Strapped for Talent, Agencies Recruit from Schools

With each passing month of increased spending on the digital channel, the shortage of interactive-ready creative talent intensifies, and many digital and traditional agencies are feeling the pinch.

Despite extremely aggressive hiring, agencies as diverse as AKQA, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Ontario-based Fuel Industries are unable to sate their appetites for people with fresh online ideas and adequate production skills.

The state of affairs has driven poaching to peak levels, and led to more in-house training to get people up to speed on new technologies and disciplines. It’s also pushing agencies to put more effort into recruiting young design and production talent — in some cases straight out of college.

Tom Bedecarré, CEO of AKQA, said his agency is recruiting college students in all skill areas, including strategy, creative and technology. The company has hired 100 people in the past year, of which he says around twenty were students.

He says while going after these young graduates is partly the result of a drought of talent in the industry, working with them can actually be a boon, since it doesn’t require breaking down old ways of thinking about creative and media.

“Young people who are coming into the business fresh and have grown up in a digital world bring some of the freshest ideas and most innovative approaches,” Bedecarré said. “They don’t have any baggage about the way things used to be done.”

He added that it helps to employ people who are in your clients’ target audience, and since AKQA does work for youth-focused brands like Coke, Xbox and Nike, employing the post-college crowd is a good thing.

The college recruiting trend may be most pronounced when it comes to production-type roles, or so says Mike Burns, CEO of Ontario-based Fuel Industries. The interactive agency, which offers strategy, design and production services, last year sent a slew of recruitment posters to colleges, bringing in a number of prospective hires.

“We hire a lot of students out of school, especially on the coding side,” he said. “Half the reason is you get a lot of guys, Flash coders in particular, who are senior and have been doing it a few years, who have been spoiled by the dot-com boom. They charge a fortune. You can frequently get a student who’s eager to learn and can outdo these guys in multiple languages. It’s good to get these guys right out of school. They’re not coming in with pre-built walls or preferences for technology.”

But Fuel is also hiring students into design roles.

“On the design side, it’s all based on the portfolio,” Burns said. “The students, some of their books look better than our senior guys. Kids who are 13, 14 and 15 are downloading the software and learning the tools. Piracy is advancing technology in a wacky way. It’s allowing the kids to access the software that all their heroes use.”

Agencies tend to focus their efforts on art and advertising-focused schools. AKQA has sent emissaries to programs like Atlanta’s Creative Circus, the Miami Ad School and The Art Center in Pasadena.

Carol Vick, the placement director at Creative Circus, said the school has had a number of interactive agencies sniffing around its graduating classes.

“Digitas is hiring more people, and AKQA,” she said. “It’s typically the bigger companies that interface more aggressively with the best students. AKQA just hired a big chunk of people from us… the best in class that we had.”

How widespread is direct recruiting from the ranks of college graduates? While it certainly appears to be a trend, it may not be a universal one. Representatives of some big art schools, such as SVA and The Art Institute of Chicago, declined to comment for this story. SVA said it didn’t necessarily see a heightened pursuit of students in digital disciplines.

That may be because many agencies are circumventing official job placement programs in favor of word of mouth. It’s a better way to identify quality talent, according to Fuel Industries’ Burns.

“Some of the schools you get kids with more experience than others,” he said. “If you actually go to their design programs, they’re training all kids to be jacks of all trades and masters of none. We’re strong believers that a designer’s a designer, and a coder’s a coder. Some… don’t have the design skills they really should have.”

The increase in college recruiting appears not only to apply to the creative arts, but to the media side as well. New York interactive ad club 212 recently hosted its second annual recruitment fair. The event is focused on media strategy and planning. Many Web-publishers, agencies and client-side reps sent recruiters. Attendance was over 400, a more than 50 percent increase over last year. A total of 20 companies sponsored.

“It was head and shoulders above last year… completely blew it out of the water,” said TJ Sullivan, a senior account executive with CBS Digital and a coordinator of the job fair. He cited an increase in student interest as the reason for the event’s success. “A lot more programs in the last five years have been targeted toward online marketing.”

The programs confirm they’re doing more to prepare students for work in digital channels.

“The writers and photographers take certain classes early that apply to Web work,” said Creative Circus’s Vick. “Everyone who graduates from here does their own site. The designers will do two to three sites, depending on how strong they’re interest is in the medium.”

Creative Circus is uniquely engaged with the community of marketing practitioners. Guest speakers like Kevin Swanepoel, interactive director for The One Club, have been invited to help impress students with the significance of work being done in the digital channel.

Said Vick, “We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of who’s doing the good work, so we can get students fired up. When they can see great conceptual work done, it is a motivator for them.”

Motivation is about the best the agencies can hope for, after all. While there may be one or two outstanding interactive portfolios in any graduating class, the best most graduates can hope to show an agency recruiter at this early stage in their careers is raw talent and enthusiasm.

According to Jay Thompson, “VP of stuff” for ad industry group ihaveanidea.org, agencies are increasingly willing to settle for those traits.

“It’s smart for… the big interactive shops to say, let’s go on a college tour, check out a couple of the places that we really like and see if we can meet someone,” he said. “It’s not so much about your accomplishments then, as much as it is your potential.”

And, Thompson adds, a little personal chemistry can’t hurt.

“We’re going to be in a dark room together all night,” he said. “We’re going to hate each other eventually. It’s got to be someone you like.”

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