Survival of the Fittest

Five months ago, Rick Boyko, director of VCU Brandcenter in Richmond, Va., began an aggressive national agency tour. The economy was souring and he knew things were only going to get worse. His most important role, he realized, was to spread the word about his soon-to-graduate students.

“The reality is there [are] fewer jobs out there,” explains Boyko from the road in Austin, Texas, one of five cities — and 30 agencies — he’s visiting.

The national unemployment rate, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was at 8.5 percent in March, and the advertising industry is feeling the pain. Agencies of all sizes have been cutting staff, from global shops to boutiques and independents. To name just a few, BBDO cut 5 percent of its North American staff late last year, Crispin Porter + Bogusky cut nearly 7 percent of its staff earlier this year, and the Ogilvy Group cut 10 percent of its staff across Ogilvy & Mather, OgilvyOne and OgilvyInteractive in January.

“It was in February or March that I realized [things are as] bad for the advertising industry now as they were after the dot-com bust and 9/11,” says Amy Hoover, evp, partner at Talent Zoo, an advertising and marketing employment company. She estimates that the number of creative positions listed on TalentZoo.com saw a drop of 45 percent in January compared to the year prior.
And things, she says, have only gotten worse.

Recruiter Susan Friedman, of Susan Friedman Ltd. in New York, also paints a bleak picture. “The purse strings are tied and knotted,” she says.

But there is some good news in the midst of the mess: Agencies want to hire, and there are openings. Crispin, for one, is adding staff to its interactive production department and continues to plan for overseas expansion.

“It’s not dead out there,” says Susan Kirshenbaum of recruitment firm Greenberg Kirshenbaum, “but it’s very limited. We used to be at a rapid boil, but it’s simmering. At least the gas is on.”

More importantly, demand has remained high for digital creative talent at all levels.

“There’s always room for people who have good ideas,” says Rob Schwartz, ecd at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa Del Rey, Calif., which this month cut about 5 percent of its staff. “We are trying to keep as many jobs as possible and there is [still growth] opportunity in the digital space.”

Dave Willmer, executive director of employment firm Robert Half International, which staffs marketing and creative personnel through its division The Creative Group, adds that demand is still high for “anything e-commerce related. We’re seeing creative positions being more tied to revenue. Any [positions having] to do with Web enhancements are still in demand.”

That need for digital-savvy employees may give younger talent — like those VCU graduates and other entry-level candidates — an advantage that more experienced, recently laid-off creative personnel may not have. Plus, they’re less expensive to hire. “I would rather be someone coming out of ad school right now than someone who has seven to eight years experience,” says Hoover. “Any agency will gravitate towards a lesser payroll burden.”

Mid-level creatives, recruiters say, will have to be flexible, not only in terms of the geographical markets in which they’re willing to work, but the kinds of agencies they consider and their pay. Salaries for traditional creatives, in general, have dropped up to 15 percent from a year ago, says Hoover.

Some, however, have yet to accept the realities of the marketplace. “It is a tough pill to swallow,” says recruiter Sasha Martens, founder of Sasha the Mensch. “It reminds me of people who don’t want to sell their house because they think it’s worth more. Candidates should not see lower salaries as agencies taking advantage.”

Matt Gill, who oversees the executive search division of Pile and Co., says creative executives at the ecd level are best positioned if they’ve been producing in addition to overseeing the creative direction and a staff. “The reality is budgets are cut and if you want [to work], you have to produce,” he says.

Additionally, job seekers should be open to working at smaller independent shops and at less glamorous places like retail and healthcare agencies, which haven’t suffered as much as general agencies, say recruiters. Other may have to switch fields. “Some people simply won’t return to the industry,” notes Hoover.

She is, however, optimistic, predicting 2010 may show an uptick. “It’ll be back again at some point,” she says. “We have to get through this right now, but it’ll come back. It always does.”

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