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Have the PR industry’s ‘wise owls’ all fled the nest?

17 Feb 2016 by Sarah Leembruggen.

When I was asked by PR Week to share my thoughts on the Fleishman Hillard Fishburn findings, and whether I believed ageism might be at play, the first thing that struck me was the number of agencies the research was based on – frankly, a tiny pool of the industry, and most likely not a true reflection of the majority.

As a specialist in executive search, I know that there’s a plentiful supply of senior talent across PR and Comms. I meet them all the time!  However there are a number of things to take into consideration before we can truly proclaim that the 50- and 60-somethings are regarded as too expensive and/or set in their ways and not a good fit for the fast-paced demands of the PR field. 

Here’s why I am not really convinced of this so-called ‘dearth’ of senior level talent:

People choose to switch professions

You typically have three careers in your life, so it's natural for PR professionals to move on at a certain point – hitting 40 is often a trigger to re-evaluate the career path; for some women returning to work after taking time off to have children, there’s a desire to shift to more flexible working. When it comes to a flexible working culture, the PR industry, as a professional services profession, falls short.  Agencies struggle to keep up with other professional services businesses such as management consultancies so it is no surprise that the industry will lose some of its best talent. However, this does by no means suggest that there are no brains at a senior level. Far from it. There are plenty of partners or MDs over the age of 50 in the industry.  The corporate and financial agencies are positively brimming with well-respected ‘wise owls’.  

The ‘grass is greener’ syndrome tends to strike

90% of the senior people we speak to want to move in-house in the belief that there’s a bigger and better opportunity for them ‘on the other side’.  With such a strong desire to move in-house, it’s only natural that agencies will lose a certain proportion of their senior talent. 

There are slim pickings at the top

Agency Partners, MDs and CEOs don't tend to move roles frequently.  This can prove to be a challenge in the industry, with many staying in their roles for 10 years or more.  Since the majority of PR businesses are structured so that there are fewer people at the top, there will typically be fewer opportunities for those looking to move up in the ranks.

There’s a place in the industry for both young and old

While PR has always been known as a ‘young’ industry, attracting fresh, bright talent (it’s a top three choice for graduates) with long hours and a heavy social schedule, there are plenty who have weathered the storm and reached the big 5-0 and the heady ranks of an Agency Partner or MD or CEO.  There is no replacement for someone with years of experience (and a few ‘war wounds’ to show for it) running an agency. They are just as passionate and driven as they were when they first started out, and they wouldn't dream of doing anything else – agency life is in their blood and they love it.

When all is said and done, wisdom comes from experience.  There are no shortcuts.  The ‘wise owls’ of PR are staying well and truly in their nests.

The Works Search specialise in placing mid to senior level PR and communications talent in leading PR agencies and in-house organisations across London, on both a contingency and executive search basis. For our latest roles visit our jobs page, or contact the team on 0207 559 6690 to discuss your career in confidence.

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