RECRUITMENT: Recession survivors

An exclusive study by PRWeek and recruitment agencies shows the job market is holding firm. Robert Gray reports.

The litany of economic turbulence through recent decades makes for dispiriting reading. The 1973 oil crisis; the Lawson hangover at the end of the Thatcher years; the inevitable bursting of the dotcom bubble; and now the sobering credit crunch.

As sure as night follows day, tougher times succeed golden years in the economic cycle, and right now the global economy is not in the rudest of health. Undoubtedly the credit crunch has had a broadly negative impact, affecting the liquidity and asset values of banks and denting consumer spending. On the whole, businesses and other organisations have become more cautious than was the case a year ago.

What, though, does this mean for the PR industry? Is any impact yet visible in terms of budgets and confidence? And has any of the above filtered through into a job market that has been tremendously buoyant over the past few years?

Price Trace Hawes chairman Neville Price says his company's own figures (see graph overleaf) point to the recruitment market remaining in good shape. He suspects that, if there is a downturn, there will be a time lag before it becomes apparent. 'Maybe it is too early.

The received wisdom from the doom merchants is that we have only just seen the beginnings of a slowdown and things will get far worse. There are always people who love to dwell on the bad news, so only time will tell if they prove to be right.'

Price's view certainly matches the consensus among recruitment specialists operating in the PR sector. Rather than bemoaning a slowdown, several have recently achieved record months in terms of candidates and vacancies on their books (see graphs, right).

'We have just had the best quarter in our 30-year history and this quarter looks as if it will be substantially better,' says VMA Search managing director Oskar Yasar. 'We have not yet seen a dramatic impact on the amount of business coming in and, interestingly, over the past year we have seen a significant increase in both in-house and consultancy roles.'

The only area in which VMA has seen 'a slight downturn' is within the investment banking arena. But, explains Yasar, that sector started to be affected three months before the actual credit crunch - and even here there is still some life. VMA recently placed the EMEA head of marketing communications for investment bank UBS.

Yasar says he is not complacent but still foresees strong growth opportunities. Indeed, VMA is itself looking to hire another four to five consultants to help achieve its growth targets.

'In 2007 we saw a lot of organisations taking the view that they could better control PR spend by bringing work in-house,' says Hanson Search director Kayode Dauda. 'The result was a big push across the public and private sectors to either set up or expand in-house teams.

But enthusiasm for this strategy seems to have run out. Because of the credit crunch, the perception now seems to be that it is better to keep permanent head counts down and use external agencies, because this offers the flexibility to raise or lower budgets depending on shifts in the market.'

The Works recruitment managing partner Sarah Leembruggen and Prospect Resourcing director Emma Dale agree that there are signs of greater caution and attention to budgetary constraints from their in-house clients. Major employers seem keener than in the recent past to keep a tight rein on their recruitment costs.

'I think clients are taking more time to make decisions,' says Blue Skies PR team leader Emma Tatham. 'They are being more thorough and measured and we are not seeing some of the panic hires we saw last summer.'

There is some evidence that fears relating to PR spend have permeated into the freelance marketplace. Blue Skies has noticed that the freelance market is not as buoyant as it was a year ago and has encountered a rise in the number of freelancers seeking the income security of permanent employment for fear that a recession may undermine their prospects in the open market.

Research conducted among candidates by Blue Skies has shown that work-life balance continues to be a big issue. But as Tatham points out, were there to be a worsening of the economic picture and a larger number of redundancies, PR practitioners would likely be more prepared to put up with stress and long hours in their jobs.

At present, recruitment in the PR agency sector remains strong. Prospect's Dale claims: 'There are jobs coming out of our ears.' However, although Leembruggen at The Works agrees that agency demand remains high, she suggests there may be fewer 'investment hires' in the market - in other words, the hiring of skilled candidates without a specific brief or client in mind.

What does all this mean for salaries and packages? 'I don't think wages are likely to be affected by the current market conditions for a while,' says Tatham. 'There is still a big demand for good people - and star talent is still getting three or four offers. If it shifts to people only getting one offer, that may slow down the rate of salary inflation.'

There remains a shortage of top-notch candidates with relevant specialist experience in areas such as healthcare and technology, which continues to exert upward pressure on salaries. Ascent Recruitment managing director Rachel Dowling reports that the technology industry has presented some interesting challenges in recent months, particularly at the mid-management level.

For example, it took one of Ascent's clients, 'a top reputable firm', more than seven months to hire an account manager. Dowling adds that she still sees MDs and directors at client agencies go out of their way to meet candidates at senior account executive level for fear of losing them to other agencies.

Yet Dowling perceives that bonuses and financial rewards are becoming harder to earn: 'We see this as a positive thing, as there has been a trend in recent years for people to expect increases and a certain level of pay because of market forces. This current market is marginally in favour of the employer.'

Wages in PR have not historically come down whenever times have got a bit tight in the past. Tessa Rufford, head of PR Moves, part of the Career Moves Group, does not see that as a possible outcome now. In her opinion, it is much more likely that company benefits will be cut back as agencies look to count the pennies.

'There is definitely a current feeling among many candidates of "wait and see what happens" before making a move,' she adds. 'Don't forget, people in their mid- to late-twenties who have been in the industry a good few years have never known a recession before, and some are keen to put career progression on hold - or at least consider putting it on hold - while they see how the rest of 2008 pans out.'

Relentless media coverage of the credit crunch has definitely unnerved many PR practitioners and dented confidence in some quarters. The good news is that the recruitment market itself remains - for now, at least - largely unaffected.

With reputation management high on the corporate agenda and dialogue with consumers paramount in the web 2.0 age, could it be that PR has become more resilient and indispensable in tougher times?

RECENT MOVERS
Katy Evans, associate director, Eulogy
'I was working at 3 Monkeys Communications but left to go travelling in India for several months. I came back with no job to go to and some concerns about the credit crunch.

Katy EvansBut from the moment I started talking to some headhunters and contacts in PR agencies, the feedback I got was that things were as buoyant as ever.

A job came up at Eulogy, where I started at the end of April. My feeling is that the PR industry thrives when times get tough.'

Louisa Booth, senior publicist, Way to Blue
'I was at publisher Hodder Education for almost four years, working as a senior marketing executive. My job was quite PR-focused, but I wanted to move into pure PR.

I was looking for only four weeks before I found the job at digital specialist Way to Blue and I started there at the end of April.

Louisa BoothMy move was a personal decision - I felt it was the right time for a change and that it was important to gain experience of ground-breaking digital PR. The credit crunch wasn't a factor at all.'

PR AGENCY VIEW
Rhodri Harries, managing director, Kaizo

'I haven't seen any massive impact from the credit crunch as yet, but with budgets set in advance perhaps that's still to come.

Rhodri HarriesMaybe it will hit bigger agencies hardest - those working with global brands where cost-cutting will be to the fore. I'm not sure if we'll see that much impact.

The last real hit came after the year 2000,but people were spending at unsustainable levels then. Now I think people recognise the value of PR more.

The media fragmentation we've seen in the past eight years and the rise of social media has made PR more important because of the role it plays in enabling brands to hold conversations with customers.

I think brand owners will find it easier to cut a bit of their above-the-line spend than reduce their investment in PR.

In terms of recruitment, we have a couple of roles we are trying to fill.

The trick is still finding good quality candidates and the market seems to be as liquid as it has been for the past few years. I don't get a sense of people becoming more nervous about switching jobs.

If the right role becomes available at the right salary, then people will always move. Unless we see a return to the market of 2000 and 2001, this will remain the same.'

IN-HOUSE DEPARTMENT VIEW
Tim Pie, head of press, UK retail, HSBC

'We've just recruited two people this year and we recruited two people this time last year, so I can make some comparisons.

Tim PieLast year we were seeing people with four or five years' agency experience wanting £55,000-£60,000 to come in-house. There may well be some of our rivals who would pay that, but I doubt it.

Now people seem to be a bit more realistic about their salary expectations. I also feel that people are looking to move into a job where they will last a while - there's no more jumping into jobs. It isn't that there are fewer CVs in the marketplace.

But people are being more selective about the roles they want, negotiating longer and harder and thinking more cautiously.

That's good for the industry because people will be happier and stay in their jobs longer. No-one running an in-house team wants to deal with 65 per cent churn every year.

We've made some tremendous hires with the help of PTH - and because people are coming into roles having thought very carefully about them, I think they are really enjoying their jobs.

I hate the phrase "credit crunch" because it is overly used and misused. This bank remains very strong. We continue to have business targets and we don't have a salary freeze.'

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