Media sales has had to grow up. The industry grew fat in the Eighties, and when the recession set in it found itself unable to keep up with the pace of change. Magazine titles closed, or laid off staff; newspapers and the broadcast media did likewise. Ultimately, as advertisers looked closely at paring back budgets, advertising salespeople found out the hard way that working for a commission on what they sold, was a good deal only as long as they were selling something.
"Many people were attracted to media sales because of the perceived glamour of the job," admits Andrea Grant, a manager at the recruitment specialists Media Appointments. "They all wanted to be working in the media, and not necessarily selling it. As a consequence media sales didn't have to promote itself to potential recruits in conventional terms, such as pay or conditions. But now people are much more aware that what we really want is salespeople, not media people. One result of this at the moment is that there is a huge shortage of candidates."
Or a shortage of the right sort of candidate. Where once the most popular qualification was an ability to drink deep into the night and still function the next day, now a university education is running conviviality close. For the media owners, this wooing of graduates is especially attractive at the moment. Many of them cut back on recruitment during the dark days of economic recession, and are now suffering serious staff shortages as demand increases. For graduates, media sales is a more attractive option than it has been in the past because pay and prospects are improving, and full-scale training programmes have at last been implemented.
"An increasing number of publishing companies are now recruiting graduates to embark on an extensive training programme to offset the shortage of junior, experienced media sales executives," agrees Grant.
Prospects in the industry have always been good - most recruitment specialists agree that to progress, for example, from a trainee earning around pounds 12,000 a year, with perhaps another pounds 3,000 of commission, to an ad manager earning nearly three times that, is certainly possible within just three or four years. Increasing fragmentation in the media market-place - the proliferation of magazines, radio and TV outlets - is also helping to broaden the demand for good quality sales staff. "One of the really exciting things about media fragmentation is that employers are more open-minded about where they can recruit sales talent from," agrees Tracy Fenner, a partner at the media recruitment company Phee Farrer Jones. "Whereas five years ago, if you worked in magazine sales then that was pretty much your market, now there is much more recruitment across media disciplines. So someone selling a magazine may move to a radio station and then to a newspaper, and, of course, all this helps broaden their skills base."
Employers have also taken increasing responsibility upon themselves for developing these skills, recognising the part that structured training and staff development schemes can have in attracting the right kind of recruits and, crucially, in keeping hold of them. Most of the major publishers have now put into place detailed training plans of their own. In the Eighties it might have been enough for a company just to clear a desk and provide a telephone and a copy of the phone book. But if that was sometimes acceptable then, it never is now.
"Never mind the desk and the phone book; it's no longer even good enough for them to go into advertising agencies and just sell the magazine, however accomplished they may be at that," says Brian Wallis, group company director of the National Magazine Company. "Today's sales executive has got to answer the business needs of the client; has in the end got to help them make sense of their advertising needs in what is a very congested market.They have got to be good business people, not just good salespeople, and we have got to help them become that." Hence the ambitious training schemes put in place by the industry's blue-chip names: magazine publishers such as NatMags, VNU, IPC, and Emap. NatMags is now committed to offering all new recruits an intensive one-week course when they first join, and augments that with another week's worth of one- or two-day training sessions during the first year. Outside specialists are brought in to teach subjects such as understanding research, negotiation skills and customer care. In addition there are monthly evening classes, and bi-monthly lectures from big names in the industry to help bring recruits up to speed with the facts of media life. It's a similar picture among other big-name companies. "I think what we have realised is that training is part of a package that can attract the best-quality people to our company," says Wallis, "and that, in a competitive market, we have to be prepared to make a substantial investment in the individual if we want to attract the right calibre. An attractive salary is one part of that - rates have climbed through the industry. Opportunities for advancement is another: we like to move our staff around titles to broaden their experience. And the final part of this jigsaw is training." It's perhaps not surprising that the industry has changed so far in so short a period - so, too, after all, have the brands they are selling. What is certain is that selling, say, an ITV region in 1987, when a fledgling Channel 4 was practically the only broadcast competition, was a radically simpler job than selling the same region in 1997. Now there is the imminent reality of a 200-channel, digital, terrestrial and satellite world.
So don't be surprised if those recruitment ads shrieking for untrained sales staff and offering the "opportunity to earn" vast sums have been discreetly replaced. Today's version will be looking for recruits with highly developed skills for a more sophisticated market. But in return they are likely to offer much more - including proper training and a healthy starting salary. What hasn't changed is that in this business, as in few others, aptitude brings its own direct rewards. After all, commission can still add up to 50 per cent on to basic payn