The Search for Talent

Recruitment in the promotional media sector can be a merrygo-round of businesses chasing a finite number of candidates. Stuart Derrick asks how the industry can break out of the cycle.

New year, new career. As the old saying goes, January is traditionally the time when the minds of individual staff consider pastures new, and businesses assess their own staffing requirements. However, the issue of recruitment in the promotional merchandise industry is not straightforward.

Britain might have talent, but it’s sometimes hard to locate it in our sector. As one BPMA member put it: “The challenge is we are all fishing from the same pool. In reality, we should know who the good and strong people are.”

Understandably, this leads to difficulties in finding the right people for growing businesses. Sarah Penn, chief executive officer of Outstanding Branding says it has tried all sorts of methods to attract and recruit staff.

“It’s always a challenge, not least because we seem to be criticised for anything we do,” she says. “Agencies, head hunters, advertising, email shots, PR-ing the company to attract candidates, approaching via LinkedIn – we have been criticised for all of these by other people within the industry.”

Penn says she was even ‘named and shamed’ by the boss of one candidate she approached via LinkedIn after receiving a tip that they were looking for a new role. This, despite the fact that the boss had headhunted one of her staff a few years earlier. Another irate commentator slammed her as unethical, perhaps forgetting that they had made a similar approach to an OB staffer six months earlier.

A more grown up attitude is called for. “I think employers should be aware that they don’t own their staff and that people will always choose to move on,” she says. “While it can be frustrating and even upsetting, if someone is no longer happy they are better off moving on.”

The discontent that Penn’s tale shows, underlines some of the image problems the industry has when it comes to attracting a wider field of talent. Much as we love it, the sector has a bit of a patchy record in this respect. Part of the problem, says BPMA director general Gordon Glenister, is the fact that there is no single career path in merchandise. People tend to find their ways into it from a variety of different routes.

While other segments of the marketing and advertising world are perceived as glamourous and desirable, promotional merchandise can be a bit of a poor relation. Worse still, some people don’t even know that it exists.

The challenge of attracting staff is compounded by other factors. Merchandise is a bit of a cottage industry where word of mouth is important. If you are not part of the network, it makes it hard to hear about opportunities. Companies can be very small, limiting the opportunities for career advancement. Many are family concerns, which again limits possibilities. Salaries may not be as competitive as other sectors.

However, let’s not be too down on merchandise. There are many pluses to working in the industry. It is dynamic and entrepreneurial. Staff can find themselves getting heavily involved in many different aspects of the business, and dealing with major global brands. It is also meritocratic and gives some who have a knack for it the chance to advance rapidly.

And let’s not forget that it is a people industry that is lots of fun.

However, the talent issue is part of a wider debate that the industry needs to have about how it presents itself to the wider world. If it wants to be seen as professional and forward facing, as the BPMA’s education and quality initiatives demonstrate, then maybe there is a need for new blood.

Glenister wonders if the net be cast wider when it comes to recruitment. “Should the BPMA be looking to present the opportunities in the industry at graduate milk rounds, for example?” he asks.

Graduates do end up in the industry although there is a feeling from some that a degree is less important than a willingness to learn quickly on the job.

Outstanding Branding is proud to have created its own graduate training scheme to take graduates with raw sales talent and train them into the industry, says Penn. “The BPMA TPM training course forms a core part of this, but we also have incorporated bespoke sales training, product training, supplier visits and so far, the results have surpassed our expectations.”

Phil Morgan, CEO of SPS has looked to engage staff at an earlier stage in their careers. “We hire apprentices for various office and factory roles and we will continue to do more of this in 2017 due to the introduction of the apprenticeship levy,” he says.

SPS has also taken a diverse approach when it comes to finding staff, including using general recruitment agencies, print media, the BPMA job board, and even radio.

Like others who spoke to PM, Morgan thought that the packages on offer were not prejudicing candidates against the sector. “For sales roles, we offer a very competitive package to find the right person. We target all our sales people and offer bonuses and commission based on over achievement.”

Others offer an open-ended bonus structure with huge opportunities to earn. “All of our sales people are targeted against GP targets, this ensures we are maintaining margins and earning enough to invest in the business. Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity,” said one director.

With rising costs of recruitment efforts, and the fact that the results were not always great, Penn says the industry needs to be more strategic, and that the BPMA could play a big role. One help would be creating a full training course to help candidates from outside the industry to transfer into it quickly and efficiently.

“I’m sure many employers would happily pay to be able to take an experienced sales person and give them the knowledge and tools to hit the ground running, rather than trying to attract industry people, which results in over-inflated basic salary expectations,” she says.

If the merchandise industry is to attract the kind of people it needs to grow and fulfil its potential, these are issues it will need to tackle.

Inspiring interns into the industry

Graduate recruitment agency Inspiring Interns is offering BPMA members a 15% discount on all its fees. The company specialises in helping businesses find the right graduates for full-time jobs and internships.

The agency will take a brief from clients and within 48 hours can hand-select a shortlist of candidates with video CVs that allow businesses to get a better overview of the candidate before deciding on an interview.

Candidates are available in several relevant areas, including analytics, marketing, sales and project management. For more information, go to

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