Searching for the high-flyers

LONDON - Despite its sexy and sociable image, media does not always attract the top graduate talent. Media Week reports on how the industry is endeavouring to lure top-flight recruits.

Omnicom Summer School
Omnicom Summer School

Ask any graduate what a career in a media agency involves and, if they have any clue, they will probably say something about buying TV spots for ad campaigns.

You might be tempted to conclude that if they can't even be bothered to research the industry, then they do not deserve a job in the competitive world of adland.

However, if you do adopt this attitude, there is a good chance you will miss out on some of the highest-flying, brightest individuals in the graduate marketplace.

Hamish Pringle, director general of the IPA, says: "The market is over-supplied with candidates and so there is a belief that we have enough quality candidates applying.

"However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, while candidate numbers might be high and quality might be good, we are actually missing the top-flight people."

Pringle points out that many candidates also apply because they have a relative or friend already working in the industry. But he warns that relying on this strategy risks "missing talent from non-white, non-traditional backgrounds".

So, why aren't the highest-flyers knocking at the door of the media industry, supposedly synonymous with sexiness and sociability? One reason is that they are being seduced by other sectors, heavily promoted on campus, that promise more money and better opportunities.

As Sam Ismail, a 23-year-old graduate who is looking for a job in the communications industry and is blogging about his experiences on, explains: "If the industry doesn't look for the good grads, it's not going to find them. Other industries, like financial services and the professional sector, make an effort to get the best young people. They wine us and dine us and make us feel wanted."

While media agencies generally don't have the banks' budgets to schmooze graduates, they have ramped up their efforts recently. PHD media planner and recent graduate Steve Roest was determined to plug the gap in student knowledge.

He was the driving force behind the agency's parent company Omnicom's first summer school at the end of August .

He says: "The output of advertising and marketing agencies is directly linked to the quality of people. So the industry should focus on attracting the right type of person. But when I was at [Oxford] university, the media industry didn't promote itself to me at all."

Roest has pushed hard to get graduate recruitment on the agenda, both at a media agency and a network level. His drive is already changing graduate perceptions. One 20-year-old student who attended the summer school said after hearing presentations by PHD: "I always thought I was primarily interested in PR and advertising, because they seemed a lot more creative. But the presentation on media planning and strategy at PHD really interested me."

Other major players are also waking up to the importance of courting graduates to attract top talent. ZenithOptimedia has appointed Lara Ashworth to the newly created role of "talent director". She says she will instigate "a complete revolution in the way we approach graduate recruitment and reward", but adds that this will create "such extensive changes, that it is not the right time for us to be publicising our plans".

MediaCom has been running a summer placement scheme for second-year students for seven years, which has proved an effective method of recruiting high-calibre graduates. It has also developed relationships with universities with a good reputation for media courses, such as Bournemouth.

MediaCom also resurrected its "speed dating" recruitment evening this year, where 15 to 20 graduates are invited to the agency bar to hear presentations. Each graduate then has three minutes with each department and a selection are invited back for a formal interview.

Similarly, OMD runs a graduate scheme, has a MySpace page for graduates and is also considering bringing back its "graduate days", when the agency opens its doors to selected students to glimpse behind the scenes.

OMD business director Jessica Roberts says: "Graduates have definitely picked up on media becoming more strategic, which makes it important for us to up the ante."

Starcom MediaVest has had a graduate recruitment scheme in place for four years and has a dedicated recruitment director. Eight graduates will be starting this month and their first port of call will be the office of chief executive Linda Smith.


Smith says: "I spend an hour talking about what I expect from them and what they should expect from us. After three months they have to do a presentation in front of me, our chairman and our managing director."

Starcom also hosts graduate evenings at selected universities where students can learn about media careers from recent employees.

Smith emphasises the importance of retaining graduates as well as attracting them. She says: "Today's graduates are much more clued up about what they want. They want to be developed, so you can't just stop training them after an 18-month scheme."

Starcom launched a sabbatical programme earlier this year, and offers graduates opportunities to gain new skills in different departments.

Meanwhile, careers in media sales at media owners suffer from a bad image. One of the difficulties, according to Channel 4's head of strategic sales, Mike Parker, is that many graduate roles are heavily admin-based, so the brighter recruits get bored quickly.

"Most sales organisations have a pyramid structure, so we need of lot of admin people at the bottom and a few talented graduates at the top end, who can perform in negotiation or presentational roles," Parker says. "The problem with the structure is that getting to these top roles means time in admin, which can be very frustrating for top graduates."

Channel 4 doesn't have a problem attracting media sales graduates. Its problem is finding those who are committed to sales.

Another factor putting off graduates is the lack of formal graduate schemes. Most media owners offer only a brief induction programme. The Independent, for instance, does not offer any sort of graduate training programme and Jo Redfern, classified advertising director, is very honest about the recruitment crisis.

She says: "Other industries are getting much better at targeting undergraduates, whereas we haven't got together as an industry to sell media sales to potential employees. Graduate recruitment should be a priority, but it's not. We're all busy doing the day-to-day job."

One media owner that claims it has no problems recruiting and retaining graduates is Emap's specialist media division based in Peterborough. Chris Leslie, group advertisement director, attributes Emap's success to advertising heavily in local media, its three-week sales techniques course covering all aspects from print to digital and a remuneration system that rewards individuals rather than teams.

A key element in its recruitment strategy has been tackling the thorny issue of money. Emap tracked the main employers in the area and ensured its starting salary of £14,000 per annum was above competitors, something that is clearly easier to do in Peterborough rather than the media hub of London. Nevertheless, Leslie concedes that media sales "still isn't an industry that people talk about, despite the fact that it's a good springboard for a larger commercial role".

The Independent's Redfern is calling for media owners to unite to tackle the problem. "I would be prepared to get together with others and do something more formal," she says.

"Media sales has plenty to offer. It's glamorous, fun and sociable and a very saleable career to a 21-year-old looking for their first job. We need to capitalise on that excitement and sell the benefits of the career prospects."

After all, if any industry can sell a career to graduates, surely it should be the media industry .

Finding solutions to The digital recruitment crisis

The skills shortage in digital has been well documented, following the rapid growth in online media. However, two companies that have no problems recruiting and retaining graduates are Profero and Steak Media. Both agencies put their success down to offering a mix of good remuneration, training and development opportunities, and creating a positive culture.

Profero's people director, Tina Brazil, argues that the industry needs to be more creative. For example, Profero ran a competition aimed at finding top graduates where participants could win a two-week placement in its Shanghai office. "Initiatives like this play an important part in finding talent, as do forging relationships with universities," she says.

Brazil adds that retaining staff is often about the "little personal touches" such as buying the office ice-creams when it is hot outside or inviting inspirational speakers such as Lord Puttnam and Greg Dyke to talk to employees.

She says: "Salaries in digital are inflated due to supply and demand and the buoyancy of our industry. Some agencies will use their salaries to attract candidates; we attract and retain graduates through offering a culture where we place a high importance on developing and rewarding our team so they see their future with us."

Steak Media gets around the salary issue by offering graduates options in the company. That way, it secures their long-term commitment.

The company also ensures that staff have regular appraisals and that high-flyers are promoted quickly. Tony Samios, chief operating officer, agrees that the "softer" aspects are important.

He says: "The environment is very important to graduates. We have a games room, monthly massages and softball matches, and we make sure we party after client wins."

Media Week goes back to Omnicom Summer School

It's 9am on a Thursday in August and 30 eager students sit, notepads at the ready, waiting to be immersed in the world of media for two jam-packed days.

On the agenda are sessions such as "presentation skills", "life in a digital agency", "the evolution of above-the-line advertising" and "the art of influence in media planning". Tomorrow, it's the turn of "pitching to win" and presentations on PR and branding. All are presented by the relevant Omnicom agency professionals.

PHD's Steve Roest and his colleague Katy Lindemann, media manager, deliver the session on the art of influence. This opens with a clear explanation of what media planners and buyers actually do, peppered with case-study examples from brands including Crimestoppers and Adidas to put their definitions in context.

The informal, jokey tone of the presentations clearly resonates with the young audience, which is quick to come forward with questions such as: "How closely does PHD work with the ad agencies?" and "Do you need a media degree to get into media?"

PHD's head of innovation, John Willshire, then takes to the stage to tell the students about the agency's planning process, ETNA. He sets the students a brief to plan a campaign targeting students on behalf of TV Licensing.

To encourage lateral thinking, each group is given a random word - such as soup, tooth, ear and road sign - which must be incorporated into the plan. It's easy to see from the students' enthusiasm that everything is falling into place in the interactive sessions.

However, there is less enthusiasm for the presentations that only thinly veil their sales pitcah and do not allow for interaction. There is also overlap between the different agency presentations and possibly too much information delivered over just two days.

That said, students' positive feedback showed they found the experience extremely useful in deciphering the media minefield.

The idea for the summer school came out of a project undertaken by Roest when he was a graduate trainee on Omnicom's fast-track Accelerate programme.

He argued that the school could save time and money for agencies within the network by sourcing top graduate talent on their behalf. Indeed, three graduates who narrowly missed a place on the summer school are now doing internships at PHD.

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