Hunting for heads

The current boom in senior design vacancies reflects a changing emphasis in the management of design consultancies. Tom Bawden looks into the reasons for this trend.

On the surface, news of an 11 per cent rise in senior design vacancies last year is hardly surprising.

The current boom in the design sector has been well documented and consultancies have long complained of the difficulty of getting and keeping really good people – especially in senior positions.

The news comes from a report by recruitment consultant MSL Search and Selection, which looked at employment trends in the year until the end of June. It defines senior positions as board level and one rung below.

But, as the sector continues to mature, a new development appears to be taking place. With more senior positions to fill, design groups are offering greater incentives to attract and keep the right senior staff on their books.

While the figures from the survey use a fairly loose definition of design – including research and development where it applies to new-product development – industry recruitment experts say the figure tallies with their observations over the same period.

They offer a number of interconnected explanations. “It can be extremely difficult to attract the talent and sometimes it is necessary to offer board positions to get them. There is definitely an element of consultancies offering higher positions than perhaps the job merits,” says Ian Cochrane, chairman of design management consultancy Ticegroup.

Stuart Newman, director of recruitment consultant Network Design has also noticed a significant increase in senior and board vacancies. He says these apply across design disciplines and across the UK.

“Design groups are becoming much more professional and business-aware. They are building stronger management structures and bringing in people [from business, marketing and advertising] to help grow and manage the business. These people tend to occupy the higher positions,” says Newman.

Meanwhile, Periscope managing director Kim Crawford says she has noticed a marked increase in the number of vacancies in senior creative openings.

“As design has become a more integral part of the marketing mix the demand for good creatives has increased quite considerably,” says Crawford.

She also puts the increase down to design groups looking to secure their long-term future by expanding management teams and bringing in a new generation of executives.

“A lot of principals are thinking about succession. Not necessarily opting out altogether, but stepping back slightly and bringing new management on board,” she says.

Crawford cites the recent reshuffle at Light & Coley as an example of a group which has expanded its board in line with its business, while weaving in a new generation of management.

Last November consultancy co-founders Laurie Light and Alan Coley boosted the board from the two of them, to seven (DW 7 November 1997).

Wolff Olins has also rearranged its board, with an eye on the future (DW 13 June 1997).

Crawford says she knows of a further ten to 15 major design groups looking to draft in new people to their boards.

But what will be the impact of the much-vaunted recession?

“The future is clouding over, though nothing is likely to happen until the end of the decade,” says Newman.

Crawford adds: “We will survive the recession better this time than last, since design is now viewed as more important.”

In fact, paradoxically, the impending recession may even be combining along with the booming economy to create the current growth levels within the senior ranks.

“Consultancies are trying to monopolise on the boom, bringing in senior executives to grow the business and broaden the client base. The idea is that when the recession comes, it will be easier to survive,” says ASA International Recruitment Consultants manager Paul Surridge.

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