Not getting top college recruits? It's no mystery to WPP's Sorrell

By Published on .

Ad agencies that do a lousy job of recruiting college students or are unwilling to pay the going rate are missing out on some terrific talent if the American Advertising Federation student advertising competition is any indication.

Everyone seems to agree it's imperative to bring enthusiastic, capable young people into agencies, but for one reason or another the best graduates are going elsewhere. At the International Advertising Association's conference in London last month, WPP Group's Martin Sorrell said getting the right talent in the right place is critical.

WPP initiated a fellowship program for both single-degree and MBA graduates six or seven years ago, and now has more than 60 fellows and "fellowesses" throughout WPP. Its program involves interning at different WPP companies over a three-year span. Fellows are likely to work in creative, client and planning roles before taking on broader management responsibilities. WPP says the multi-disciplinary, multi-country rotation is similar to the work experience offered by the leading management consulting firms.

"Much to my amazement," Sir Martin wrote me, "our competitors never followed our move." He told me later that "they're not prepared to grovel" at the feet of 21-year olds -- like consultants and investment bankers do.

Sir Martin said the problem has nothing to do with agencies' determination to fatten their margins. "It has to do with attitude of mind in our industry to recruitment, particularly at the graduate level. We simply do not prize graduates as highly as others do. Very few of our senior managers recruit at key universities as McKinsey and Goldman do. Until this attitude changes, we will not be the destination for superior talent."

AAF President Wally Snyder wants the industry to see the 260 AAF student chapters, with 6,000 student members, as its "farm team." This year, he said, 150 recruiters -- more than double 1999 -- came to AAF district student ad team competitions. Another 35 attended the finals at the AAF conference in Las Vegas last month.

One participant in the student competition, Meghan Simons of the University of Wisconsin, was sorely disappointed by the recruitment process at the AAF meet. Wisconsin finished 6th in the nationals, but she said some agencies only spoke to the top four teams. "I can't express my disappointment and frustration enough," she wrote in an e-mail to Ad Age.

In response, Mary Ellen Woolley, AAF senior VP-educational services, told me, "I don't think her opinion was representative of the general feeling at all." The Monday night before the competition, she said, recruiters and students got together at a "meet and greet" session and "the room was rocking."

This year the students had the assignment of coming up with a marketing program to increase circulation of The New York Times among 18-to-24 year old college students and recent graduates.

The winning student chapter, at the University of Alabama, used the theme line "You want more" to convey "the motivation and relentless pursuit of success so important to our target market," as its pitch said. Hitching such desires as convenience, inspiration or relevance to the "You want more" tag seems a good way to reach and influence the "like-minded non-readers" the campaign is aimed at.

What I liked most about the campaign was its creative use of promotional activities, from online banners with a familiar Times crossword puzzle graphic to a campus tour displaying the TimesLine, featuring front pages of 50 of the most memorable events since 1851.

The best thing about the student advertising is that it's straightforward, relevant stuff, designed to combat a marketing problem with an unambiguous solution. They understand what advertising is supposed to do.

It might be a good idea to have one or two such people employed at your agency.

Most Popular
In this article: