Online Ad Agencies Face Shortage of Workers

Digital ad firms are on a hiring binge as more money migrates towards Web advertising. But they're having trouble finding workers with the right mix of creative and technical skills.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Mondays we focus on technology; today job opportunities. The Internet is sweeping away jobs in old media, such as newspapers, even as it is creating jobs in new media, such as digital advertising. As companies pour more ad money into the Web, digital agencies are rushing to hire more people to meet the demand. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Traditional ad agencies have shed tens of thousands of workers in recent years. But digital firms, which produce advertising online, are filled with fresh faces these days.

Unidentified Man #1: I've been here about two months now.

Unidentified Man #2: I've been here for about three weeks, about four weeks.

LANGFITT: Those are the voices of recent recruits to the digital firms R/GA and Avenue A Razorfish. Since 2002, ad spending on the Web has more than doubled, to over $16 billion. Last year, Avenue A Razorfish added 450 people. Scott Rogers arrived four weeks ago. He's the company's interactive creative director in New York. One of his jobs? Find more people.

Mr. SCOTT ROGERS (Interactive Creative Director, Avenue A Razorfish): The work is coming fast and furious. Basically as soon as I can find the talent I will hire them.

LANGFITT: Companies are looking for people who can translate traditional skills, like magazine layout, to new technology, like flash animation, blogs and streaming video. Ultimately, they need to know how to use the Internet to engage consumers. Rogers has lots of digital experience, but he still uses Post-Its to keep track of open jobs and applicants.

Mr. ROGERS: Well, I've got here - one, two, three, four, five - I've got about a dozen blue Post-Its, and that means those are all positions that are - I'm looking for. And I only have, unfortunately, about five or six yellow Post-Its, which are the people that I've hired.

LANGFITT: But what is digital advertising anyway? I walked several blocks across midtown to the digital firm R/GA and asked Chris Keiger(ph). She runs the company's visual design section. Keiger shows me a Web site the company built for Nike. It allows customers to design their own shoes. This is from a video promoting the service.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #3: Nike iD puts the customer in control.

LANGFITT: A photo of a shoe appears on screen. Clicking through menus, Keiger helps me choose the size, style and color.

Ms. CHRIS KEIGER (R/GA): The basic color you've got, it looks like a black, a silver, a light chocolate or a varsity red.

LANGFITT: With each click of the mouse, another part of the shoe changes color.

This is almost too many choices for me.

Ms. KEIGER: It is, it is.

LANGFITT: Okay. I'm not the target audience for this sort of Web site, but its advantages are clear: it engages the consumer, caters to personal choice, and literally sells the product. Companies now need to find more people who can create ads like this.

Scott Rogers at Avenue A Razorfish says one reason there's a shortage is that so many fled digital advertising after the dotcom crash.

Mr. ROGERS: The bubble burst in 2000 and we lost about five or six years there of kids coming out of school and not being trained underneath other more senior people in industry and learning.

LANGFITT: Now some people are leaving traditional firms for digital ones. Advertising veteran Taras Wayner came to R/GA a few weeks ago.

Mr. TARAS WAYNER (Advertising Veteran): I was scared. I'm reaching 40. So I thought to myself, okay, how do I reinvent this? How do I take what I'm doing, move into a space that I know is growing, and survive?

LANGFITT: And maybe make better money. Limited supply is pushing up digital salaries. A top creative director in New York or L.A. can make from $275-350,000 a year. But it's not easy. As technology keeps changing, workers admit...

Mr. WAYNE FUJITA(ph) (Avenue A Razorfish): It is difficult to keep up.

LANGFITT: That's Wayne Fujita, a new associate creative director at Avenue A Razorfish.

Mr. FUJITA: I mean you have a lot of young designers and creators that come and they know, you know, far more technology than you. If you're young, you're able to morph with the time. At a certain point, you know, I'll probably want to get out of this business, because it's too crazy.

LANGFITT: But as digital advertising continues to expand, the opportunities will keep growing. Right now, Avenue A Razorfish is looking for another 150 people.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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