Media Forum: Is IPA Census good news?

Does a rise in agency employment signal an upturn, Alasdair Reid asks.

Well, that was a result and no mistake. The IPA Census report, published last week, revealed that last year (to 1 September 2010), there were 5,684 people employed in UK media agencies. This is not exactly a mighty army - massed together as a crowd, the sector wouldn't fill Barnet's palatial Underhill Stadium.

But the big deal is that the total is actually up on the on the 2009 figure of 5,296. Reports of the media industry's imminent demise, we might conclude, have been greatly exaggerated.

The theory ran that media agencies had compounded an already bad recessionary situation by instigating a pitch frenzy - and clients took advantage by screwing their strategic marketing partners to the floor. Margins would hit historically low levels, some observers said - and the assumption was that this would have an obvious knock-on effect when it came to the abilities of media agencies to hire staff.

And, yes, you could argue that another little gem in the report is rather telling. Compared to their creative counterparts, media agencies are far more likely to take on raw trainees, straight from further education. Proving, you might surmise, that the sector has started to opt for quantity over quality.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that media agencies lost a significant amount of experienced talent at the top end last year, so you could certainly find grounds for concluding that heavy-hitting talent has merely been replaced by the low cost and the lightweight.

Still, there's a positive spin to be found even here, if you're so inclined. You could argue that we're witnessing a generational change, with the media agency marketplace, having survived the worst market conditions in a generation, now determined to reinvent itself from the ground up.

One way or another, though, these figures have to be a source of encouragement. Absolutely, Alex Altman, the chief executive of Initiative, agrees - and not just because they might underscore the end of the downturn. He comments: "The figures reflect the fact that the media sector has begun moving into new areas - and in that sense is focused on growth. Media agencies are now more able to offer services in areas like digital, analytics and research and insight."

The danger here, though, is that if agencies are bringing through new offerings, they will probably be investing ahead of the curve. Isn't that an inherently risky business?

Altman believes that media agencies are good at gauging that sort of risk. "The balance, as always, is investing for where you want to be as against investing for where you're at. I'd argue that the risk being taken on is minimal, depending on your ability to recruit the right people," he states.

Obviously, we shall soon see. In the shorter term, the figures surely reflect an underlying recovery in spend patterns. Which is good news for media owners too, isn't it? Absolutely, Neil Jones, the director of commercial strategy at News International, agrees. "Yes, it is," he says. "Not in the linear, black and white way implied - though the market is definitely beginning to pick up."

Equally important, he suggests, is the notion that media agencies have been seeking reinvention. He explains: "I think the opportunities for media agencies have been to broaden the range of services they offer and perhaps these figures reflect their success in doing that."

Mark Creighton, the chief operating officer at Mindshare, also picks up on the diversified services theme. He says: "Media businesses have become more focused on outcomes for clients rather than just on media pricing. We've seen the emergence of the importance of data analysts - recognising that clients need to get more out of their spend.

"Agencies have been diversifying into content, social and mobile. With new revenue opportunities, we may need talent we don't have already, so we have to go and hire them or train them ourselves. We're seeing the emergence of a new landscape. It's happening across town. Business have recognised that you can't stand still."

But Stephen Farquhar, the managing director of Zenith Media, is more cautious. He agrees that the sector is expanding its skill-sets, while also seeking to recover lost ground. He comments: "It's a function of re-resourcing to get back to pre-2009 staffing levels, buoyed by some pretty good organic growth in 2010 - plus an understanding that we needed to swiftly mitigate the talent gap caused by the pause in graduate recruitment in 2009."

But he still worries about underlying economic fragility. "These figures are, at best, cause for cautious optimism," he concludes.

YES - Alex Altman, chief executive, Initiative

"2008 and 2009 were very difficult years - and the figures indicate that we're coming to the end of very testing times. There's some truth in the idea that if you're first in (to a recession), you might be first out."

YES - Neil Jones, director of commercial strategy, News International

"I suspect the jobs are in things like social media and branded content, and media agencies have grasped digital in a way that creative agencies haven't. It's fantastic that they're attracting more graduates. That's very healthy."

YES - Mark Creighton, chief operating officer, Mindshare

"Yes, there are good grounds for optimism. At the end of 2009 everyone froze. And then there was a realisation that if there was to be growth, people would have to be more innovative."

MAYBE - Stephen Farquhar, managing director, Zenith Media

"The figures are, at best, cause for cautious optimism - but the way ad investment levels are pegged to consumer confidence metrics, and the precariousness of consumer confidence in 2011, makes me worry all over again."

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