Media: Softer ride to the hard sell: You no longer need to be a lunatic from Oxbridge to break into advertising, says Meg Carter

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The Independent Online
WHAT HAPPENS if you want to get into advertising but you don't have pots of money, glossy friends or outrageous habits - and, after last week's A-level results, you don't rate your chances of a place at a fashionable university?

Fear not. In the realistic Nineties, hard work, grim determination and perseverance have replaced an Oxbridge degree, private income and eccentric personality as prerequisites for a career in the black art. It is still a tough industry to break into, but the good news is that this autumn it looks set to be more of a seller's market.

Only 18 months ago it was a very different story. Most advertising agencies shed between 20 and 30 per cent of their staff during the recession. Cost-cutting and redundancies were widespread. Most of the industry's few graduate training schemes were put on hold.

This failure to attract new blood during the lean times has left many agencies with a void to fill. 'The lack of recruitment was a disaster,' says Tim Lindsay, managing director of the advertising agency Lowe Howard- Spink.' Cutting recruitment schemes saves little money.'

Agencies are now looking further afield to find tomorrow's creative directors and senior executives. A report published by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) shows that an Oxbridge degree is no longer a passport to a top job in the industry, although most of those entering the business are graduates. 'We want to attract people who perhaps have never considered a career in advertising,' says Christine Asbury, a director of the agency SPL. 'If you don't look beyond Oxbridge or the top 10 universities, you'll never know who's out there.'

There is no shortage of young hopefuls. Graduates in a number of subjects are increasingly shunning careers in more traditional industries in favour of advertising and marketing, according to a report published by the Universities Statistical Record in June.

Chris Hirst, a 23-year-old Oxford University graduate, realised he didn't want to work in industry when on placement during his engineering course. 'I found it claustrophobic and by its very nature repetitive,' he says. 'Advertising offers a young, dynamic environment.' Hirst joins SPL as an account handler next month.

Gone are the days when a talented eccentric could drift into the business. Samantha Brice, a 21- year-old English student at St Andrews University, does not graduate until next year but has already done paid work experience at two agencies. 'Unless you actually see for yourself what the different jobs entail, you can be very misguided about the direction you eventually take,' she says. Ms Brice has spent the summer working at Saatchi & Saatchi.

Stunts were once the way to make an impression on a prospective employer. The account director who paraded outside Saatchi's wearing only a sandwich board is now part of advertising folklore. But a recent hopeful who distributed his CV together with live goldfish made less of an impact: agencies now adopt a more considered approach to recruitment. Each September the larger of them start their annual recruitment drive. Training schemes recruit young managers into account management and strategic planning.

Numbers are limited and competition fierce. Last year J Walter Thompson sent out 3,000 nine- page application forms, says JWT's personnel manager, Geoff Goodman. This generated 1,200 applicants, of whom 150 were interviewed. Twenty were then selected for a rigorous two-and-a- half-day assessment course from which 12 were finally chosen. Successful candidates can expect a starting salary of pounds 13,000.

Competition to become an agency 'creative' is even tougher. Young hopefuls usually have an art school background; many will have also completed an advertising-related course. They find a partner to work as a team - art director and copywriter - and prepare a portfolio of work. Teams then compete for temporary placements that might lead to full-time jobs.

Placements can last from two weeks to six months and participants are paid anything from pounds 35 to pounds 100 per week. But during the worst of the recession, teams worked for a succession of different agencies for up to two-and-a- half years before securing a permanent job. Some find the process acutely demoralising.

'I need money to live and we are paid only pounds 40 a week on placement,' says Juan Coronil, a 25- year-old art director who last month completed a course at the School of Communication Arts. Following allegations that some temporary creative teams have been exploited, the IPA plans to publish best practice guidelines to regulate the process.

Agencies maintain that placements offer invaluable insight into a potential employee. 'It really isn't slave labour,' says Moray MacLennan, joint managing director at Saatchi's. 'Placements take up the agency's time. It is us looking at them rather than them doing us a favour.'

Each year up to 200 people get a job in advertising through agencies' graduate recruitment schemes, according to the IPA. This figure excludes those joining creative departments and commercials productions companies with no formal entry process.

The rewards can be great. While agencies maintain that the worst excesses of the Eighties have been curbed, many recruits are still lured by the prospect of fat cheques, fast cars and fame. And top talent can quickly move up the corporate ladder. JWT's 30- year-old deputy managing director joined the agency as a graduate trainee only seven years ago, while its European president and chief executive started his advertising career in the post room.

The Advertising Association publishes a guide to working in the advertising business. Contact Abford House, 15 Wilton Road, London SW1V 1NJ.

The Institute of Practitioners

in Advertising will publish details

of agency recruitment schemes in

time for the next academic year. Contact 44 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QS.

(Photograph omitted)