Hard lessons

The downturn is hitting design recruitment in every sector, with client budgets and salary expectations suffering badly. But think twice before retrenching too quickly, says Anna Richardson, because it could hamper your recovery

What a difference four months make. In September, a straw poll of recruitment consultants painted a largely optimistic picture. The Office for National Statistics reported that design employment was flourishing, despite falling general employment figures, and while there was caution in the air, no one predicted how the following months would unfold. At the end of 2008, the UK finds itself in a deepening recession, retailers are going into administration, and where, half a year ago, it was mainly designers within property or finance feeling the pinch, today the struggle is reflected across the industry.

You hear the word ‘redundancy’ every week, with cuts being announced across the board – including, in the past few months, at top consultancies such as Imagination, Landor and Identica. In addition, some have imposed recruitment freezes, and freelance budgets are being cut. Recruitment agencies are preparing for a tough winter, as consultancies batten down the hatches and wait to see how the first quarter of 2009 pans out. But work is being won, and existing clients need to be serviced, so consultancies are still turning to freelances, albeit it on a more week-to-week basis. Contracts are generally shorter, as costs are cut where possible.

The mantras ‘the cream always rises to the top’ and ‘good talent will always find work’ continue to hold true, but candidates are now expected to up their game. No more outlandish salary demands, no more down-time, no more shoddy applications or bog-standard portfolios – the message is that prospective employers can pick and choose.

With the market increasingly client-driven, those who haven’t adjusted their salary expectations will find themselves running out of options. Many recruitment agencies report candidates are willing to drastically drop rates, with some even halving expectations to secure jobs. Salaries are being described as more realistic, with the boom of yesteryear firmly behind us.

Those relying on bonuses might also be in for a shock, although consultancies are still keen to provide benefits to keep staff motivated. Some recruitment agencies suggest it might be a good time to learn new skills – the more flexible and adaptable the better, and as the digital sector is one of the few still very much in demand, that might be a good place to start.

For consultancies, meanwhile, the current climate is a good opportunity to grab the best talent, look at teams as a whole, keep an ear to the ground and siphon off that proverbial cream. Others will see it as a chance to get rid of ‘dead wood’ permanent staff.

Although even the most optimistic cannot deny the gloom, there is the feeling that lessons have been learnt from previous recessions. The design industry, as a whole, is better positioned to cope, and a little less naive in business terms, than in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The importance of design has shifted, with the Government focusing more on the creative industries than before, and big commercial projects such as Crossrail and the London 2012 Olympics will continue to provide work. As brands struggle to attract consumers, design is more relevant, and consultancies should leverage the value they can add in communicating a message. Those working in overseas markets will be especially well placed to weather the downturn.

But the most resonant mantra of all concerns talent. During previous recessions, many design groups let good people go, only to find it difficult to replace them once the market picked up. Consultancies recognise that talent is their most important asset, regardless of the economic climate, and there is a fear that a reluctance to employ junior designers now might once more result in a dearth of good middleweight talent when the UK starts emerging from recession.

Graduates – who have to compete fiercely for placements, internships and entry-level work at the best of times – will find getting on that first rung of the ladder more difficult than ever. When under pressure, consultancies look for people who don’t need training, but they need to encourage the new crop of talent, even if it is just by nurturing relationships with design colleges or attending events such as the D&AD’s New Blood exhibition next summer. Otherwise, the talent of the future will start looking to other industries once more.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the first quarter of 2009. The speed of the economic downturn took most by surprise, and it’s anybody’s guess what the coming months might spell for the UK economy and its design champions.

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