From brief encounters to long-term partnerships, in the search for marketing talent the ability to move quickly is essential
The ‘war for talent’ has become one of the most enduring clichés of modern business. It’s entirely understandable. Companies are, after all, only as good as their staff – so who can blame them for indulging in a battle royal to entice the most capable professionals to their organisations? Evidence suggests that, sixteen years after McKinsey first coined the term, the ‘war for talent’ is not only still being fought, it’s actually hotting up. Across the board, despite sustained high levels of unemployment, many UK companies are struggling to identify top quality candidates. A 2013 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) revealed that six in ten organisations encountered problems filling roles in the past twelve months, and that managerial and specialist positions had proved particularly challenging. If Britain’s got talent, it’s difficult to attract, and everyone wants a piece of it.
But the ‘war for talent’ still smacks of overstatement. In a labour market that appears to be moving away from permanency and lurching towards short and fixed-term contracts, the relentless pursuit of talent is less of an ongoing war, and more a series of short-term skirmishes. It’s generally a reactive response rather than a strategic mission and is as intermittent as it is needs-based.
This is certainly the case in the competitive UK medical communications sector, where the episodic, project-based nature of work has led to a job market in regular flux. It’s a highly specialist environment, but one where key competencies are being extended beyond clinical knowledge and medical writing expertise. The increased digitisation of medical communications is driving the need for the sector to bring in new skill sets, some of which may be found outside health.
Med comms evolution
The vast majority of medical communications recruitment is agency-side. The pharma industry has for a long time outsourced much of its creative communications to specialist and full-service marketing services companies – and in turn, the med comms agencies themselves have grappled with the challenge of bolstering their talent pools accordingly. But in an evolving marketplace, the nature of med comms projects has naturally changed. There is not only an increased appetite for digital communications, but as health economics and outcomes research has grown in importance, there’s been much blurring of the lines between marketing and market access positions.
Unsurprisingly, the economy has also been a key driver – though not necessarily in the way many might expect. Med comms recruitment has remained relatively buoyant, though in response to widespread industry reorganisation, agencies have needed to be characteristically creative in their resourcing. For example, when the highly-paid account director has left an agency, it has not been uncommon for him to be replaced by an account manager on a significantly reduced salary.
One of the biggest trends has been the move towards more brand-focused, short-term contract work – a natural symptom of the pharma industry’s current operating model. “A marked reduction in the number of drugs in pharma’s product pipeline has led to an increase in the number of people being hired on a project basis,” says Sam Small, founder of Samsmall Recruitment. “There is now much more hiring on temp-to-perm, freelance or fixed-term contracts. For example, companies are increasingly recruiting people to manage a launch – and ensuring that everything is bedded in before they consider taking that person on permanently.”
Given the volatile nature of project work, it’s an understandable approach for agencies as they seek to ensure they have operational flexibility. But the ‘real world audition’ of a temp-to-permanent contract can often dissuade the most talented candidates from applying – and push them straight into the arms of a competitor that can offer the security of a full-time position.
In the global search for elusive talent, the ability to move quickly is another essential. “Speed of response is a major challenge,” says James Mawby, team leader at Zenopa. “The very best account directors and managers don’t hang around on the market for long – so you need to be ready. Agility is key. Sometimes larger organisations are much more process-driven, and so they miss out on top quality candidates because they are too slow. Smaller agencies can often get people to interview much more quickly, and are able to adapt their offerings to entice the very best.”
On the face of it, the recruitment model itself appears to have changed too. The vast preponderance of online jobs boards has given recruiters access to greater volumes of candidates. But med comms is not a volume game, and neither is the search for top talent. It’s specialist, it’s focused and, in some cases, it’s needle-in-a-haystack time. It requires expertise.
Likewise, the growth of social media has meant that hiring companies are increasingly using tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter to recruit directly. In the short-term, this reduces hiring costs. But in the longer-term, such a narrow approach can lead to recruitment disasters that have much more expensive commercial repercussions. “It’s far more effective to work with a specialist recruitment agency to find the very best people,” says Paul McGuire, managing director at Meet. “Healthcare is a hugely dynamic sector, but like most high-value markets, a lack of quality candidates has long been a common trait. It therefore pays to work with a trusted partner that understands the environment and has access to – and relationships with – a targeted and experienced candidate network that can best suit your needs.”
Long-term partners and brief encounters
The smartest recruitment agencies will aim to nurture a long-term relationship with their candidates – enabling a mutual understanding of career goals, experience and skill-sets, as well as the important real-world logistics of location, salary and employment terms. But building a long-term relationship with a client is equally important. “Cultural fit is a key part of recruitment. In executive search, our role is to match the best candidate with the right employer – and to do that, it’s vital to secure a good understanding of the client’s culture, strategic ambitions and the kind of people that thrive in their environment,” says Sam Small. “Reputation is everything. If you’re known for being a good place to work, you’re much more likely to attract the best talent around.”
The employers of choice are likely to be those that have invested in ‘talent planning’ and taken a more creative approach to attracting the best. This manifests itself in the ‘company offer’ – the value proposition for employees of choice. And this goes way beyond salary. Proactive companies are beginning to put a greater emphasis on career development and succession planning – incrementally employing more junior executives and investing in their professional development. Equally, many have recognised the importance of work/life balance and are adopting more flexible terms to reflect real life demands and the rapid onset of the mobile workforce. The impact on corporate reputation – and in turn the ability to attract the best – is significant.
But even with these improvements, to win the war for talent, hiring companies may need to become more open with their recruitment partners. This may begin with taking a more selective approach to recruitment – and identifying only a small handful of trusted recruitment agencies for any given role, rather than taking the volume-based approach. And beyond this, med comms agencies may benefit from taking a more detailed approach to developing and issuing briefs. “The best way to attract a good candidate is to write a very good brief,” says James Mawby. “And the best briefs will most likely be the ones that are written by the hiring manager, or the line manager that truly knows the job and its environment. Sometimes, briefs can be developed by people who have little understanding of the role and its objectives. These are often written in business-speak and make no sense to the candidate reading it. Briefs need to be written in real-world language – and should reflect the aims and vision of the hiring company. When they do, it makes the job of identifying the best candidates that little bit easier.”
In a fast-paced environment where the trend towards fixed-term contracts is driving fluidity and sporadic activity in the job market, specialist recruitment agencies remain med comms agencies’ best hopes of winning in the skirmish for talent. “Right now, the relationships that recruitment agencies have with their candidates is of paramount importance,” says Paul McGuire. “The best agencies know their marketplace inside out and will have the specialist knowledge – and a detailed candidate-base – to match the right person with the right employer. What’s more, they’ll have the resources, knowhow and infrastructure to manage candidates through a potentially onerous process on behalf of their client. This not only brings efficiency and reduces cost, but if it means that a business has recruited real talent, it’s added tremendous value.”
In reality, employers’ growing recognition that they must adapt their employment offers to entice the most talented employees suggest that the so-called war for talent may be coming to an end. As one recruitment commentator recently observed, talent has won. The question is, in an evolving market, is your organisation doing all it can to attract it?
Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare