How to get more heads in advertising

As business burgeons, agencies are actively seeking high-calibre graduates. Meg Carter examines a new clearing house system

There was a time when everyone wanted a job in advertising. But reports during the recession of agencies shedding up to 30 per cent of staff have had a lasting effect. The advertising industry now fears it is losing top-calibre graduates to other areas of business. Finally it has decided it must attempt to stem the flow.

Historically, advertising has had no problem attracting graduates. "But research conducted last year proves that now we are in fact losing out," says Veronica Wheatley, training manager for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the advertising agencies' trade association.

One reason is that few agencies actively promote themselves to graduates. "There has always been a feeling that graduates should hunt them out - agencies demand proof of initiative and ambition," she explains. Another disincentive for prospective applicants is the lack of clear industry- standard starting salaries and clear career development plans.

The advertising business is once more flourishing and agencies need fresh recruits to cater for future demand. Advertising expenditure is predicted to rise by 40 per cent over the next 12 years, according to an Advertising Association forecast published earlier this month.

This is why the IPA has launched a range of new information about the industry, including the latest details of which agencies operate recruitment schemes and how many places are available. It is producing a recruitment video to explain what different jobs entail and featuring graduates with jobs already. And it has set up the industry's first "graduate clearing house".

Getting a job in advertising has traditionally been more of an art than a science: personal contacts, luck and a dash of eccentricity were once prerequisites. But things have changed - most of the larger agencies now run their own graduate recruitment schemes for trainee account managers, planners and media executives.

Each agency recruits according to its own rules: the largest with formal schemes, the smaller by poaching the intake of the former once those recruits have been in the job for more than a year. Some do the milk round, most don't, preferring to rely on the liberal distribution of application forms to careers offices around the UK.

The forms are designed by most to tease out personality and initiative rather than mere academic qualifications. The best applicants are invited to assessment days that typically involve 15 or 20 hopefuls being put through team leadership, prioritising and motivational tests. They are expected to work as part of small teams, and the one- or two-day process also includes personal interviews.

Agencies estimate that 10 per cent of those who make it to the assessment days will get a job in advertising. "Typically, an applicant is rejected at this stage only because their face does not fit that particular agency at that particular time," says Sue Buckle, director of recruitment specialists The Headhunters. However, the system has its faults: notably, what happens to unsuccessful shortlisted applicants.

In the past, they were expected to knock on other agency doors. This needle-in-the-haystack approach found favour with few. That is why earlier this year, the IPA and Ms Buckle combined forces to set up a "graduate clearing house" to prevent these applicants from falling out of the system.

Agencies pay a pounds 500 registration fee to use the scheme plus a further 10 per cent of salary of each graduate hired - half the cost of using a head-hunter, Ms Buckle explains. They can tap into the talent pool between spring and October when the whole graduate recruitment process starts again for the following year.

The "clearing house" has only been operational a few months and early signs are that it is having teething problems. "Agencies are so busy that some have shown less enthusiasm than we would have hoped," Ms Buckle says. Others are waiting for business wins before considering taking on an additional recruit.

As a result, only one applicant from the clearing pool of 109 hopefuls has so far found a job - as a secretary to the chairman. This will come as a disappointment to many who expect first job responsibilities to be higher. Ms Buckle says: "It's typical and not a bad way in. After a year learning the ropes the recruit can expect to move across as a trainee account manager."

Hopefuls waiting within the clearing system have mixed views about its effectiveness. "I have now taken another job in an area of business that doesn't particularly interest me, but I am earning and I am waiting to see if an agency job does come up. If it does I would take it immediately," one history graduate says.

Yet the IPA claims that it is committed to making the system work next time around. "This year's scheme has very much been an experiment. We will look at whether to make any amendments for 1996 and act accordingly," Ms Wheatley says. "New talent is the industry's lifeblood," she adds. "For too long, getting into advertising has been a matter of luck. Now it must have less to do with chance and more to do with procedure."

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