Everyone wants to be wanted. And if you are a designer, that is precisely the situation that you probably find yourself in now. But, according to our latest salary survey, you shouldn’t necessarily expect this to translate into a bigger pay packet, although employers may be finding other ways of keeping you happy. If, however, you work in account management, the outlook is not quite so rosy, and you may have to accept a little less.
In our last survey, conducted at the end of 2005, we found a volatile market in which there was little upward pressure on salaries, and even some marked drops for the top jobs. The picture our new survey paints is more complicated.
Buoyancy is a word much favoured by recruitment consultants – it’s one we’ve heard a lot of recently – and they are much more confident about the market now than they have been for a long time. Yet the figures they supply do not show salary increases, even for areas such as digital design where demand is intense. Few designers’ salaries have outpaced inflation, and those for new management roles seem to have weakened significantly. However, nearly all are agreed that it’s a candidate-led market.
Salaries for designers outside of London show the largest increases, but this finding may just reflect a better response to the survey from recruitment consultancies outside the capital than in previous trawls.
Creatives versus suits
Broadly speaking, our survey suggests good times are in store for designers, particularly outside London, with high demand if not rocketing salary levels. Design consultancies, it would seem, are placing an emphasis on creativity and productivity, and prefer to spend money on retaining existing clients and staff, rather than on chasing new business – always a more expensive approach to success.
A new business director in London can now expect to get an average of £53 416, down 24 per cent from the £66 354 in our last survey. The increase in salaries for new business directors outside London is perhaps just a reflection of the fact that it is rare for smaller consultancies outside the capital to employ them. Suits – including managing directors – are simply earning less than before.
As well as keeping existing clients sweet, retention of staff has become much more important, according to recruitment experts.
‘Consultancies are wise to the fact that they must pay the market rate for staff – and on occasion even more – to get and keep the best,’ says Kerrie Rayner at Graphics Personnel.
Ann Sharman of Price Jamieson agrees, saying, ‘We are finding consultancies are fighting much harder to try to keep, or buy back, candidates, when they hand in their notice,’ she says.
Some recruitment consultants have seen employers offering their top designers hefty salary increases – as much as 17 per cent – to keep them on board.
Given that design still tends to be a cottage industry, it’s not surprising that benefits still lag way behind what employees can expect in other areas of work. Perhaps because money is tighter than many would admit, other staff incentives are becoming more widely available. ‘Consultancies do not always sell themselves to candidates based on the benefits they offer, thinking they are often only interested in salary. But, softer benefits such as company away days and training courses are often equally attractive and demonstrate that they want to “grow” their staff,’ says Paul Wood at Purple.
Holidays are the most obvious benefit, and one that is particularly important for consultancies to consider when attempting to get freelances – who have got used to a freer life – back into permanent employment, says Ian Coulson at Mustard. ‘We have recently seen more consultancies offering five weeks annual holiday plus Christmas as part of a package,’ he adds.
Similarly, companies that avoid a ‘late culture’, working 9am to 5pm, are nowadays very appealing to potential employees.
Recruitment consultants are frustrated by what they see as short-sighted recruitment policies. ‘It’s not unusual for a client to spend months looking for the ideal candidate, when it could have trained up someone with a little experience much sooner and eased the workload of existing employees,’ explains RPCushing’s Grant Richard.
Not only do design consultancies often overlook the possibility of ‘growing their own’, but they also put insufficient thought into the recruitment process itself, say recruitment agents. ‘Potential employers need to really focus on recruitment and make it a high priority if they want to attract good candidates, and they must therefore make their consultancies and the recruitment process as attractive as possible. In a market short of candidates, it is imperative they take this very seriously,’ says Kim Crawford of Periscope.
Investing in young talent is a perennial issue in design. Interestingly, rather than complaining about a deluge of young designers, a number of recruitment consultancies are now reporting a shortage of junior designers, perhaps one of the more reliable signs that things really are picking up.
Stuart Newman, of Network, says, ‘We are concerned about the lack of good interiors graduates. A large proportion are overseas students and they are unable to work legally in this country.’
From the responses we received, it is clear that the clamour for middleweight designers has increased. This shortage is a legacy of the recession at the beginning of the decade, which limited the intake from that period. At the other end of the spectrum, there seem to be plenty of candidates for the top positions, as might be expected given the reduced number of opportunities at the level of design or creative director.
In terms of disciplines, digital/interactive/experiential is clearly the hottest area at the moment, but recruitment consultants also consistently mention packaging as an area of great demand. Branding and interiors are also areas where designers will find the going easy if they have the right training and experience.
There are signs that work patterns are shifting slightly too in the face of the continuing attraction of freelancing. ‘Contracts, particularly six-month ones, are the new freelance,’ says Nathan Myatt at Workstation. ‘Many consultancies and in-house studios are looking to take people on short-term contracts rather than permanently or on a freelance basis. This is to limit risk and cost.’
Not surprisingly, not everyone’s crystal ball looks the same. However, our survey points to an optimism across the board about salary increases, and shows that many expect design consultancies to be actively looking to recruit extra staff in the near future.
Valerie Gascoyne at BDGXchangeteam is one of the most cautious in suggesting only a 3 per cent increase over the next 12 months. Most, however, anticipate increases of 5 per cent and upwards, with some even touching on 15 per cent, on the basis that salaries have been stagnant for such a long time. The higher predictions, though, are for those areas such as packaging where it is most difficult to recruit.
It should be pointed out, however, that almost everyone who responded thought freelance rates were looking healthier, although some said they were over-inflated. ‘Freelance rates have remained strong, and in some cases, they have increased by over 100 per cent in the past two years,’ says Network’s Newman. ‘Is this sustainable in the long term, and are people becoming greedy in a very candidate-driven market? We know that, at the business end, competition is still tough and clients are being squeezed on their profit margins. The economic cycle will inevitably slow, and clients have a habit of remembering the freelance who turned down a week’s work because the rate offered was “only” £300 a day.’
One major design consultancy, one of the few brave enough to reply to our survey, suggests pay increases of 5 per cent over the coming year, with the smaller increase of 3 per cent for the more senior posts, noting, however, that ‘salaries and costs continue to rise, and fees are still falling and being squeezed’.
Whether the recent stockmarket jitters suggest the clouds gathering on the horizon will lead to a short storm or a longer period of economic uncertainty, no-one yet knows. But designers will hope that current levels of demand will translate into higher salaries, as much as employers will be attempting to keep wages down. For the time being at least, freelancing will be an attractive option for both sides. It’s where the money is, and it is an area to which Design Week will return later in the year with a survey dedicated to freelance rates.