Attracting best and brightest to agencies

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Results of the two latest surveys on ad employment read more like a saga of unrequited love than they do a tale of human-resources success in the ad biz.

Recent articles in The New York Times and USA Today feature quotes from leading agency executives lamenting the "brain drain" experienced by Madison Avenue, as top students reportedly chose dot-coms, Wall Street and consulting companies over advertising.

Two studies-one by the American Association of Advertising Agencies of large ad agencies and the other by the American Advertising Federation of top ad students-suggest scores of missed opportunities on the part of the industry to woo the nation's best.

Here is just a preview of the issues in the relationship between ad employers and their allegedly elusive prospects:

* On mutual desire-Both sides say they want the other's commitment desperately. Despite reports to the contrary, a career in advertising was the No. 1 stated preference of more than 90% of the 140 students whose teams competed in the AAF's National Student Advertising Competition finals in June, and agencies headed the list of companies students desired for employment. For its part, the Four A's survey states that "colleges remain the No. 1 source for entry-level hired." A match made in heaven? Read on.

* On money-Ad grads are no longer cheap dates, and few will take a vow of poverty as a condition of commitment. The eight NSAC finalists who had accepted nonadvertising jobs averaged $5,000 per year more than their 15 teammates who went with advertising agencies ($33,188 vs. $27,867).

The opportunity to start at $30-something vs. $20-something is no small deal, and students appear to be brazen enough to ask that their starting pay equal or exceed their age. The Four A's survey comes to the conclusion that agency salaries are the "single most important barrier to attracting top talent from major colleges and universities." As evidence, it cites the $24,000 starting salary in agency account management, which is fully $10,000 less than that of a comparable job for an accounting major.

* On feeling wanted-One in four NSAC finalists agreed with the statement "Advertising companies have not shown as much interest in students as other types of companies have," and only half said agencies had recruited on their campuses. Personally, I don't see how anyone who hasn't taken sufficient time to locate prospective brains can declare a brain drain.

The Four A's study concurs with the allegation of neglect: Only 18% of agencies that responded said they had formal college or university recruiting programs.

It doesn't help the situation that many ad students develop suitor-envy when they compare notes with their friends in engineering, finance or accounting, who are treated to expensive dinners and flown expense-paid to job interviews.

Back to this incredibly ironic situation: qualified ad students who want a job in advertising but don't feel wanted by the companies who report a shortage of talent? It's more like my sixth-grade dance than I'd care to admit. Everyone present was interested, but getting started was tough. What to do?

Clearly, ad industry employers must take the lead in the hiring tango. But years of damaging rhetoric (a k a "dissing your date") must be overcome. Examples:

* "I'd rather hire a liberal-arts major." Ad students know who they are and what they've taken in school, which is usually 75% liberal-arts courses. Anyway, since when does six more hours of history make you a better media planner?

* "You'll have to put in long hours with no overtime pay." Has anyone noticed that quality of life is way up there on this generation's checklist?

* "Quantum leaps in salary are made only when you change companies." Great prescription for loyalty, eh?

My suggestions for addressing the ad talent quandary in the new millennium involve a combination of upping the ante for entry-level salaries, creating meaningful, paid internship opportunities for students and otherwise taking a closer, more personal look at the farm team produced each year by colleges and universities. Here are some ideas for the latter.

Opportunity No. 1-Some 150 schools participate in the AAF National Student Advertising Competition at 15 locations each spring, representing a large percentage of the 6,000 students who are members of AAF chapters. Recruiters are welcome at these events.

Opportunity No. 2-The NSAC finals, which involve 15 winning teams, are held in June, and recruiters are attending in increasing numbers. No recruiters attended this year from the creative area, though more than one-third of the students were interested in creative.

Opportunity No. 3-A list of 250 member schools is available from the AAF. Ad employers might consider ringing up faculty to learn about their programs and to schedule contact opportunities such as a career-fair exhibit, a speech to the student ad club or a formal recruiting visit.

And remember to look beyond the "usual suspects"-the big programs-for many successful graduates hail from the smaller, lesser-known programs.

Lastly, don't underestimate the role of "academic Yentl" that ad professors can play when it comes to hiring, whether for agency, advertiser or media-company positions. We realize that it is in everyone's best interests if our students can be matched with companies that can offer challenging, rewarding and productive careers in advertising, and we're willing to do our part.

Ms. Kendrick is professor of advertising, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and former chair of the American Advertising Federation academic division. Summaries of the surveys mentioned in this article are available from the Four A's and AAF.

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