Agencies’ big digital dilemma: A scarcity of talent
Report: Clients are callng for digital skills agencies can't deliver
September 15, 2016
The digital divide isn’t just evident in the media choices people are making these days. It’s also notable in agencies. A new report from smith & beta, a talent firm focused on agencies, finds that not only do most agencies feel they’re ill-prepared to give their clients the digital solutions they need, but employees also worry they’re not getting the right training to improve in these areas. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they’re lacking in mobile advertising skills, while half say they’re novices or worse when it comes to understanding digital measurement. This paints a picture of an agency structure woefully unprepared for clients’ digital needs, and the timing couldn’t be worse with digital dollars poised to overtake TV for No. 1. Allison Kent-Smith, founder of smith & beta, talks to Media Life about how agencies are preparing (or not) for the digital age.
What did you find most interesting or most surprising about this report?
What’s surprising to me is the apparent lack of investment in the skill sets and capabilities of employees. Although our work has evolved, what we make each day, our workplace has not.
Also the lack of confidence in agencies’ abilities, with some employees possessing very low confidence who are managing major global brand relationships.
What’s the most important thing media buyers and planners can take from it?
The most important thing is to understand that our skills need constant attention.
As we walk into work each day, there should be an expectation that our employers invest in us, what we’re capable of delivering to clients.
Without this investment and attention on evolving skills and ways of working, we find ourselves falling short of delivering services, insights, and solutions to our clients. We are way beyond pretending that we know certain things – now is the time to set up a system for ongoing learning in the workplace.
We’ve known the digital revolution was coming for some time. Why isn’t agency talent ready for it?
We’re not ready for digital because agencies have largely relied on the capabilities of specialists to do the majority of digital-centric work.
For years, and still today, we talk about hiring, acquiring and buying talent – we do not have the same commitment to the development of people. We’re not ready because we have avoided what it takes to get ready, and that readiness all starts and ends with the talent you have inside your building.
Are clients aware of how dimly agencies see their digital capabilities?
We work with brands, as well as agencies, and I think some clients are beginning to understand the realities and limitations. We see this realization with clients building capabilities internally and distributing projects across a variety of agencies.
Because very few agencies can manage all the jobs that need to be done, brands are forced to diversify.
I believe this is one of the symptoms of lack of distributed capabilities under one roof.
If I were a client, I’d closely review this talent report and inquire about how my agency partners are investing in the skill and capability evolution each year. The good news is the best agencies are actively investing more than ever before.
Why are skill sets not matching up to demand – is this a hiring problem or a teaching problem?
For one, there are not enough people to hire. Even if you have all the budget you need, there are not enough experts available. Two, hiring is only a single solution to a multi-faceted talent challenge.
When you hire in experts or more senior-level digital employees, their ability to influence and make an impact on the work is limiting. Mainly because most of the organization does not understand them, so they get frustrated and leave.
So your investment in hiring just walked out the door along with another search, onboarding, repeat. If you spend a fraction of your investment in teaching every single employee 5 to 15 percent more about digital, this strategy has a larger impact on the agency’s capabilities as a whole.
Here’s the problem – historically agencies have not taken this approach ongoing. Teaching is not a single workshop or a trip to SXSW, it’s an ongoing integrated approach to learning that is not “training,” but part of the day-to-day.
What’s required is leadership’s muscle memory of hiring and not developing that needs to shift. Because, frankly, this approach has not worked, and we see it in these numbers. Once leaders realize they can make talent and not just buy talent, we’ll see capabilities of the industry evolve fairly rapidly.
What impact does this lack of digital capability have on advertising?
We’re not competitive, our margins are shrinking, long-term relationships are turning into short-term projects, employees lack confidence, which then translates into poorly conceived and executed ideas.
Talent goes to other industries to learn and grow, our decades of capabilities in the craft gets overshadowed by lack of evolutionary skill sets, mindsets and ways of working, and we remain stuck.
How can this problem be solved? Do you think agencies are taking the right steps?
Some agencies are taking the right steps, but frankly there are very few. The problem can be solved by trying out different solutions to just buying and acquiring talent. Committing to developing the savviest workforce, understanding that we’re losing ground each day because not enough of us know the work that generates the most opportunity for agencies right now.
I always ask leaders to look around the agency and be honest with an assessment of what your talent knows and what they’re capable of doing – how are you solving for lack of distributed skills and preparing for the future and how long do you have to take action?
Data about skill sets of employees usually gets leaders moving, but for some that’s not even enough. I’d like to think we’re at a turning point, because our talent bets of the past will not be the solutions for the future.
How long does it take to solve issues like this?
There is not a timeline, but with the right level of commitment, in a given year an agency could see an elevated confidence, ability and evolution of ways of working between 15 to 25 percent of the entire workforce. This commitment is ongoing, it’s not start and stop. But for the agencies who are all in on skill development, they are winning business, attracting talent, retaining talent, and are more prepared for future challenges that are unforeseen. It’s a great time to be in advertising and marketing.
Are other industries running into this digital divide problem, or is it unique to advertising?
Other industries are running into these same issues. It is not unique to advertising. For the first time in the last decade, we’re seeing “lack of digital skills” to be a top concern of C-level executives.
There are a few reports released just in the last year, beyond our own, that point to the digital divide and its impact on business and commerce in general.
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