Close-Up: How graduate recruitment is evolving

With starting salaries less competitive, adland must highlight other attractions. By Sara Kimberley.

As with most things in the industry at the moment, the days of large numbers of top-level university graduates joining advertising agencies seem to be over.

First-year trainees only accounted for an estimated 1.3 per cent of the employee base in 2009, down from 3.9 per cent in 2008, according to the IPA, and there are very few signs of this trend changing anytime soon.

The problem may lie in part with the changing attitudes of graduates. After all, mainstream advertising is hardly booming at the moment. Equally, with the average student debt totalling £15,812 in 2009, it's no surprise that graduates are looking at ways to accumulate some cash sooner rather than later. And with entry-level advertising students now expecting an average salary of £19,000 (a decline in real terms over previous years, taking inflation into account), abandoning advertising and the media for the law or financial services is an increasingly enticing option.

Ry Morgan, on a graduate placement scheme at TBWA\London, says: "I was the exception out of my friends to go into advertising. They all wanted to go into big money, such as finance."

Tim Jones, the human resources director of Aegis Media and deputy chair of the IPA People Management Group, acknowledges that salaries will always be a stumbling block for advertising, but urges graduates to look beyond the initial pay. "The starting salary in the industry is a challenge as it can't rival that of financial services," he says, "but grads need to remember that should they do well, they can progress quite quickly."

Perhaps, then, the problem lies with the agencies themselves which, under financial pressure, have trimmed back on entry-level schemes. Chris Macdonald, the chief executive of McCann London, agrees that the number of talented graduates has dissipated, but suggests that this is because of the quality of current graduate schemes as much as the changing demands of grads. "We are attracting the same talent but it's harder to find and there is less of it - so agencies should be investing more in proper graduate programmes," he says.

However, the changing industry landscape has led to many agencies broadening their recruitment initiatives, allowing them to bring in the best talent.

Leo Burnett, for example, no longer races to recruit graduates out of university, instead employing people who have had a few years' experience elsewhere.

Sarah Baumann, Leo Burnett's group talent strategy manager, says: "We've realised we can add value more from people with other work or life experience. Graduates working in related creative industries have already explored more avenues and can apply that experience with us."

Meanwhile, at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the agency has similarly tweaked its recruitment process. It is offering graduates positions in areas such as project management to give them more opportunities to fulfil their potential outside the standard areas of account management, planning and the creative department.

Not only does this give graduates more chance to make the most of their abilities, it also allows agencies to cast their nets wider when it comes to searching for new talent.

"We still need to recruit from the top universities and have those key partnerships in place," Baumann says. "But it's certainly not the only place we look any more."

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AGENCY HEAD - Tim Bath, creative services director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"We need to find bright, fresh blood to keep the industry going, as grads are the absolute backbone of any agency.

"The problems have come in the past because people have left university with an idealistic view of advertising but with no idea what department they want to, or can, get into.

"But whereas in the past they've been shoehorned into planning and account management and it hasn't worked, we need to now offer things such as project management to give them more opportunities to succeed."

GRADUATE - Dan Zell, graduate, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"Getting into advertising did take a lot of thought because of the huge debt I'd racked up, but I knew I wanted to work in a cutting-edge industry. I was conscious that while I could go into another industry purely to make money, I wouldn't necessarily enjoy it.

"I was lucky to get on to the grad scheme here and work on Virgin Atlantic. But I now look at the senior management and I realise that I'd definitely like to be doing what they do.

"You also realise that there is scope to earn serious money in this industry but it doesn't come easily, nor should it."

AGENCY HEAD - Chris Macdonald, chief executive, McCann London

"The number of talented grads coming into the industry has dissipated. There's less of them now and not as much graduate training. A lot of our graduates do still come straight from university, although we've broadened our recruitment process.

"You don't have to have a marketing degree; in fact, I think it's worse if you have one as it's utter nonsense. The communications industry has changed and now you need a broader skillset.

"Instead, I want people who are interesting and have a bit more to them. It's why we're trying new things such as giving grads the opportunity to work in our Japanese agency for a few months."

RECRUITMENT HEAD - Tim Jones, human resources director, Aegis Media; deputy chair, IPA People Management Group

"Following a tough financial year and with an increasing level of disillusionment among applicants, agencies need to put more effort into recruitment than ever before.

"Generation Y are looking for employment now and they are looking more intensely on what exactly is on offer to them. They are looking at exactly what is put in to their development, at how they will be trained and what it could lead to in the future.

"The perceived lack of money in the industry will always be a problem but if grads show they can generate value, then they can be confident that they will be rewarded."

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