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In a world of digital experts, what becomes of the digital agency?

What will become of the digital agency?

Elizabeth Lukas, chief executive officer for North America at global technology training provider Decoded, believes that many marketing agencies are currently lagging behind their own clients in their approach to the digital training and development of staff – a mistake that could soon threaten the agencies’ very survival.

Decoded is one of the world’s leading technology education companies, providing a range of digitally focused training programs from its bases in New York, Amsterdam, Sydney and London, where the company was founded six years ago.

“The genesis of Decoded was that the marketing industry, and industry in general, were going through a lot of digital transformation, shifting budgets and resources towards digital technologies that many business leaders, by their own admission, didn’t really understand,” says Elizabeth Lukas, chief executive officer of Decoded in North America.

“There was a feeling that people were doing what they needed to do to survive digitally but without intrinsically understanding, for example, how code works or how to truly communicate with the digital experts inside their own organization.

”In response, Decoded developed ‘Code in a Day’, a one-day training program that takes people from zero knowledge to designing and developing their own web-based app in a single day.“

Understanding code is the first step to truly understanding digital and the new opportunities that digital technology can unlock,” says Lukas. “Our courses are designed to show people that the digital world is not only accessible but that it’s also creative and strategic – and that if you don’t understand the tech you may not be taking full advantage of its capabilities.

"We’ve found that when producers, creatives, strategists and account managers are all talking the same language, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities, not only in terms of things moving more quickly, but also in terms of the conversation being more creative, collaborative and productive. Those conversations become exponentially more exciting when the creatives actually know what the technology is capable of delivering.”

Decoded has now delivered the Code in a Day program to more than 20,000 people and has subsequently introduced further half-day and one-day training packages that aim to demystify topics such as data, connected devices, innovation and cyber security, plus ongoing programs that allow large numbers of an organization’s staff to digitally upskill on a regular basis.

"Until recently, business leaders seemed content to let the digital knowledge within their organizations remain siloed off, residing solely with those digital experts, separate from the rest of their team. Since we launched, that attitude has changed dramatically,” says Lukas.

She points to a recent Vanity Fair article with Jeff Immelt, chief executive of GE, where he says that every one of the 4,000 to 5,000 college grads they hire every year will learn how to code, whether they join in finance or IT or marketing.

Lukas says: “Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, attended a Decoded one-day session in London recently and he summed things up nicely when he said: ‘We are no longer doing digital marketing, but marketing in a digital world.’ That attitude is becoming far more common among business leaders and agencies should be aware of the risks that shift brings. When we first launched Decoded, I’d say we were working with around 50% agencies and 50% client businesses. These days, I’d say it’s closer to 90% clients and 10% agencies. From an agency point of view, that should raise some alarm bells.”

Those concerns seem well-founded, given the marketing agency sector’s traditionally low level of investment in staff education. A recent survey of millennials by PWC revealed that ‘Excellent training and development opportunities’ ranked as the third most important factor in determining what the respondents considered as an attractive employer. With Fortune 100 companies increasingly stepping up to the mark with digital training provision, agencies can expect increased competition for fresh talent.

Lukas, however, believes that the agency sector can respond successfully to the new landscape: “The wonderful – and terrifying – thing about digital is that it evolves so rapidly. The digital world of only three or four years ago is very different from the one we see today, so, in that sense, anyone is just as capable of getting a grasp of the latest developments as anyone else. There’s never a moment when you’ve missed the boat – you can jump on at any time.

“This is an ‘emergence’ era, where we might not know where new technology might take us next, but we are all aware of its power and potential.” For agencies, says Lukas, this means the imperative to be ahead of the curve and thinking about tech issues in advance of clients, has never been greater.

“That means re-imagining what digital education and training and development looks like within the agency sector, biting the bullet and carving out the time and resource to dedicate to the continuous upskilling of your team,” she says.

“The alternative is being consigned to irrelevance in a future where every prospective client knows more about your subject area than you do.

This article was originally published in The Drum's print edition.

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