Restocking the talent pond

Three years out of community college and she was already demanding a salary of $70,000, plus a car allowance and three weeks' vacation. Absurd, maybe, but the candidate for the position of direct marketing account manager with a mid-sized Toronto agency...

Three years out of community college and she was already demanding a salary of $70,000, plus a car allowance and three weeks’ vacation. Absurd, maybe, but the candidate for the position of direct marketing account manager with a mid-sized Toronto agency got what she was asking for.

Sure, the candidate had proved to be a bit of a shining light at her previous position, and her clients were nuts about her, but the truth of the matter is that her situation isn’t unique. In the direct marketing industry in Canada, anyone with a bit of experience and a few decent references can pretty much ask for and get the moon when applying for a job.

The reason is simply that there’s a dearth of well-trained talent from which to draw, largely because, in Canada, there’s not a whole lot of post-secondary training available to young people who might be considering a career in direct marketing. Virtually all of the university-level business schools across the country offer one or two elective courses in direct marketing, or include some discussion of the discipline within broader-focused marketing courses. Unlike in the U.S., where it is actually possible to receive an MBA with a specialization in direct marketing, there are no degree-granting programs in direct marketing in this country.

So, what’s the solution? Bringing a fresh crop of talent into the industry would help ensure that the ranks are constantly being replenished from the bottom up, and that there will always be fresh legs to call on when things get busy. It would also help keep older, more experienced practitioners on their toes, knowing that there are a bunch of young bucks working their way up the ladder with the veteran’s job set squarely in their sights.

Makes perfect sense, but who’s going to do the training?

A small handful of community and vocational colleges do offer programs in direct marketing, such as the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, B.C. and Humber College in Toronto, where a one-year post-graduate diploma program was started just last year. Delivered by working industry practitioners, the Humber program will be graduating its first class of newly minted direct marketers in the spring

Jim Higginson, president of Toronto-based lettershop First Avenue and industry advisor to the Humber program, says the college is delivering an important service to the industry at large, as it takes the onus off agencies and other members of the direct marketing industry to do all their own training, which has long been the tradition in Canada.

While there are certain advantages to a company training its own people, the associated costs can be onerous, especially when those people are scooped up by competition eager to take a cheap ride on the coattails of a company that does most of its own training. The result is that many companies become gun shy about training any new employees, out of a justified fear that they’ll lose that person to the competition long before realizing any kind of return on their investment.

‘Direct marketing is such a specialized and growing industry that there need to be some post-secondary institutions providing training to people,’ says Higginson.

Although he appears a little uncomfortable suggesting that the direct marketing industry needs to be more proactive in attracting new talent to the fold, Higginson does, nonetheless, concede that the industry can’t just sit around waiting for someone else to act.

‘We need to get the message out to students that direct marketing is a good area to get into because it’s an important part of the marketing mix and it’s growing,’ he says, pointing out that the main drawing card to attract the attention of potential new recruits are ‘jobs.’

Higginson says one of his goals in the second year of the Humber direct marketing program will be to see whether any companies will support the initiative by providing scholarships, job placement opportunities, or straight-up financial support.

One firm that has made a commitment to try to keep the Canadian direct marketing talent pool constantly restocked is Lowe RMP Direct, a small Toronto-based agency that helped establish a $2,500 direct marketing scholarship in 1999 with Business Sense, a magazine distributed free to business students across Canada.

‘People looking at getting into the advertising business are still being lured over to the general side by the sexiness of TV,’ says Lowe RMP president Peter Coish. ‘If we can show them that there’s actually a lot of room to be creative in direct, using all media – including TV – and that there’s a lot more opportunity to be strategic, we’ll attract some good, young minds. That’s our goal.’

Another potential solution to the ongoing challenge facing the industry is being seriously considered by the Canadian Marketing Association: Namely, developing an official information-based marketing accreditation program that would be delivered by a recognized post-secondary institution.

Connie Turner, marketing and communications director for Toronto-based Enbridge Consumers Gas and a member of the CMA’s education council, says the council recently surveyed CMA members to gauge how receptive they might be to supporting an accreditation program along the lines of the Canadian Advertising Agency Practitioner (CAAP) program sponsored by the Institute of Canadian Advertising. She suspects CMA members will be interested, especially considering that, as recently as 1998, nearly 50% of association members indicated that education was a ‘very important’ issue for the CMA to tackle.

‘There’s very little emphasis placed on information-driven or direct marketing in the post-secondary marketing programs that exist out there today,’ Turner says. The majority of graduates from post-secondary marketing programs, she says, are ‘not getting introduced to the core competencies that are required by our industry, so we’re trying to establish a program that would allow us to work with different targets.’

Such ‘targets’ could include students, employees who want to upgrade their current skills, employees who have been promoted into a position where they need to gain some more knowledge, and veterans who want to refresh their knowledge. Among the ‘core competencies’ Turner identifies as needing more emphasis in training programs are customer segmentation and modeling techniques, response analysis, and strategic development.

‘I think it would behoove us to establish an accreditation program,’ Turner says. ‘Our membership feels education is very important, but that in terms of what we were doing about it, there was a gap. We’re certainly trying to address that.’