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Marketing departments' hiring freeze thawing

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The job market for marketing executives is showing scattered signs of life, as companies that had trimmed staff during the downturn begin to add personnel to support increased business. Nevertheless, the pace of this job recovery is painstakingly slow.

Direct marketing hiring in particular is on the rise, according to quarterly results of an employment survey by Bernhart Associates Executive Search, Owatonna, Minn., a direct marketing headhunter. Almost two-thirds of direct marketers (64%) said they will add staff in the first quarter, an increase from just over half (51%) in the fourth quarter of 2003 and an increase of 9% compared with the first quarter of 2003.

"It is the best improvement in three years," said company president Jerry Bernhart. He said one explanation for the resurgence is an improved economic outlook and, with it, rising revenue expectations.

"Companies are telling me that they’ve all got more aggressive targets they need to hit this year," said Bernhart, adding that companies have "already cut as much as they can cut," with layoffs and eliminated positions.

Some still out in the cold

Not every company is hiring. Bernhart’s study found one in five direct marketing companies still has a hiring freeze in place—"although the percentage of companies with freezes continues to decline," he said.

Jim Speros, chairman of the Association of National Advertisers, said he sees signs that employment is beginning to pick up again in marketing. Still, Speros doesn’t anticipate adding staff in the marketing group at Ernst & Young, New York, where he is chief marketing officer.

Placement companies have noticed the uptick, too. "I’m definitely seeing a little bit of momentum," said Carol Ravanis, VP at Management Recruiters International, Boston. She said the technology, financial services and construction industries have all been "very busy."

Organic, an interactive agency in San Francisco, plans to hire 30 people this year to keep up with increasing work from existing clients. "The company is growing because our clients are expanding their budgets," said Mark Kingdon, Organic’s CEO.

Millard "Rip" Ripley, chief operating officer of BSM&R, Denver, and chairman of the Business Marketing Association, said his agency is hiring four people in senior and junior positions. "We are seeing some real growth opportunities," he said, calling the hiring situation "better than it has been in the last three years."

But even the optimists suggest their outlook is tempered. "I won’t say happy days are here again yet," Bernhart said. "It’s not a groundswell."

Others were similarly tentative. "The first quarter won’t be fabulous," Ravanis said, predicting companies would commit to creating new jobs and restaffing in the third quarter.

Bob Goranson, a partner at Mobium Creative Group, Chicago, and a member of the BMA’s executive committee, said his clients are not hiring in significant numbers. "They’re still being very cautious," he said.

After two years of significant layoffs, IBM Corp. announced it would add up to 10,000 new jobs this year. "We’re adding on a needs basis in the places where we want to increase our skills," said Ed Abrams, IBM VP-integrated marketing communications for global sales and distribution.

Mark Dacey, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, New York, predicts most companies will add jobs slowly. That’s because they will want to be sure their business is on track before investing in new people, he said. "There’s still some conservatism on adding new jobs now, because a lot of companies want to make sure revenue increases are real," Dacey said.

Observers said middle management took the brunt of the layoffs, which created an organizational gap.

"We have seen a chasm open between senior level and junior level marketing people," said BSM&R’s Ripley. He said that many of those middle management marketing executives moved on, rather than wait for the turnaround. "Former mid-level marketers have become consultants or have migrated to the agency side," Ripley said.

Recruiter Ravanis noted that marketing is a lagging indicator. "It is the first place they cut, but I also think marketing is the last place to hire," she said. Once companies begin winning business again, they will add the marketing element, she predicted. "Marketing is the last piece of the puzzle," she said.

Senior Reporter Kate Maddox contributed to this story.

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