A new balance

Rattled by the recession over the past year, many in the industry have had to reduce their expectations and reassess their objectives. Anna Richardson unpacks this emerging sense of realism on the cusp of a tentative upturn. Research by Suzanne Hinchliffe

As the nation holds its collective breath ahead of the General Election, waiting to see what economic sea change it might bring, recruitment consultants are equally cautious about making sweeping statements on the state of the design industry.

’The economic climate is still very fragile,’ says Sue Pilgrim, managing director of Mac People, highlighting the uncertainty surrounding the General Election and its potential effect on the political climate. ’The design industry may be affected as any other sector, but I am confident that most consultancies are now better prepared for tougher times, having experienced the arduous conditions of 2009.’

With a number of clients having 31 March year-ends, consultancies are also waiting to see what impact the new financial year brings to design-buying budgets. ’It’s been a difficult year for the industry with a lack of visibility on client work making it difficult to predict workflows and staffing requirements,’ says Sarah Ellis Jones, senior agent for creative at Xchangeteam.

Many consultancies have worked their staff base hard to minimise the use of freelances and maintain their cost base. They are supporting existing staff by including shorter working weeks and encouraging sabbaticals to keep jobs open. At the same time, more demands are being made of remaining staff to retain existing clientele.

There is a lot of pressure on employees to work longer hours on new business pitches to increase turnover and avoid redundancies and salary cuts, according to Angela Banks and Sean Rooney, co-founders of Design Studio People.

Overall, however, ’things are improving, but in a careful, gradual way’, says Karina Beasley, managing director of Gabriele Skelton. Steven Cole of Devonshire has noted permanent vacancies increasing as a result of new business being won in the past few months, and there’s a general consensus among recruitment agencies that the start of 2010 has been more positive across all areas and roles in the creative market.

_In Demand

Things are looking particularly good for fmcg packaging. Kim Crawford, managing director at Periscope, says, ’Even in a recession people have to eat. Supermarkets have seen continuous growth over the past 12 months and this is reflected in the amount of packaging business coming through.’

In packaging, client services, strategy and creatives are all in demand, adds Beasley. ’With the recession, the need for the pack to communicate and sell on-shelf is even greater, as many clients cut advertising spend.’

The corporate communications and corporate reporting market is healthy, with demand for a cross-section of account management and creatives at all levels – who can work both on- and offline. Experiential work and the fashion/retail sector has also strengthened during the past year.

Naturally, candidates with a proven track record in new business development are sought after, adds Stuart Newman, managing director at Network. In the early stages of recession there was great demand for business developers, whereas November 2009 saw more vacancies for new business managers and new business directors.

The most in-demand is still ’digital, digital, digital’, as Jonathan Lindon, founding director of Source, puts it. The digital sector, from client services to creative (both permanent and freelance), is recovering quickly from recession, but was arguably affected less than other ’traditional’ design disciplines, Beasley points out. Project and account managers, as well as strategy and technical roles, are at a premium in what is still a great growth area. There is an increase in so-called ’hybrid roles’, which fill the gap between creative and IT expertise, says Pilgrim. ’Indeed, we are seeing an increase in the demand for roles that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, such as apps developers.’

_The right rung of the ladder

In client services for branding, demand for mid-weight and senior account managers has risen sharply in the past three months and is expected to continue as business grows. While at a heavyweight, senior level, roles such as client directors, client services directors, managing directors and new business directors are fewer but definitely increasing.

There has also been a higher number of maternity cover contracts than usual, perhaps due to ’something of a baby boom during the recession’, says Beasley, and permanent client services roles have experienced an improvement in January and February this year.

Creative roles are recovering in branding, especially on the freelance side, with an improvement noted in early December 2009 and continuing in 2010. ’This is not surprising,’ says Beasley. ’Consultancies that haven’t recruited over the past 18 months, but are finding the level of client activity increased, are erring on the side of caution and bringing in freelances as and when they need them to boost manpower.’

Permanent creative roles are picking up, but more gradually. A number of independent consultancies are starting to hire again, but are extremely cautious. Larger branding consultancies are securing more projects, but are not hiring permanent staff yet on a major scale, opting for freelances to handle the increasing workload for the time being.

_Great expectations

Designers have always been realistic when it comes to salaries, and remuneration is rarely their prime motivation. ’Most designers would put creative work, good clients and a creatively inspiring environment and colleagues ahead of salary on their “wish list”,’ says Banks. ’It’s more about personal development and happiness than ever before.

Nonetheless, many creatives have had to reduce their salary expectations drastically in the past year. Blue Tree Recruits’ Claire Vidler cites one experienced art director looking for work who is prepared to consider £34 000 where two years ago they were on £43 000.

Throughout 2009, candidates accepted salaries up to 25 per cent below their previous salaried position, particularly if they had been made redundant, adds Lindon. Those in work would also move for the same salary, whereas from 2002 to 2008, candidates would rarely move if an increase was not on the table.

As the upturn starts to gather pace, however, the more talented designers that held back during 2009 are likely to want to redress the balance in their perceived value and demand enhanced remuneration packages, predicts Pilgrim.

_Reaping the benefits

Salaries have performed pretty poorly over the past 12 months, but the permanent market has lifted recently. January saw a great increase in business, which was reflected in salary increases.

Diane Scally, manager at Creative Recruitment, says, ’There is only so long that people will be able to survive without inflationary increases.’
There has also been more fluidity in the senior end of the recruitment market, as increased personal confidence in the economy as a whole leads to more seniors looking to move, instead of sticking to the ’stay put’ mentality of the past 12 months.

With such a shift in mood, it becomes important to keep staff happy, and softer benefits such as company away-days and training courses are a good way to show a desire to develop existing staff.

’This will be key this year, when people will look more closely at their own personal development,’ says Paul Wood, director at Purple Consultancy. ’

_Looking at the future

Tentative predictions of a more stable 2010 emanate from most recruitment agencies, and as confidence returns, permanent employment will increase. ’But until this happens, consultancies will continue to rely on the flexibility of freelance personnel – a more popular choice for the time being,’ says Vidler.

Many are expecting upward pressure on salaries, with some predicting increases for in-demand skills of 5 per cent or even 10 per cent.
Even though predictions on the speed of recovery are difficult, the recession has already had a striking impact on the industry and design consultancies. For example, many senior staff within consultancies have become more hands-on and those who remained in work have become more flexible and adaptable.

The beginning of 2009 generated a real sense of fear and apprehension, as people who had never known or worked in difficult economic times had to adjust their expectations and their personal circumstances to get by.

’As we came towards the end of the year there was a tangible sense of relief, but also realism,’ says Pilgrim. ’The experience had given people and businesses the opportunity to re-evaluate what they really wanted, renew focus and achieve a stronger sense of direction.’

The recession has made many creatives more commercially aware than they were previously, agrees Beasley. They now understand better than before the need to work profitably.

What the figures say

The 2009 figures reflect recruitment agencies’ anecdotal evidence that fluctuations in salaries have been minor,with percentage rises and dips staying predominantly in lower single figures.

In creative roles, London rates saw minor increases in most design positions – a noticeable change from the previous year, when there was a dip across all jobs. However, junior roles are still stuck just below the pre-recession expected minimum entry-level salary of £20 000, at an average of £19 844. Among artworkers, junior and middleweight salaries posted increases of 9 per cent and 12 per cent respectively, representing a return to pre-recession levels.

There are some practical changes to a number of the categories in the survey, such as the addition of a separate ’design director’ position, which commands a figure of more than £53 300 in London and nearly £44 000 outside. This hopefully means a more accurate salary figure for creative directors and might explain the eye-catching 15 per cent increase in this role in London. The range of salaries quoted by recruitment agencies for this position nonetheless varied hugely – from £55 000 to £105 000 – which makes comparisons to previous year’s levels tricky.
Managing director salaries also span a great range in the capital, from £80 000 to £120 000, but a dip of 4 per cent speaks of a certain amount of belt-tightening. Levels quoted in the regions are more consistent, and the success of regional centres is reflected in a rise of 13 per cent in rates at managing director level and increases across all management positions outside of London.

The continued demand for digital talent is evident in salary rises among art/creative directors in the field, both in and outside of London, of 17 and 18 per cent respectively. Middleweight front- and back-end developers have enjoyed a fillip in the capital, with figures shooting up by 24 and 33 per cent. A dip among Web and Flash designers reflects the expansion of the category to include junior to senior levels, making the range expansive – from a junior salary of £20 000 to a more senior one of £35 000.

The new category of production/project manager in digital reflects the demand at this level. Remuneration for individuals with the right digital skills for these roles average at more than £48 000 in London and £37 000 outside. The additional category of managing director also indicates digital strength, with averages at £109 000 in the capital and £95 000 in the regions.

Entry-level positions

What is the recent outlook for recent graduates

The outlook for graduates is difficult, but better than it was. Those who are pro-active and gain internship experience will be top of the list.

Kim Crawford, Periscope

We are encouraging graduates to hang on in there. A lot of consultancies will start investing in new talent again, so those that managed to secure valuable work placements and freelance assignments last year should be in high demand.

Sue Pilgrim, Mac People

The outlook is bleak. Graduates feel that there is a lack of opportunities and they are being taken advantage of through unpaid internships.

Amie Wallace and Carly Broome, Major Players

It’s tricky finding a role in design after graduation. Universities should also educate undergraduates in related, non-design roles within the industry, as they can be as fulfilling as ’design-specific roles’.

Sarah Ellis Jones, Xchangeteam

Hopefully companies will give graduates a chance – otherwise there will be skill shortages in a few years’ time.

Stuart Newman, Network

The outlook is more positive in 2010, as increased investment from consultancies means they are likely to grow organically and recruit juniors. Ironically our experience last year was disappointing – we found many of the graduates’ work lacking inspiration and originality. We are hoping for better things this year.

Angela Banks and Sean Rooney, Design Studio People

Junior roles are finally starting to flourish within the market. My advice would be to strengthen integrated knowledge as much as possible.

Diane Scally, Creative Recruitment

There are more junior roles now than there have been in the past year. Consultancies are looking to add energy and enthusiasm to their existing teams.

Paul Wood, Purple Consultancy

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