Sales promotion's tacky image does little justice to the rewards and rapid progress it offers, says Helen Jones
"Traditionally, advertising has always been top of the list as a future career. Graduates think it's a very sexy industry and all about going on film shoots in the Caribbean - which, of course, it is not," says Louise Wall, managing director of the sales promotion company Option One Direct.

In contrast to the advertising industry, where there is intense competition for a very limited number of graduate places, below-the-line marketing, which encompasses sales promotion and direct marketing, cannot attract enough high-calibre candidates. "There is a real shortage of good young people coming into the business," says Ms Wall.

One of the problems is that it is saddled with a slightly tacky image, associated with junk mail and promotions on the backs of cereal packets. Jane Asscher, managing director of the sales promotion company Tequila, says: "There is a real lack of understanding among graduates about what the business all about. There is still a perception that sales promotion is all about quick and dirty on-pack price promotions, but that is not the reality; it is a fraction of what it entails."

In an attempt to raise the industry's profile and recruit the right sort of graduates, the Sales Promotion Consultants Association (SPCA), the industry body, has teamed up with Major Players, a specialist recruitment agency, and will be joining the milk round this year.

Jack Gratton, managing director of Major Players, says students do not think that the industry offers the same chances to work with large budgets and big brand names in a creative environment as advertising. "What they fail to realise is that they will be given greater responsibility at a strategic level at a much earlier age than they would in advertising," he says.

Ms Asscher, who has worked in advertising and sales promotion, agrees: "We work with some very exciting brands with good budgets, and there is greater scope to have an impact on creative solutions than in an advertising agency. We do everything from price promotions to organising a national comedy tour for one of our clients. It is very diverse."

For good graduate entrants, career progress can be rapid and the rewards high. Recruitment consultants say they know of a number of people in the industry in their twenties who are earning more than pounds 35,000 a year.

Apart from making its presence felt on the milk round, the SPCA is also running a graduate exchange scheme. This means that if an SPCA member company receives a good CV from a candidate but does not have a current vacancy, then it is passed via the SPCA to members who may have a suitable opening.

As well as lacking new graduates, the industry is suffering from a skills gap. Mr Gratton says: "Companies find it a real problem getting good people at junior level - those with a couple of years' experience in the business." The reason is that during the recession, graduate recruitment and training fell. Ms Wall estimates that the number of people coming into the industry dropped by as much as 50 per cent. As a result, account managers who can move to a new company and hit the ground running are very much in demand.

The way forward is for the industry to train graduates properly to shake off the poor perception of sales promotion and to ensure that the skills gap does not recur, says Ms Wall. "It's very important that all new entrants are put through a full training programme and are given the opportunity to sit for the Institute of Sales Promotion Diploma," she says. "We can't just recruit them, dump work on them and expect them to get on with it."