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Top marketers have realized low wages are causing tech talent drought

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By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter

February 1, 2023 | 9 min read

The UK marketing industry has been tackling a talent shortfall for a decade, many top execs are in agreement uncompetitive salaries aren’t helping.

A target board with several arrows sticking out of it

Shrinking relative wages and a lack of internal investment have hurt the UK industry for years

Marketing wages have been falling relative to the consumer price index and GDP for ten years or more, particularly for those entering the trade for the first time. In fact, new research from the Advertising Association (AA) and thinktank Credos demonstrates that the total number of people working in the industry dropped by 14% between 2019 and 2022.

It exacerbates the ongoing talent shortage in marketing in the UK - with government reports stating that a lack of tech skills, in particular, is set to hold the UK back unless addressed. At the same time, a confluence of events like Brexit has further limited the UK marketing industry’s ability to recruit from outside the country.

So, with over a decade of acknowledging the talent shortage behind it, why is the UK marketing industry still struggling to get to grips with one of its biggest issues?

Wage rage

Gabriel Charles is senior consultant for marketing and digital at recruiters VMA Group. He explains some of the combined causes for marketing wage stagnation in the UK: “We’ve seen a real surge in marketing automation over the last few years that has definitely reduced the value that junior marketers can command.”

The AA and Credos report backs that up: HR leaders advised skills shortages were most acute at entry-level and at mid-level, comprising people three to five years into their careers.

Charles also notes that the outsourcing of some marketing activities, in addition to what he sees as a general undervaluing of marketing as an industry in the UK contributes to widespread lower wages.

Rachel Aldighieri is managing director of the Data and Marketing Association (DMA). She explains that low wages are part – though possibly not all – of the problem: “You can give everyone all the training in the world. But if they're being paid below market rates… they're not going to stay.”

Alessandra Bellini, Tesco chief customer officer and president of the Advertising Association, initially flagged the wage stagnation on stage at LEAD. Afterward, she told The Drum that, while shrinking relative wages are part of the problem, the wider perception that marketing is a lower-status career also hurts.

A chart showing relative marketing wages compared to CPI, GDP and other factors

She explains: “Salary is one element. But we also know that people want people to feel valued, they need to feel invested in. How much are you going to learn and grow and have skills that are transferable [as well as] the excitement and the value that you contribute to society? All of them are really, really important.”

Skills development

Investment in skills is at the heart of the House of Lords’ proposals for investment in the creative industries. Its Communications and Digital Committee’s latest report was extremely critical of the current state of the industry’s plans for skills development and noted the danger to the future of the UK as a creative hub.

To that end, Aldighieri and the DMA have just completed a trial in micro-upskilling, which seeks to reinvent the way in which practitioners can continue to develop on the job. She explains: “We need to focus much more on retention as well. So it isn't just about getting the people in, it's creating the cultures and conditions for them to thrive and stay in our industry.

“The thing that I really drew during that report was this whole notion of perpetuating silos with the way we approach our skills… there’s this whole notion that you’re on a tech track, you’re on a creative track, you’re on a data track. Actually, then the nature of marketing is really bringing together creativity, data tech and blending that into a broader and more rounded learning experience.”

While skills development and the aspirational nature of the industry are undoubtedly part of the selling point, the wage issue remains. Charles states that marketing is in direct competition with other maths and tech-based careers for the best and brightest graduates – and that low wages effectively price agencies and advertisers out of the market. He says that while there is “no shortage” of social media managers, the real issue relates to data-specific roles.

Katie Jackson is director of Kindred Recruitment. She points out that the industry is itself still recovering from the disruption of Covid, which naturally impacts the money available for headcount: “As a nation, we are also tackling a cost of living crisis and soaring inflation. If candidates are demonstrating some, but not all the skills desired by employers this may be reflected in how much an employer is willing to pay for a junior candidate who requires training.”

It is a point backed up by Nicola Mongon, director at Spotlight Recruitment. She argues: “Salary levels for junior marketers remain low on average, compared to increases in other sectors. With some businesses insisting on a return to the office or not taking into account the current economic crisis, the result is a perfect storm when trying to hire.”

The marketing industry, then, is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Faced with the ongoing skills crisis UK agencies do not necessarily have the funds available to pay competitive rates for talent. But, with the House of Lords and industry bodies stressing the need for talent acquisition and retention, solving that issue is paramount.

With the best will in the world – as recruitment specialists have pointed out – if junior marketers can get better money for their in-demand skills in other industries, they will.

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