While PR is currently seen as an attractive career choice for
college leavers, further up the job scale there is a skills shortage.
The difficulty of finding suitable people to fill account manager and
director positions is now a very real complaint among PR agencies. But,
as talented individuals are increasingly staying put, those actively
seeking new employment tend to fall into the mediocre bracket.
The traditional excuse for this deficit is the recession of the
early-1990s, when many companies closed their purses and stopped
recruiting at graduate level. Now, the whole industry is paying the
price, as this hole in professional skills works its way up through the
Justin Kent, associate director of recruitment company, Major Players
says: ’This problem is not limited to the public relations industry, but
is true across the whole marketing services sector.’ As the deepest
economic trough was almost six years ago, he thinks the recession theory
is now beginning to wear thin. ’The effects are still there, but it
can’t be the main reason anymore,’ he says.
Part of the problem is undoubtedly the shortage itself. As agencies are
keen to hold on to good staff, when a talented person does resign their
company fights hard to keep them.
Richard Harrison, director of Greenwood Tighe PR says: ’At the account
manager level, there are probably enough capable people around now, but
account directors are a different matter, they need more all-round
This is true. Unlike an advertising account head, whose responsibilities
are quite focused, a good PR account director needs a broad portfolio of
skills covering strategy, evaluation, creativity and client
Harrison says that often these differing responsibilities drive some
talented consultants to in-house roles. ’After three years or so of
fielding client expectations against what can realistically be achieved,
I think some people feel the rewards are not worth the pressures,’ he
says. This problem is made worse by the greater demands for increased
Emma Dale, manager at Media Appointments, agrees: ’In-house is certainly
a very attractive option - just one client, the chance to carry out a
broader communications role and a very attractive salary and benefits
package. There are very few managers who are being paid under the market
rate as outlined in the 1998 PR Week/Media Appointments Salary
Another temptation for account directors, is to go freelance. ’West
London is full of mothers who used to be account directors, but simply
couldn’t see a way forward, so left,’ says Brodeur A Plus director,
He points out that at this level, people have all the skills and
contacts they need to set up as a one-man band. In addition, in many
agencies any advance from this position means dropping direct client
handling in favour of more managerial responsibilities.
And, in what is clearly a client-oriented culture, many agencies are
less than sympathetic about the lifestyle changes that often occur at
the account manager or director level. Many employees require time off
for raising a family, geographical flexibility and a way back into the
market place for those that have opted out to go travelling or dip their
toes into other industries.
So how do agencies get round the dearth of talent that currently exists
within the consultancy sector? As it becomes harder to pillage staff
from competitors, should companies instead look to recruit from outside
the traditional box? Fishburn Hedges director Philippa Dale-Thomas says
it is all about creating the right balance. ’To avoid a clone culture
and make the agency a dynamic place to work, we have recruited
journalists, civil servants and lawyers in the past year,’ she says.
As individuals tend to hire people in their own mould, Fishburn Hedges
ensures that every potential recruit not only undergoes rigorous skills
tests, but also has at least six interviews with senior directors. To
create a continuous rolling programme with no panic buys, recruitment is
built into the annual business plan.
In addition, as personal contacts tend to shorten the process and throw
up more suitable candidates, the consultancy has an in-house incentive
scheme. This recently switched from hard cash rewards to a fun lottery
system with prizes of shopping vouchers and holidays.
But, while Fishburn Hedges is keen to avoid a single dedicated human
resource function, other agencies increasingly see this as the
The Communication Group recently hired its first human resources
director Vanessa Peters. She says: ’I am closely involved with the
development of the business, so that we attract and retain staff while
providing an environment in which they are well trained, motivated and
By 1999, the agency plans to implement a structured graduate trainee
scheme and a formal training and development programme for individual
staff. This will include the introduction of a mentoring process, where
senior members are responsible for assisting junior staff.
When attracting new recruits, it seems that training is the magic word,
second only to salary issues. The PRCA’s annual benchmark survey last
year, showed members invested a miserly average of half a per cent of
salary in staff development. ’Talented people need a stretching
environment with formal training and appraisals every six months,’ says
Barry Winter, Countrywide Porter Novelli’s director of personnel and
development. He believes the structured career development scheme
employees enjoy at his agency, encourages staff to stay loyal.
Winter also stresses that to retain personnel it is important to balance
individual aspirations against business needs.
To underline this point, both CPN’s London and Banbury managing
directors Fiona Joyce and Debbie Parriss have worked their way through
the company’s ranks from graduate recruits. Winters alsobelievesthe
consultancy’s network of offices means it can better accommodate
lifestyle. ’If people get married and want a geographical move, they
don’t necessarily have to leave Countrywide to achieve their career
goals,’ he says.
But for the female account managers and directors who want more flexible
hours after starting a family, agency culture can be tough. While
returning to an employer may be possible, seeking a new part-time
position is virtually out of the question. Gabrielle Shaw, whose clients
include Cranks and Starbucks, has expanded her agency over the past two
years to a team of eight. Unusually, she employs two part-time female
account directors, both of whom are mothers. ’It takes co-operation on
both sides,’ she says, ’But I want good people with enthusiasm who
really want to be here, so I’m prepared to be flexible about working
Tackling the problem of enabling the best female performers back into
the consultancy market after a maternity break, would certainly go some
way to plug the current talent leak. The problem is, that to some extent
the matter is out of agencies’ hands. ’The industry needs to address
client expectations,’ says The Argyll Consultancies chief executive
’With a good team, and the development in technology there is no real
reason why an account director can’t be in the office part-time.’
SECONDMENT: THE BENEFITS OF EXPERIENCED OUTSIDERS
According to Robin Swinbank, a partner in The Counsel House, the recent
secondment of Simon Lewis from Centrica to the Royal family, is
following a market trend.
For Buckingham Palace, this seems to be a way of calling in an
independent expert on a fixed contract, to sort out a few strategy
problems. But, for companies who need to fill a temporary gap, due to
sickness, holidays or sudden departure, a short-term safe pair of hands
can be the ideal solution.
Swinbank’s partner, Christiane Morris says the agency has been offering
such a service since 1993. Companies such as IT consultants Logica and
engineering firm Vickers have recently used the secondment option to
cover senior marketing and PR people on maternity leave. Others
including Eurotunnel and the National Council for Vocational
Qualifications (now called the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)
have handled specific projects on a secondment basis.
Morris says the Counsel House operates like a recruitment consultancy,
putting forward either people from within the agency or freelancers the
company has worked with, for a flat introductory fee. ’The advantages
for the client include objectivity, impartiality and a fresh eye,’ she
says. ’In addition, these people have 10 to 35 years’ experience of
working in various areas, so they can handle anything.’
But when taking the decision to second an internal member of staff, the
impact on other clients’ accounts needs to be considered. Crispin
Manners, chief executive of the Argyll Consultancies, recently seconded
two senior consultants on a part-time basis to a software company.
’As both people worked on the account anyway, the cost was not to the
detriment of the client, but to us in terms of new business and training
development’, he says.
However he feels that in general such an arrangement works to the
advantage of both parties. ’Clearly the company gets somebody who can
hit the ground running, who knows the team and doesn’t feel the need to
change things just for the sake of it,’ he says.
Manners also points out that there is no hidden agenda. As a temporary
person has nothing to gain from internal politics, then their advice can
be seen to be all the more impartial.
But, while the agency client relationship can be enhanced by a temporary
stint on the other side of the fence, there is a potential down
’It can be a double-edged sword’ says Manners. ’It’s good to show
consultants the variety of working in-house, but they might stay there.
You have to ensure they like your agency enough to come back.’
HI-TECH: THE PROBLEMS OF FINDING SKILLED IT STAFF
A survey published by The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) at
the beginning of July, shows that employers are experiencing
difficulties in recruiting technical graduates in certain disciplines,
Roly Cockman, chief executive of the AGR says: ’Organisations are
satisfied with graduates’ general IT skills and computer literacy but
finding people who are both technically competent and commercially aware
For hi-tech PR agencies this problem with hiring is not just at graduate
entry level, but across the board. ’There is this misunderstanding that
to do hi-tech PR you need to be able to take a PC apart and put it back
together again, which is ridiculous,’ says Jonathan Simnett, director of
Brodeur A Plus.
Richard Arkle, managing director of business-to-business hi-tech
specialists Oast Communications, says that those outside the IT sector
find it hard to see that PR is the priority. ’People think it’s very
technical and boring, but here we are talking primarily about business
benefits,’ he says. Over the past few months, his agency has worked with
Nissan to understand its automated manufacturing process and the Jordan
Formula 1 team on an internet project. Arkle says: ’I wish people would
take half an hour to sit down and talk to us, so we can convey the
benefits of getting involved.’
The increased media attention on newer, consumer focused technology such
as the internet and mobile phones would suggest the sector is broadening
its appeal. But most hi-tech agencies have not experienced any
significant change in attitude among potential recruits. Firefly’s
client services director Annabel Abbs says: ’You still can’t find good
account managers and directors with industry knowledge for love nor
money.’ She says that when a talented consultant does appear on the
market, the highly competitive auction between agencies has led her
company to focus more on developing home grown stars.
But while hi-tech agencies are not lowering their standards, they do
seem to be more flexible about identifying suitable candidates.
Catherine Somers, Text 100’s global human resources manager, reports
that last year, a mere three per cent of her company’s appointments came
from a hi-tech consultancy background. Instead, a fifth of new recruits
came from in-house roles and were trained up in consultancy skills and
37 per cent transferred from a general PR agency and were coached on the
However, over the past year, Text has also begun to address the shortage
of suitable candidates by looking at the global market place via the
Somers highlights the increasing quality of applications the agency has
received through the web. In the past, such candidates were not of a
high enough calibre. But, within the past year, the agency has used the
medium to recruit an associate director and an account director from the
US to its London office.
SCHOOL’S OUT: PICKING THE BEST OF THE LATEST CROP OF GRADUATES
Research shows that an increasing number of university students view PR
as a desirable career path, with specialist PR degrees or postgraduate
qualifications becoming increasingly popular. But this year, while most
in-house and agency graduate recruitment schemes are vastly
oversubscribed, some potential employers have had difficulties finding
applicants of a high enough calibre.
Hugh Joslin, managing director of recruitment consultants, Media
Contacts, describes this year’s new candidates as ’the worst crop of
graduates I’ve seen’. He blames a general ’dumbing down’ - the result,
he says, of a decline in educational standards, with exams becoming
easier to pass.
Certainly it is true that the change in status of polytechnics to
universities means there are more people with university degrees than
But, criticisms range beyond basic communication skills, to creativity,
understanding business needs and hunger for a job.
Richard Harrison, director of Greenwood Tighe PR says he is not
convinced that even the PR dedicated courses are necessarily delivering
the right people. ’What are they teaching in terms of core skills?’ he
says. ’There is too much emphasis on the academic and not enough on the
practical side of tactics, writing skills and information
However, the problem seems to be two-way. ’Many PR agencies regard
graduate recruitment as a necessary evil,’ says Lisa Kelly, managing
director of graduate PR specialists Media Recruitment. ’But companies
need to look at the messages they are delivering to recruits, as these
people may one day be potential clients.’ Kelly’s current roster
includes Fishburn Hedges for whom this year she whittled down 150
applicants from the UK’s top 10 universities to a final pool of eight,
two of whom were successful. She does concede however, that last year’s
graduates were more realistic about their employment chances and had
more work experience.
She sees the increasing levels of funding students have to put into
their studies as part of the problem. ’Because they are paying their own
way, students can’t afford to do work experience, she says. ’Instead
they are working to make money as scaffolders or in bars.’
However, Countrywide Porter Novelli’s director of personnel and
development, Barry Winter, refuses to believe there are not enough
graduate high performers to meet the PR industry’s needs. Instead, he
says that as a talent-led industry, PR practitioners need to use more
rigorous selection tools.
Winter, a trained psychologist, advocates psychometric tests in addition
to interviews and practical tests. ’The people who complain aren’t using
the right evaluation methods,’ he says. ’Here, we don’t have enough
places to take on all the suitable people we identify, so they are being
lost to other industries.’