Not Enough Qualified Workers to Man Strategic Planning Units

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NEW YORK ( -- Jack Klues, chairman of Publicis Groupe media and former StarcomMediaVest Group CEO, has called it nothing less than the “manifest destiny” of the media agency to get beyond basic planning and buying roles to become “tomorrow’s communications architects.”
Jack Klues

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 that 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. That both worries and perplexes a lot of industry executives.

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 of strategic relevance and, in time, big bucks?

“It’s a paradox,” said Paul Woolmington, a founding partner of the U.S. operations of integrated media shop Naked Communications and the former CEO of The Media Kitchen. “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, like media buying, account management and creative roles. The recruiter Talent Zoo, for instance, puts that range at $32,000 to $62,000, for junior and senior media planners. Patricia Sklar, of the eponymous media recruiting agency in Chicago, says $62,000 seems more in line with a supervisor’s salary, but is quick to add that salaries range dramatically by region.

“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 more relevant and higher-profile function than it used to be.”

Ms. Hoover cast 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.

More media positions open
“Since the beginning of 2005, there are more media planning positions open than in any other given function in an ad-agency environment,” she says. “There are far more openings than classically trained media planners in anywhere from the 2-to-10-year level experience mark.”

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. Chief among them, it makes the job of filling the many open roles to which headhunters and agency executives agree 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 in the business,” 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 “the problem getting fixed and temporary band-aids getting slapped on it.” The way to expand the pools, she says, is for the ad business to find ways to recruit from other industries and for ad schools to better integrate media into their curriculums.

Turnover hurts
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 require understanding of how consumers interact with traditional as well as nontraditional ad channels.

Saeed Zaman, 28, a print media specialist at Dallas-based Moroch, which handles media-buying for Uniden and McDonald Corp. franchises, says he sees a lack of media talent in Dallas, especially with people trained in local media. “People are more attuned to national,” he says. And with the ADD world we live in frequently “localized efforts are what reach people.”

As Mark Stewart, managing director of OMD East, said, “You want about 10 years experience for that, with at least three years or so spent in mainline media. And they need to be good collaborators.”

Some agencies have been effective at adding some glimmer to the planning profession. OMD, part of Omnicom Group, is working to cross-train staff, so that staffers with, say, deep TV experience know what’s going on in digital and print. “The hardest thing to develop is a generalist,” Mr. Stewart said. 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.”

Hot shops
And there are other examples. Naked, now getting off the ground in the U.S., has all the mystique of a creative hot shop, rolled into a media-centric agency. And arguably the hottest U.S. shop, 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.

And some agencies, like GSD&M, Austin, tout low-turnover rates for their media planners because they emphasize internal promotions. Courtney Cristiani, a 25-year-old planner, started as an intern while she was in college. “I had a great mentor,” she said, 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.

She looks forward to the time when ROI metrics are available on emerging technologies. “A lot of what I do right now is based on gut,” she says of emerging technologies, such as gaming and VOD she might recommend for a particular client.

All this, coupled with the fact that media planning has become more than just about calculating gross ratings points and is now increasingly about divining the all- important consumer insights that shape marketing programs, ensures the discipline will still get its recruits.

Working Sundays
Planning is really about “Excel spreadsheets and Power Points 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.”

Twenty-five-year-old Josh Spiegelman, an assistant strategy director at MediaVest, says he likes the strategic aspect and “really understands what makes the consumer tick. ... 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. TV isn’t the only place people can watch their favorite content any more.”

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James B. Arndorfer contributed to this report.

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