To train or to poach: How agencies are fighting the digital talent war

Heads of shops chatted talent at Agency Acceleration Day

It seems a week doesn’t go by without the publication of another piece of research bemoaning a dearth of talent in the industry.

Yesterday saw agencies bemoaning the lack of in-house media talent, while new, millennial blood in innovation is failing to reach the surface because of the prevailing corporate culture, according to research from Amplify.

It’s a lack of digital talent though, that is more-or-less always taken as something marketers just have to deal with. Agencies often complain about an omnipresent skills gap that appeared as digital marketing took off exponentially, but what are the doing about it themselves?

For Pippa Glucklich, co-chief executive of Starcom, the problem does exist in reality and not just on the opinion pages of The Drum. “I think there’s a bit of a talent war going on across different agencies, and not just agencies - a lot of the media platforms are poaching one another’s talent as well as agency talent,” she said.

“I think it’s really incumbent on agency and business leaders to just think differently about it. We have apprenticeships schemes, we have relationships direct with universities and so on…but whatever background you’ve come from, digital is everyone’s job now, it’s not a specialism.

“The biggest thing we can do is invest in our talent and make sure we’re educating them and keeping them up to speed with the complexity and the convergence of the world.”

For many agencies, training is crucial to working around a lack of ready-made digital talent. B2B agency Omobono has solidified this into its HR processes, explained chairperson and founder Francesca Brosan: “We have a Digital DNA programme in place whereby we expect everybody in the agency to take exams in different technologies depending on which bit of the business they’re in.

“Everybody at every level is expected to learn and to improve their skills.”

Immediate Future also applies a similar principle of training to its internship programme, meaning employees are learning from the minute they join and not spending the first year making tea and booking travel.

(Un)natural talent

The skills-building tact is a common-sense approach. Digital is at its core not like creative or account management – even the best recruiter would be hard-pushed to find someone straight out of university with digital skills in the way they might find a candidate with fantastic, fresh ideas or client negotiation skills. On some level, it has to be taught.

“We recruit on values more than on skills. because if people have the right values - in particular the right passion to learn - then we can pretty much teach them most things as long as they’ve got the basics in place,” said Immediate Future’s chief exec Katy Howell. “Instead of investing a huge amount in trying to suck people out of other businesses we put that investment into training people.”

However. for agencies looking for fully-formed digital talent straight away, the option to “suck” is always still open. While Havas is still “working with universities and colleges, and lots of stuff with the local community”, according to chief operating officer Paul Ward, it is also looking to combine its hunt for top digital talent with a bid to up diversity.

Ward explained: “We’ve got a new head of people called Nicola Forristal who’s come to us from BBH. She is very much driving the diversity angle and pushing to really give us a different approach from a business perspective.

“[It’s] a big drive for us as a group.”

18 Feet & Rising is not just looking for pre-loaded skills, it’s looking for “Siamese fighting fish”, according to chief executive Jonathan Trimble. “It’s the fish that goes in the water and makes all the others swim a bit faster - so people who actually terrify us are what I’m on the lookout for at the moment. Some of those people will be two or three years in, at good agencies where they’ve been well trained but are feeling a gnawing angst to do something different.”

However, for Trimble lies finding the right “brand new talent that you have to endorse and sponsor”.

“It’s difficult to reach those people. That’s the bit where I worry – where are we getting brand new talent from now and in the future.”

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