The staffing solution

Ask a brand marketer about her staffing problem and you'll likely hear 'What problem?' - ask an agency president, and you may witness an visible shudder.
Given the relative similarity in skill sets demanded by the two professions, at first glance it's difficult to say how giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble manage to find qualified candidates to fill hundreds of new positions a year while agencies bemoan the dearth of new talent. But a closer look reveals that each side reaps what it sows - suggesting that when it comes to attracting and training marketing professionals, agencies could stand to learn a thing or two from their client-side counterparts.

Ask a brand marketer about her staffing problem and you’ll likely hear ‘What problem?’ – ask an agency president, and you may witness an visible shudder.

Given the relative similarity in skill sets demanded by the two professions, at first glance it’s difficult to say how giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble manage to find qualified candidates to fill hundreds of new positions a year while agencies bemoan the dearth of new talent. But a closer look reveals that each side reaps what it sows – suggesting that when it comes to attracting and training marketing professionals, agencies could stand to learn a thing or two from their client-side counterparts.

The difference in starting salary offered by the two sides is an obvious place to begin. While agencies pay as little as $28,000 to a new recruit, clients marketers can offer upwards of $40,000 (although in fairness, marketers usually demand more in the way of education).

But perhaps more important is the way training is handled. While marketers plough a lot of time and money into training and offer new recruits significant career advancement opportunities, agencies often neglect new hires until they make their name by winning a big award, while failing to offer much in the way of job stability.

‘You can’t expect someone to make a life-shaping decision without some sense of what the future is,’ says Ken Wong, strategic marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, who finds that product or brand management is the preferred career choice among his MBA graduates. ‘With product or brand management there is usually a clearly established career path with significant opportunities, but that clarity is lacking on the agency side. A lot of faculties don’t even know much about the career path in advertising, myself included,’ he adds.

Salary itself may be a contributing factor, although Wong believes that many MBA graduates would happily accept a lower salary if they could foresee good career opportunities within the company. ‘Globalization may be presenting some benefits to packaged goods companies as they are often able to offer opportunities for international advancement,’ he says.

Post-grad training is also very important and often lacking on the agency side, Wong says. ‘In the marketing world, a first job is increasingly becoming an extension of the educational degree and many students see their first job as a starting point to something else.’

The lack of a clearly-defined career path in many agencies often leads to a high staff turnover, which can be a bone of contention among clients.

‘It is very frustrating for us as a large-volume retail client,’ says Stephanie Lett, marketing business manager at Richmond, B.C.-based London Drugs. ‘We went through a period of getting new account executives and co-coordinators all the time, and I found I was doing a lot of their training myself.’

Andrew Loucks, brand manager at Toronto-based packaged goods giant Unilever Canada, also finds changes within the agency’s client service side to be problematic at times. ‘It is certainly prevalent within the ad business,’ he says. ‘It is never ideal when you experience lack of continuity, but that is the nature of the beast.’

According to Lett, one of the reasons agencies fail to attract and retain staff is the heavy dividing line between departments, which means the trainee will be typecast into a particular department very early on.

‘At London Drugs we offer a training program that is constantly changing and full of variety, and that has not been my experience at agencies,’ she says. ‘[At agencies] you are stuck in one area, so a media person will always be a media person. They don’t have a very good sense of teamwork.’

Never faced with a shortage of applicants, the retailer usually selects two marketing trainees annually from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Important qualities required are a strong attitude, willingness to take on new challenges, and most importantly a ‘fire in the belly.’ Lett believes that Web skills are also becoming increasingly important.

Students coming into the profession generally come equipped with a thorough knowledge of marketing, although Lett feels that they often lack general skills. A student with store-level experience at London Drugs would have a strong advantage, Lett says, as he or she would already be familiar with the retailer’s culture, one of the hardest parts of the training program.

Procter & Gamble is another company that never falls short of applications for trainee positions – the marketer enjoys the luxury of picking the cream of the crop from around 6,000 applications each year. Around 100 jobs will normally be offered across the different departments.

The company’s policy of recruiting only at entry level and offering promotions within the company is partly responsible for P&G’s popularity with the graduates, according to the company’s Toronto-based spokesman, Win Sakdinan. ‘Marketing recruits know that they have the opportunity to grow with the company because the managers have all walked in their shoes. It’s a very good way of building loyalty and retaining staff,’ he says.

P&G recruits graduates from a broad pool of universities across Canada, including the universities of Toronto, B.C. and Saskatchewan, to name but a few, and sometimes even from overseas. While some may come from traditional marketing backgrounds, the range of qualifications and experience is varied.

‘We don’t focus on the course someone has graduated in, but on the core qualities of the individual,’ says Sakdinan. ‘We want people who have made great accomplishments at school or in work experience, and have demonstrated strong analytical and leadership skills.’

With the right recruits, Sakdinan believes the marketing skills can be taught in-house. P&G offers a broad range of brand manager courses, together with a mentoring program and one-to-one training sessions with managers.

At Unilever, an intensive training program is also in place, incorporating a series of formalized three-week brand training courses for assistant brand managers. The company has established an international training program, so that recruits in all countries will learn the same skills, thus enabling them to make a smooth transition to potential overseas posts. Canadian recruits also attend a training school in the U.S. to learn about North American policies as a whole.

‘It is well understood that if you’re venturing into a long-term career in marketing, the packaged goods world affords a great training ground,’ Loucks says, adding that the ad industry, by contrast, may suffer from a lack of formalized training.

In contrast to the newbie-friendly HR offices at P&G and Unilever, Toronto-based Coca-Cola Canada steers clear of hiring newly qualified graduates, opting instead for marketers who have gained experience at rival companies.

‘With our current structure we don’t have positions open for graduates but that may change in the future,’ says Susan Banbury, brand manager at Coke.

However, the soft drink giant launched an intern program for aspiring brand managers last summer and is considering expanding the program to other departments.

Although none of the interns will be able to walk straight into a job at Coca-Cola, Banbury says, the company benefits from its contribution to the marketing industry as a whole. ‘We take seriously our responsibility to help train the brand managers of tomorrow,’ she says.

Planning for that next generation is just as crucial on the agency side, but with tightening budgets and shortening deadlines, it’s too often neglected, according to Frank Palmer, CEO of Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver. ‘[Advertising] is an industry which is evolving, but the biggest issue we face is that leadership is diminishing,’ he says. ‘As senior level staff get older we don’t see the same skill sets moving up. We always see the same names moving around at the senior levels.’

The recent proliferation of independent companies and niche consultancies in Canada could also be partly responsible for the ad industry’s troubled times, according to Doug Lowe, SVP and chief of staff at Toronto-based Young & Rubicam.

Still, Lowe says that in the last six months Y&R has experienced an encouraging increase in interest, both from new recruits and from experienced workers looking for a career change, a fact that he attributes to a desire to develop a broader experience base.

And despite the lack of new talent across the board, Palmer says that PJDDB still boasts the ability to pick and choose from a good selection of applicants each year.

‘I think this is largely because we have built up a good brand image from a creative point of view,’ says Palmer. Although many agencies do not have the budgets to offer in-house training programs, Palmer Jarvis offers a broad training program including skills-training, leadership training and computer graphics courses.

‘What we are doing is putting our money where our mouth is and offering courses to make people into better employees,’ says Palmer.