Brain Drain

Jared Gruner is not your average college graduate. He knew he wanted to work in advertising or marketing, and soon after graduating from Cornell University this past spring with a degree in applied economics, he joined New York-based Media Kitchen as an associate media strategist.

“I was looking for a job that would allow me to use my strategic side as well as my creativity,” says Gruner, 22. “Once I began interviewing, I saw that [media is] what I wanted to do.”

But Gruner is the exception, say media-agency executives, who worry that recruiting efforts have not kept pace with the media discipline’s rise in influence and impact on the ad industry.

While talk of a “talent crisis” strikes some as hyperbolic, most media executives agree that it is increasingly difficult to find the next generation of buyers and planners. The anemic economy and the agency consolidations of the past few years have obscured the problem, recruiters and agency executives say.

“Media has steadily lost its relevance to many of the best people coming out of school,” says Paul Woolmington, Media Kitchen chairman and CEO. “Media goes deathly silent during economic downturns. Then, during the upturns, it wonders where all the best people are. Marketing to graduates has not been part of media shops’ DNA.”

Aside from the lack of outreach and self-promotion, which leaves media jobs as a second or third choice for many graduates, some say the industry must improve its image to persuade more Jareds to join. Some also blame universities, most of which do not offer media courses outside traditional marketing and advertising classes.

“Frankly, if there’s a crisis in media talent, it’s because the academic world is not training people for the challenges we’re facing every day. They’re teaching the old-fashioned skills—what is a CPM or how to count an impression,” says Bob Wisniewski, svp/media director at Publicis Groupe’s Starcom.

The nature of buying and planning work has changed drastically, agrees Steve Soldano, a veteran media executive who has worked at Deutsch and Optimedia. Their unbundling from the creative shops that spawned them set media agencies adrift from the more high-profile side of the business. It also narrowed their focus, making planning and buying jobs less attractive, says Soldano.

“We’ve created a discipline that often leaves a bright, well-rounded person feeling unfulfilled in terms of job satisfaction,” he says. “By stressing specialization, we’ve in effect created one-legged athletes, and we’re asking them to compete in marathons.”

Some executives believe welcome changes are coming as clients demand a more integrated approach. Agencies are trying to establish a “super-buyer and super-planner,” says Charles Courtier, CEO of Mediaedge:cia Worldwide. While buying and planning has become more niche-oriented, Courtier says clients’ changing needs and ongoing hiring constraints have forced media people to master all trades.

“What’s balancing out specialization is a countertrend toward much broader strategic thinking across all media communications,” he says. “Both things are happening. If it was a case of ‘You’re going to do radio buying in the Southwest, and that’s what you’ll do for the rest of your career,’ that would drive anyone out the door. We’re not doing it, and the industry can’t afford to do it either.”

Salary is another hurdle, but that, too, is improving. While other ad disciplines are still considered more glamorous than media, the entry-level pay gap between an account manager and a media buyer has closed substantially. “An assistant media planner in New York will make about $28,000-30,000. A junior account executive will be $30,000-32,000,” says Amy Hoover, a vice president at Talent Zoo, an Atlanta-based recruiter. “A buyer falls in between the two. But that is a dramatic close to what it was five years ago,” when the gap was about 25 percent, Hoover says.

But the “glamour gap” remains, and there’s a form of it within the media discipline itself. “Buying is where the excitement is,” says Hoover. “It is wheeling and dealing. Buyers get the perks and the fun and the tickets to high-profile events. [Planning] doesn’t have much to do with advertising. You’re not conceptualizing the ads. So it’s always hard to fill those positions.”

Many young planners seem to just fall into the job, Hoover says. Part of the answer, she says, is to reach out to students earlier.

Campus recruitment has always been minimal, but today it seems to be limited to just Starcom and Grey Global Group’s Media Com. At Starcom, at least, it appears to be paying off. While most media agencies said their hiring plans this fall are uncertain, Wisniewski says his agency expects to add 60 entry-level buyers and planners, a figure roughly in line with each of the past three years.