Desperation is in the air

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I hope I don't lose or offend a client recounting a very recent job search my firm was asked to work on. The request was to identify a creative team to work on a piece of business most creatives would not want in their portfolio. The specs for the job were standard and the money offered ranged from $60,ooo to $90,000 a year. Books started pouring into the office within two hours.

Twenty-five people were called. Twenty said yes. Fourteen were making more in their last job, two of them earning twice that. The rationale for those last two was economics: With the job market as barren as it has been, it is better to have a paycheck than dig into one's savings.

To a person, they were extremely thankful for the call. Most had not had their books out on a legitimate job in months. I felt like a saint. But St. Hal does not have a comfortable ring to it. There is no ending to this story because no one's been hired yet. But the point is there is a very real air of desperation in the advertising business. Ad budgets have not increased while layoffs have.

As this country is winning the war against terrorism overseas, there is another war our advertising industry is losing at home. As jobs become scarcer, exceptionally good creatives and account people are souring on the business they've dedicated their lives to. A majority we have talked to in recent weeks who are not on staff are angry, frustrated and demoralized.

The stories abound:

* Senior account people are interviewed only if they can bring business with them;

* A writer is asked to rekindle a relationship with an old flame who is now on the client side and controls a piece of business;

* An associate creative director, disheartened with the lack of possibilities, switches careers and goes back to school to get a teaching certificate.

This is what I term the "staying alive syndrome." Staying alive is one of life's necessary components. In this troubled and new economy, I've seen at least one competitor close shop, another go on sabbatical and several others severely downsize. My recruitment company is no exception, and I am considering some changes. With the interactive community coming to a standstill, I consolidated that division from a stand alone into the Direct Division. The dot-com in our name feels uncomfortable now and shortly we'll revert to Hal Levy & Associates. In this day of e-mails, faxes, cellphones, teleconferencing and online portfolios, how important is it for the company to have a Madison Avenue address?

We're in the service business. And as important as we are to the candidate, we're equally as important to the client. Sure, our fees are higher than the Monster.coms of the business. But what we and other recruiting firms offer goes beyond the resume: We know the candidate and we've built relationships with clients!

Staying alive and continuing to do business is the immediate goal. Weathering the economic malaise is not an easy feat. However, when life in advertising begins to turn around, we'll be there. And we'll be ready.

What are you doing to weather the storm? If you're between jobs, have you exhausted all roads available? Are you realistic about your salary demands? Are you asking for more money than the last job you had? Are you open to a lesser job title, 0r to relocation to another city, or to widening your network of contacts?

If you have a job, what are you doing to keep the feared messenger of the pink slip away from your door? What are you doing to help with your department's growth? Or the agency's growth?

Then there's the question I'd like to pose to the leaders of the advertising community. What are you doing to keep your talented resources from abandoning our industry and moving on? Is there a plan to stop the bleeding of our most precious commodity? I suggest adding some nominal support staff to already overworked and overtaxed departments. The answer has to begin somewhere. Your thoughts would be more than welcomed.

Mr. Levy is president and founder, hallevy.com, New York, an executive search firm serving the ad industry.

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