FOCUS: RECRUITMENT - Making the jump through the ranks/Employers are spoilt for choice as far as graduates go, but when it comes to finding skilled, middle level staff, the situation is somewhat grim Mary Cowlett reports.

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.

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,

Jonathan Simnett.

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

Crispin Manners.

’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.’


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.’


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,

including IT.

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

is difficult.’

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

hi-tech market.

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.


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

ever before.

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.’

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