How long does it take to become a Director of Corporate Communications or Agency CEO?

01 Mar 2018

For many PR and Communications professionals, a Director or CEO role makes for a strong magnet of ambition and a worthy goal for accomplishment.

When we looked at how many years’ experience is needed to take on these exciting and challenging positions in corporate communications and financial communications (agencies and in-house), our survey showed that an Agency CEO has an average of 15+ years’ experience, with a Board Director /Partner and a Director /Partner both having 10-15 years of experience. In-house corporate communications and financial communications professionals have similar levels of experience – results showed, for example, that a Communications Director has an average of 10-15 years of experience in the field.

To see the full range of roles in both agencies and in-house organisations, and the number of years’ experience each one comes with, see page 7 of our Annual Salary Guide.

Are the results surprising?

Yes, and no.

There has been a fair amount of over-promotion in recent years to address millennials’ desires for pay rises and upward career mobility. We thought this may have been reflected more in the results of our survey, potentially seeing a decrease in the average number of years’ experience professionals have accrued at each stage of their career, but it appears not. Traditionally, it has taken about 10 years to reach a Director role (or equivalent) in all the time we have undertaken search campaigns in communications (14 years), and this is still the case when you look at these results.

We did expect to see a notable difference at the lower end of the scale, as we know Account Directors with just four years of PR experience and Account Managers with two and half to three. A fast-track Account Director can make the grade in five years, although the survey shows the average is seven years. We do find that professionals’ promotions slow down at this level, and they can remain an Account Director for a good few years to bed in their skills before taking on the challenge of moving up to an Associate Director. Account Directors are commonly known to want to have an in-house role at this point in their career. However, we have noticed over the last few years that this has changed, and it now seems to be desirable to more junior levels such as Account Manager.

Are there big differences between in-house and agency?

We can see that becoming a Director/Partner/member of the board in an agency takes the same amount of time as an in-house corporate communications team, 10-15 years. This hasn’t really changed over the years from what we have seen, and shows that although millennials are moving up the ranks at pace, they aren’t changing the shape of the career ladder…yet.

In-house communications teams are similar with regards to it taking 10 years to get promoted into a Head of role. The notable difference here is gaining a global role; gaining the title of Global Head of Communications can take 20-25 years on average.

The figure we don’t feel makes much sense in our findings is the one for a Director of Communications (10 years on average); in some organisations, this is the top role. However, we have put it down to less data for this level; Global Head of Commmunications is a more commonly used title and we gathered more data around this role. Our experience tells us that a Director of Communications will make the grade in about 15-20 years.

Who has better promotion prospects?

In-house communications teams don’t have as many layers as agencies, where a lot of ‘senior’ titles have been created over the years to help meet promotion expectations. This can make it feel that careers in agencies have more momentum and more promotion opportunities compared to in-house.

Something that did catch our attention was a PR/Communications Manager having an average of 8 years of experience – this seems like a lot, as there are many who start in these roles at five or six years of experience. However, professionals can stay at this level for a long time and frequently move companies only to take on a similar title. Alongside the fewer layers of in-house corporate communications teams, there are frequently fewer opportunities to move up because the teams are far smaller compared to agencies, and so moving to another organisation with the hope of more scope to be promoted is often a means of moving up the career ladder.

To sum up…

Almost all PR and Communications professionals will typically have the desire to move up; at the very least, they will want to grow. After all, it is healthy to want to expand, develop, and advance professionally.

Agency professionals may experience more momentum and promotion prospects, but we can see that it takes about the same time to secure the top job. So no career is better than the other, and many professionals move from one to the other at some point. Having said that, there are agency professionals who wouldn’t dream of moving in-house and vice versa.

What’s important is that PR and Communications professionals create and manage their own career paths, and it is not always an upward path. Sometimes, they may need to make a lateral move to position themselves for a later upward move, edging them that little bit closer to that coveted Director / CEO title.

By operating like they are already in a position higher than they are (without losing sight or attention to current responsibilities), and conveying the confidence and intent to be a great leader, that goal will become all the more attainable – whether it takes the typical 10-15 years to get there or not.

For more information about salaries, bonuses, company benefits and levels of job satisfaction, read The Works Search Annual Salary Guide 2017/18:

If you would like to ensure that you are on track with your career aspirations, do get in touch on 0207 903 9290 or email

Salary Survey 2017 - 2018