Tight spot

Amanda Merron, partner of accountancy group Willott Kingston Smith, looks at the effects of the economic downturn on design sector recruitment

Is it time for recruitment consultants to downgrade their fee forecasts in the design sector and dust off their stock of clients seeking jobs? The past couple of years has seen frenetic activity across all marketing services sectors, particularly in the design sector. Top talent was scarce and it was hard to find people at most levels of experience.

Rumour has it that people with demonstrable digital and interactive skills actually had remuneration consultants, who advised them on the package that they should be expecting.

In the digital media sector, the clamour for the right talent meant that businesses were bought not on the basis of their profitability, but on the number of people that they employed. The purchase price in effect became a massive recruitment fee (and I mean massive).

Brand strategists were also at a premium and, as with interactive specialists, in particularly short supply.

The demise of the dotcom frenzy, coupled with the impact of a downturn in the US and other economies, has made a lot of client businesses very nervous. As a result, work has been deferred and a significant proportion of consultancies are reducing costs by waiting before they fill vacancies that have arisen through natural wastage. What does this mean for salary levels?

Most design businesses have recognised that in a tricky market you are only as good as your product. They’re therefore seeking to recruit and retain a high calibre of designer. In the same way that consultancies with special qualities can command higher prices, so individuals who can produce the wow factor are rare and will therefore always be expensive.

In general, though, this year’s pay reviews seem to be smaller. Anecdotal evidence from our clients and contacts suggests that salary reviews are less expensive for the employer than was previously the case. Employees recognise that the salary increases they received in the boom times are unlikely to re-occur. Instead, they value security, experience, training and business culture as much as, if not more, than remuneration level.

Our experience is that the effect of the slowdown on recruitment in the marketing services sector is patchy. It is possible to attract good account managers for less than would have been the case previously. But there is still high demand for staff who can bring in new business. One client of ours said that it is ‘impossible to find real new business people’.

While salaries remain stable there is still a shortage of well-skilled people on the move: designers, account/ project managers and, as previously mentioned, new business people. Natural caution among the individuals concerned means they stay where they are, where they may have clocked up some seniority within the company, rather than moving on and putting themselves at risk of being the last in and first out should a round of redundancies occur.

After the lessons of the early 1990s, consultancies are reacting faster to the business slowdown. This is small comfort to those who have been made redundant as part of a cost-cutting exercise. But our experience is that it is better to bite this bullet sooner rather than later, in the interests of staff morale and the ultimate survival of your business. Death by a thousand cuts does not produce a well-motivated team.

The attitude the sector takes to recruiting graduates will be interesting. The new blood taken on this year will be the backbone of many consultancies in five years’ time. If the sector repeats the mistake it made in the last recession and cuts back on recruitment at this junior level, problems are likely. Nearly a whole generation went missing because consultancies did not recruit graduates in the early 1990s, but instead relied on poaching staff from other businesses. This in turn fuelled spiralling salaries for those happy few with the relevant experience under their belts.

The recent frantic movement of people around the sector doesn’t seem to have affected job titles, other than perhaps adding a few in the digital media sector. However, what a job title actually means has become rather blurred. Is a designer with three years’ design experience, who moved into a digital media consultancy and gained two further years of experience, as valuable as a graduate with two years of interactive experience, but no other, under their belt? Probably not, but they will have the same job title. This makes salary comparisons by title sometimes difficult to interpret.

The recent annual Design Business Association chargeout rates and salary survey reviews pay rates by size, geographical location and job title.

Geographical location does affect pay levels. Predictably, salaries within London are higher than those outside of the capital. The average premium is in excess of 15 per cent. This varies according to job title, with London production managers achieving the biggest premium over their provincial peers, followed by creative directors and then senior designers.

Size does also matter. The larger design groups pay their staff more than their smaller competitors. Overall, larger consultancies are paying their staff, on average, salaries that are nearly 30 per cent higher. This differential becomes smaller at the lower paid end of the scale. Every circumstance is different, but in the larger consultancies corporate goals can sometimes be perceived by staff to be given more weight than creativity. So designers may leave for smaller, more entrepreneurial businesses. The cultural benefits of working for a smaller business can also be attractive. So larger businesses sometimes have to pay more to attract (and keep) the right staff.

The other reason is that a number of the larger design groups deal with sizeable multinational clients, which demand attention from not one, but a team of very senior people. The experience required from a senior account handler in a multinational may well differ considerably from that in a 20-person consultancy and therefore commands a higher salary.

The survey also looked at the relative pay rates across design consultancies specialising in different disciplines.

Retail was, perhaps surprisingly, one of the best-paid sectors. Packaging, corporate ID and literature also pay their staff well, but have been displaced from pole position by retail.

Design employees working in the ‘new economy’ remain generally poorly paid compared to those in the more established sectors. This may well reflect the fallout in the sector apparent at the beginning of the year.

Once again, product and interior design were the least well-paid disciplines.

Design businesses will be breathing a sigh of relief as the pressure comes off salary reviews for a while. They are still only as good as their talent, so looking for other ways to differentiate themselves for employees remains key. I think one of the most important things will be maintaining and communicating confidence and belief among their teams.

Full details of the DBA survey are available to DBA members. Undertaken in spring 2001, it looks at the use of freelances, bonus packages across the industry, maternity and paternity benefits, holiday entitlement and salaries. The results were analysed according to location, number of employees and design discipline

Advice for design graduates – DW guide to finding a job

– Word of mouth. This is often the most efficient way to get a job. Talk to friends, tutors, acquaintances. Let them know you are looking for employment.

– Placements. Try to do as many placements as possible (paid or expenses only) during your degree and while looking for a job.

– Awards. While at college, enter the students’ design awards, they will attract attention from the design consultancies, clients and the media. D&AD Student Awards (info: 020 7840 1111) RSA Student Awards (info: 0207 930 5115)

– Industry events/ bodies. Get involved wherever possible. Attend seminars. Network. Ask questions. Get yourself known – for the right things.

– Check the recruitment pages of Design Week. The magazine currently has 80 per cent of the market share for recruitment ads in the design industry.

– Ask specialist recruitment agencies for advice (you will find many advertising in Design Week). Consider carefully what you want from an agency before enrolling with it. Keep in mind that once you are on an agency’s books it won’t be able to approach companies to which you have already sent your CV.

– Approach design groups or companies for which you would like to work directly. Research them beforehand and state clearly the reasons why you want to work for them in your covering letters.

– Covering letter. Find out who is the correct person to address it to. Check the spelling of their name. State for which position you are applying or why you are approaching them. Keep it brief.

– Writing your CV. Restrict it to one or two pages maximum. Check the spelling. Use concise language and avoid clichés such as ‘look no further’. Include the essential details: name, address, contact number,-mail, education, awards (if any), placements, freelance experience and work projects. Don’t put in a photograph. Limit the list of your interests. Don’t lie.

– Portfolio of work. Include your best work only. Keep it uncluttered and easy to handle. Show sketches of the work in progress, as well as the finished projects. Tailor your portfolio to fit the company you are applying to and be prepared to explain the ideas behind your work.

– Play up any particular skills you have above your design qualifications, such as foreign languages or business training.

– Interviews. Turn up on time, show some humility and eagerness to do the job. Dress smartly, but comfortably. Be yourself. Ask questions.

– Think of all your options. Consider also applying for advertising jobs, account handling, media sales, editorial work on magazines and newspapers, design management, project management, marketing, journalism, working for museums, design centres and foundations.

– Consider freelance work or short-term contracts.

– Be prepared to work overseas. Ask recruitment agencies whether they have any available positions abroad. If you are offered the job, decide whether you would prefer to be paid in the local currency or in Sterling.

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