Less grog, more graduation

In the past, the ability to drink deep into the night and still function the next day was the main qualification for a career in media sales. Not any more, explains Richard Cook
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The Independent Online
A decade ago many colleges up and down the country leaned heavily for their careers advice on a single, immensely popular computer programme. An invention of those proto-digital days before Doom and Tomb Raider came along to brighten all our computer lives, the programme was simplicity itself to use. All you had to do was answer a series of innocent- seeming questions about yourself, about your likes and dislikes, about your particular predilections and, above all, about your overall disposition.

The computer then made all those whirring and clunking noises behind which old computers used to hide their technological ineptness and moments later disgorged a sheaf of carefully considered career choices.

It sounded wonderful. It didn't work at all. Even now, 10 years on, I have still to meet someone whose first choice was not either antiques dealer or airline pilot.

The problem was that everybody answered yes to one or other of the two loaded questions on the computer programme. The first - "Do you like to travel?" - got you speedily shoehorned into the airline pilot gig; the other - "Are you creative?" - willed you a life watching Lovejoy reruns for inspiration, wishing you'd paid more attention to your studies and could remember that there really is a big difference between Chippendale and Chip 'n' Dale.

What you wouldn't find, no matter how perversely you answered the questionnaire, was any reference to a career in media sales. But then that was a decade ago. The trouble is that even now too many of today's graduates are getting the same sort of treatment.

"We have put together a three-page leaflet to send to universities just really trying to tell people what media sales is and explain that it can be a really viable and satisfying career option for graduates," explains Sara Reitze, manager of specialist consultancy Hays Graduate Appointments.

"What we were finding was that graduates see job ads for media sales vacancies but which don't really explain what the job is. As a result when they ring up about the job they can sound foolish."

In a bid to try to help improve this situation, Hays has actually started organising seminars where graduates can learn about the profession free from the pressures of an interview.

"There's no doubt that media sales can be a rewarding career for graduates, but it can be a complicated area," says Reitze. "There are really two grades of employers: those that are looking to put bums on seats and who expect a speedy staff turnover, and then the responsible companies that are really looking to find the people who will be tomorrow's managers, so graduates really need to know as much as they can about the market. Good companies are incredibly discerning about who they take and in fact are often prepared to wait for the right person rather than rush into a hiring."

In today's competitive media environment they can often afford to be - after all, the quantity of response to a job ad pales into insignificance compared with its quality. However, this continuing lack of information at universities and colleges that the specialists like Hays have identified means that even today there are still sometimes shortages of the right calibre of media sales applicant.

Where once the most popular qualification was an ability to drink deep into the night and still function the next day, nowadays a good university degree has left conviviality for dead. And for graduates, media sales is a more attractive option now than it has ever been because pay and prospects are both increasing. But then these prospects have always been good - most recruitment specialists agree that progress 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 in just three or four years

Better, full-scale training programmes have at last been implemented at some of the blue-chip companies.

These can aim to fast-track staff from the world of classified sales to the upper echelons of management.

Employers have also taken increasing responsibility upon themselves for developing this skill base, recognising the part that structured training and staff development schemes can have both in attracting the right kind of recruits and, crucially, in keeping hold of them.Most of the major publishers have now put detailed training plans of their own in place. In the Eighties it might have been sufficient for some companies just to have cleared a desk and provided a telephone and a phone book. But if that was sometimes acceptable then, it never is now. Hence the ambitious training schemes put in place by the industry's blue-chip names: magazine publishers like NatMags, VNU, IPC and Emap.

Graduates at VNU, as at most of the major publishing houses, start by receiving some basic training and are then let loose on the world of classified advertising. "We would expect graduates to do that for between eight months and a year before moving into a sales executive role where they will be selling display ads," explains Jo Bulger, VNU's human resources manager.

"Contrary to popular opinion, media sales people don't have to be brash extroverts," he adds, "they just have to be intelligent, articulate and confident in their own abilities."