Building a career online

Mark Booth, Ellis Watson, and Martina King are among the latest recruits to leave high-profile positions within traditional media companies, to seek fame and fortune online.

But is the information superhighway really paved with gold? And what do those thinking of following in the footsteps of Booth, Watson and King need to know?

The first thing to ask is whether new media is right for you. Just because everyone else seems to be jumping on the new media bandwagon, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the jobs available will suit you.

Ellis Watson who quit his job as general manager of News International’s internet service provider to launch Talkcast, a digital messaging and information service, is clear about what should and shouldn’t motivate you to move into new media.

“Don’t go and do it because you think you ought to, do it because you feel it in your heart. Otherwise you are just being one of the sheep,” he says. “You are the wrong person if you are doing it because you want to earn more money or because all your mates are doing it.”

Certainly the style of working, and the potential lack of job security can be unsettling. Andrew Swift, joint managing director at recruitment consultant Price Jamieson says some people can find it very stressful. “Others are suited to the pace at which it all changes and the lack of certainty,” he says.

Helen Mayer falls into this last category. Earlier this year she moved over from her sales exec role on The Guardian and Observer to become client sales and sponsorship manager for Guardian Unlimited, the umbrella brand for The Guardian websites.

“The pace is relentless, but it’s great fun,” she says. “There’s nobody to say you can’t do that. The editorial and techy people are more interactive with the commercial team. People are very open minded and approachable and will explore any idea. I know it’s naff to say it, but it is without boundaries and preconceptions.”

So what opportunities exist for people seeking to make the leap from traditional to new media?

Neil Barnes, Phee Farrer Jones director, says new media companies are currently recruiting in three main areas: “Selling ad space on websites, seeking out new business, such as managing websites, and selling the design services to clients who want to outsource their website,” he says.

As many as 300 start-up companies are recruiting at the moment, as well as the more established media and technology players such as Microsoft, eBay, Yahoo!, Carlton Online and Associated New Media, and there are opportunities at every level, from the most junior to the most senior.

If you are thinking about a career online now is a good time to make the move, simply because there are so few people with online experience and a high demand for staff. If you have a good record in traditional media sales, and an interest in the internet, companies are flinging open their doors.

“It will get harder to get in,” says Barnes. “There are very few people with more than 12 to 18 months experience now, but in a year’s time that will have changed.”

Once you have made the decision to move, you need to prepare yourself thoroughly. Whatever you do, do not turn up at an interview without having spent time looking at the company’s website.

“You have to understand the internet as an advertising medium,” says PFJ’s Barnes. “Look at what mainstream advertisers are doing. Nearly all ads have a web address with them now.”

It is also important to be clear about what skills and expertise online employers are looking for and to demonstrate that you have them.

According to Barnes, new media companies are particularly keen on people with agency sales experience who have lots of good contacts and established relationships with advertisers and agencies. “They also want good presentation skills and people who can explain things in layman’s terms” he says.

“Part of the job involves convincing people that [new media] is just another platform,” adds Guardian Unlimited’s Mayer. “You often have to educate clients, and be quite intuitive about what they know. While they might be commercially astute they are not prepared to admit they don’t know much about new media.”

Beth Lewis, a consultant with recruitment consultants Michael Page says that while sales ability is more important than technology skills, candidates must have a passion for the internet. “You can’t work in sales if you don’t believe in what you are selling,” she says.

Martin Dunn, managing director and editor-in-chief of Associated New Media,was editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News before making his leap into new media three years ago. “A lot of the skills are the same,” he says. “You need an eye for content and presentation, the same as newspapers.”

Watson agrees. “The transition is not quite as enormous as people think,” he says.

According to Martina King, who quit as managing director of TSMS to join Yahoo! Europe as its first UK managing director, the most important thing about the internet is that although everyone is new to it, it is just another medium. “A lot of the skills are transferable, and we are all learning together,” she says.

King says that job seekers need to have a flexible attitude and be lateral thinkers. “You need to be self-starting and good at getting things done,” she adds.

Despite the similar skills and qualities required to work online there are still fundamental differences to working in traditional media. “The people at the top are very young, and it’s a very dynamic environment,” says King.

Another difference is there are less rigid divisions between different parts of a new media company.

“Whereas in newspapers there is a clear demarcation between advertising and editorial, on the internet it is less clearly defined,” says Associated New Media’s Dunn.

So what salaries and packages can employees expect to earn in the new media world – is the information superhighway really paved with gold – or at least with potentially lucrative share options?

Packages obviously vary from one company to another. Some recruitment consultants say candidates are seeing salaries remain static but getting great bonus schemes. But Phee Farrer Jones’ Barnes says, as a rule, new media companies are paying around 20% more than traditional media companies.

Also, it is certainly true that a lot of start-ups are offering shares as an incentive to join – and stay with – the company. Tempting though it may seem to imagine oneself as an internet millionaire, remember that the value of shares can go down as well as up.

In addition, while it seems few still believe that the internet is a bubble likely to burst, there will be individual casualties among the companies starting out now.

“No-one knows who is going to make it,” says Barnes. “There will be those who get it wrong, or who don’t have the backing to make it, and we will see a lot of consolidation as bigger organisations buy up the smaller companies.”

So how can candidates assess if a company is going to thrive or dive? “Judge it the same way you would a traditional company,” advises Price Jamieson’s Swift. “Does it have a good business plan? Where has its backing come from? what is the competition?”

And if it does all go belly-up, don’t despair. “There is less stigma attached to those from a new media company that hasn’t worked out,” Swift says. “In fact, that experience can be seen as a positive.”

If you decide to go back to traditional media, you will have gained a set of skills and an insight into the dynamics of how to run a business that will be useful to any employer. But by then you might be hooked. “I would never, ever go back to

traditional media now,” says Guardian Unlimited’s Mayer.

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