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Vox pop: how do you ensure your agency keeps up to date with tech developments?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

In-house agency technical staff are facing “an impossible task” in being asked to keep abreast of the latest technological developments without being given the necessary time and space to do so, according to Cohaesus technical director Stewart Birch.

Birch states that “the proliferation of digital platforms and tools and their increasing importance to marketers mean that in-house agency technologists are struggling to keep up. Given that many will be resourced up to 100 per cent of the time, finding the room to refresh their skills can seem like an impossible task.” The Drum Network asks its members, how do you ensure your tech staff keep up to date with technical developments?

Cecile Eschenauer, director of operations, Digital Visitor

It’s true that the number of digital platforms and tools is increasing, seemingly exponentially, and it isn’t difficult to see how in-house employees might struggle to keep up. But it isn’t an impossible task. The key to keeping pace with technical progress is developmental structure.

In fact I’d say Digital Visitor is actually very good at remaining technically relevant. Firstly, we run regular knowledge sharing sessions in which team members each present a new tool they have discovered or tested. These might be tools that streamline our processes, or new methods for maximising the value of our existing tools.

Secondly, to add real structure to that communal development, each member of my team has a personal development plan that requires research of new tools, techniques and methods of working. Digital Visitor won’t grow if our teams stagnate technically, so this is a priority that receives a specific time allocation.

Finally, any employee sent for external training is required to present their learnings, findings and opinions to the rest of the team, ensuring that everyone experiences the benefit of that knowledge.

Tom Richards, solutions engineer, Media iQ.

At Media iQ, we work closely with our team of technical experts in our research and development hub in Bangalore – including frequent travel to our UK and US commercial headquarters. As well as travel and the attendance of conferences from key tech partners, the flexibility to undertake more exploratory learning and development projects is encouraged.

The organisation hosts global product and technology innovation summits to keep our products relevant and best-in-class, 24 hour hack-a-thons in the R&D centre allow members of both R&D and product teams to collaborate on tackling current marketplace challenges by utilising new industry technologies.

Barry McKaine, operations director, ClearPeople

Sorry, I’m struggling to understand the premise of the question…but then maybe it’s because I work in an environment where changing technology is the norm!

I’ll put my cards on the table up front and state that as an Operations Director I’m no longer directly involved in hands-on development activities, although having been a COBOL programmer in the past (…yes I did say COBOL, go Google) and dabbled in developing websites, I do understand the magpie bent of the technical mind to be attracted to the latest shiny new thing that comes along. I’ve also worked for agencies in the past where developers and technologists whinge about not having enough R&D time to explore and play with new technologies.

However, I believe there are a few simple ways for techies to keep the hunger pangs of being on the cutting edge of technology at bay, namely;

1) Just accept that you’ll never be 100% up to speed on the latest technology or releases, unless of course you’re on a team creating and developing them yourself

2) Look for opportunities within your work to be creative in introducing new ways of developing by utilising latest best practices and tools

3) Suggest that the agency you work for sells in one or two R&D projects each year with clients willing to be “Guinea pigs” and adopt a new technology solution – as long as it’s in line with your company’s overall strategy and vision everyone loves a good case study

Finally, for all you Senior Managers reading this working in agencies remember, if your technical staff are not up to speed with new technical developments in the field you are in then it means that your company isn’t. Sooner or later you will lag behind in the marketplace and you wouldn’t want that to be the case would you?

Gareth Moss, managing partner, The Blueprint

The technological revolution going on in business - let alone agencies - has been and will continue to bring about disruption in the next five years towards 2020.

At The Blueprint we place the very talent responsible for making sense and delivering creative technology solutions for brands. The rise of the CTMO has been a well publicised phenomena in the past three years. While the role is set to continue - underpinned by the number of CTMO's sitting on agency boards - for some agencies this is reality beyond their reach.

The pace of change around new technologies will mean a shift in the shape and processes of some agencies is required. In the next five years, there will be growing trend to build-out a specialist partner network. A trusted and deeply specialised eco-system, some within and some outside of group structures will be vital to keep paces with the breadth of technological change.

But, as has been said before, in this very column, agencies need to avoid the rush to deploy the 'next big thing'. Unless your offer as an agency is just innovation, technologies and trends come and go and agencies must stay close and true to their proposition.

Liam Quinn, developer, Strawberry

Speaking as a member of the tech staff for a company that focuses on not only staying upto date, but staying ahead of the curve, I can safely say that ensuring we stay up to date is not the task our director faces - it’s what we pride ourselves on. It’s what anyone with the right attitude in this industry should be priding themselves on.

Allowing us the freedom to do so is another matter. “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards” has never been more relevant then in describing the industry right now. Having a session every now and again to refresh skills is not an option; the learning is constant, and relentless.

We factor capacity for this into our daily schedules. We get time and resources to read, to watch, to discuss, to visit conferences, to learn by doing. Then after going through all of this, and feeling confident with our new found knowledge - we make a big deal of sharing it with the rest of the team.

If you don’t embrace the constant developments, you’re probably in the wrong game.

Cat Leaver, head of strategy, We Are AD

For us, it’s all about communication and collaboration. Our staff are our most important investment and we believe in allocating time for conversation, as well as training. Daily stand-up meetings across our various projects allow the team an open forum to vocalise any development they need, and we get every member of the organisation together once a month to contribute their thoughts to the direction of the business. In-house knowledge is a tool too often ignored, but it's one of our biggest assets - we make full use of it in our collaborative company blog which every team member contributes to and our internal messenger where we share inspiration, latest tech/trends, etc.

Being a Google Partner agency and a member of the Tessitura Network, amongst others, means our technical staff have access to a huge pool of external resources too - our task is to give them enough time to make use of it and spot any gaps not currently catered for. Regular one-to-one meetings with line managers allow the team to vocalise any issues they feel they have and plan CPD, and staff are actively encouraged to think of areas they want to develop on a personal level. When planning work, we think ahead to training possibilities and encourage employees to attend conferences, seminars and webinars for further learning - after all, their development is the company's development.

Dave Evans, head of digital, Chapter

So agency tech staff face "an impossible" task in keeping their skills up-to-date then? I have to disagree. Being an old man of digital (or new media as it was back then, when the Internet was mostly fields), I can safely say one thing about the more technically-minded types I’ve worked with over those years – they always make time to up-skill through an inherent love of what they do, and the creative reward that comes through bringing code to life. If there’s something interesting and useful to learn, they’ll invariably find a way to learn it, mostly through peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and often in their own time. The best ones know it’s the way to stay employable. Then secondly, until we access technology through an interface that’s truly radical (Mind Crystals. Patent Pending.) the tried and tested technical skills will always be the ones that are the most in demand. Remember Coldfusion, WAP or JSP anyone? "In-vogue tech expertise" will always simply be nothing more than a flash in the pan.

Here at Chapter, we do two key things to share news on the latest innovations across the agency – using tech itself (strangely enough these website things can be pretty useful for disseminating information), but when that fails, or when dire action is necessary, we often resort to this somewhat archaic, but wholly reliable technology that’s only been in use for a few millennia, called talking. The great thing about it is that it doesn’t need the latest firmware update to keep it working, everyone within the agency can do it, and we’ve found that, invariably, it’s the quickest and most reliable way for ideas and knowledge to spread.

Luke Regan, VP managing partner, DAC Make it Rain

The very best people will find the time to stay on top of new tech, regardless of workload. Nevertheless, the best approach is:

1. Testing new technologies on personal profiles and websites the agency controls.

2. Attending practical conferences that are high on technical detail, rather than glossy sales pitches.

3. Working on a portfolio of clients, rather than just one.

4. Sharing knowledge and experience across offices and continents on an internal social network or wiki.

5. Following the right people and feeds on social media – you’ll hear about new tech startups on TechCrunch and then read genuine implementation success stories on sites like First Round Review and Marketing Land.

Paul Williams, client services director, Speak Media

It’s almost impossible to keep up to speed with all tech developments as they happen. Instead, we just keep asking, ‘what specific problem does that new tech solve and is it a major problem for our clients that we should be fixing? If yes, we’ll put the time into building the knowledge and resource.

Lee Wilson, head of SEO, Vertical Leap

When you work in a digital agency environment everyone is either directly or indirectly involved with technical developments. It is this culture of technical innovation and refinement that’s core for keeping on top of technical changes, and most importantly, technical opportunities.

When end users (internal and external) have easy facilitation for providing technical feedback, suggestions and big ideas, the technical side of development never stops (and neither do the demands). It is imperative to ensure that the technical team has the capacity to service demand, as well as the structure and support required to constantly add to their own skill sets and improve on expertise.

Dated knowledge and limited access to training and development are key barriers to redress continuously in this area of performance.

Naomi Taylor

Naomi Taylor is editorial account manager at The Drum Network, covering members' news, insights and publications.

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