Agencies Struggle to Hire Mid-Level Pros

With interactive advertising coming back from the dead and clients boosting their online budgets, agencies and recruiters are having trouble hiring quality creative and media personnel.

In particular, junior and mid-level posts are sitting empty. Several agency recruiters and executives report a paucity of senior copywriters and designers, as well as qualified media planners.

“It’s tough,” said Nick Pahade, managing partner at Beyond Interactive USA. “At a senior level, there’s a lot of great talent. To find people at a junior level who have one to three years of experience is hard.”

Ben Finkel, a recruiter with Roz Goldfarb Associates who places creatives at interactive agencies, says, “There are no seasoned mid-level people. There are a couple of vertebrae missing in the spine. It’s difficult to find those mid-level art directors, copywriters, account executives.”

The mid-level missing link appears to be late-arriving fallout from the dot-com bubble’s bursting. People were laid off or left the business when its prospects didn’t look very bright. A few recruiters have been trying to track down the former interactive pros, but they’re coming up empty-handed. Not surprisingly, many went into other lines of work, becoming kindergarten teachers or bakers. Some haven’t worked on an interactive campaign in two or three years.

“Because a bunch of folks were laid off or left the business, the infusion of talent at the mid-level is somewhat lacking,” said Pahade. “We’ve looked at [contacting some of them], but they’ve moved on and the business has changed quite a bit. Just because you bought interactive media three years ago doesn’t mean you can jump right back in.”

Finkel also reported contacting a number of the dearly departed. He found they either had no interest in returning to the agency world, or were convinced their skills were no longer relevant to a changing online ad marketplace.

The staffing shortages, though serious, are nowhere near those experienced in the late ’90s, when agencies reported hiring as many as 20 or 30 people a month to handle business growth. Some agencies are still in a holding pattern, with fitful bursts of layoffs and hiring sprees reported as clients are won and lost.

“Some ad agencies still appear to be struggling,” said recruiter Immeke Grimme of Cheryl Roshak Associates. Grimme works mainly with Fortune 500 companies to place creatives directly, but has agency relationships too. “It depends on the agency. Some are doing better than others. But I don’t see a wild rush for people at the moment.”

For those agencies that are in a growth mode, the hiring problem is acute. Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s creative director said in January hiring creatives is a top priority. And branding consultancy Siegel & Gale, which has 20 to 25 employees in interactive, is now looking to hire five or six more.

But even agencies that have steadily added business in recent months have grown at a pace that can only be described as modest in comparison with 1999 levels. As a result, many upwardly mobile agencies are still being somewhat choosy.

“Shops that have gained a reputation are trying to raise the bar and creative standards,” said Finkel. “They’re being very picky. There was one agency I worked with between 1997 and 2000; I placed at least 20 creatives there. I started working with them again maybe six months ago. They have rejected all but two portfolios I sent. In ’98, ’99, these individuals would have been hired in a week.”

“The positions are all narrowly defined,” Grimme agreed.

And wages are down a bit from the heyday. “Back in the day, you had 23-year-olds making jumps for $10,000 every eight months,” Finkel said. “It wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t normal.”

Some of the more proactive agencies are now recruiting directly from top colleges, making an effort to groom capable mid-level talent. In one to three years, they expect those efforts to pay off. In the meantime, however, the interactive marketing business will have to deal with a scarcity of experienced mid-level creatives and media folks.

“If there’s anybody that’s reading this article that’s interested, by all means contact our HR manager,” said Pahade.

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