“Over the years I have met a lot of unhappy people who were doing the jobs that their parents and teachers always wanted them to do. I’m sure there are lots of people out there heading for careers in teaching, management consultancy, law, or indeed anything and everything else, who would actually have a lot more fun in the marketing communications business if they knew what it had to offer”.

Jon Steel, Director of the WPP Fellowship.

The advertising industry needs to be rebranded to survive, I want this to happen because I want to work with the best people out there.

I have written an article laying out my views, it is written for the agency heads and/or young suits upon whom recruitment may be dumped – those with the power to make changes.

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Alternatively, here is a plain text version.



                                                                                                            By Franky Athill

 In short, I suggest that the advertising industry attempt to change the criteria upon which young people base career decisions. Currently what students look for is tautologically determined by what the big recruiters offer. Career prestige is determined by earning potential rather than quality of life. This is a problem: an advertising agency’s people are its only asset, but the very best are going elsewhere. To begin repositioning the industry within the recruitment market I have created AdSoc: the student Advertising and Marketing Society.


In which I tell you what I’m talking about, admit to assumptions and claim that bankers were probably creative enough before they were bankers.

I’m writing this because I thought it might be interesting for those of you within the advertising industry to get an insight into how you fare in relation to other potential employers in today’s recruitment market. I invite you to consider the advertising industry as a brand, competing against other industries for the top talent in each graduating year. Before I go on, I would like to run over a number of assumptions that I am making. The first is that people in the advertising industry would like to recruit the best graduates to work for them. The second is that the best graduates are not applying for jobs in advertising, and the last is that it is important for advertising to be respected among other industries because of the impressive people that make it up.

Of course, the criteria that determine the top talents are subjective and each industry does look for something slightly different. However, I believe that the difference between what various recruiters are looking for is often exaggerated. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, which impact on the effectiveness with which they can carry out different tasks. This I do not contend.  However, advertising is not a single task, nor a manufacturing line. Given the diversity of the job there is no one skill set, or way of thinking, that leads to success in any one role. In communicating to a whole world of cultures it helps to have a world of personalities making the adverts. As soon as a ‘type’ is introduced, you have taken the first step towards adverts that look like adverts, in a homogeneous and ineffective pool of creativity. Pools are great to swim in but you need an ocean if you want to get anywhere exciting. The dominant recruiting industries are much more like production lines, working well with uniform employees of a particular skill set. Currently, I think that many advertising industry applicants exist out of a failure to fit into any of these moulds, which specify a rational, mathematical mind that they are not confident that they can develop. Instead, they claim – by default of not being what big corporations are looking for, to be ‘creative’.

I urge you to forget streamlining young potential into a ‘diagonally thinking Ad Man’ model and aim for the most diverse, hardworking and brightest people. If you can interest them in working for you, they will show whichever skills they find they need. Much of the stereotyping that does exist is self-fulfilling. Of course, hardworking, pioneering bankers are not creative now – they are bankers! Before they were bankers they were just top students, who, if they had been attracted to the merits of the advertising industry, could have been hardworking, pioneering advertisers.

A young mind is far more adaptable than recruiters give credit for. When they first consider career paths, students don’t know anything about each option. Within a few months, according to their cover letter, the student’s entire personality has transformed into a showcase for the qualities the recruiter demands. I believe that many of you are good at advertising because you chose advertising, and you chose advertising because some culturally determined incentives attracted you to it. Although it doesn’t feel like it now, you probably could have worked in any industry and you would have subconsciously moulded your interests, personality and proficiencies around whatever you had chosen. You become what you want to be. This is a complete reversal of the rationale employed by recruiters today. According to this, students make overarching evaluations of some inherent attributes, assess their correlation to those found in each industry, and finally decide which career path to take.

Recruitment as PR

Your people are all you have; convincing clients you have the best takes more than stating it in your brochure.

Given that the advertising industry has no tangible assets, the chosen rhetoric on agency ‘about us’ blurbs seems to be ‘what makes us special is our people’. However, with other industries dominating the recruitment market I wonder how well this stands up in the eyes potential applicants, or for that matter, potential clients. If you are to make this claim you need to justify it by appearing to recruit the people regarded as most impressive by those that judge you. I imagine that for those within the industry, it must appear to be one of the most sought after professions. By definition, you have all been through the competitive application process, worked hard for little pay at the bottom of the food chain and now hear about overflowing grad schemes. However, your clients have not shared this experience, and it is to them that the advertising industry must appear to consist of the hardest working, brightest minds. “How can you claim your people are so special when none of my impressive contemporaries even considered a career in advertising”, thinks the CEO of 2020. To solve this, the industry needs to be a highly desirable one for all top graduates, even if they don’t end up in it, and the recruitment procedure needs to be shown off to clients.

How students see advertising compared to other careers

In which we see advertising overshadowed by big bullies with deep pockets.

Three times as many people now go to university than in 1980. Last year around 335,000 students graduated, half of whom obtained a 2:11. With so many getting degrees and very little to differentiate between them in determining employment potential, the way in which students from top universities approach the job market has changed very quickly. Before, people felt that they could try out a few jobs before committing a large part of their life to a business. A degree gave you the confidence to try out different industries and take on an adventure, but this is no longer the case. People feel compelled to start building tailored CVs from age fifteen; summer holidays are more about building core competencies than sandcastles. For many nineteen-year-old undergraduates, an internship in their second year summer vacation appears to determine the course of their life.

In a reflection of the pre ‘rise of the brand’ corporate landscape, companies with big recruitment budgets fight for attention by buying mailing lists, hosting drinks events and splattering their logo across the student culture2. These corporations are abusing their monopoly on information about career options to dictate what students should be looking for in a job. They offer ‘competitive remuneration’, tough recruitment procedures and international prestige.  The assumption is that an opening is competitive, offers a high salary and forces you travel away from your family, it is a desirable job. Advertising does not pay a high salary; it receives relatively few of the top applicants and is generally domestic. Advertising recruitment is ironically suffering from a bad case of marketing myopia3. It is striving to sell its tangible assets in competition with much more imposing products; instead, it should brand itself out of the salary competition.


How will advertising compete?

In which we remember that image is everything.

The solution is to change the frame of reference within which students evaluate career options altogether. To show them that making the right choice in such a life-changing decision is not just about money but autonomy, purpose and mastery (a point made fantastically in a speech by Dan Pink at the RSA)3. We need to add to the list of criteria that students look for in their target job, so that it better reflects what advertising can offer. Going to work in jeans and a t-shirt does not cut it, we must show young people the significance of a true balance between work and non-work as well as the impact that a happy working atmosphere can have. We must change graduates’ priorities from earning as much as they can, to enjoying as much as they can. I consider it a great time to make this challenge on the recruitment paradigm thanks to the financial crisis, which has brought about collective condemnation of the ‘greedy banker’ and questioned the fashion for expensive tastes. It has opened the door for alternative suggestions:  it’s an opportunity for priorities to change; for advertisers to use their expertise to build their industry’s brand, rather than continue to settle for a minuscule market share.

I know that many agency recruitment schemes are oversubscribed. This is likely to make it difficult for those of you within the industry to see what you are missing out on, and hence why you need to invest in recruitment at all. Crucially, the aim is not to increase the net application turnover, but to receive less bad ones, more good ones and also one or two game changing ones. The change I propose would lead to fewer poor applications because it will filter those that don’t back themselves to challenge the best. Game-changing applicants are those with the potential to be our future Prime Ministers, billionaire entrepreneurs, celebrated writers and business moguls. There are hundreds of these people graduating every year. While just one or two will go on to fulfil these aspirations, most will fail, choosing instead to contribute to the success of the financial services. In changing the recruitment paradigm, I aim for more of these extraordinary people to fail to fulfil their potential because they chose to contribute to the success of the advertising industry.


Specific changes to the recruitment procedure

In which I suggest some specific actions that might help.

In order to change the criteria upon which young people choose their career paths, I suggest a number of specific changes to the recruitment procedure. Many junior agency employees, upon whom recruitment if often dumped, think their own application form questions are totally arbitrary. In fact, I would say that they are not just arbitrary but damaging to the brand. One of the most common remarks when people discuss job applications is how much they resent employers that ask ‘which chocolate bar you would be’ or ‘what is the most important number’.

It is important to face up to the fact that there will always be a salary comparison between employers, and advertising won’t win. I would, however, suggest learning from the government policy on teacher recruitment and raise the entry-level salary; making up for the shortfall by delaying pay rises a little. This is because, as we know from our Behavioural Economics, people don’t act on long-term rewards and would be disproportionately excited by an extra three grand at age 22. I would also make it clear that promotion is meritocratic and that there are no institutionalised barriers to career progression – giving examples of people like Andrew Robertson who made it to the top quickly. This will resonate with the most desirable applicants, helping them to overcome the choice made so simple by temptingly high salaries elsewhere.


What have I done so far to make this happen?

Setting up the student Advertising and Marketing Society.

A year ago, I saw that the recruitment circuit here at Oxford University was heavily dominated by a small number of industries. These few firms were teaching students that what was on offer, was what they were looking for. Industries that weren’t strongly represented by recruitment budgets were drastically misconceived. The greatest misconception about advertising was that it is a very narrow industry, basically consisting of creatives making TV ads. Very few students who I talked to understood the breadth of personality and expertise that are involved. I decided to set up a student body that would encourage people who are unsure what they want to do to consider all of the options, via a broader set of criteria than generally used. It would also support those interested in advertising interesting through their application process.

I was joined by Michael Quirke and we juggled together ideas about how an Oxford Advertising and Marketing Society – Oxford AdSoc – should work. The events and online content we were to deliver would always be tailored to encourage students to consider not only money and kudos, but also stimulating work cultures, a healthy work-life balance and a sense of autonomy in the job that they do. To communicate the value of these extrinsic criteria, the content we were to offer would remain broad, relatively simple, and be delivered in a more entertaining way than the other career-led speaker events.

Michael designed the first draft website and I talked to the Careers Service to gather some industry contacts. I got a £200 grant from the university and negotiated a 10% discount with StuPrint for anyone who entered ‘oxadsoc’ when ordering promotional printing. This code now saves student enterprises thousands of pounds a year and gets our society’s name out to every marketing team. Our first speaker event ‘An Introduction to advertising from Fallon’ was a great success, with three times the average turnout of equivalent career events. Having seen this demand, we decided to expand AdSoc over the summer.

Having seen many student societies flourish only to fizzle out when a weak committee take over, my priority was to find long term support from within the industry. I approached the IPA who agreed to supply four speakers a year, online content and a little funding to help us promote them. We put together an 8-seat committee and set about expanding our membership. Being run by students encourages entrepreneurship among those with a passion for the industry and is an effective solution to a number of challenges we were faced with. Students are best placed to attract other students and are keen to work for experience while their loans keep the food on the table.

We have since held many speaker events including Miles Young, Global CEO of Ogilvy and Mather, Paul Walton the founder of The Value Engineers, Dorothy Mackenzie the CEO of Dragon Rouge and representatives from P&G, We Are Social, Fallon and Dare. A personal highlight was hosting Rory Sutherland to speak in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union. We currently have 278 registered members, lots of fans on facebook and have had thousands of visitors to our website. We have also set up a student advertising agency called QUAD. For each of the 100 or so student run events held in Oxford each year, the student marketing team has to start from the drawing board. As a result, the job is done pretty poorly and turnouts to the events are disappointing for those that work hard to put them on. QUAD solves this problem by permitting the exchange of marketing know-how between students keen for some hands on experience. Any AdSoc member can turn up to a weekly meeting and work for the agency. We have created the advertising for 5 student ventures this term as well as a local Brewery. We charge a very small fee which goes towards food and drink for whoever works on the account that week.


Looking forward

AdSoc expansion and collaboration with you in the industry

 Having seen it work once I am looking to expand AdSoc to other Universities this summer, before joining an agency myself. I believe that the situation seen in Oxford a year ago is typical of most universities, as well as for the thousands of graduates trying to get into the industry. They would be largely independent societies, each with their own committee and events. However, the funding and contacts would be centralised, with the well-financed societies providing the seed funding for the new ones. They would each have their own page on the central website (, sharing a blog, videos and forum but with independent tab bars and directories of members.

As the hardest bits will be done for them – the website made, sponsorship found and industry contacts established, I am confident that the network will grow very quickly. I have found representatives at Nottingham, Bristol and Aston Universities, and am hoping to find many more once I finish my finals. Once this is done, we will have a fantastic network to host a national advertising competition similar to the National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC)4 in the USA. This will be a chance for good graduates to shine and for advertising agencies to deal with the excess applications they receive; without any arbitrary questions.




2. e.g. The Capitox Poker Night, free PwC branded heart shaped balloons on Valentines Day, Ernst and Young sponsorship of St Catz Ball ( etc

3. Dan Pink, Talk at the RSA ‘Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us’

4. National Student Advertising Competition