Bay Area bounty: Career Guide 2012

Apple's proposed new 'spaceship' HQ in Cupertino, CA, reflects the vibrant, competitive atmosphere of a thriving region for PR pros.

Only 12 months ago, Silicon Valley's Cisco Systems had a hard time filling a number of positions in its corporate PR department.

“Frankly, we never filled some of the roles because it was challenging to find the talent,” says David McCulloch, director of PR at the company.

“We did not see an abundance of résumés or a lot of high-quality talent in the market. People did not want to take risks; they would rather have a stable job than make a move for a few thousand dollars more.” 

The cautiousness was a symptom of the economic downturn, where in California unemployment climbed to record levels of more than 12% in late 2009.

Today, the state has yet to recover anywhere near pre-recession employment levels. This past April, California had the nation's third-highest unemployment rate at 10.9%, behind only Nevada (11.7%) and Rhode Island (11.2%).

Yet in the last eight months or so, a different story has emerged in the Silicon Valley/Bay Area, where the job market in the tech sector has recovered at a dizzying pace. This comeback is not only being seen throughout for the state, but across the US.

That includes a renewed demand for PR talent. “There is an absolute war for talent that has started in Silicon Valley,” reports McCulloch. “It defies the unemployment statistics.”

Competition is fierce
Cisco still has trouble filling PR posts, but today it's for a different reason: competition. In recently hiring a PR manager, for example, McCulloch says, “We had to move incredibly quickly and present the right package to the candidate, because she was literally holding two other offers.”

PR pros on the corporate and agency side attribute Silicon Valley's incredible turnaround to a wave of promising new startups, high-profile acquisitions, and recent IPOs from the likes of LinkedIn, Zynga, and Groupon. Even the rocky IPO of Facebook is not expected to slow the momentum much.

Sabrina Horn, Horn

“What happened with Facebook may temper some of that enthusiasm and hype in the tech sector and job market,” says Sabrina Horn, president and CEO of Horn, a digital communications group.

“We have been in business for 21 years and watched the last bubble and swing,” she adds.

“This one is different because it has gone from one extreme to the next in less than two years.

Still, there is a lot of anticipation and hype in the marketplace about what's yet to come.”

Jessamyn Katz, VP of executive search firm Heyman Associates, says the number of searches her company is conducting for corporate clients in Northern California is up 65% versus last year.

“Legacy companies have branding and reputational challenges coming out of the recession,” she explains. “Even those big organizations that are downsizing in some functions are still hiring in communications.”

The demand is greatest at one notch below the CCO role, notes Katz. Given their maturity, many of those legacy companies are also asking for candidates with backgrounds outside of the tech realm.

“More and more legacy companies are seeking a fresh perspective and want to drive change,” she says. “We've had some of them tell us, ‘We're really interested in outside industry perspective, be it in the energy, manufacturing, or consumer packaged goods sector.'”

That has taken the search for communications talent to outside California, in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York, where candidates are being tempted by salaries 10% to 15% more than they are currently earning.

And while Silicon Valley companies are no longer in the home-buying business, they will still cover moving expenses, including closing costs, as well as provide temporary accommodation, notes Katz.

Market Spotlight 1: Doing good in the Twin Cities

Land O'Lakes is one of the 19 Fortune 500 companies based in the Twin Cities.
The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to 19 Fortune 500 companies, such as UnitedHealth Group, Target, Best Buy, CHS, 3M, SuperValu, US Bancorp, Medtronic, General Mills, and Land O'Lakes, as well as the US' largest privately held corporation – Cargill.

This clean, friendly, green, and environmentally conscious region specializes particularly in food and retailing, as well as finance, insurance, and health.

It has a long tradition of doing good to do good business, with leaders such as George Dayton and William Wallace Cargill, founders of Target and Cargill respectively, becoming early CSR pioneers.

Target's founding principle of “the higher ground of stewardship” and Cargill's “our word is our bond” are just two representations of a business philosophy that is ingrained in the local economy.

Doug Spong, founder and president of Carmichael Lynch Spong, set up his agency 21 years ago with the aim of “creating a challenger brand that would provide an alternative to the big, boring firms.”

As well as being part of Interpublic Group, Spong's firm is also a division of advertising agency Carmichael Lynch – and that is another definite trend in Minneapolis.

Fellow Minnesota agency Olson is a fully integrated firm, with one P&L. The PR division is part of a suite of services including advertising, media, strategy, mobile, interactive, social media, and design.

Exponent PR also boasts integrated chops due to its ownership by ad agency Colle+McVoy, part of MDC Partners.

Not every agency has bicycles in reception for staffers to take out for a ride and a bike repair shop onsite. But Exponent does. In many ways that sums up the ethos of Minneapolis – it's just a nice place to work and live.

“This is where our consumers live,” says Greg Zimprich, former director of brand PR at General Mills. “Our consumers are our employees.”

Startups on the rise
New startups – many of them well funded by entrepreneurs who have taken their earn-outs from companies such as Google and Amazon – are also looking for PR help to put their names on the map. And they are willing to pay top dollar and offer perks that make them an attractive option to established companies.

Ryan Donovan, Visa

Ryan Donovan, SVP and head of global PR at Visa and a longtime PR pro in the region, says he has recently seen PR agencies and in-house PR departments lose people who run offices or entire regions to startups.

“Startups have a lot of appeal because of the promise of equity and the fact that at a smaller company people can have a bigger role across various functions, from executive and crisis communications to media and employee relations,” he adds. “Agencies and in-house PR departments are having to fight for and hold on to talent in ways they never had to before.”

David Hargreaves, CEO of NextFifteen digital agency Beyond, says PR firms are also in a battle for talent against advertising agencies.

“You just need to look at the number of PR firms that are trying to hire people from digital agencies or specialist social media firms to see the challenges traditional shops are facing when it comes to re-educating a workforce,” he explains. “At the same time, digital and ad agencies are hiring the best digital talent from PR firms to strengthen their earned-media capabilities.”

PR agencies are having to hold on and fight for talent at a time when they're trying to keep pace with growing client rosters.

At the start of the year, Aaron Heinrich, MD for Shift Communications in San Francisco, says his office had 70 bona fide new business leads. “We've heard similar reports from other agencies, both large and small,” he notes.

Bidding wars are even being waged to find interns, who often serve as a talent pool for account coordinator positions.

“We got into something of a bidding war for one of our summer intern posts,” says Heinrich, who adds in the last year they've hired four of their six interns. “It just reflects how dynamic the need is for good people.”

Shift currently has six openings in its 25-person San Francisco office. Two of the roles have been open for more than a year, in part because of the dearth of talent at the mid-level range.

“Like a lot of other agencies, we've had to start looking outside of the Bay Area for people in cities such as Portland, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, where the markets are not nearly picking up like they are here,” reports Heinrich, who says it is too early to determine how successful they've been, but early response has been positive.

What candidates want
Horn expects to make 10 to 20 new hires this year at all levels, mostly in newly created posts. She is looking at people nationwide – and experience with tech clients isn't necessarily a requirement.

“We work with a lot of tech companies, but also entities such as The New York Times and NBC, which are not tech companies by definition, but need technology to reinvent themselves,” she points out. “It's not about selling technology. It's about selling how businesses are reinventing themselves and how technology is a part of that reinvention.”

Outside of financial compensation, candidates are looking to work for really cool companies, whether in-house or on agency accounts, that promise to reshape how people live.

“There is such a clamor to be seen working for hot companies,” says Hargreaves, “and that is a lot stronger in San Francisco than we're seeing in our other [New York and London] offices.”

“And they don't necessarily want to work just for big companies,” he adds, “because a lot of talent feel they can make a genuine difference to the future of smaller companies.”

Heather England, EVP of HR and operations at another NextFifteen firm, The OutCast Agency, agrees the “cool” factor of its client list has a lot of influence on candidates. However, she says it is equally important to demonstrate the possibilities of career advancement.

OutCast, for instance, has invested in a design and marketing function. It also recently created its first digital strategist position.

“We are committed to building out those teams so we can offer those services to our clients, excite our existing staff, and show talent from outside the opportunities coming to an agency where we do more than PR,” says England.

That is particularly important for younger candidates (under 25 years of age), she explains, given that a lot of them also have their parents review the job offer. “That is something new we did not see before,” adds England.

Flexibility redefined
Candidates are also being wooed by the promise of flexible work environments that go beyond the ability to frequently work from home, which is now considered standard at many companies, especially when they want to land the best talents.

During one interview, Cisco's McCulloch recalls one strong candidate saying to him, “‘What is really important to me, David, is that I can use my smartphone as my work phone. I don't really love the idea of getting a standard-issue laptop. Can I use a Mac?' A few years ago, such comments would have made me say, ‘Wait a minute, who is negotiating with whom here?'”

These days, McCulloch is unfazed by such dialogue. In fact, he reports, there are now 20,000 employee iPhones and thousands of Macs on the Cisco network, all of which are supported by the company's IT function.

McCulloch explains, however, that employers have to understand that to get the best talent, they will have to give them the freedom to choose what devices they want to work on.

It is just one way Silicon Valley employers are trying to win talent in a booming job market that most predict will only become hotter.

Market Spotlight 2: Looking up in South Florida

As a gateway into Latin America and with is proportionately large Hispanic population, Miami is a burgeoning market for PR talent.

In the 2010 Census, Miami ranked just outside the top 40 most populous cities in the US with slightly below 400,000 people. Still, despite its relatively small size, it is one of the hottest PR markets in the country, with many independent firms and regional offices of larger PR agencies looking for talent.

Ramiro Prudencio, president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Latin America, says three variables have helped make Miami an important PR market: the city resides in Florida, a “swing state,” serves as a gateway into Latin America, and has a proportionately large Hispanic population.

“If you were only to take one of those elements, you wouldn't get a lot of critical mass,” he explains. “However, agencies that can get the right staff mix and market strategy can exploit the Florida, Latin America, and US Hispanic markets for clients.

“The degree to which you can find that talent is the challenge,” adds Prudencio, because it is often ideal to hire practitioners who can serve all three segments.

Claudia Gioia, market leader for Burson Miami, says the office has made 13 hires this year, bringing its staff count to 35. Typically, she says it takes the office about three or four months to fill a position.

A full-time recruiter helps source candidates in larger urban centers and from Burson's agency network in Latin America.

With 2011 billings of $5.4 million and 20% growth annually, Lisa Ross, president of rbb Public Relations, says the 36-person agency is “constantly in hiring mode.” To attract candidates, rbb positions Miami as a place great for weather, work-life balance, and cost of living (residents don't pay state income tax).

“We recently made a hire from California in our Digital Park division,” she says. “We did the numbers with the new employee. It's anywhere from 18% to 25% cheaper to live here than in California. Really good, qualified candidates can pretty much write their own ticket in Miami.”

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