Can You Meet the Digital Talent Demand?

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Allison Kent-Smith
Allison Kent-Smith



digital-talentWithout skilled employees, an agency remains at a distinct disadvantage.

Those who walk into the agency doors each day are the agency. Clients hire agencies for their collective talent because they know that the agencies with the most innovative, creative and digitally savvy talent produce the most recognized and awarded work.

Most leaders agree that talent is a top priority, however our strategy for obtaining the best talent has remained the same for decades.

Many agencies have a singular tactical focus on talent — acquisition. The more talent an agency can buy or acquire, the better. Although the industry continues to trade top talent among competitors, few agencies have established effective programs for talent development and education. I’ve worked with many agencies that were able to clearly articulate their talent acquisition strategy. However, when we inquired about their formal education and talent development programs, we did not receive the same articulate response.

Our skillset needs have evolved. More and more, brands hire agencies for their digital and integrated capabilities including expertise in social media, mobile, user experience, and ability to execute cross-platform ideas. The opportunity for digital continues to outpace most other agencies offerings. (Note: Adweek’s recent article on "CMOs Are Preparing for Digital to Grow to 75% of Marketing Budgets.")

Given the rate of digital growth, how successful will the industry be at hiring experts to manage these opportunities?

Our industry has relied on a few individuals to lead agency capabilities for many years. We hire an expert or two, maybe even an entire department of digital experts, and then those experts leave much faster than expected. The turnover rate for digital experts in more traditional agencies exceeds the average rate for many other roles. A few individual experts or even a savvy department of specialists have not scaled or solved for overall digital deficiencies among staff. Hiring that next great creative director, digital expert, or strategist will simply not provide long-term advantage over competitors.

The only way to meet current digital demand is to educate the employees you’ve already hired. It’s that simple. Evaluate your acquisition budget, calculate average turnover for digital experts, and then take a portion of that budget (and loss) to implement a formal digital education program. Educate each and every employee ­— all leaders, roles and departments — about the specific digital practice areas that drive opportunity for your agency.

Below are a few essential steps to get started:

Leadership Confirmation

In order for education to work at the agency, leaders must agree that recruiting and developing the best talent is critical. Without leadership support, education programs are often under-attended and not taken seriously. Leaders must be at a point where they believe that digital capabilities are mission critical to the agency’s survival. Investing in education for employees is not a passive decision: It must be considered as important as other operational readiness strategies.

Talent Understanding

One of the most important steps is to understand the current state of talent — truly understand who they are, what they know, what they don’t know, what motivates them to learn, and what value they place on evolving their own skillsets. This evaluation and assessment should include an agency-wide anonymous survey, one-on-one interviews, and observation of current work practices.

Design Recommendation

Create a program that is designed to close the gap between what employees know and what they need to know to match digital opportunities. The curriculum should not be a program that starts and stops but one that can be integrated long-term into everyday work. The learning experiences will be most useful if they are focused on hands-on experiences rather than a lecture format. Employees will learn digital by stretching their own capabilities, so make sure they step outside of their current role in the classroom. Ensure that the teachers are expert employees or leading external practitioners. Recruiting teachers outside your agency will lend objectivity to the program, allowing employees to stretch their understanding of key practice areas.

Although the acquisition of talent remains valuable, an additional strategy for “acquiring” talent at your agency should be focused on development and education. Given the pace of technology and the needs of the digitally focused CMO, agencies will have to reinvest in those they’ve already hired simply to meet digital demand. After all, we are only as good as the talent we develop.

Topics: Agency Talent

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