Recruitment: Chasing the best

A dearth of high-quality, well-qualified candidates for marketing positions means companies are having to become more proactive in their recruitment efforts, writes Jane Bainbridge.

The days of marketing chiefs having the luxury of browsing through a stack of top-quality CVs when seeking to fill a staff vacancy are fading into distant memory.

The tide has turned in the recruitment market and the story is the same across marketing sectors: good candidates are extremely hard to find. Not that those on the lookout for a new role are complaining - they are in the enviable position of being able to take their pick of the vacancies.

So why is it that in a matter of just a few years the market has changed so dramatically and companies are finding they have to proactively sell themselves to attract marketing candidates of the same high standard they could previously cherry-pick?

In truth, employers are partly to blame: the cutbacks implemented during the recession are now leaving their legacy. Emma Brierley, chief executive of XChangeTeam Group, says: 'There is a particular shortage of people with two to three years' experience. We had a recession in the early part of the decade and people were either let go, couldn't get in, or left the industry and never returned. There was no investment in training and graduate places were limited; the industry is feeling the effects now.' Couple this reduced investment in people with a more buoyant economy and an increased demand for marketers, and the shortage of personnel is being felt across the board.

While some recruitment consultants point to a particular shortfall in experienced mid- to senior-level candidates, others say the problem is less obvious at the senior end because there are not so many opportunities.

Brierley suggests that one factor exacerbating the situation is that companies are too blinkered about skills. 'Firms are being very precise about what they want. For example, they will say they want someone with experience not only of search-engine marketing, but also retail. The dual effect makes it very hard to find people to fit the brief,' she says.

Richard O'Quinn, marketing director at Dial-a-Phone, defends the specific nature of his recruiting briefs. 'We have always looked for a very particular type of candidate, so we are fishing in a smaller pond,' he says. 'We are a direct response company, which is a tight part of direct marketing. If I recruited general marketers, they would feel out of water here. This is the sharpest or dirtiest end of marketing, so we look for people who already have this experience or are from retail but they are not likely to be general marketers.'

Richard Vickers, managing director of Michael Page Marketing, believes that it is particularly difficult to find companies that are willing to take on marketers from different sectors - such as tranferring to financial services from fmcg - and this is taking its toll on recruitment. '(Employers used to) control the market, but there has been a massive shift and convincing them of that can be tough. They need to broaden briefs and look at competencies not just for now but for down the line. If a candidate ticks seven out of 10 boxes, that's good now,' he says.

So what can companies do to better sell themselves to potential employees in this environment? On a very general level, they simply have to be prepared to market themselves; to promote their attributes, show the strength of their brand and give candidates the opportunity to ask questions of the organisation. With the best candidates invariably having the pick of several job offers, their selection is not just about salaries and benefits, but also factors such as how that company has dealt with them during the recruitment process. Vickers suggests clients should try to imagine themselves as the candidate and treat them as they would like to be treated themselves.

One major sticking point is the recruitment system itself. 'There is currently caution in taking people on,' says Brierley. 'The process has become more involved and many clients are losing candidates as the process takes months and they are getting offers from elsewhere in the meantime. Rigorous assessment is good, but you have to apply some common sense.'

Vickers also advocates swifter decision-making. 'Companies should make decisions in two visits, not drag candidates there five times in five weeks. Ideally, within two weeks they should be offering the candidate the job,' he says.

O'Quinn says Dial-a-Phone's typical interview process - including several interviews with different company personnel as well as IQ, verbal and numerical reasoning tests - will take between six weeks and two months from start to finish, although he admits it can be closer to three months. However, he says that there must be flexibility. 'I don't stick to a rigid time-table - we do what's appropriate. If one candidate stood out really strongly, I'd shortcut things and fast-track the tests. If you see someone who's very strong, you can't wait,' he adds.

Some companies are responding to the dearth of candidates by dedicating more resources to rectifying the problem. Brierley says the bigger blue-chip companies often now have talent managers to handle their resourcing. 'They are using their own marketing abilities to attract people, or they are taking on occupational psychologists and organisation behaviourists. They are thinking laterally,' she says.

It often comes to light that companies are not attractive enough to prospective candidates because of their ethics, environment, quality of work or benefits offered, and sometimes there may be one factor that works against a firm that needs to be addressed. Vickers cites Wrigley as a case in point. While it is a strong brand, its location in Plymouth sometimes deters candidates. So Wrigley and Michael Page worked together to better promote the positive aspects of the company. A mini-site was created on the Michael Page website to raise its profile and show the company's ethos and opportunities.

'Savvy organisations sell career opportunities to attract the best candidates,' says Paul Cushing, managing director of RPCushing Recruitment. 'Making candidates aware of training and development opportunities, fast-track and relocation schemes and letting them know if there is a career ladder that leads to the boardroom are all ways in which they can appeal.'

Benefits remain a crucial selling point, and many recruitment consultants say personal issues such as work/life balance are moving up the agenda. 'Some companies offer perks such as entitlement to flexi-time, subsidised gym membership, private healthcare and pensions. This type of incentive, and what it communicates about the company's stance on looking after its staff, can win candidates over,' says Cushing. 'This extends to the working environment - firms that offer soft perks, such as awaydays and social gatherings, often appear to have a more relaxed company culture. Even the smallest detail, such as placing free fruit bowls around the office, can have an impact on a candidate's impression of what a company is like to work for.'

While there are ways in which companies can adapt to the shifting employee market, there is no doubt that the days when they could rely on their reputation are over - which leaves them needing to put together a list of best-practice guides to follow. But where to start? 'What companies can do is be thorough, open-minded, forward-thinking and invest in resources - and (they must establish) a swift, efficient, critical path for the process,' advises Vickers.

CASE STUDY - FLEXTECH

Flextech employs more than 300 staff and, while broadcast companies usually have candidates queuing at the door, it has felt the squeeze over the past few years as traditional terrestrial broadcasters have sought to draw people from the cable industry to staff their increasing digital offerings.

Flextech decided to take a holistic approach and look at people's perceptions of it as an employer brand. It started by questioning its own employees with an 'Employee Engagement' survey in 2004.

'The company called it "We're listening",' says Niamh O'Connor, head of human resources at Flextech. 'One issue (we looked at) was basic pay. We took the stance that our pay was fair, but we would look at everything else, especially what we call soft benefits.'

Among the initiatives it introduced were a half-day holiday on employees' birthdays and a 'life-skill' bursary that lets staff apply for funding for external courses. 'They have to apply in a creative way - there's a huge range and people love it. We've paid for everything from flying lessons to language courses,' says O'Connor.

She believes this approach has not only made staff happier, but has also resulted in more word-of-mouth recommendations. Senior staff have also carried out more press work to promote Flextech as an employer of choice. 'It's about being a little bit different,' says O'Connor. 'We always knew this would help with recruitment. Our turnover has remained static, which means it's working given the market at the moment. People know more about Flextech now.'

DATA FILE - SELLING MARKETING TO GRADUATES - TOBY THWAITES DIRECTOR, PURPLE CONSULTANCY

1. Have a presence at the key graduate recruitment fairs, career progression fairs and other industry organisation events. While the initial outlay for attending these events is often high, clients should view them as long-term investments, because graduates often revisit early opportunities presented to them.

2. Promote the fact that the marketing discipline provides a defined career path for graduates. While progress to the top may feel slower at times than in other business functions, marketing department structures offer more frequent opportunities for promotion, and graduates can feel themselves 'climbing' the ladder and therefore set achievable goals for themselves.

3. Tell graduates that clients invest more in structured training programmes and are often fortunate enough to be able to target the top graduates at university, over-recruit at graduate level and cherry-pick the best talent at the end of a training period.

4. Highlight the fact that working in marketing provides the opportunity to work with a range of agency-side specialists in different disciplines, leading to a fully integrated view of the industry - invaluable experience in the current economic climate.

5. Focus on benefit packages, which are a huge draw for graduates who, more often than not, begin their working life with heavy student-loan debts. Season-ticket loans, gym memberships and discounts are all attractive propositions.

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