Categorized | Job Hunting

Why M.B.A. Graduates Are Turning to Ad Firms

Posted on 26 April 2009

WPP Group PLC usually receives only eight to 10 applications a year from Harvard Business School grads for its marketing program. This year, 25 submissions came flying in from hopefuls with Harvard B-school degrees.

“There were candidates who wouldn’t have looked at us in other years,” says Brian Brooks, chief of human resources for WPP, the world’s second-largest advertising holding company. “The increase in applications has given us a much higher quality.” WPP’s agencies include Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, and Young & Rubicam.

In what has become a silver lining in a depressing year for the world’s advertising industry, ad companies are enjoying a marked increase in both the quantity and quality of job applications. The gains are attributable to recruitment cutbacks by other slump-bound businesses, such as management consulting and investment banking.

Mr. Brooks, who is based in New York, says WPP has received 60% more applicants this year for its top-level marketing program for people with master of business administration degrees. The MBA hires rotate for as many as three years across two or three different WPP companies, including creative agencies, media-planning groups and marketing firms.

Overall, WPP says, a larger-than-usual percentage of the 208 M.B.A. graduates who applied for work are from higher-ranked business schools and have a better profile in terms of grades, experience and general knowledge.

“They were so good. It was irresistible. Ten people were as good as the top three or four we usually take,” says Mr. Brooks. Four of the five people to whom WPP has offered a job are from Harvard Business School; only one so far has verbally accepted WPP’s offer, but Mr. Brooks says he expects acceptance rates to be higher than in past years.

The trend is evident in individual agencies as well, say executives. DDB BMP, which is part of No. 1 ad holding company Omnicom Group, has received more than 1,000 applications from MBA graduates this year, compared with about 800 in past years, according to Lucy Jameson, deputy planning director. The agency will conduct final interviews in January for four open positions.

Certainly advertising isn’t the only industry receiving more applications from people who, in better economic times, would sprint for higher-paid jobs in financial services or other professions. “Students are casting their nets wider,” says Chris Bristow, director of the career management center at the London Business School. “One of the main reasons is that a lot of banking and consulting firms, which offered the highest salaries, have decreased their recruiting.”

The advertising and marketing industry traditionally has attracted only a tiny percentage of students with MBA degrees. Of the London Business School’s  graduating class, for example, only 1% took jobs in marketing, sales, public relations or advertising — in large part because salaries in those fields lag behind those in the financial sector. The total compensation package at WPP for an M.B.A. student is about $100,000, or about two-thirds of what graduates could make in the financial sector, Mr. Brooks says.

Of course, many advertising companies aren’t hiring fresh blood. WPP’s J. Walter Thompson, for example, has suspended its graduate-recruiting program for this year. Given that J. Walter Thompson is downsizing, such a program could “be giving a mixed message,” says Cathy Little, the agency’s human-resources director.

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