There was a time when everyone wanted to work in an advertising agency. Among those who switched careers in the early Eighties were barristers and judges, lured by high salaries and the glamour of the business. Young hopefuls would stage publicity stunts or stick posters outside an agency executive's house to get noticed. One even wrote a letter to a top creative director claiming to be his illegitimate son from a youthful liaison, keen to follow dad into an agency career (he failed to land the job).
But cost-cutting and redundancies are the realities of British advertising in the Nineties. In the past two years one in six advertising jobs has been cut - about 2,400 redundancies. For those leaving college this year, hoping for a job as a junior employee, the prospects are grim.
Steve Henry, creative partner at the London agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, says: 'You can no longer drift into advertising as a gifted amateur with a novel in the bottom drawer. People just aren't hiring - we think we are lucky because we haven't had to make anybody redundant.'
Aspiring agency creatives fall into two categories: students and second jobbers, according to Camilla Sparkes, a director at Kendall Tarrant, the recruitment consultants. But since the late Eighties there has been a rapid decline in people wanting to move across from an established career.
Ms Sparkes estimates that 5 to 10 per cent of the people she sees without any experience stand a chance of getting into advertising. Even so, there are more than 600 hopefuls on her books and the number continues to rise.
Advertising has never been a career for the fainthearted, but today luck and perseverance are critical. Most agencies have shed between 20 and 30 per cent of their staff since the late Eighties, so the market is also flooded with experienced creative teams.
The usual way in for newcomers is to pair up with someone as a team - art director and copywriter - to prepare a portfolio of speculative work. They must then sell themselves hard, approaching creative directors at the top agencies for a placement.
Placements offer invaluable work experience in a real creative department working on 'live' briefs. They normally last from two weeks to six months. But there are pitfalls: some agencies give inadequate support, others have been accused of poaching ideas. And few offer any more than a cursory payment to cover basic expenses.
A placement team may be paid between pounds 35 and pounds 100 a week, although at a number of agencies it will get nothing at all. Because of this, many such partnerships are on the dole or supplement their income with casual work to get by. Even if their advertisements are eventually used, few can expect additional payment for their troubles. Most claim that the glory of being credited is payment enough.
'My biggest problem is my parents and friends, who see it as total exploitation,' says Chas Bayfield, a copywriter and one half of a placement at Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, along with James Bolton, art director. 'But deep down I am optimistic - we both realise how lucky we are, as some people have never even had one placement.'
Mr Bayfield and Mr Bolton graduated from Watford School of Art earlier this year. Since March they have worked at six agencies, including McCann Erickson, BMP DDB Needham, Grey Advertising and Saatchi & Saatchi. Both admit that money is a problem.
'You just learn not to spend any,' says Mr Bolton. 'But I don't think it's an unfair system, it makes you fight. You do it for the thrill of writing the ads, of seeing them actually used - that's not something you can do from your bedroom.'
Three months ago, Mike London, art director, and James Fryer, copywriter, got their first staff jobs, with Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, after three years of placements and unemployment. Mr London says: 'After three years we were close to giving up. We had finally given ourselves a time limit and just a week before we thought we would pack it in, this came up.'
Mr Fryer adds: 'Now we have got a job those years seem like nothing.'
The partners graduated from a one-year advertising and design course in London at the School of Communication Arts in 1989. SCA is one of a few private advertising colleges; students pay pounds 5,360 for course fees, with living expenses on top. Some of Mr London and Mr Fryer's contemporaries are still paying off loans.
'We left college and started learning about the industry,' says Mr London. But both he and Mr Fryer are critical of the placement system. 'Some agencies treat you like idiots. They have placement teams there for months and months and never give them a job. They just take you for a ride.'
The longer the placement, the worse it is when it's over, he adds. 'We know of one team who worked eight months at an agency for pounds 35 a week, had their work used and still weren't offered jobs. What really hurts is when you end up spending money to work - I've worked for free to avoid losing my benefits.'
Despite the recession, most of the larger agencies still take on placement teams. J Walter Thompson, which has 32 staff creative teams, has nine each year plus two college placements. These get pounds 90 a week each, taxed, to cover expenses. Last year two placement teams were offered jobs after a three-month trial period.
Saatchi & Saatchi has six placement teams at a time, each staying an average of four to six weeks, although some stay for longer. The agency has 40 staff creative teams and offers jobs to three or four new ones each year. Placements receive pounds 35 a week for the first six weeks, but then this is cut to nothing after six weeks to discourage all but the bravest from staying on. The creative department is fully booked until mid-1993.
Bartle Bogle Hegarty takes on perhaps the most - one placement team every fortnight, sometimes two at once. They are paid according to experience. BBH last offered a placement team permanent work three years ago. The agency has 13 staff teams and prefers to recruit more experienced staff.
Jo Tanner, a copywriter who, along with his art director, Viv Walsh, has just finished a six- month placement at Saatchi & Saatchi, says: 'Few agencies tell you what the job prospects are when you start on a placement. It must be very tempting for agencies to keep teams on placement longer than normal because there are so few jobs.'
John Gillard, the founder and principal of the School of Communication Arts, believes placements offer invaluable work experience. But, he adds, 'Students pay to do our course, then to support themselves while doing placements. I would like to see a mandatory basic salary for placement teams, but I doubt whether this would ever happen.'
Nevertheless, few have been deterred. Despite the industry's problems, agency juniors on an average starting salary of pounds 8,000 take comfort from the fact that there are still senior creative heads earning more than pounds 100,000 a year.
Many in agencies admit that they are in it for the money, others cite creative fulfilment, a few are even still attracted by the thought of glamour. But all believe that advertising at its best can be both creative and well paid, even if only for those who can afford to wait.
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