Understanding the European communications labour market

Emerging trends for European communicators and the managers who hire them

VMA Group has a 37-year history in placing both communications and marketing professionals into career-enhancing positions and strengthening communications functions, for every type of organisation, all across the globe.

The group’s studies and analysis have become resources for benchmarking, as well as in recruitment planning and decision making. Now, for the second time, VMA Group’s European practice (led by executive director, Willem De Ruijter), have recently completed research into the European communications candidates’ market, producing guidance for hiring managers and human resources in the field. The study examined the responses of more than 250 European corporate and marketing communications professionals.

The results were presented at this year’s European Communication Summit in Brussels. We took the opportunity to discuss with Willem the key findings from the Understanding the European Communications Labour Market report, the emerging trends and issues and his thoughts on what this means for both professional communicators and hiring managers in Europe.

Are communications professionals willing to change roles?

Absolutely, 95 per cent of the professional communicators we surveyed stated they were open to new job opportunities. Even though this is a quite high percentage indeed, it did not come as a surprise to VMA Group. From our European offices in Amsterdam, Brussel, Paris and Frankfurt we are in close contact with many communication professionals and the study confirms what surfaces in our conversations with them.

Looking at the results more closely, almost half (43 per cent) of respondents are actively looking for a change in role or step up the career ladder, while a further 52 per cent were shown to be ‘passive candidates’ – those who would be open to switching roles if the right opportunity presented itself, those who have to be actively approached to get them involved in recruitment processes.

This highlights a continued phenomenon (we saw similar numbers in our 2013 Understanding the European Communications Labour Market report) whereby ambitious, skilled communication professionals – thanks also to an increasingly candidate-driven market – are almost always open to new opportunities and to making a move.

This openness is never more apparent than in our day-to-day work and in the conversations we have with our candidates and wider community of communicators; our approaches are always met with interest and where a role might not be quite right for them, they are happy to make recommendations and introductions.

What are the key factors communicators consider when moving jobs?

For our respondents, company culture, development opportunities and management remain the consideration factors deemed most important when changing jobs.

Professional communicators are keen to work in companies where they feel there is a natural ‘fit’; where their values are reflected, their skills recognised and their approach respected. An understanding of a company’s culture is therefore vital for candidates when considering a new role – helping to bring a job description to life, adding colour and context, is where a good recruitment consultant or agency adds real value for both client and candidate.

Acutely aware that communications is a continually-evolving, increasingly complex, 24/7 industry, professional communicators take the upkeep of their skillset very seriously; always seeking opportunities for personal and professional development, keen to enhance their experience and expand their repertoire. Unsurprisingly, development opportunities are then front of mind for them when moving jobs.

‘Find a boss, not a job’ seems a sentiment shared increasingly by our candidates and those who responded to our survey – how they are to be managed and by whom are now key considerations when accepting an offer and changing roles.

What do communicators view as their ideal next career step?

Along with a clear preference to work for an international company (for 87 per cent of our respondents), the majority of those surveyed (70 per cent) stated their ideal next career step would take them to another organisation; with 23 per cent seeking a similar role in a new organisation, but a considerably greater percentage (almost double, at 47 per cent) seeking to take a step up, into a more senior role, in a new organisation. These statistics reflect our daily conversations with communication professionals; the most ambitious and driven of whom are keen to hone and test their skills in new environments.

Which discipline would communicators most like to work in?

With the lines between communication disciplines increasingly blurred – digital media continues, simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, to disrupt the status quo whilst levelling the playing field – there is more of a move towards specialist communicators, generalising. This is reflected by our respondents, 78 per cent of whom would consider a move to a different communications discipline.

Whilst we saw some gender disparity (considerably more women, 43 per cent, than men, 28 per cent, favoured a move into internal communications), external communications was the most popular discipline overall (60 per cent), followed by public relations (52 per cent) and then public affairs (42 per cent). This is not unexpected as many of the other disciplines often report into external communications, as the umbrella communications function.

What are the industries considered most and least popular for current communicators?

Our study found that the energy and water, non-profit and fast-moving consumer goods industries were currently the most appealing to European communications professionals, whilst financial services and wholesale businesses fared worst as the two least popular. We believe this is due to a shared perception, rightly or wrongly, that these industries take greater corporate and social responsibility, are more values-driven and offer a better work/life balance.

As CSR and wellbeing continue to rise up the business agenda so do they on the list of considerations for communications professionals, and never more so than when moving organisations. VMA Group is always careful to counsel against assumptions and considers every organisation and brief, like our candidates, on their own merits, presenting both strengths and weaknesses, the pros and cons. Coercing candidates into unsuitable roles or failing to provide all the facts does not make for positive, long-term relationships with either candidate or client!

Are communicators willing to relocate to a new country?

More than two-thirds of our respondents (72 per cent) said they would be willing to relocate to a new country. This is critical for hiring managers who, in our experience, often only explore recruitment solutions at a national level.

This openness to relocate in conjunction with continued globalisation, the increased need to communicate across geographical boundaries and to understand cultural nuances, means hiring managers should make sure they take advantage of global networks when recruiting communications roles if they are to access the widest talent pool.

Do communicators want management responsibility?

An overwhelming 91 per cent of our respondents want to take on (22 per cent) or maintain (69 per cent) responsibility for managing people. With communications now a firmly established profession, with increasing strategic importance, the opportunity to line manage, lead teams and direct entire divisions is increasingly appealing to an ever ambitious contingent of professional communicators and is now more often than not seen as natural career progression.

Is company size important to today’s communications professionals?

Yes, size does matter. Eighty-one per cent of all respondents indicated they would want to work for a company the same size or larger. Whilst this may appear to present a significant challenge for smaller businesses, particularly those with a domestic reach (our respondents already told us that international organisations were their preference), it is the role of recruitment consultancies, such as ourselves, to identify those candidates who would deem this type of opportunity ideal.

Whilst there are trends, peoples’ situations and motivations vary wildly – one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, after all. There definitely is a group of candidates who for various reasons can be interested in a more general communications role in a smaller company as well.

Are interim roles attractive to professional communicators?

Increasingly, yes. Our report revealed that more than half (52 per cent) of communications professionals surveyed would consider a career in interim management, with 37 per cent of those willing to leave their permanent roles for an interim post. The most popular three reasons in support of interim positions were: taking control of work/life balance, improving remuneration value and building up a portfolio of skills in a shorter timeframe. Certainly for our clients the flexibility of an interim solution can provide a range of benefits, including quick access to a specific skillset, cost-effective consultancy and support and/or a bridge to cover maternity leave or the period when hiring for a permanent position.

How do communicators view the recruitment process and the role of agencies?

As a specialist recruiter, looking to build relationships on a basis of understanding and trust, we were reassured to see that the communications community clearly recognises the added value of being represented, and supported, by a specialist recruitment consultancy. With 68 per cent believing they are better served by a specialist than a generalist and 73 per cent trusting that a good agency puts their interests first and places them where they are best suited.

With an overwhelming 86 per cent stating that ‘a good recruitment process makes a company more attractive to work for’ and 69 per cent agreeing that ‘the reputation of the client is directly affected by the actions of the recruitment agency’, who a company partners with to resource their communications talent is vital to not only securing the brightest and the best in the business but also for sound reputation management.

Final thoughts?

We are seeing a seismic shift in the way communications and marketing professionals are not only operating but in how they are managing their own professional development and career choices, and, in parallel witnessing the dawn of much more internationally-focused recruitment, in what is now a candidate-driven market. The mobility of talent within the sector is growing – and the desire for more experiences is emerging as a top feature for those seeking new roles, whether that is in their home country or further out.

Images: VMA

Willem de Ruijter

An ex-fast moving consumer goods marketing and communications director, Willem de Ruijter has worked in recruitment since 2008 and headed a Netherlands based firm specialising in recruitment and headhunting of communications, marketing and sales professionals. He then moved to VMA Group where he now is executive director Europe. He heads up operations across Europe with offices in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt. Next to his managerial role Willem is actively involved in international recruitment processes and he attends and chairs VMA Group round table discussion events across the region.