Many of Scotland’s digital agencies still find it hard to attract and retain staff despite the supposed lowering of barriers. Some blame the agencies for a dearth of talent, while others turn to the age-old ‘them and us’ accusations of dragging investment from the safe grounds of London.
However, for many there is just not enough new talent coming through the education system. The problems are twofold – it is difficult to retain the best talent that comes out of Scottish universities, and it is equally hard to transfer raw talent into a commercial environment.
It is still a concern for many within the industry that those graduating from university are not ready to enter the business world. Robert Towie, of specialist digital recruitment agency Davidson Recruitment, says that while many students leave university with a technical qualification, very few are able to offer much “value” to a company straightaway. “Many students lack a general business acumen,” he says. “In an industry where an understanding of clients’ business – such as who their customers are, why they buy, what the company’s USP is or who their competitors are – is key, our graduates are lacking.”
John McLeish, managing director of Equator, agrees that graduates are not being suitably prepared by universities to begin work. “As with most industries, most people coming out of colleges and universities are wet behind the ears,” he says. “They don’t really have the commercial savvy they should have, and that could be improved through the introduction of more work placements in the courses.”
McLeish feels that the digital industry is still seen as an “extra service” by many clients, and that in order to outgrow this, the industry should learn to promote itself better in order to gain the recognition it deserves.
“More promotion, from the grassroots up, would be a good step forward,” he says.
“Promotion through university levels is sorely needed – a lot of the courses focus on design but not necessarily the overall role digital has to play.
“It’s very difficult to retain talent due to the bright lights of London and Manchester, and the agency hubs are always going to attract people, primarily because there are only a handful of companies performing at a high level in Scotland.”
Towie sites the model used by Swedish digital media school Hyper Island as one that Scotland should look to. “We need to nurture more people and get the industry involved in further education to a greater degree,” he says. “How can we expect to train professionals if they are being taught by people with no agency or commercial industry experience, and a curriculum that teaches general skills with no particular focus?
“There will always be the talented few who succeed regardless of who teaches them, but I’m sure we’re letting potential slip through the educational net.”
David Black, creative director at Digital Face, believes Scotland is often seen by graduates as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. “Scotland’s digital industry suffers from the same problem as its advertising and marketing industries – there’s work, but it’s not often big work. Big accounts are hard to come by – many seem to sneak south of the Border. That’s a problem, but I don’t believe it’s got anything to do with a lack of talent.”
Fiona Proudler, creative services director at Realise, agrees with Black, although she believes Scotland could grow its digital industry just by acting as a platform for the development for young designers and developers.
She also feels a lack of interest in the field following the dotcom bubble burst has left a gap in the talent pool. “While there was a real enthusiasm for the internet pre-bubble burst, this interest dwindled,” she says. “Fewer people got the qualifications or relevant skills, while others changed roles due to redundancies. We are now feeling the impact of that with a real drought of talent.
“Talent retention transcends all the creative industries in Scotland – not just digital. We need the briefs, the budgets, the client commitment to thinking big online in order to keep people from moving south.”
While digital specialists might still struggle to attract the cream of Scottish talent, Phillip Lockwood-Holmes, digital media director of Whitespace, says this is often intensified for more traditional agencies looking to add to their services. “Finding good staff is always difficult, especially if you aren’t an expert in the field yourself,” he says.
“Spotting opportunity and recognising value is easier than knowing how to create good work. As such, we’ve seen ad agencies bolt on digital arms without good legs to run the race. As a group of digital-aware agencies in Scotland, we need to be shouting louder about our current work and what great companies we are in order to attract experts to Scotland.”
Mark Jennings, director at Cynosure, offers a word of warning for those planning to use Scottish industry or education purely as a stepping stone. “I’ve experienced the difficulty of dissuading talent in the industry from moving south,” he says. “And the grass is not always greener. For many, a move south has not entirely worked out – talented employees often end up working in IT support roles.
“Scotland is producing enough talent through its universities and colleges, but it’s not always just the commercial focus that’s lacking. They could do more in teaching students the latest techniques and codes rather than always being a few years behind in technology.”
If, as well as retaining talent, the Scottish industry is to attract the best talent from the rest of the UK, then quality of life is something worth singing about. Richard Kelly, marketing manager for Dog Digital, has found this to be a major attraction, but he continues: “There needs to be more innovation, and more willingness by organisations to take a chance on things. It frustrates me to look at the US and see so many fantastic start-ups that are revolutionising the web when we have so few. More innovative thinking, helped by companies taking more risks, would help Scotland get a reputation as a digital leader.”
Nick Lang, director of SO Creative, believes the industry can improve its standing to the international community: “Scotland won’t set itself apart in a global market by the number of programmers or web builders we have. If Scotland is to be a beacon of digital excellence, it will be down to our ability to develop strategy, to identify marketing opportunity and to deploy creative thinking effectively to achieve the goals of our clients. After all, what makes a website successful is exactly the same as what makes a TV commercial successful or a press ad successful: results.”
Frazer Blyth, digital director at Avian, agrees: “One of the main developments to come out of the digital boom was an awakening for the traditional agency scene, with the more prudent graphic design and advertising agencies noticing the opportunities that digital opens up.
“We’ve seen quite a shift in a handful of very strong digital agencies and a whole new raft of two to three-man bands. Competition is fierce, so finding the best people is important.”
The industry might still be going through its growing pains, but it is vital not to lose sight of the long-term goals as the quick-fix to staffing solutions is sought. “We need to spend time raising the profile of the digital industry in Scotland to begin to attract more talent,” says Pete Burns, managing director of Blonde. “We may all be very busy just now, but we need to think about the longer-term issues that surround our industry if we fail to sustain the current growth.”