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April 4, 2008

Scott Knox: Graduate recruitment ? Reasons to be cheerful, part one

The MCCA runs a service for member marketing communications agencies whereby we recruit and place bright, enthusiastic graduates in agencies. We are therefore at the very front end of graduate recruitment and can see with our own eyes the quality of talent being attracted to the industry. Since Jan 2006, the signs are hugely encouraging.

In fact, the past 16 months have been nothing short of tremendous. Some of the CVs the MCCA has received have been outstanding – very bright, talented individuals who could work and be successful in most professional industries. This is great news for our sector because without a healthy graduate intake, the long-term future for agencies is uncertain. The big question is, now we’ve attracted the talent can we keep hold of it?

It’s a complete about-turn from what was happening as recently as 2005. At that time anecdotal evidence showed that, for recently qualified graduates, a career in marketing and advertising had lost its appeal. Indeed, wide sections of the marketing industry, both on the agency and client side, were suffering from a severe shortage of fresh talent, to the point that some industry commentators were calling for remedial action to be taken immediately.

Better salaries, better prospects

At first glance the reason for marketing’s decline in graduate appeal wasn’t hard to spot. Figures compiled by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (ARG), which represents over 600 organisations, showed that the median salary for newly qualified graduates in 2005 was £23,000. For graduate marketers, this total was just £17,000, 26% lower. Most worrying was the fact that graduate salaries for investment banking started at £35,000.

However, the problems that confronted marketing went deeper. Top of the list was the fact that other industries were offering more precisely defined career paths that presented better, long-standing prospects. Marketing has been particularly guilty of a short-term outlook where graduates can be lucky if they see beyond a year in the industry. Add to this a lack of structured training regimes outside of the main trade bodies, and it’s easy to see why graduates were bypassing the profession and moving into different areas.

Addressing the issues
So what’s changed? Why have the past 16 months seen a transformation in graduate recruitment? The reasons are varied, but it appears that at long last our industry is addressing many of the issues and problems that have confronted it. Better starting salaries, more structured training programmes and improved career pathways have all played their part.

In addition, the proliferation of media channels and the transformation of the advertising landscape through digital technology have made the sector an exciting place to work once again. New advertising channels, such as mobile broadcasting and new-fangled technologies like RFID and webcasts, etc, are creating unforeseen opportunities that are making advertising an extraordinarily cutting-edge profession to work within.

While all this is welcome news, the big question is whether the marketing communications industry will be able to keep hold of these graduates and show the foresight to continue to train them and develop their careers. Graduate retention levels, after all, are diabolical in our industry.

Working together to keep the best

This can only happen if the chronic short term-ism of traditional agency career paths is replaced with a much longer-term vision for each employee. Appraisal systems should be designed with this in mind and our industry must recognise that individual career development is crucial.

The MCCA’s professional development group, which meets quarterly, is committed to tackling all the aforementioned issues. Now that the industry is attracting top-quality graduates, it’s in everybody’s interests to retain and nurture the next generation of agency CEOs. But we can’t do it alone. Neither can agencies. No, clients themselves must invest in their agency partners in order that staff training can be viewed as a long-term strategic investment, not a drain on an agency’s bottom line. This is really the only way forward.

Scott Knox is managing director of the Marketing Communication Consultants Association

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