It isn’t always easy for costly senior designers to move on – especially not in tougher economic climates. But experienced staff who can help in the battle to win and retain clients should stand a good chance, says Emily Pacey.
HAVING PROSPERED in 2007, the design industry looks to be entering an economic limbo. On the one hand, it is facing the possibility of an economic downturn and ensuing drop in marketing budgets, and, on the other, it cannot deny that – for now at least – the markets are holding up. But as we get stuck into 2008, recruitment consultants report that senior design consultancy staff are increasingly choosing to stay put rather than risk a career move.
‘In line with the general nervousness about the economic climate, both employees and employers have become noticeably more cautious when considering change,’ says Emma Barette, senior consultant at Recruit Media. She reports that, at Recruit Media, the level of permanent vacancies within the market has dropped compared with last year.
Even if this holds true across the industry, the good news is that while there might be fewer vacancies, there are even fewer applicants. ‘There is a dearth of candidates with the right level of experience, says Source director Jonathan Lindon. ‘The industry is crying out for intelligent, strategic thinkers who present well at every level,’ adds Major Players director Paula Carrahar.
The reported shortfall in experienced job candidates is partly due to a surge in senior staff opting to go freelance over the past three years, attracted by flexible working, higher remuneration levels, and a glut of design projects.
‘Small- to medium-sized design groups have benefitted from this changing workforce,’ says RP Cushing managing director Paul Cushing. ‘Rather than appointing senior professionals to assist with new business pitches and ad hoc projects, they are engaging with freelances. Only once long-term clients have been secured are consultancies looking to make a commitment and appoint a senior designer.’
However, most recruitment consultants agree that if the market softens, many freelances will be tempted back on to consultancy payrolls, swelling the ranks of applicants for permanent positions. Both senior freelances and those looking to move between consultancies are likely to find themselves competing for permanent jobs with middleweight designers and managers. Increasingly, design groups are providing opportunities for staff to progress within consultancies. Recruitment consultants speak with one voice on the subject of internal promotion.
‘Since the last recession, many consultancies have stopped being so top heavy,’ says Periscope managing director Kim Crawford. ‘Lessons were learnt, and over the past two years the market has been stocking up on middleweight talent. They have good experience, are less expensive and eager to learn and grow. Also, it is less risky to have a middleweight twiddling their thumbs in a recession than a £100 000 senior.’
Faced with the threat posed by internal applicants, senior designers and managers looking to move must be readier than ever to remind potential employers of their worth. Experience, expertise, fresh thinking, new ideas, an objective outlook on the consultancy and contacts are all highly desirable attributes for senior staff to possess. Of these, perhaps your contacts are the most crucial. As Cushing points out, ‘Senior designers are expected to generate significant new business through existing relationships.’
Those seniors in most demand are, predictably, non-creatives. During times of economic uncertainty, an already deafening clamour for good account managers and planning talent gets even louder.
‘In a downturn consultancies tend to put more money, time and effort into those people who can bring in new business and manage it well,’ says Debra Amini, managing director of Profiles Creative. ‘As budgets are cut, there is more need for senior account managers.’ Periscope managing director Kim Crawford adds, ‘More creative, design-led groups are buying planning talent who can maximise and help evaluate the offer in the overall drive for accountability.’
Consultancies looking to appoint new seniors are advised to make the hiring process as swift as possible. ‘At present, it can take up to six months for a design group to decide on a particular candidate,’ says Cushing. ‘The delay in candidate selection has meant a number of consultancies have lost out on talented individuals. With an increasing move to freelance activity, employers within the design sector need to improve the efficiency of their recruitment procedures over the coming year if they are to secure the desired candidate.’
There is one more pitfall for senior design professionals. Having climbed the career ladder and gained valuable experience, achieving the title ‘senior’ could actually work against you. ‘Ageism is rife, and the senior level equates to old age,’ says Amini. Barette agrees. ‘In line with the current age discrimination law, we do not consider people to fit into the categories of senior or junior, instead preferring to recruit based on the merits of the role, rather than the length of time someone has been working in a particular industry and position,’ she says. If you find yourself struggling to nail a good position, you could drop ‘senior’ from your CV and try to look youthful at interviews. How much dignity you are willing to sacrifice could depend on the state of the job market. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope that come 2009, the streets are not filled with skinny-jeaned senior strategists.
WHAT ARE SENIOR POSITIONS?
Managing director, senior account director, senior project manager, creative director and design director
The title ‘senior’ signifies a management or director/partner-level position through to senior designers with at least five to ten years experience
A senior has learned his or her craft (whether in design, account management or strategy), and is now taking project responsibility, leading or mentoring less experienced team members, playing a key role in client relationships and devising pitches and creative strategy. At the higher end, seniors are involved in the management and leadership of the consultancy itself
SCALING THE RANKS – ADVICE FOR JUNIORS
Take training courses. Source Personnel recommends those run by the Design Business Association
• Talent, flexibility and a passion for learning go a long way, says Xchangeteam
• Add new strings to your bow, such as digital and motion graphics skills, says With Us
• If you are given the chance to present to a client, take it, says Gabriele Skelton
• Be good at your job, get commercial, understand how to manage people above you, learn to read a balance sheet and understand the impact of global events on business, says Periscope