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Ad Talent May Head Elsewhere

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NEW YORK  Where will the talent go as advertising agencies lay off staff by the hundreds?

Some may find homes at smaller independent agencies with greater cost flexibility, some may establish their own boutique shops or some may leave the U.S. entirely for foreign markets where the demand for advertising is holding up a little better. Others, however, are looking beyond agencies to client-side opportunities, particularly at Web-based companies hungry for content and the talent to produce it.

In September, The Talent Business, a global headhunter that places senior-level creatives, managers and strategic planners, helped Google Creative Lab in New York hire Stuart Smith, a planning director at Wieden + Kennedy in London, in a similar role at Google.

Smith's move came a year after Andy Berndt left his role as co-president of Ogilvy & Mather's New York office to become managing director at Google Creative Lab. In addition, The Talent Business is now placing agency creatives at companies that put on live events.

"The businesses are all about content," said Gary Stolkin, global CEO of the firm, which has offices in New York, London, Singapore, Shanghai and Sao Paulo. "If you are producing content at an ad agency, there are lots of other businesses that will be interested in you."

Not unlike the parts suppliers that feed the teetering auto industry, headhunters are inextricably tied to the agencies that pay their commissions.

And as agencies, particularly those within public holding companies, increasingly focus on cutting costs, recruiters will continue to adapt and consider new avenues for placing talent, particularly as the recession roars on.

"I know recessions and there has been nothing like this before," said Susan Friedman of Susan Friedman Ltd. in New York, who has been in the headhunting business for 23 years.

In recent months, top holding companies have directed their agencies to reduce all discretionary costs, as they cope with significant cutbacks in client spending related to the recession.

In November, WPP Group froze all hiring and told agency leaders to cease using outside employment services, at least until February, when WPP will reassess the financial picture. Omnicom Group CEO John Wren, meanwhile, directed his shops to leave positions open "where it's sensible," and Interpublic Group told its agencies to monitor staffing levels amid this time of economic uncertainty.

Major agency networks, such as Omnicom's BBDO and WPP's Ogilvy & Mather, have since laid off hundreds of staffers, creating a flood of talent looking for work even as agency demand dries up. Such scenarios have prompted recruiters to pursue alternative outlets for job candidates.

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