Gen Covid: Adland's chiefs on how to build a career during the pandemic

Campaign asked the leaders of the top creative, digital and media agencies and media owners to tell us anonymously what has really been happening to their junior staff and their efforts to recruit the next generation. Some of the 22 leaders were happy to put their comments on the record. Here’s what they had to say.

Adland’s placements and entry level jobs dealt a heavy blow from Covid-19, Campaign research finds

Getting into the industry

Those trying to break into the industry might want to look away now – the pandemic has already had a direct and brutal impact on the opportunities available for placements and entry-level jobs. The majority (73%) of adland’s business leaders think that Covid-19 will make it harder for young talent to get into and progress within the industry.

About 77% of those asked had either decreased (50%) or ended (27%) their placement schemes in 2020. Meanwhile, 68% had either decreased (54%) or ended their entry-level job schemes (14%).

One leader explained that they had to postpone their summer work experience scheme for 30 people because their office was closed and they didn’t have the resources to run it remotely due to a number of their staff being on furlough. A hiring freeze across the business had also paused their usual entry-level recruitment.

This was a similar tale to other businesses, which said financial pressure meant they were focusing purely on existing staff. Some had already made redundancies. “Covid-19 has meant costs are under extreme scrutiny. Unless we have leavers, we will be unable to add entry-level job roles until things pick up,” one wrote. “We have prioritised our existing people, which has had an unfortunate impact on those wanting to join us,” another said.

Some warn new entrants that uncertainty and an over-supply of talent will mean that “it’s a buyer’s market, so the competition for roles will be especially tough”.

But most leaders are optimistic about the outlook for next year, with 68% expecting to offer work placements or entry-level schemes either at the same level as before Covid-19 (41%) or higher (27%). Of course, whether these come to fruition depends on how Covid-19 continues to affect the industry, but these intentions show it could be a short-term blip for recruitment. As one wrote: “Covid-19 may delay the entry of some people, but I don’t foresee a long-term problem with this.”

M&C Saatchi London’s chief executive, Camilla Kemp, agreed: “Good agencies will make more effort than ever to think imaginatively about how they attract, recruit and critically support talent. These people are our future, after all.”

The impact on existing staff

More than half of those asked said they were not offering pay rises to junior staff this year. Or if they were, these were linked to promotions alone and not standard increases. But no-one said junior staff were the only employees affected – many businesses had put all pay rises on hold. “There have been no pay rises at any level in 2020. They will begin again in 2021 with those on the lowest salaries being prioritised for rises,” one agency boss wrote.

Indeed, the general consensus was that the careers of existing junior staff would not be disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Most (59%) expected staff of all levels to be affected equally, albeit in disparate ways.

If anything, respondents thought it would be senior – and therefore more expensive – staff that would bear the brunt of the cost-cutting measures (23%).

“Younger staff’s salaries are less vulnerable to cuts or redundancies simply because they do not cost the company as much money as more senior staffers,” one leader explained. While others said those on higher salaries usually had higher outgoings and would be worse off financially. “Job security affects people with mortgages and families more,” one wrote. 

Another leader summed it up: “This pandemic will bring about great change in the way this industry works. Given the option, I would choose to be setting out on a career, rather than towards the end of it, as change always brings opportunity.”

Where juniors may suffer more is their long-term development. Havas Media Group’s managing director, Stephanie Marks, explains: “I feel they will suffer most in terms of their learning journey, simply because we tend to have a steeper learning curve early on in our careers, and one that is best suited to a face-to-face operation.”

James Wildman, president of Hearst Magazines Europe, said: “It’s really hard for young people nowadays. Getting established in your career involves osmosis and sitting in meetings, learning from those with more experience gained from years in the industry. And networking is also really important for building relationships and profile, business-development and the social scene.

“Our virtual communications and remote working is narrowing down everyone’s contacts and social interactions and we should do all we can to prevent this for our young talent. Through our brands, we’ve been launching virtual events and mentoring programmes, which are designed to equip young people with advice, tips and resources to help them navigate this challenging period.”

Wellbeing is another related issue. “Young people are generally more affected by remote working because of living alone or in shared accommodation. I have found that younger members of the team are by far the most keen to return to the office,” one said. While others stressed the difficulties of managers being able to spot issues with staff when they were working from home.

Future-proofing the talent pipeline

So what can the industry do to future-proof the talent pipeline?

Some businesses – particularly media owners – have been taking advantage of the government’s new Kickstart Scheme, which provides funding to create six-month placements for out-of-work 16-
to 24-year-olds who are at risk of long-term unemployment.

Others stress the importance of working with schools, colleges and universities on outreach schemes, creating apprenticeships and generally broadening access to the industry. Most are putting a greater emphasis on staff training. Some are revisiting work models, such as job sharing or part-time contracts, and are embracing remote working permanently to help a broader range of people in more locations to enter the industry.

But the key point is to make sure that the industry’s future doesn’t get lost in the process of daily survival. As one leader wrote: “It is incumbent upon leaders to get our young talents’ careers back to where they should be. We will be investing behind this objective in 2021.”

While most of adland would not have chosen this environment, one leader pointed out there are benefits to enduring difficult times: “It might not feel like it right now, but this is a very difficult experience that will enhance individual capability. Successfully managing disruption is a highly valued experience.”

As one leader said, it’s a career still worth the fight: “This is still a great business. It’s still a business where each day is different. But it is tough. And I fear it will only get tougher. So it’s not an ‘easy option’ career. But like all the best choices in life, choose it because you love it.”