"People are looking for mature, aggressive, in-command personalities," she said, whereas in brighter times agencies were content to hire those who simply had experience in a client's sector. "I think when the economy suffers, they're more concerned about stability and experienced management people who can command a presence automatically. It's their safety net."
And it's not just at the top where the most aggressive candidates are winning out. Even gaining an internship at a midsize agency requires, well, first having done an internship somewhere else. Suzanne Daley, recruiting manager at Wenham, Mass.-based Mullen, part of Interpublic Group, said 450 people applied for 18 internship slots last year. In past years, Mullen may have taken graduates from good schools who had no direct work experience. They also rarely looked further than New England for recruits. Now, entry-level candidates must have prior experience and are as likely to hail from California as Cape Cod.
"We are taking a hard look at the next generation and how to capture and involve them," Ms. Daley said. "We restructured the internship to get the best from across the country." Part of the initiative to recruit better-qualified candidates involves shifting the office to the center of Boston. The move will happen next year. The agency, which has just hired two of its interns, has become much more rigorous about evaluating open positions. "We really make sure it is needed, and the chief financial officer will take a look to see if the client work justifies it," Ms. Daley said.
Finding the right folks is an evolving process too. In prior years, agencies might have turned simply to university ad programs and ad schools or liberal arts colleges. Now they're employing the real-life social networks of their staff in the hunt for an edge. Lisa Donahue, CEO of MediaVest planning unit Truth and Design, said the media agency's searches involve a combination of efforts, from posting jobs to reaching out to prospective employees, to creating roles for individuals who happen to have compelling skill sets, a strategy the agency is employing more frequently. "If you meet someone and you are struck by a great perspective, start talking to them and see how we can create a role for them. ... Bring them on in," Ms. Donahue instructs her staff.
A case in point is Whitney Fishman, the agency's consumer-insights connector. Brought in 18 months ago, this young entrepreneur has her own independent record label and is an ardent blogger on all manner of trend-setting topics. "If we broaden our horizons, there are a lot of good people out there. We don't put them in an old traditional role; we put them in roles that play to their strengths," Ms. Donahue said.
Another out-of-the box hire was Exec VP-Managing Director Greg Warren, who joined the media shop from Leo Burnett, where his experience was in creative and package design. While media pitches are generally all about numbers and charts, he helped the team think more visually about how to present the agency's product.
Digital experience is something many candidates are seeking out as a way to make themselves more alluring to prospective employees, but Ms. Spielman says creative shops have done a poor job of helping train their staff. "Agencies haven't gone far with training or moving people back and forth, so training has suffered, and when you come down to a poor economy, that's when it comes to the front."
At Taxi, New York, an office of the Toronto-headquartered agency, digital skills are in high demand. A spokeswoman said the agency is looking for people who can, for instance, design and build banner ads or microsites, but added, "It's not just about being able to execute. It's about being able to envision how the digital element of a campaign interacts with creative in all other mediums," and it's much harder to find those people. "Ideally everyone is media-agnostic," said Mullen's Ms. Daley. "We like to find folks who can execute brilliantly in any medium."
While all these trends point to a still-healthy recruitment market -- pay, for instance, isn't yet under pressure at management levels -- and executives appear upbeat about the level of talent on the market, there is another major shift going on that may not benefit the major metropolitan agencies.
Beyond the metropolis
The most significant change Ms. Spielman has seen in the past six months is the willingness of talent to forgo the major cities and relocate to second-tier markets, a consequence of the credit crunch and the poor housing market. Ad executives are forgoing the New York-Chicago axis, she said, and turning instead to Austin, Atlanta and Boston. "People don't feel like they have to live between the city limits."
The poor economy may be creating turbulence for some, but at still-red-hot agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the biggest problem is keeping up with the growth, said Marlene Root, VP-director, Quality of Life, the human-resources division at the agency.
She said the company is more amenable than ever to international recruiting and is creating nontraditional positions that might involve partnership building with, say, production companies or video-game designers.
With offices in Miami and Boulder, Colo., the agency has just under 900 employees and counts Microsoft as one of its clients. "The biggest challenge is just our growth, frankly," Ms. Root said. "There's only so much volume you can fit through the door at a given time. It's a good situation to be in -- our growth just creates more opportunities for the agency -- but we're working against that, having to find equally talented folks," she said.