Buyers’ Market

What a difference six months can make. Last December, one of the most common complaints voiced by agencies and recruiters was, “I can’t fill the positions fast enough.” No matter the agency size, the problem was the same: Talent was scarce, hard to find and expensive.

With each new Internet company came another promise of a $50 million-plus media budget, unlimited creative freedom and entry into the hip dot-com click. For a copywriter or art director with a marketable portfolio, there were jobs aplenty. Even the most coveted of creative shops had to keep up with the frenetic pitch, hit and produce pace of dot-coms.

Now that pink slips have surpassed IPOs, those days are over. The dot-com bubble that hastily inflated ad budgets, egos and salaries collapsed as quickly as it arrived. Today, the ad industry and its talent pool are struggling to recover. Creative quality hasn’t suffered, only the number of accounts and positions.

“The times had been really good until six months ago. If you wanted to work in advertising last year, you had a job,” says Amy Hoover, vp of recruiting at The Talent Zoo, the Atlanta recruitment firm. “There was a constant need for talent, not only for good talent, but anybody we could even train to be good.”

At the height of the dot-com fever, says a New York recruiter, “We were getting calls from [reputable agencies] saying, ‘Get us someone with any interactive experience. We don’t even need to meet them.’ It was insane last year.”

This spring, the clamor of shops calling recruiters has been replaced with calls from talent looking for work. “This time last year we could not even get a freelance person to come in,” says Susan Hoffman, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore. “People have been coming out of the woodwork.”

Two words: buyers’ market. The first quarter has seen a steady stream of agency layoffs from shops of every size and specialty. For some, the cutbacks came after vanishing dot-com revenue; for others, they were anticipatory moves following dismal client spending forecasts and bleaker economic conditions. Some blame paranoia. Others rationale.

“I don’t think we were hiring willy-nilly last year, and neither are we now,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, which endured its own round of layoffs in March, when the agency dismissed 10 percent of its workforce. “We’re being judicious. Very judicious. That was the point of laying people off.”

Still, recruiters, in-house and independent, report there are jobs, just less of them. Estimates range anywhere from a 25 percent drop in job openings to a whopping 95 percent. “It’s not over yet,” notes Hoover. “There are still jobs out there, but they are fewer and farther between, and there’s more competition.”

Of course, the people most struggling for work are the ones just starting out, the recent grads who inundated ad schools. Carol Vick, placement director at ad school The Creative Circus in Atlanta, takes a temperature reading on the health of the industry from the number of listings in her job database.

“I went from having 100 jobs in my database in August and September to having less than 10,” Vick says. “What’s happening is that the most recent graduating classes are competing against alumni. A lot of them are back on the job market.”

Hiring practices are reflective of the conservative times; there is little if any room for risk. “Talent that has already arrived will never suffer. The mediocre level and the growing talent will,” says Dany Lennon, founder of The Creative Register in Westport, Conn., who says the number of U.S. job openings she would expect this time of year has dwindled from an average of 45 to 13. “This year, no one is going to hire potential. They are going to hire proven only.”

Yet the woes of the unemployed aren’t limited to the inexperienced. According to some recruiters, the hiring requirements are getting more stringent. Portfolio evaluations are no longer being made based on generalities and the “luxury” of talent.

“For the past two years, it was, ‘Give me someone smart.’ Now agencies are asking for someone who has actually dealt with a client in the same category, for a very specific amount of years and with a specific budget,” says Hoover. “They can be that selective.”

Guy Tucker, a recruiter in Atlanta, agrees. He says the people looking to fill jobs are more serious about staffing those posts, and the talent available seems far more promising.

Debbie Bougdanos, vp, manager of creative recruitment at Leo Burnett, Chicago, says she’s seen a jump in the quality of unsolicited portfolios she’s received in recent months. “I’m getting a lot of solid advertising books,” she says, a marked difference from the mixed bag she received in boom times.

“We always tend to get a lot of books, but we’re getting more books from senior people and people that I’m surprised to see on the hunt,” adds Jamie Barrett, executive CD of Fallon, New York. “The quality and the seniority of the people I’m seeing is surprising.”

Though times may seem tough right now, Susan Weber, evp at recruitment firm Susan Friedman Ltd. in New York, advises job seekers to stay on top of their connections and be tenacious—no matter how discouraging the job climate may seem. “Each time [the ad business] comes back, it reinvents itself slightly, but it always seems to come back.”

The cutbacks have forced agencies to re-evaluate their needs and undertake long-needed reorganization. “This cycle is allowing shops to justify laying off people they may have had issues with before,” says Weber. “Agencies are smart. [They realize they have] a legitimate opportunity to let go of people who have been here too long or are not holding their own. Later, this may allow them to raise the bar and bring in more energetic people.”

“A recession causes everyone to think,” notes Tucker. “I see so many people that are just the wrong fit. It’s a wake-up call. The correction works on both sides of the equation.”

“This is probably the best time to be looking for the hottest talent,” says Mike Hughes, president and creative director of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., even if they are already employed.

“It’s not that I have openings, but I know this is a good time to be getting in touch with people I’m interested in,” says Hughes. “A lot of those people aren’t free right now, but it’s a reminder to take a look at your career and ask, ‘Is this where I want to be?’ And it’s a reminder that companies can’t be as loyal as they intend to be.”

For now, it’s a wait-and-see game. “The economic downturn has been tough, especially since really good people are looking for jobs,” says Court Crandall, creative director of Ground Zero, Marina del Rey, Calif.

“It’s gone from a point last year where you couldn’t find decent people, to the point where there are people I’m yearning to hire on a full-time basis,” says Crandall. “I’m just waiting. As soon as we get some new business to justify it, I’ll gobble up as many people as I can.”