Instantly, M&C Saatchi's joint chief executive, Moray MacLennan, hit back, saying graduate trainees weren't really exploited and undervalued.
Indeed, agency chiefs continue to maintain that graduates are held in high esteem, in recognition of the fact that they are potentially the future of the agency.
Taking this year's crop of graduate trainees as the seeds from which will grow the future leaders of the industry, Campaign is launching a major two-year study of graduate recruits, tracking the early careers, thoughts and opinions of a handful of this year's intake. But first we wanted to find out whether, in the current economic climate, the advertising industry was still enthusiastically recruiting new graduates; and, equally, whether graduates still see advertising as a desirable career.
It seems that, in 2002, graduates are still desperate to get into the business. Milkround.com, the online facility used by students to find out about companies that are recruiting, has had around 250,000 registrations this year. Of the 125,000 final-year students registered on the site, 46,000 expressed interest in getting into advertising. MacLennan agrees the market is buoyant. "I don't think there's any crisis at all - advertising's in a very good place, and we will come out of the downturn," he says.
But the ad industry only employs 14,000 people in the whole of the country, so only the best will make it. And with students now having to pay tuition fees as well as maintenance, the financial hurdles are high. As many emerge with debts averaging £10,000, it's no surprise if they look for a career with the big blue-chip corporations traditionally offering better starting salaries.
Still, while advertising is increasingly competing against a number of options in the communications field, the lure of the industry as an initial career choice endures.
Hannah Brown, the managing director of the headhunters Kendal Tarrant, which is publishing a graduate recruitment survey, The Young Ones, this month, says: "Communications, in general, is burgeoning. And marketing and media have deposed consulting as the top choice for graduates, as measured in the latest UK Graduate Careers Survey."
After all, a career in advertising has a special allure. Ann Murray Chatterton, the director of training and development at the IPA, puts the timeless appeal of the industry down to its creativity and lack of rigidity. "There's awareness that you can go into the City and earn more money, but you have to do it their way," she says, adding that the IPA's key findings among students show those wanting to get into advertising are interested in people as opposed to pure finance.
Yet agencies are split on whether the number of graduate enquiries has risen or fallen this year. Chris Pinnington, the managing director of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, doesn't think numbers are down, saying the agency took on three graduate trainees out of an initial 942 enquiries. Conversely, Stephen Woodford, WCRS's chief executive, says the number of applicants to the agency has dropped by two-thirds over the past ten years; where before it received 1,200 applicants, it now has only 400.
Chatterton believes the number of agencies recruiting hasn't changed, but that the actual number of recruits has. "The quantity is slightly down, because agencies have been more specific in what they want. But the quality has remained," she says.
Christine Walker, the founder of Walker Media, has found a significant increase in quality: "Our overwhelming observation this year versus last year is that the quality of the graduates is out of sight on what it was before. We had more than 800 applications and saw 40 this year."
But others believe that both the quality and quantity of grads has fallen in recent years. "It's true that the numbers of really good people has declined consistently in the past eight years," Daniel Taylor, D'Arcy's head of account management, reckons.
Either way, agencies continue to have a steady stream of unsolicited enquiries and, being aware that outstanding candidates may get a number of offers, continue to work hard to be the preferred option. As our tables show, agencies are still very actively recruiting graduates despite the recession, although not necessarily across all departments. Media agencies appear to be recruiting as furiously as ever, according to Kendal Tarrant's findings. But for creative agencies, an anomaly has emerged: only around 10 per cent of the agencies Kendal Tarrant surveyed are taking on planners this year.
How agencies actually find their graduates seems to have changed little over the years. The milk round remains the primary source of campus recruitment, relying on good careers officers. Brown says: "Our research among careers officers shows they think advertising is as attractive as ever to undergraduates."
Most officers are still using the IPA reel produced seven years ago - reputedly so in demand they've all been fitted with security tags to stop them disappearing. More recently, though, the IPA created a careers website in conjunction with its brochures, in recognition that students now use the web as an advisory tool much more than careers advisers.
Certain agencies are also moving away from the conventional milk round to a system of work placements. WCRS, for one, thinks a good way of stemming a high attrition rate is to stagger grad intake throughout the year. Others offer internships, and there appears to be a growing trend towards summer schools, long advocated by agencies such as BMP DDB. Many shops, such as M&C Saatchi, have literature at all the career centres, and present at five universities to around 100 people a time. J. Walter Thompson leaves postcards around universities directing students to its application form, online for the first time this year.
The agency then puts the top 25 applicants through a stringent two-day seminar, culminating in a mock pitch.
Still, despite these efforts, many agencies are doubtless missing talent by only targeting the same few universities, broadly based on the calibre of previous candidates found. JWT's managing director, Ros King, would like to see an industry initiative involving all British universities, whereby each agency commits to visiting three or four they wouldn't normally consider, to give an industry talk alongside plugging their own shop.
WPP is the only holding company to treat graduate recruitment so seriously that, in addition to individual agency schemes, the company runs parallel Marketing Fellowships, allowing successful graduates three years' practical work experience from one-year rotations within international WPP companies. They then take up a permanent position within a group company.
The scheme, which has been running since 1997, is obviously designed to offer long-term career prospects within a WPP company and groom the brightest graduates for top corporate jobs. At present, more than 60 grads are working through the international programme.
WPP's scheme sends out the strong signal that it puts training at the heart of the group, which is good for its culture and reputation. And taking such care of its rising stars is a shrewd investment.
It's also a neat way of offering graduates enough stimulation and incentive to stick with the company. With agencies spending around £200,000 to fund and train a grad, the amount of time and effort that goes into getting a return on investment is high. So it's all the more galling when recruits, suffering the two-year itch, are poached by rival shops.
By the third year, graduate trainees will naturally have started to move on - although this may well be changing. While a buoyant employment market can create a lot of movement, there's no doubt that agencies are now seeing the effect of the weak economy.
Recessionary times have slowed job turnover, which is working in agencies' favour; the priority for grads is to hold on to the job they have, rather than look for another.
But what about conditions for graduates once they enter the industry?
One of the original, disillusioned grad's biggest gripes was that she wanted more intellectually stimulating tasks. While graduates still have to earn their spurs on the more menial work, the recession has forced agencies to become more lean and proficient and graduates are actually getting thrown in at the deep-end. The result is more high-end training now it's all hands to the pump. "Graduate trainees do have to take a lot more responsibility more quickly now," Jenny Biggam, Carat's marketing director, agrees.
And although agencies don't want to push their graduate trainees too far, Walker believes the key is to engage them in projects without exposing them. She recently allowed a trainee to sit in on a pitch just to learn the ropes - something welcomed by her client.
Being thrown in at the deep-end, though, has highlighted the issue of payment and the industry remains accused of using graduates as cheap labour.
The findings in our table suggest this year's starting salaries are fairly consistent across the industry. But while graduate recruits complain that other industries pay up to twice as much as a starting salary, agencies are now, more than ever, under huge margin pressure, and maintain that they pay what they can afford.
Biggam says the need for cheap labour in the media industry has lessened because technology has taken a lot of the grunt work out of it. Still, she acknowledges, Carat's churn rate is higher than it likes, and that the industry doesn't pay as well as it should- but she also points to compensation packages such as training, healthcare, pensions and loyalty bonuses as key advantages.
Some agencies are looking into exchange schemes with international agencies, or further financial incentives.
Others are calling for industry-recognised qualifications in advertising.
After all, graduate recruits are essential to the future health of the industry. As Brown sums up: "The proliferation of attractive media and marketing options, the confusion and myths that surround the industry, and the fact that starting salary may exclude many, mean that we are almost certainly inhibiting our ability to attract the best."
And, attracting the best is only the start. As Campaign's disillusioned graduate trainee proved, no matter how wedded newcomers are to the business when they arrive, today's graduates don't necessarily see advertising as a career for life in the way those of a decade or two ago did. Agencies will have to work harder than ever to nurture their new talent and develop their careers.
So, in the next feature in this series, to be published at the beginning of next year, we will look at some of the best graduates from the 2002 intake, how and why they chose advertising, and - crucially - what their initial thoughts and impressions of the industry are.
TOP 20 CREATIVE AGENCIES
AGENCY NAME Grad hiring Positions Starting salary
in offered 2002 in £2002
2002 2001 2000
Abbott Mead Vickers
BBDO 6 7 6 Four account managers,
two planners 18,500
McCann-Erickson 3 4 6 Account handling 18,000
Lowe 6 5 7 Four in account handling,
two in planning 18,000
Ogilvy & Mather 8 8 12 Account executives 18,000
Publicis 3 4 4 Account executives 17,000
J. Walter Thompson 0 5 10 n/a n/a
Saatchi & Saatchi 3 8 0 Account management n/s
Bates UK 3 5 5 Account management 17,000
M&C Saatchi 5 6 4 Account handlers 17,000
Rainey Kelly Campbell
Roalfe/Y&R 3 3 4 Account executives 17,500
BMP DDB 2 5 7 One planner, one
account executive 18,000
TBWA/London 7 7 4 Account managers 18,500
Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper 3 3 2 Advertising trainees n/s
D'Arcy 4 5 6 Account management 18,000
Grey Worldwide 4 3 5 Account management 17,500
WCRS 1 6 4 Account handling 20,000
Leo Burnett 3 3 2 Trainee account
HHCL & Partners n/s n/s n/s n/s n/s
Bartle Bogle Hegarty 3 0 8 Account management 17,000
O'Shea/FCB 1 1 0 Account executive 15,000
TOP 20 MEDIA AGENCIES
AGENCY NAME Grad hiring Positions Starting salary
in offered 2002 in £2002
2002 2001 2000
Carat 14 17 37 Two interactive
press and broadcast n/s
Zenith Media 17 16 26 Media assistants 16,000
MediaCom 18 14 20 One print scheduler;
one in IT; two
14 execs n/s
MindShare Media UK 13 6 n/s Two planners; two
others buyers n/s
Initiative Media 4 4 6 Two researchers; one
planner; one buyer 18,000
Partnership 11 8 8 Four planners; seven
MediaVest 3 8 11 Two planning; one
new media 18,000
PHD 6 10 20 Six assistants;
three general; two
interactive; one TV 14-18,000
Manning Gottlieb OMD 7-10 4 12 Planner/buyers 18,000
Universal McCann n/s n/s n/s n/s n/s
BBJ Communications 5 1 11 Two planners; two
buyers; one non-
Mediaedge:cia 7 5 8 One research; one
TV buyer; five
Optimedia 4 7 6 Planner/buyers: two
UK, one int'l, one
regional press 16,500
Walker Media 6 3 12 Five planner/buyers;
one TV planner/buyer 16,000
Media Planning Group 8 5 14 One rschr; planner/
buyers: one online,
five UK, one int'l 15,000
MBS Media 1 10 10 One buyer n/s
TAP (The Allmond
Partnership) 1 1 1 One planner/buyer 16,000
Group 1 3 6 Researchers n/s
Brilliant 2 2 2 One planner; one buyer 14,000?
MediaVest Manchester 9 16 7 Two rshcrs; one HR;
four broadcast; one
interactive; one media n/s