Employment at U.S. PR agencies reached an all-time high of 63,000 jobs in August, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
That’s up from 62,100 the month before and breaking the previous record of 62,500. The new record number also represents a 6.6% increase from August 2017.
Most industry pros are encouraged by the latest BLS numbers and reporting similar upswings, if only anecdotally, with the lion’s share of hires coming in digital and measurement.
"We don't have up-to-date hard data to share, but for 2018, I can anecdotally tell you that members are seeing growth across the general business," says PR Council president Kim Sample. "Almost all of our members report adding data and analytics and digital talent to their ranks to take advantage of the opportunity in the marketplace."
Other executives say agencies are finding a new kind of relevance in the age of social media, which is translating into more jobs. "It is a robust agency market," says Anthony D'Angelo, PRSA’s national chair and director of the executive master’s program in communications management at Syracuse University. "The elevator is definitely on the way up for the industry."
He commissioned research from Eduventures that forecasted the PR industry should grow between 10% and 12% by 2026. Brands needing content-creation talent for digital and social is driving demand for their services.
D’Angelo adds that specialized agencies should gain clout, but firms can’t take anything for granted in an increasingly competitive marcomms services marketplace. He notes that a PR agency in New York City recently pitched for a content-focused piece of business for a brand-name client. In addition to traditional full-service agencies, the PR firm was also vying against a documentary filmmaker and the content-management division of a major metropolitan newspaper for the account.
"The PR firm could be hiring this documentary filmmaker and pitching the metro newspaper in the morning, and then competing against both of them in the afternoon," says D'Angelo. "Agency collaborators and competitors can change in the same day."
Karen Bloom, principal at recruitment firm Bloom, Gross & Associates, says her staff is reporting "how crazy the job market seems to be. People at all levels are being snapped up very quickly if they are putting themselves out there as open to change."
That includes not just the big agencies, but smaller ones that are looking for scale.
"We are getting more calls from smaller and boutique firms that are afraid they may have to turn away business if they don’t staff up," says Bloom. "They need help in finding talent faster."
She notes that one Chicago-based firm is losing candidates to other offers if their clients "are moving too slowly" or "if we have gotten to the candidates too late" in their search process.
Like Sample and D’Angelo, Bloom says staffers with digital and social media chops are the most coveted talent.
"Content has always been a big part of PR, but it is gaining prominence as an area everyone wants to have as a strong function," says Bloom. Given that content and digital go hand-in-hand, she adds that there is an "increased focus" on PR people with analytics expertise, as well.
More records to fall
2018 is almost certain to set a record year-end average for PR agency employment, according to BLS. With an average this year of 61,750 jobs, that figure is set to rise if the trajectory continues its upswing in the last quarter of the year.
As it stands, 61,750 jobs bests year-end averages for 2017 (by 5.1%), 2016 (4.4%), and 2015 (8.7%). In eight years, the number of jobs has increased by 15.3%.
The BLS data is based on the Current Employment Statistics survey of about 149,000 businesses and government agencies and represents about 651,000 workers across the U.S. The data is subject to annual benchmarking and seasonal adjustments, but those are typically minimal, BLS press officer Gary Steinberg says.
Employment at ad agencies, which are increasingly playing in the same sandbox as communications shops, is also strong, according to BLS statistics. Employment at creative shops increased month-to-month in 2018 until August to 201,600 jobs, which mirrored July.
The figure fell short of a 10-year high, at 202,900 jobs, set in February 2017. However, that was followed by nine consecutive months of decline, to 197,800 jobs at ad agencies in November 2017. As of August, ad agencies employ 138,300 more people than PR agencies, according to the Labor Department.
That difference is comparable to other months in 2018, but smaller than the gap in 2017 of 142,008 jobs.
Some agency executives are throwing cold water on the gaudy employment numbers, saying that the agency business has been struggling in many ways, pointing to the well-documented poor quarters for agency holding companies. They say staffing increases are more a symptom of agencies trying to change their business models rather than because they have more work than they can handle.
Scott Allison, chairman and CEO of MDC Partners-owned Allison+Partners, told PRWeek this month that "there is a professional services recession going on in terms of [revenue] numbers. The economy is running at a revised 4.2% GDP for Q2, and usually that would push an absolute boom in the agency business."
"But I don’t see that as the case right now. This is not a boom time, but a time of contraction and consolidation," he says. "Budgets are soft, but things are cyclical, and so that could quickly change."