Girl Guides: Amaze CEO Natalie Gross talks about upping the digital ante

Continuing The Drum’s women in digital series sponsored by the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing, Amaze CEO Natalie Gross talks to Jessica Davies about the challenges faced by the industry as a result of the government’s slowness in addressing the digital skills shortage.

Amaze CEO Natalie Gross

After a digital-focused career spanning nearly two decades, Natalie Gross has played a pivotal role in the evolution of one of the most creative, innovative digital agencies in the UK – Amaze.

Recruited in 1999 she led the first acquisition of the digital marketing and technology agency Amaze by the Hasgrove Group in 2007, during which time she became managing partner. Four years later she took the helm as CEO of the agency, which was snapped up this year by St Ives Group for £24.3m.

Now she leads a 200-strong team of people across Europe, while acting as advisor to internal teams for clients including Coca-Cola Enterprises, Dyson, Lexus, Toyota, Coats Plc and The Co-operative Group.

Yet Gross believes the digital industry is facing some major unresolved challenges, the most pressing of which is the dearth of skills in the sector – an issue which has escalated due to the government’s inaction.

“There’s a digital skills disaster in the UK. We are in dire straits in terms of skills shortage and I find it an absolute travesty how the governments of this country have let this happen, because it’s been blindingly obvious for nearly two decades where the world is going,” she says.

The skills gap isn’t isolated to a particular area of digital, but stretches across the board and is having a detrimental effect on agencies’ resources and leading to major wage inflation, according to Gross.

“In some ways there are a lot of people out there but they don’t necessarily have the experience for the job title or salary they are going after – to put it politely. There are so many agencies that have so many vacancies and it is leading to super wage inflation. In some areas like project management and user experience it’s really tough to find experienced people,” she says.

People tend to “jump ship” to other agencies on a fast churn, while clients themselves are becoming more digitally-savvy and therefore raking in much of the talent, which is adding to the scarcity, according to Gross.

What’s more the trend towards clients favouring in-house talent is only likely to increase, while traditional marketing agencies are following the same road map and businesses consultancies are boosting their interactive arms, all of which is spreading the available talent thin, according to Gross.

She believes the government has failed to spot the growing skills crisis in time, despite having nearly two decades forewarning. “The government hasn’t taken responsibility for really understanding the digital industry in its widest and truest sense and ensuring the educational and apprenticeships programmes in this country are equipped to bring the right talent through, which given the level of unemployment is absolutely unbelievable,” she adds.

The last year has seen some industry schemes prop up aimed at addressing the issue, with one of the biggest being the Google-led graduate scheme Squared in the UK, which is now being rolled out to Europe. The internet giant is collaborating with the International Publishers Association (IPA) and 35 media and creative agencies on the two-year programme, which is aimed at helping to bridge the current digital skills gap.

Although Gross supports schemes such as this, she believes it is the government – not the agencies alone – that should lead on this issue.

As a member of the executive committee of the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) Gross spends much of her time lobbying on this issue, and is calling for the formation of a think tank or working group whose aim will be to address the problem holistically, rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

BIMA is “upping the ante” on this area this year, according to Gross. The body has launched its annual Digital Day, dubbed D-Day, a national event aimed at linking digital professionals from the UK’s creative and professional sectors with young people at schools and colleges. This year’s event takes place on 10 October.

Meanwhile as Amaze CEO Gross will divide her time between her home in Manchester and London. She stresses the importance of Amaze retaining its cultural identity following its acquisition by St Ives Group, a factor which she believes is paramount to the continuing success and creativity of the agency, unlike others which have been “ripped apart” after joining bigger networks.

Marrying data insight with the rest of the marketing mix to create the ultimate omnichannel and omnicommerce experience is one of the biggest and most exciting trends in the market, according to Gross. It will be those companies that recognise the value of and drive this tying together of online and offline channels through the smart use of data that will stay ahead of the curve.

In the coming years Gross will focus on scaling certain areas of the business to meet client demand for this, ensuring that Amaze can hold its own against the likes of digital giants LBi and SapientNitro.

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