NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Since the start of the recession, the advertising industry has whittled away more than 11% of its workforce. But some good news is on the horizon. September job data released this month showed a slight improvement, with the industry adding 800 jobs, the first increase since October 2008. Industry recruiters say that after months marked by plenty of candidates and few jobs, business is picking up.
Ad Age interviewed nearly two dozen recruiters to compile a picture of what the market looks like today. While some areas are proving hotter than others, hiring is bouncing back, albeit slowly, across most categories and experience levels. A number of recruiting firms report that even though the fourth quarter is a typically slow time of year, they are actively involved in multiple searches.
"It's a slow build, but we're seeing activity we didn't see 90 days ago," said Jennifer Carroll, client partner at Korn/Ferry.
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Recruiters repeatedly noted areas such as digital, mobile and social media, shopper marketing, interactive agencies, health care, financial services and multi-unit retail as those that are seeing more traction right now. Smaller, upstart agencies or media ventures and venture capital-backed companies are also looking to bring in new talent.
Emerging from the recession, companies are looking for those with an analytic approach or international exposure, as well as "hybrids," or "people with multiple perspectives," said Elizabeth Zea, a partner at Gilbert and Co.
The majority of companies also are willing to look at talent that's either unemployed or employed. Several recruiters, however, admitted that certain companies prefer to look only at candidates that are employed, reasoning that they must be the best of the best, if they survived cuts.
While David Wiser, managing principal at Wiser Partners, called that "old-school thinking," Erika Weinstein, president at Stephen-Bradford Search, said that "companies are not using me for people out on the street. They're looking at us for corporate raid of competitors, to look for the stars that weathered the storm, so to speak."
And while some recruiters say companies are primarily focused on $100,000-and-under talent, others point out that companies can only go so long without filling empty, pricey senior-level roles.
"We're getting more phone calls and queries from potential client companies thinking about doing a search," said Susan Denison, managing director at Cook Associates. "The bulk of activity is in revenue-generating positions: heads of ad sales, chief revenue officer, head of business development."
Several firms also noted that they have recently conducted talent-mapping exercises. Korn/Ferry said it is in the process of mapping out the market in digital media, highlighting top players in agencies that have built a more rigorous analytic approach to digital marketing. The second phase involves identifying a team to surround that person.
"[It's] essentially a 'lift-out' strategy, as an alternative to the costly, slow and rather complicated -- given the current economic climate -- acquisition of an entire agency," Ms. Carroll said.
All of this could mean that the buyer's market of the last few months is showing some early signs of shifting in favor of job hunters. "Up until August, the talent pool had been very deep with a lot of great people looking for opportunities," said Carlos Cata, regional managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles. "Starting in Q3, Q4 this year, it's getting shallower. Clients that are being opportunistic in picking up good talent, that window is closing."
Mr. Wiser argues that companies don't have as much leverage as they may think. Because of the implosion of the housing market, it's become "almost impossible" to convince people to relocate, he said. And few employers are offering assistance in buying or selling a home or relocation. That's forcing more companies to entertain flexible work schedules and telecommuting, he said.
"There's a mobility and relocation issue, there's a feeling of appreciating where you are and not wanting to risk a change. And today, if you're last in, you might be first out," Mr. Wiser said. "For those reasons, companies that think they're in the driver's seat should rethink that."
Still, it's certainly too early to herald a complete recovery. Although most recruiters were optimistic, some said that business remains soft. "I don't think we'll see any return to great hiring until the second half of 2010," said Anne Ross, founder of her eponymous firm.