For many PR agency bosses, the search for good account managers is never-ending. In a dynamic industry full of youthful talent and raw ambition, it seems the mid-level role is the hardest to fill.
There are many theories as to why good account managers are so hard to find. Some say it is because during downturns agencies stop recruiting at junior level, and so today's shortage is a hangover from the dotcom collapse. By the same token the current recession could see the shortage continue well into the next decade.
Others argue that, after a few years climbing the ladder, in-house work becomes more appealing than consultancy.
It is a challenge the industry needs to overcome. VMA has been recruiting for the PR industry since 1978, and according to consultant Tim Ledeboer, demand for account managers has always outstripped supply.
In recent months the drought has shown signs of abating. Sandy Lindsay, MD at Manchester's Tangerine PR, points out 'the situation is freeing itself up a little as some agencies fall by the wayside or let people go'. The boom years, meanwhile, have seen agencies increase investment into graduate programmes, which has helped boost account manager numbers.
Whether that investment will remain in place in the current environment, though, is not known. 'We need to make sure this time round if there are recruitment freezes we do not end up in the same position,' says Trimedia MD Loretta Tobin.
'When a downturn comes, agencies are often too quick to get rid of junior people,' says Borkowski PR managing partner Larry Franks. 'But account managers need to be nurtured, developed and trained.'
Too often, account managers do not get the support to cope with a transition from executive level, one of the trickiest in the agency world. Franks says it is at this stage people start to look at opportunities elsewhere. 'A lot of people get to a certain age and level in PR and then ask, is it really for me?'
Even if the downturn does ease the shortage, agencies must ensure the correct strategies are in place to develop, attract and retain account managers. The usual factors - exciting clients, competitive remuneration and a good working environment - all apply.
In this respect, internal development may be more important than recruitment. 'A lot of our account managers joined as graduates and they have moved up,' says Burson-Marsteller UK CEO Jonathan Jordan. 'We have not really recruited heavily on the market at that level.'
Finding account managers from outside is not as easy as for more senior or junior levels. However, The Red Consultancy MD Andrew Baiden believes, because of the new business cycle, there is always a need to look externally. It just might require a more creative approach than simply calling in the recruitment consultancies.
For example, in the past nine months Edelman has moved its recruitment almost entirely into social media. The agency has a Facebook application process and encourages staff to recommend friends and family.
Robert Philips, CEO at Edelman, says: 'We find social networks produce candidates with a better cultural fit for our agency, and it is cheaper for us. Of our past ten hires, six came through this route.'
If agencies are truly serious about ending the account manager shortage, they may also need to reassess internal processes.
Cognition Group MD Dr Peter Hughes says it needs to stop the cycle of over-valuing candidates in good times and then having to cut the payroll when trading conditions deteriorate.
Just as pernicious is a culture that favours over-promotion. 'I think there is sometimes a lack of clarity about what the roles and responsibilities are at various levels, and there has been a bit of title inflation,' says Jordan.
It all adds up to a complex challenge for agencies, but one thing is clear: if they do not safeguard the development of talented, responsible account managers, there is a good chance they will be reading another story similar to this in the future.
HOW TO RECRUIT ACCOUNT MANAGERS
The recession has eased the account manager shortage, but agencies should not take too much for granted. Recruitment remains a complicated area, and finding the right talent calls for a multi-faceted strategy. 'There is no single way to do that, if you want the most talented people,' says Burson-Marsteller UK CEO Jonathan Jordan.
Recruitment agencies remain useful but a good referral system can work wonders. 'It tends to be much more word-of-mouth,' says Trimedia MD Loretta Tobin. 'There is a definite opportunity to use social media.'
Looking beyond the usual suspects can also help. Mandate chief executive Sacha Deshmukh believes that agencies must do more to broaden their offer.
'While PR tends to be a popular career option for those at university, we do not do as well at making it attractive to people who work outside the industry but have transferable skills,' he says, pointing to a recent recruit - Nicole Martin - who joined his agency as an account manager after 13 years at The Daily Telegraph.
'There are many good people working in-house in sectors such as media, finance, property, automotive and travel, where there will be cutbacks.'
HOW TO DEVELOP ACCOUNT MANAGERS
Investing internally is critical for the development of strong account managers, so agencies must resist the temptation to slash graduate programmes because of the economic slowdown.
A comprehensive training programme is a prerequisite. 'Getting it right at that stage is pretty important, because it is the first big step they will make,' says Burson-Marsteller UK CEO Jonathan Jordan.
In particular, Jordan says too many organisations only focus on functional skills for the first few years of an account executive's career. 'That is the individual learning curve. The second learning curve is the empowerment and leadership curve - getting other people who work with you to work to that level. We try to make sure people are started on the second curve from very early on.'
Flexibility also helps, in an industry that can be notorious for late nights, especially among female staff who may be trying to juggle their careers with new families. And make sure your executives understand exactly where they are on their career development cycle. Promoting people before they are ready helps no-one.
'The problem is that account executives are overpaid,' says Primark PR MD Ivor Peters. 'They expect to be promoted to account manager within a year, rather than spending two or three years developing skills.'
THE PERFECT ACCOUNT MANAGER
Part of the difficulty in finding good account managers is down to the nature of the job itself. It is, as Red Consultancy MD Andrew Baiden explains, the first 'grown-up' job for junior staff, and introduces a range of new responsibilities that can be bewildering.
The important thing, says Burson-Marsteller UK CEO Jonathan Jordan, is for account managers to be 'functionally proficient but also starting to build skills in project management'. This means a good account manager is not only a fantastic manager of clients, but also a good manager of people, with the ability to effectively develop a team. 'You get bollocked from above and then you bollock below,' is how Borkowski PR MD Larry Franks puts it. And they will still need to aggressively cultivate their media contacts.
Defining the right age is a trickier proposition, and not just for reasons of political correctness. But most agree a good account manager is usually ready to make the leap from account executive level after about five to six years.