ONE THIN RAY AT A TIME, JOB PICTURE BRIGHTENS

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The vital signs are sporadic, and in some places ever so faint, but the recovery of the advertising industry's decimated job market is under way.

Even with those qualifiers, it's good news for the industry and thousands of advertising and marketing professionals who've survived or fallen victim to the tumultuous past five years.

There appears to be a stuttering sense of growth, whether by longtime job seekers who've finally secured employment, headhunters who suddenly have more orders than applicants or newspapers with fat help-wanted sections.

Even Uncle Sam is willing to give a qualified nod to the idea that prosperity is peeking out from behind the next corner. The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its March figures, showed less than 0.5% growth for advertising employment for 1993 but strong expansion expected for 1996, and downright robust growth by the end of the decade.

"Business services on the whole, and that includes advertising, is an area of projected expansion," said bureau economist James Franklin. "In 1992, there was an average of 5.3 million jobs in all business services, and through 2005 we project another 3 million jobs. So that's an annual growth rate of 3.6% over 13 years."

The Conference Board agreed.

"If this is a full-blown recovery, as it looks to be, then it probably is across the board for all business services, though advertising certainly was hit hard [by the recession] and it may not be over for them," said board economist Ken Goldstein. "We got strong numbers [from the labor statistics bureau] in late March, and I don't know why that improvement would skip over advertising."

And from within the industry, there are rumblings of recovery.

"It's still a cautious market," said Sandy Wade, president of Sandy Wade Co., a Chicago headhunter specializing in creative talent. "There aren't millions of jobs, and agencies aren't hiring like mad. They're hiring more thoughtfully."

Ms. Wade cited a growing trend -the rise of the freelancer. "A lot of people in the industry who have been cut are surviving as freelancers."

Supporting that view was Hank Barber, general manager at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Seattle, which is finishing up a PowerAde campaign for Coca-Cola Co. that breaks in a few weeks.

"We're hiring right now because of our good fortune with some new clients," Mr. Barber said. "But what's more important is that we are using temporary employees to create a wider breadth of talent ... particularly in the creative department, where we will bring in very experienced senior art directors for some particular project. That way we can access talent on an as-needed basis."

Of course, offering a specialty in demand is a major help.

"We're in the healthcare industry," said Sander A. Flaum, president-ceo of Robert A. Becker Inc., a New York agency. "Many pharmaceutical firms are our clients, and since Mr. and Mrs. Clinton have been in power, we've seen a lot of change.

"There's been a lot of downsizing on the client side, but that's created new opportunities for healthcare agencies. To get ahead in the '90s, you must make a transition from an ad agency to a marketing services agency. If a client requires telemarketing, you provide it."

Noticeable at companies adding personnel is the inclination to hire inexperienced youth over senior talent who are more demanding and certainly more expensive.

"We're taking the position that there are some very bright young people out there, so some of our recent hiring has been at the more junior levels," said McCann's Mr. Barber. "We're finding that they offer a fresh perspective, and then it's up to our core management group to make sure that they get the proper training."

In many instances, a market undergoing job contraction at one end is expanding at the other. Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, for example, has added 36 positions in the past year, a belly-busting 23% hike in the agency's employee count. But that's because Fallon has added enough new business in recent months to demand the growth, even as Chuck Ruhr Advertising, another Twin Cities agency, pared nine bodies.

A handful of other middle markets report increasing health.

With eight new clients bringing in billings of about $40 million, Alan Kalter, president-chief operating officer at W.B. Doner & Co., Southfield, Mich., finds himself in the catbird seat-for a change.

"It's nice to see business increasing around Detroit," said Mr. Kalter, whose agency has hired 31 people since New Year's Day. "It's certainly a welcome change from the last few years."

And then there's New York and Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, New York is moving in all directions at the same time.

For every Deutsch or FCB/Leber Katz Partners that has landed new business and is staffing up, there's a Young & Rubicam chopping heads.

"Agencies are hiring and firing," said Judy Wald, an agency headhunter. "There are more hirings for sure, but looking at my job order list, I have openings at most every agency now."

Then there's the agency that's hiring and firing at the same time.

"With signs of a safer economy, agencies are taking the opportunity to upgrade talent," said recruiter Susan Friedman. "If an agency's let two of four creative people in a group go because of the loss of some business, it will hire one person for that group, saving two of the four salaries and using two of the salaries for that one person."

Out West, there's a ray of hope peaking through the smog.

"We've received more search assignments in the last month [March] than in any single month in the last 101/2 years since we've been in business," said Larry Bast, principal at Bast & Associates, a Los Angeles recruitment company specializing in consumer goods and services companies. Mr. Bast estimated a third of the assignments are for newly created slots.

And the agency side seems to be recovering.

"Agencies aren't just hiring people, they're choking for people," said Laura Murphy, principal at search company Baeder/Murphy, Beverly Hills, Calif. "And now more than ever, we're getting requests from smaller agencies."

A West Coast marketing executive who was laid off from her studio job in late 1992, and only late last year landed a new one, perhaps summed up everyone's experience, and outlook:

"I'll never make fun of my grandmother's Depression habits again."

Written by Steven W. Colford from bureau and correspondent reports.

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