· Features

Graduates must look beyond the glossy brochure

With little or no marketing budget to attract graduates SMEs must be focused and innovative.

Ours is the fourth-largest independent accountancy firm in Scotland. It has 220 staff in offices located in the four major cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen and recruits around 10 graduates every year. It has expanded rapidly over the past few years, and we recruit accountancy graduates who want to play a part in our continued growth. We want those who are prepared to scratch below the surface of the glossy brochures and the slick presentations in five-star hotels offered by our multinational rivals. We want graduates who are looking for a firm that will allow them to make an impact early on in their careers, and will treat them as an individual.

It is true that with marketing resources and budgets more limited in firms of our size, there is a much lower level of awareness among graduates of what small to medium-sized (SME) firms have to offer. The main challenge facing a smaller employer is therefore the need to adopt a more-focused approach, and look for innovative ways to get their message across and raise awareness of their brand.

A good understanding of the graduate market is an essential starting point, and, as a member of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), I have access to the latest research and can make use of the wide network of members. Many smaller recruiters don't have the advantages that a HR or marketing function provide, and will be responsible for both the attraction and recruitment of graduates in addition to their own 'day job'. AGR has recognised this and recently launched an online membership specifically for SMEs, so they can have direct access to information such as age legislation and best practice guidelines for recruitment and selection.

The gap between the larger and smaller recruiter can best be demonstrated by the fact that the average marketing spend on graduate recruitment last year among AGR members is £52,000 (AGR Graduate Recruitment Survey 2008). Let's just say my own budget was slightly below the average.

We launched our 'Why just go with the flow' campaign in October last year, which provided the main component of an integrated marketing campaign. We couldn't employ an agency or print a glossy brochure, and our website couldn't be used to any great extent in the campaign year. So with these restrictions I undertook much of the market research and design work myself, and was highly targeted in order to keep costs to a minimum.

However, by using the AGR market intelligence, conducting research internally with our own graduates, and developing strong relationships with careers advisers, university departments and professional bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, we tried to create a campaign that would be relevant to the target audience. We were very upfront about stating we're not one of the 'Big 4', that there is no prestigious London address, and we can't offer graduates international travel or glamorous pop-star clients.

We wanted to change the perception that graduates have fewer opportunities within SMEs. We wanted to position the firm as an alternative to the Big 4, by creating a link in their minds between the firm and individuality. In addition we wanted them to recognise the fact we are an ambitious firm with expansion plans that needs talented individuals to achieve these ambitions. The best advocates for the company are our existing students, and we included their direct comments on the advantages of training in a small firm within the campaign.

The results speak for themselves, with applications increasing by 87% compared to the previous year. And the cost of the campaign? At just under £600, or 1% of the average AGR spend on recruitment marketing, we felt it was a good return on investment.

Anne Farquharson is marketing director at Henderson Loggie.