Media squeeze

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Chairman of Publicis Groupe Media Jack Klues has called it nothing less than the "manifest destiny" of the media agency to get beyond planning and buying roles to become "tomorrow's communications architects."

But the roads to that expansion haven't exactly been paved with gold for its legions of settlers.

While senior media executives now often earn salaries that exceed those of their ad agency counterparts, life at the lower levels-long defined by endless, dreary hours of number-crunching-hasn't changed as much as you'd expect.

And that's despite the fact that most of Mr. Klues' competitors have taken on that mission with all the fervor you'd expect. Having recast offerings in a number of ways-communications planning, engagement planning, channel planning-they've staked out many of the strategic claims once owned by sibling ad agencies. And they've had enough impact that those ad brethren are now unabashed in their longing for the days when media planners lived closer to the people who make the spots.

So why isn't there a stampede of young people for entry-level positions that promise strategic relevance and, in time, big bucks?

"It's a paradox," says Paul Woolmington, a founding partner of integrated media shop Naked Communications' U.S. operation. "There's a huge need for strategy, and there's a lot of experimentation going on. But I'm not sure your average smart media planner is more empowered today than they were in the past."

Pay for junior media planners, with between one and five years of experience, is just now catching up to other disciplines. The recruiter Talent Zoo, for instance, puts that range at $32,000 to $62,000 for junior and senior media planners.

"The gap is starting to close," says Amy Hoover, Talent Zoo exec VP. "Demand is simply too high. In fact, I'd account for the gap closing because of supply and demand rather than the fact that media planning is a ... higher-profile function than it used to be."

Ms. Hoover casts the supply problem in simple if bold terms. Few planners were laid off during the recession, because they already toiled in thinly staffed departments. The economic comeback that has buoyed most agencies, combined with more demand for smart planning, has led to a serious shortfall.

"Since the beginning of 2005, there are more media planning positions open than in any other given function," she says.

That the salary gap closes as a planner ascends the media ladder is notable, but any inequities at the bottom rungs remain important for a number of reasons. For one, agency executives and headhunters agree that it makes the job of filling the many open roles that much more difficult. Moreover, it doesn't provide a lot of incentive for planners-often known to get into the business largely because of much tighter job markets for more glamorous account management and creative talent-to stay the course.

"Most entry-level job openings are in media, by a high margin, and often people who take them can't find something else," says an agency executive who asked not to be named. "We'll take advantage of that in terms of pay, but the price for us is high turnover. It's a vicious cycle."

Or it's a game of "musical chairs," as Ms. Hoover puts it, in which agencies poach from one another without it "getting fixed and temporary Band-Aids getting slapped on it."

The turnover-especially the loss of bright staffers to other career tracks-hurts, primarily because you don't become a channel planner overnight. Those early, dues-paying years develop strategists who can really act as channel planners, a job that requires understanding of how consumers interact with traditional as well as nontraditional ad channels.

Saeed Zaman, 28, a print media specialist at Dallas-based Moroch, whose clients include Uniden and McDonald's Corp., says while he received excellent training at Moroch, overall he sees a lack of media talent in Dallas who are trained in local media. "People are more attuned to national," he says. And with the fast-paced world we live in frequently "localized efforts are what reach people."

Some shops have been effective at adding some glimmer to the planning profession. OMD, part of Omnicom Group, is working to cross-train staff, so staffers with, say, deep TV experience know what's going on in digital and print. "The hardest thing to develop is a generalist," says Mark Stewart, managing director of OMD East.

At Starcom MediaVest Group, the emphasis is to make equal-treatment of planning and buying-not so long ago a rarity in the buying-led U.S. market. "It's crucial to have the integrity of buying and planning from start to finish," says MediaVest USA CEO Laura Desmond. "They have to work together."

There are other examples. Naked, getting off the ground in the U.S., has all the mystique of a creative hot shop, rolled into a media-centric agency. And Miami-based Crispin Porter & Bogusky, whose growth is often attributed to smart media planning-what the agency calls creative content distribution-has done a lot to add some allure to planning by extending it beyond the traditional parameters of TV spots and print ads, to staking out new ad territory with viral marketing, blogs and branded entertainment.

Some agencies, like GSD&M, Austin, Texas, tout low turnover rates for their media planners because they emphasize internal promotions. Courtney Cristiani, a 25-year-old planner, started as an intern there while she was in college. "I had a great mentor," she says, adding that other attractions were the good experience she'd had working on an account like MasterCard and collaborating with other areas of the agency, such as the out-of-home group and the interactive arm.

Planning is really about "Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints and coming in on Sundays," says Mr. Zaman, dispelling the myths that young planners today are constantly being wined and dined. Still, he maintains that this is a good time to be in the business with the emergence of Apple and Google, whose products could reshape media. "Five years from now it's going to be a really different market; I get excited about that."

"In the '80s and '90s, the creative department drove what the client did," he adds, "Lately, media is in the driver's seat. ... That's the way it should work."

Josh Spiegelman, 25, an assistant strategy director at MediaVest, says he likes the strategy. "It's about understanding when the consumer wants to be contacted by you." Plus, "every media planner is going to need to be a digital planner moving forward."

Contributing: James B. Arndorfer and Patricia Riedman

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