Where Have All the Planners Gone?

The Internet is starting to fire on all cylinders. The medium has matured to a point at which it’s attractive to marketers, standards have been (or are being) developed, and processes and systems are in place. With the business rapidly scaling, nothing can hold us back, right?

Wrong. The talent shortage among interactive media professionals has reached crisis proportions.

As I speak with colleagues around the country, I realize this national problem is exaggerated in the New York metropolitan area. Nationwide, agencies have multiple openings for qualified interactive media planners/buyers. There are simply not enough of these people to fill an ever-increasing need.

The hardest hit areas are at the media supervisor and associate media director levels. Planners with two to four years’ experience are also at a premium. Why? A few explanations percolate to the top. The most popular belief is when the Internet bubble burst, the industry experienced a tremendous exodus. Many went back to traditional media agencies, some went into sales, while others went back to school for MBAs and other advanced degrees.

Another theory revolves around the changing face of the media landscape and the communications agency structure. Though it was once very hip to be an interactive planner, over the last few years the trend has been toward communications architects or generalists who steward the overall communications mix. The most talented, ambitious people in media may now be opting for this type of role as opposed to specialist areas (such as digital communications).

A final theory concerns the current crop of people coming out of colleges and universities. As these graduates speak to friends and family in interactive media, no doubt they’re being told of grueling hours and the stress associated with the position. With a bad rap, media positions may stay open and we’ll continue to face a dearth of talent in the coming years.

What can be done?

There’s no simple solution to the problem, but I believe answers center on two areas. First, the interactive media planner/buyer job must be made more satisfying. The role should allow people to maintain a healthy life balance. Working 60-plus hours a week on an ongoing basis in any field is difficult and destined to drive all but the most committed out of the industry. Second, and probably more important, we must educate tomorrow’s leaders about the benefits of an interactive media planning career.

We can do this in part by participating in college job fairs (interactive ad industry group 212 is planning to do that), and by sponsoring events and educational programs at colleges and universities. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to three college classes in the past six months, either virtually (through a video teleconference) or in person; I’ve been extolling the virtues of our trade and the excitement in the industry.

We’re facing unprecedented demand and very short supply in the planning and buying fields. With the industry growing at the rate it is, we must get more people in the field to get the work done. If we don’t, we’ll scream toward a dramatic crescendo; the industry will simply fall apart.

Some of us lived through those times before. We don’t want to live through them again.

So let’s raise a glass to the interactive media planner, the lifeblood of our industry, and a commodity none of us should take for granted.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.