The headhunters are back

A chronic talent shortage means more PROs than ever are now headhunted. Helen Gregory looks at the industry impact

Left to right: headhunters Sarah Leembruggen, Maggie Maupin and Oskar Yasar
Left to right: headhunters Sarah Leembruggen, Maggie Maupin and Oskar Yasar

It is one of the most flattering phone calls you can get; and the good news is your chances of being targeted by a headhunter are better than ever. While poaching - or as the recruitment consultants prefer to call it, ‘executive searching' - is nothing new, a workforce-wide skills shortage means hirers cannot afford to wait for candidates to contact them; more than ever they must be proactive to get their man, or woman.

As Paul Harper, chairman of headhunters' group the Association of Executive Recruiters, claims: ‘I've never been busier.'

According to a recent Business in Britain survey, 52 per cent of British companies reported difficulty in recruiting skilled staff. In the PR industry in particular, bosses bemoan a severe shortage of good candidates, especially in the technology and financial services sectors.

Rate of recruitment
PRCA managing director Patrick Barrow says this skills shortage is so acute that the PR industry is in danger of experiencing the kind of wage inflation that hit the IT sector in the late 1990s. ‘The PR industry is creating its own dilemma. It gets through people at such a high rate and hires so expediently that it is in a constant state of morph,' he adds.

So, is headhunting a short-term solution to a much deeper-seated problem? The CIPR is laidback about the issue. Its director, Chris Genasi, believes aggressive recruitment is simply a fact of business life. ‘Some people think it's not cricket, but it is a competitive world out there, and PROs are not just competing for business, they are also competing for people,' he says. Genasi, who is also MD of Eloqui PR, found two of his ten staff through headhunters - both of whom joined in the past 18 months.

He adds: ‘Ultimately, people won't move if they don't want to.'

The headhunters' view
Sarah Leembruggen, Maggie Maupin and Oskar Yasar (pictured, left) are three of the PR industry's top recruitment professionals. They point out that headhunting is increasingly being used to snap up junior-level staff.

‘Although executive search has traditionally been used for the top jobs paying more than £50,000, account
directors are increasingly being headhunted,' says Leembruggen, managing partner at recruitment agency The Works. ‘We're headhunting more at all levels - we even headhunted an account executive recently.'

Yasar, former director at Citigate Dewe Rogerson and now executive director at recruiter VMA, admits that the high incidence of headhunting is having an impact on salaries. ‘There are a number of juicy roles out there so candidates are becoming choosy and won't just jump at the first thing they're offered. This affects wages - bidding wars force salaries up in the battle to get the right candidate.'

Salary rises might be good news for employees, but according to Emma Dale, director at recruitment agency Prospect, there could be negative long-term ramifications. ‘If salaries are overinflated now, there will be little movement of staff in the future as candidates will find themselves overpriced,' she notes. ‘They will be unwilling to move if they have to take a salary drop.'

But rapidly expanding businesses will not be turned off headhunting by these concerns. Octopus Communications was one of the fastest-growing PR agencies in PRWeek's Top 150 Consultancies report (21 April), having embarked on a sizeable recruitment drive in 2005.

Headhunting was not director Jon Lonsdale's first choice, mainly because of the upfront cost, but he was tempted when a recruiter offered its services at an attractive fee.

Octopus still works closely with the recruiter, sharing business strategy to ensure the relevant practitioners are targeted. ‘It means the headhunters have a clear idea of our business and are an advocate for our company,' explains Lonsdale.

Mixed feelings
‘Because of the skills shortage you almost have no choice but to headhunt,' says Weber Shandwick recruitment manager Gemma McCartney. ‘It can be a bit cloak and dagger because most people are at their place of work when you call, but I find I usually get a positive response.'

As many headhunters stress, they are only meeting a demand that is created by recruitment-hungry firms.Yet some headhunters claim to be worried at the number of requests they are being asked to fulfil. 

Justin Kent, managing director at recruiter PRJS, says he has ‘had more headhunting requests in the past six months than I care to remember', points to what he believes is a fundamental problem. ‘Headhunting happens in cycles, but this time around I think it will be far more serious for the PR industry. It's a response to a shortfall of people, but the workforce have become less materialistic and want jobs that let them "give something back to the community".'

He is echoed by Neville Price, chairman of recruitment agency Price Trace Hawes. ‘Three years ago, when times were tougher, the industry buried its head in the ground and stopped taking on graduates. Today there is a raft of posts but few people to fill them. The problem is happening now because there has been an expansion in PR generally - the same number of PROs are doing more work, which makes them want to move on, and so the recruitment cycle continues. PROs have become much more willing to take a call from a headhunter.'

Avoiding the juniors
Media Recruitment consultant Tania Ferris says she is worried about the encroachment of headhunting at the lower end of the market. ‘Hearing that junior-level staff are being poached makes me very concerned,' she adds, stressing that her agency only headhunts for more senior positions.

The consultant has 2,672 candidates on its books, a number which belies the fact that clients' search for the right person is anything but easy. Ferris recently worked with one client, desperate to secure a mid-level account executive immediately, that took four months to fill the post.

But she warns that recruitment consultants must not allow such client pressure to dictate how they work.
Media Recruitment's guidelines are clear: ‘We won't consider taking on anyone with less than 18 months'
experience,' says Ferris. ‘Recruitment consultants fish in a very small pond, and it is a slippery slope to start headhunting at more junior levels.

‘Clients should take heart that the industry is being refreshed at the grassroots level. It is only at the middle level where a skills shortage really lies. Only until the junior staff move up will the industry be back to an equilibrium again.'

She adds that employers should not panic and headhunt junior staff to fill these middle-level roles, because
juniors lack the required experience: ‘The headhunting of middle management is the only long-term solution to dealing with the skills shortage.'

Meanwhile, PRJS's Kent is looking beyond PR to meet his clients' needs. ‘Taking PROs for PR jobs is not
sustainable. We've started looking at people in advertising and integrated marketing for non-entry-level roles. Clients are not always convinced, but we believe it's better to have someone who can quickly be trained than no one at all. As long as a candidate has good client-facing skills, the rest can follow.'

Others in recruitment are less convinced that there has been a notable change in the market. ‘Headhunting is having no more or less impact now than it ever has,' insists Maggie Maupin, head of PR and comms resourcing at XchangeTeam. ‘It will increase some people's wages, but that helps keep the jobs market healthy.'

Maupin adds that headhunting is an excellent way to deal with a candidate exclusively, and guarantees that only people of a certain calibre are shortlisted: ‘Often an employer will want someone from the biggest competitor, or at least one of the big players. Headhunters can meet this demand, but they can also think more laterally about the type of person who could be suitable for the job, or what could make a candidate feel put off by a company. 

‘Ironically, when skills are in short supply, clients get more specific about their requirements. Headhunters can remedy this.'

For those who have lost staff to headhunters, the realisation that valued PROs are so easily poached can be hard to take. Hill & Knowlton director of human resources Caroline Samuel admits: ‘We have lost good people and we don't always know how - they might say they've been headhunted because it sounds better than admitting to having looked for a job themselves.' Meanwhile, Media Recruitment's Ferris reveals: ‘Employees are savvy, and we are seeing a marked increase in CVs sent to us directly.' 

So which practitioners are the most likely to get a phone call today? Headhunting is particularly evident in PR sectors such as technology, healthcare and financial services. Those with specialist skills are the targets, says the Association of Executive Recruiters' Harper, who adds: ‘In most cases, companies serious about having talent in their ranks will want people with potential to be promoted beyond the role for which they are being hired - it's called Plus Two - the potential to move up two levels in an organisation.'

Elsewhere, some claim the rise in the visibility of headhunting is a turn-off for some candidates. ‘Individuals are being targeted so often that the attraction of being headhunted is beginning to wane,' says H&K's Samuel.

‘Sometimes it can be quite funny - you hear of a headhunter calling up every member of the same team with the same job.'

Employers should note that while PROs' motives for leaving a post include the attraction of a new position - and perhaps the feeling that they are  restricted in their present job - salary will always be a key bargaining tool. Emma Dale, director at recruitment agency Prospect, warns: ‘Not everyone is moving. Some candidates have been known to use the headhunted line to get a salary increase.'

Samuel believes the PR industry should see the rise in headhunting activity as a wake-up call for bosses to offer better benefits to staff, such as flexitime for working mothers (see the next issue of PRWeek, 2 June, for a feature on job sharing).

Give staff a choice 
‘We all say it's hard to hire staff but we all continue to headhunt and drive up the market,' says Samuel. ‘And although people might be ethically opposed to poaching from the competition, a restriction on this practice would be impossible to enforce.'

Perhaps the best way to deal with the headhunting dilemma is to be as upfront and honest in your dealings with staff as possible. One agency, Frank PR, insists that management's relationship with staff is so good that employees are willing to tell their MDs if they have been headhunted.

Indeed, Frank managing director Andrew Bloch claims that while his staff are increasingly being approached by headhunters, employee turnover is low. ‘I try and encourage open and honest dialogue so employees talk to me about being sought before deciding whether or not to move on. We try to make this as nice a place to work as possible - by focusing on the benefits of working for Frank, we make it as difficult as possible for a staff member to want to leave. You can't stop people looking around, and you must have the confidence to help an employee who is going for an interview to assess the right move for them.'

Interestingly, some agencies, which declined to be named, are paying headhunters a retainer not to poach their staff. But Prospect's Dale insists: ‘In the main, agencies will not, and should not, be held to ransom by staff who are leaving for purely monetary reasons.'

Despite Barrow's view that the recruitment market will eventually level out - ‘these things are cyclical and there will be a shake-out which will slow it all right down' - headhunters are revelling in their clients' quest to find the best practitioners.

How was I poached...?
As a partner at Luther Pendragon, David Wheeldon was happy working in public affairs and corporate communications consultancy. He liked the company and was not actively looking to move, but had decided that his next job should be a high profile in-house role, rather than an agency position.

Wheeldon had been approached by VMA Recruitment in the past for a job which did not work out, and when the post of head of public affairs at the London Stock Exchange came up, the agency had to twist his arm - hard,he  jokes: ‘I really needed to be persuaded to consider it, because it was a big change for me career-wise in terms of the type of organisation I'd be joining. And I had to take a pay cut.'

By his own admission, Wheeldon was in a comfortable agency position with his own clients and a lot of freedom, but the London Stock Exchange proved to be a fascinating organisation. After the first interview, Wheeldon was so hooked that not even his bosses at Luther Pendragon could persuade him to stay.

Right time, right job
‘I'd had other calls from headhunters before but I hadn't been interested in them. I was probably higher-profile at Luther Pendragon - whereas at in-house roles you tend to mix in industry circles - but the nature of the London Stock Exchange makes up for that.'

He has no problem with headhunting - he uses headhunters to recruit his own staff - and would consider a personal approach from one in the future.

‘There's a market for skilled people and in order for it to work efficiently you need headhunters,' says Wheeldon. ‘Headhunters speed up the flow of information between those who need staff and those who are looking for a job.'

Marc Sparrow, account  executive, Golin Harris
Marc was happily working at Inferno PR as an account executive when he got a call from Golin Harris's headhunter, Gemma McCartney (right), in January. ‘The call came out of the blue, and although I wasn't planning to leave, I was called on a day when I could at least listen to an approach.'

According to Sparrow, PROs such as him regularly get ‘one or two calls a month', but on this occasion, the call seemed more targeted than usual. ‘Gemma seemed to know a lot about me - and suggested areas that might be of interest,' he says. ‘It made me question where I was going, as I'd spent two and a half years at Inferno, and the agency was much different from when I joined as the fifth employee.'

Sparrow did not jump ship straight away, and asked recruitment consultants to find him agencies for comparison, but in the end he chose Golin Harris.

‘Gemma knew my strengths and what I had to offer. She knew I'd worked on 02 and GH was offering me the chance to work on the Orange account, so I could not refuse.' Sparrow adds that he does not feel guilty for taking a wage increase for a sideways move. ‘I thought about it from a career point of view,' he explains.

Gemma McCartney, UK recruitment manager, CMG Group

Gemma McCartney, recruitment manager for CMG Group, the holding company of the Weber Shandwick and Golin Harris  brands, says headhunting has increased massively this year. ‘It's borne purely from a skills shortage, especially in healthcare and IT. So far I have headhunted for between 25 and 30 roles this year,' she says.

For McCartney, headhunting is a much more focused solution to the recruitment needs of her employers. ‘Some recruitment companies will flood you with CVs - a haphazard approach. I have a network of contacts who inform me about emerging talent. Having so many employees internally is also a good pool, because they will know talented people with whom they used to work, and who I can follow up with job opportunities.'

Knowledge of the skills shortage means that PR practitioners are beginning to play McCartney off against other, rival recruitment agencies. ‘There's a real element of PROs believing they can hold out for another headhunter's call, and this is a problem,' she reveals. ‘Practitioners do tend to understand their value.'

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