. "The fact is we are all looking for the same thing," Kate Morris, Saatchi & Saatchi's human resources director, says. "The star performers are getting more than one job offer so we have to be able to differentiate ourselves."

Ironically, the biggest agencies are becoming victims of their own success.

With competition for the handful of places on offer so intense, increasing numbers of graduates are turning to small, independent shops. Indeed, some smaller shops including Clemmow Hornby Inge and Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners have teamed up with a graduate entry programme, run on their behalf by The Garden, a headhunting company.

What is more, merchant banks and management consultants continue to be powerful magnets for many "stars" - not least because the average starting salaries, about £30,000, far exceed the £18,000 to £20,000 most agency graduates are paid on arrival: not a great monthly pay packet, particularly if you happen to be saddled with massive student debt.

Instead, agencies must convince graduates money is not everything and they can stimulate the best brains in a way their rivals cannot match.

"Sure, graduates can get more money elsewhere," the IPA's director of training and development, Ann Murray Chatterton, concedes. "But they are aware that if they do so, they may well have to sacrifice some of their personality and creativity."

Many in the industry believe reality recruitment TV programmes - and similar attention-grabbing stunts attempted by agencies in the past - are not the way forward.

Experience certainly suggests such ventures have not caught on. In the mid-90s, the then D'Arcy Massius Benton & Bowles was one of the first agencies to break with convention by inviting graduates not to submit a CV, but a short video in which they had to describe a day in their lives, their three favourite ads and their most embarrassing moment.

The initiative was never repeated. Nor was a more recent tactic used by TBWA\London: organising a Pop Idol-style contest to fill its graduate places. And Grey London will not be subjecting any more of its graduate applicants to the Big Brother treatment the class of 2003 endured.

Three years ago, it put 25 graduates into the Big Brother house in Elstree, where they spent a day on tasks to test their creativity and ability to work together. The house's hidden cameras allowed executives to observe candidates without interrupting them.

Sarona Taylor, 25, a Grey account manager who underwent the Big Brother experience, where challenges included making and selling paper aeroplanes, believes the experiment worked. "Creative industries need to be creative in the way they recruit their people," she says.

But was it just a gimmick? "The candidates never saw it that way," Chris Hirst, the agency's managing director, claims. "We found it a rather good method of initial selection."

Since then, Grey's bar has played host to a party for 120 graduates, who had executives move among them, earmarking potential candidates for placements.

Last year, it changed tactics again, by making its pitch to universities earlier than its rivals in the hope of not only reaching the best-organised, but also the most committed candidates.

"It is hard to know what has worked best," Hirst admits. "Perhaps we need a combination. But I would not go the reality-TV route, even if we were given the opportunity. People's careers should not be the subject of mass entertainment."

Most agencies agree using reality TV-style methods to recruit staff does not work because it favours the most extrovert candidates, not necessarily the most talented. But they are looking at their recruitment processes and moving past the "milk round and application form" approach.

Nick Grime runs the executive research company JanMac and often advises university leavers. He says: "More and more agencies are moving away from traditional graduate training schemes because they do not work as well as they should do. Placement schemes tend to be more successful."

What cannot easily be changed is the laborious process of sifting through the annual pile of graduate applications. However, many big agencies try to spread the load across a number of senior managers.

At Leo Burnett, graduates can access application forms on the Farmer Sutra website, www.farmersutra.com. Here, wannabes can not only learn about the inner workings of an agency, but also talk to current graduate trainees about what they do. "Graduate recruitment is very time-consuming and this makes it a bit easier," Nick Morrell, the agency executive who organises its graduate programme, says.

What is changing is what happens after agencies have cut down the number of applicants to perhaps a dozen or fewer. How do they ensure a brilliant interviewee can actually do the job? And, even more important, how do they stop their intake falling prey to what one agency chief brands the cheque book-waving "magpies" who swoop on any promising graduate account executive with two years of expensive training under their belt?

Where once agencies placed heavy emphasis on the set-piece interview and the ability to talk interestingly about selling fridges to Eskimos for five minutes, the trend now is towards extended periods of acclimatisation.

Whether, as in the case of Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi, these are short, summer-school courses or, as at Ogilvy & Mather, many months of work experience, the aims are broadly the same: to ensure graduates fully understand what marketing communications is all about, to allow managers to pick the best and to keep them loyal after they are hired.

Increasingly, agencies believe a good way of doing this is to have their graduate trainees become evangelists for their agency to the best of the batch that will follow them. At JWT, the newest graduate trainees are asked to review the agency's standard application form and suggest changes based on their experiences.

O&M has taken this idea even further by asking last year's graduates to man a blog they designed themselves and use it to communicate with potential new applicants. In fact, last year's graduate trainees were asked to look after the whole of this year's graduate recruitment campaign, from designing the recruitment ads to writing individual letters to applicants.

These letters contained the writer's e-mail address, so candidates could ask questions about the scheme in confidence. Those eventually chosen then underwent six weeks of basic training, followed by 18 months of placement across three Ogilvy group companies.

Publicis' summer school began five years ago as an opportunity for graduates and those still studying for degrees but, from this year, will become the agency's main vehicle for graduate selection. Unusually, although the summer school is primarily for graduates, places will also be available to Publicis staff, such as PAs, looking to move into account handling.

Those selected for the two-week course get a series of presentations on all areas of agency activity. Afterwards, they get to put what they have learned into practice by pitching to a real client, having developed a strategy and briefed the creatives.

"The candidates get a real feel for advertising in general and Publicis in particular," Elizabeth de Vise, the client director who runs the course, says. "At the end of it, they have a really clear idea of what they want to do."

Saatchis' summer scholarship programme adopts a "catch 'em early" policy, targeting second-year undergraduates. Last year, two people were hired from the dozen who took part. There is an intensive induction course ("A lot of them do not even know what account management is," Morris says) and their initiative is also assessed.

Last year's programme gained particular notoriety when one participant rose to the challenge of finding the most unusual place for the agency's "nothing is impossible" logo by planting it on the M&C Saatchi website, much to the chagrin of the Golden Square agency.

TOM GILBERT Age: 23 Graduated: Masters in Philosophy and Politics, Bristol University Joined: Ogilvy, 2004 intake Now: Graduate trainee

"When you are a graduate, probably not living in London, all the agencies you apply to seem similar. Ogilvy's graduate website (www.ogilvy.co. uk/grads) is an alternative voice: it really makes the agency stand out.

"We had this year's applicants in the agency for drinks the other day and the feedback from them about the new scheme was great. Most of them used the e-mail addresses we sent them to ask this year's graduates for advice.

"The experience of different disciplines has been a plus for me. When I joined I wanted to do advertising, but I've already had experience in PR and healthcare and really enjoyed it. It's going to be very difficult to know what I'll end up doing. But I've certainly come to understand the importance of direct marketing."

MARTIN RILEY Age: 30 Graduated: Business and Economics, Cardiff University Joined: Saatchi & Saatchi, 2000 summer-school intake Now: Account director, Visa

"I was working for a charity in New York when I met a former agency man who suggested I might consider a job in advertising.

"Not only was I lucky enough to be one of the 12 people selected for the summer scholarship out of the 800 who applied but I was also chosen to be linked up with a girl at the agency who was running a pitch. This really gives you a chance to shine because you have got nothing to lose.

"Looking back, I think the programme is a really honest way of vetting graduates. It's not just about performing well on the day. And because you are taken seriously at an early stage, you feel you owe something to the company. I see my long-term future here."

CHRISTIAAN LETTE Age: 25 Graduated: History, St Andrews University Joined: Publicis, 2003 summer-school intake Now: Campaign manager, Procter & Gamble

"I'd always been interested in advertising but wasn't too sure what I would do. Commercial banking or property development were other possibilities.

"I tried getting as much agency work experience as possible and had a spell at Leith London. But it wasn't until I was three days into the Publicis summer school that I knew advertising was what I wanted. The course is full-on and quite daunting but it really gives you a taste of what a big agency is all about. I felt really comfortable in the environment.

"Could the course be improved? I don't think it has many flaws and is managed well. Perhaps some trips outside the agency and into the field might be a good idea."

HARRY DROMEY Age: 22 Graduated: Politics, Bristol University Joined: Leo Burnett, 2005 intake Now: Graduate trainee

"I thought I'd like to be a barrister but I quickly realised that it wasn't all like Judge John Deed and that you didn't actually get into court very often. I'd always been a great fan of the advertising industry and very critical of ads. I've never let them just wash over me.

"Of the websites I looked at, Leo Burnett's Farmer Sutra was the most impressive. All the stages are Farmer Sutra branded and it really brings home to you the importance of brand building. I couldn't imagine working for an agency where your performance in the Big Brother house would help get you a job.

"Because I've been treated so well, I feel loyal to the agency. I feel fortunate compared to some of my friends on graduate schemes, where managers brought up in the 80s can treat them thoughtlessly."