Media agencies aren’t transforming well – but it’s not for lack of trying.
Agency sources agree that in the upper echelons of their businesses, there aren’t many black faces to be seen. Yet the majority of their staff intake is black.
So where are all the bright young things going?
The answer is the same whoever you speak to. Talented (and some not-so-talented) black youngsters join agencies, get trained and then leave for greener pastures at clients (and, to a lesser extent, media owners), where they are snapped up by corporates wanting to improve their transformation profile and who are able to pay fat salaries.
Media agencies generally take in BComm graduates, or those from schools like AAA. The Amasa Learnership Programme (ALP) is a major driver of new recruitment, helping to select, train and place talented graduates at internships with top agencies.
For graduates, especially black graduates, it’s a seller’s market. The MediaShop group managing director, Chris Botha, says: “Our demand for young black staff is insatiable. Every year, every single student coming out of AAA can find a job immediately. We take the best we can get.
“You don’t find many white youngsters coming into the industry anymore. We take on about 12 youngsters a year and if they are black we can claim their salaries as a broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) benefit. So of course we’ll take black candidates every time.”
Agencies are a great place to train. Not only do staff get experience in buying, planning and strategy, they end up working with a variety of clients from sectors as diverse as government, retail, fast moving consumer goods and finance. This is what makes agencies interesting places to work at, say all the agency folk interviewed by The Media. It’s also, somewhat ironically, what makes them good training grounds for well-rounded media people who can then find a better paid sales job in the corporate world.
Prince Ndlovu is a media strategist at Carat and a previous beneficiary of the ALP. He says young black graduates love the idea of a career in media, but “they tend to move on after three or four years to something else. And it’s worth noting that this isn’t just black people. I think media agencies have trouble holding on to young people in general”. He estimates that about 60% to 70% of the initial intake will leave, a statistic that other sources agreed with.
“Once you are working for an agency, you realise that it’s not all fun, which is what you thought when you were studying,” says Ndlovu. “The glamour has gone. What we saw from the outside was just the good stuff; we didn’t realise how hard we would have to work.”
Young blacks are money-driven, he says, and highly sought after, so they can just about name their price.
Not only do corporate clients offer big salary increases, but the possibility of international travel, further education and share options. Botha concedes that this is attractive. “I see sales reps coming in here; they’re in their mid-twenties, driving 3-Series BMWs and have fancy sunglasses on their heads. [Clients] seem like less work and more money. And this appeals to them because this is an instant gratification generation,” he says.
He also says that to juniors, it must seem as if there aren’t many opportunities for advancement at agencies. “We don’t offer enough of a pathway. A trainee starts out as a buyer, then becomes a planner, says Botha. “By the time he’s 24, 25, he’s a media strategist – and then the only other job is my job!”
Ndlovu says, “As a young person, you look at your seniors and think, I could work here 10 years and never get to that level, so I might as well leave and start my own business.”
Those who leap the fence and move into sales may be unintentionally scuppering a future career. Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) deputy MD Celia Collins says the skills that employees learn at agencies are transferable, but they will have to stay on the same level.
“In sales you aren’t exposed to the same multitude of skills as at agencies. When you’re young that’s okay because sales is exciting. But as you get a bit older, you want to take your career somewhere. You have your eye on management, but you lack the holistic views to succeed there.” Clients are finding they have a dearth of brand managers who have even the first clue what to do with their budgets, according to Collins.
SMG group managing director Gordon Patterson agrees. “Irrespective of your colour, it’s not easy on our side of the fence. But you’re building a career and this requires a certain level of investment. It’s tempting to jump to the media owner side, but… you move from providing an essential, sought-after service to becoming expendable. You can be replaced at the drop of a hat.”
Plus, a satisfying career isn’t just about a massive salary. Media agencies provide a highly stimulating work environment, says Ndlovu. “The disadvantage of going to clients is that the work is too formal and too limiting and not broad enough. There is no such thing as thinking out of the box, whatever they might tell you… I like my job because it is challenging and not restrictive. We work in an industry where every day is different; it’s fast-paced and you have to change your way of thinking each and every day.
“That’s something you won’t find in the corporate world.”
There is plenty the industry can do to make itself more attractive to young black talent, says Ndlovu. One is to create a culture that media agency employees can be proud to identify with; make it a brand, almost. “If I moved from Carat to another agency, they’re going to have their own culture there. There’s no industry-wide culture. You get that at creative agencies. They have a very specific culture; you can see they identify as creative by the way they dress!”
Other solutions could include offering advantages outside of money. “Make it interesting and fun. Take us to different places to learn. Most of the big agencies are globally aligned, so why not send us to the foreign head offices? How hard do we have to work for some reward?”
Patterson says that whatever the answer is, it’s not affirmative action. “A few years ago we had an AA audit and we scored quite badly. That’s fine with me. AA is a management approach and gets seen as tokenism. And we cannot have tokenism. Advertising is the cutting edge of free enterprise.”
This industry did fast-track black candidates at one stage, he adds. “They got into positions where they were overstressed and didn’t have the skills. Now the young people we have are pacing themselves, getting the skills they need. In a few years’ time [there will be more black faces in media agency management] and we’ll say ‘Wow! What happened!’”
Botha says it may take years, but the issue will work itself out as supply begins to outstrip demand. “We’re finding at the moment that there’s this enormous need to fill positions with black graduates. But we’re still very much post-apartheid. As more black kids are educated, the corporates will get filled up and they won’t have to steal from us anymore…” n
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