Irish advertising industry takes a good look at itself

The top problem identified by agency bosses is ‘time pressure’ where everyone at every level is working longer hours

It’s a young(ish) man’s game, the growth areas are in digital, women are poorly represented in top jobs, and while the industry isn’t exactly pessimistic, it’s not too optimistic either: these are findings from research carried out by the advertising industry into itself.

Called The Census, and conducted by Amárach Research on behalf of the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI), it is the most detailed self-exploration by the Irish advertising industry and the first industry-focused research since 2007.

“It’s a knowledge-based, smart economy -type sector,” said Gerald O’Neill from Amárach, presenting the report. The majority of people working in advertising have a third-level qualification – a significant number have a master’s or other postgraduate qualification – and the average industry age is 35 years. This is reflected on the client side (typically the marketing people that interact with agencies) where the average age is 30-39.

And while full-time jobs are becoming increasingly rare in most media sectors, the report shows that full-time positions are the norm in advertising, with only a tiny percentage of freelances or part-timers, indicating that it’s a profession where solid career progression is still possible.

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Women slightly outweigh men in the industry at a ratio of 51 per cent to 49 per cent, but just 13 per cent of women occupy the more senior positions at chairperson, CEO and managing partner level. As modest as this figure is, when the last survey was taken in 2007 just nine per cent of the top jobs were held by women.

Women tend to bail out of advertising before they are 40 years of age – taking with them years of professional knowledge and talent. It's a problem that has already been identified by IAPI where CEO Tania Banotti – who has revitalised the previously sleepy organisation – has introduced several initiatives such as continuing education programmes, networking events for women and "rant" nights where, particularly, younger male and female advertising executives can air their problems and frustrations.

The growth in job opportunities has been in the digital sphere, particularly in project management, digital production and design, with agencies recruiting graduates from a range of engineering and computer disciplines. The overwhelming majority of these hires are male.

Indeed, what is not shown in the research, but is a pressing problem for agency bosses, is the retention of specialist staff with the likes of Google and Twitter poaching digital-savvy, advertising professionals who typically work in a small agency for a couple of years after graduation before being lured away by the top salaries and undeniable kudos of working for global, big-name players in the digital sphere.

A surprise perhaps is that the employment level – at just under 1,300 – is the same as six years ago, even though in the intervening years there has been industry layoffs and agency mergers. Had the survey been taken three years ago employment levels would definitely have been down, according to one advertising boss, but the past 18 months have seen an uptake in numbers. It’s not quite green shoots but IAPI see it moving in a positive direction.

The industry tends to attract optimists, otherwise at a time of reduced turnover and declining profits, which might explain The Census findings that of the 43 IAPI members surveyed, 60 per cent forecast growth for their own agency in 2013 compared to just 20 per cent predicting an increase for the industry as whole.

O’Neill admits that this disparity in attitudes is a “conundrum” but not uncommon, citing an Amárach survey into the bar trade which found that individual pubs tended to be optimistic for themselves but pessimistic for their sector.

The top problem identified by agency bosses – the IAPI survey was filled out by either the MD or financial controller – is “time pressure” where everyone at every level is working longer hours, and this in an industry where a long hours culture has always been the norm. Eighty per cent said this was the biggest challenge, ahead of cost pressure and pressure on smaller agencies.

Curiously, when the same survey was carried out by European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) it showed that only 34 per cent of respondents considered time pressure to be the biggest problem. So either Irish employers or clients are significantly more demanding – maybe due to the fear that comes with recession – or our European neighbours simply have their work-life balance sorted.

The Census paints a picture of a business in transition and under financial pressure, yet optimistic – a mood simply summed up by Bill Kinlay, CEO at Mindshare Ireland, as "challenging".

bharrison@irishtimes.com

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison is an Irish Times journalist