Why hiring is more painful than ever for Agencies – but doesn’t have to be

21 Oct 2019

Many of my candidates have ‘grown up’ with me, and this MD is the head of a mid-sized agency, which boasts a fast-growing, energetic team. He was puzzled at how working in this kind of environment could be so seemingly unappealing.

I know he is not the only Agency MD facing this issue so here’s a summary of our meeting. Some of what we discussed might shed some light on why the hiring process has become such a headache for agencies – and how this pain can be resolved.

MD: So, where are all the candidates?

Sarah: The hard truth is that agencies have fallen out of favour. It’s been getting progressively worse each year. Our recent salary survey of Corporate Comms professionals showed that 70% want to move in-house in their next move, and only 14% want to move to an agency. (The remainder want to freelance or leave the industry.) So you can see what you are up against. 14% is a small pool of people, down from 17% the previous year, so the attraction is decreasing each year. We can feel it when we headhunt too – we can make 10 calls to Associate Directors and one may be interested in an agency move, and even then that one person will probably want the opposite to what they currently have – a role in a small agency if they are currently in a large one, and vice versa.

MD: So our competition isn’t other agencies, it’s in-house. That makes sense.

Sarah: Yes, we all know that Account Directors and people more senior are often interested in moving in-house, however, what has happened in the last few years is that it’s spread to more junior levels too. Account Managers and Executives will now happily move to an in-house team in a big corporate as they think the grass is greener on the other side. These Millennials want it all – and they want it now!

MD: So do Comms people apply in response to adverts at all?

Sarah: Adverts rarely work, sadly – they stopped working well years ago, as the good (employed) Comms people just don’t look for jobs that way. Advertising is more likely to work if you are a big, shiny brand rather than a medium-sized agency. Only 20% of Comms professionals are ‘actively looking’ at any one time, and if they are looking at adverts, then only 14% of them will consider an agency. In other words, you will be lucky to get one CV! We fill about one role a year from someone who has applied to an advert we have placed.

MD: Right. How are you going to solve my problem?

Sarah: That’s simple! Your other recruitment agencies have been relying on adverts; we headhunt and ask people in our network for referrals. This proactive approach means we find people, although it takes a huge amount of focus and work. That’s why we ask to work on an exclusive basis. If you want us to guarantee results, we want to know we are going to be paid the effort.

MD: So what’s important to an Associate Director? How can I get them interested?

Sarah: Career progression is key at this level, as they are looking to become a Director. They are very interested in the level of responsibility, who they are learning from, and an ‘adult culture’ – what I mean by this is being able to work remotely, with flexibility around start and finish time.

MD: What you are telling me is that our approach to recruitment may need to change?

Sarah: Yes, if you commit to working with just us, then we will commit to filling your role. And we do. We have filled 93% of our sole agency roles this year and 100% of our
retained roles. We welcome the hard-to-fill roles too as we like a challenge.

For more advice on hiring, or if you think we can help you with a search for a high performing communications professional for your organisation, please get in touch with Sarah Leembruggen on 020 7903 9291 or email

Salary Survey 2018 - 2019