The Drum Network recently spoke to Ian MacArthur, director of global experience optimisation at Sagittarius, about the perfect storm gathering around the demand for digital marketing skills and what the snowballing skills shortage might mean for the agency sector.
What factors over the past decade (and particularly over the past 18 months) have led to the current digital skills shortage we face in the UK?
For ten years now our industry has been talking about the skills shortage. At the beginning it was something we referred to as the “rush to the middle”. This was created by the sudden realisation in Adland that agencies needed to be far more digital to stay ahead of the curve and therefore putting them in direct competition with the big tech brands when it came to securing talent. To compound this a wave of new start-ups like UberCab, AirBed & Breakfast and Picaboo (snapchat) were tempting new talent in a different direction. In total, demand was outstripping supply.
Fast forward to 2019 and the situation has become far worse. Entrepreneurship is at an all-time high with over 10% of UK companies launching as start-ups this year. New starters often expect a level of pay and flexibility that matches experience they don’t yet have – this can feed the exploitation of internship programmes.
Traditional businesses are transforming and need the right people to drive digital change but simply being native is not enough. Add an environment of political and economical uncertainty and you also see a rise in day-rate working or ‘temping’ to make the maximum income during a period of change.
Which type of organisations are getting the best talent?
The current draw is from businesses that want to create an ideal work-life balance. Half of this equation is around flexibility with shorter weeks, unlimited leave, paid sabbaticals and enhanced maternity/paternity packages. The other half is focussed on the workplace itself with onsite medical, free lunches, bring your pets to work and profit share. If these elements exist alongside a great brand, strong pay and a safe culture, then the pain of acquiring the most skilled can be negated somewhat.
The flip side is that it’s important to recognise that human behaviour still follows particular patterns. According to National Statistics, people are still most likely to spend the majority of down time playing computer games, watching movies and reading. It’s a fantasy to think that everyone wants to head to the gym or go cycling as part of the quest for well-being. Flexibility in working practices can create entirely new business challenges of inconsistency, message loss and mini-silos. So, businesses need to weigh up various risks when creating an environment that is magnetic for talent.
What sort of digital skills are especially in demand at the moment?
The ‘unicorn’ roles are always changing because technology and its impact cause everyone to micro-pivot. Often the industry’s expectation of related skills in an emerging platform are far too high. We fantasise that there are experts that have been sitting in darkened rooms developing this stuff and now that the world wants to buy the new concept that the right skills will flood onto the market.
Right now, some of the obvious gaps can be mapped directly onto Gartner’s hype curve – so there is a demand and deficit in practical knowledge around AI, ML, deep learning and IOT.
But if you step back further and take the whole digital ecosystem into account then it’s become far harder to find the stock trades like Agile scrum masters, enterprise CMS developers and even PPC marketers.
When it comes to careers in digital, does the concept of a 4-year university course even work anymore? What are the alternatives?
I’ve never been a fan of the generic digital course, especially lengthy ones. Key digital tools should play a role in every lesson regardless of the subject matter. I’d like to see this supplemented by showing young people the art of the possible. Areas where digital enables education to stretch far beyond our imagination, allowing the pupils to try new techniques.
Secondly, I believe that there are key digital specialisms that should be a choice in schools. We’ve come leaps and bounds cementing the idea that coding is important but what else?
We need to create an appetite for the capabilities of digital in the wider context. Then when a college leaver decides to go into construction, logistics, retail or public services they enter it with a fresh perspective and add value from day one.
What advice can you offer businesses hoping to attract and retain the digital talent they need?
I think a truly digital attitude is required. A culture of hacking, testing, experimentation, automation etc looks very different from the outside. Many businesses truly believe they have embraced digital and the way it puts the customer front and centre but much smoke and mirrors are involved - young people can sniff it out from miles away. Be honest, transparent and above all else be porous – absorb the ideas, thinking and processes of others as this will not only transform your fortunes but make you very attractive to the most skilled emerging talent.
Unless you have a churn strategy where you intend to have a constant flow of new digital people – nothing wrong if that’s intentional – you’ll need to create paths to grow with succession planning. Those working in digital can be quite transient but loyalty is still there to be won if you encourage opportunities and freedom.
Should your digital team be in-house, outsourced or a mix of both?
Huge question – there are many factors involved in this type of decision. The type of strategy you’re following, your budget sizes, the type of objectives you want to achieve and the agility you need to maximise revenue or market share. Many of the answers can be counter intuitive and you’ll often notice a flowing cycle of resource shift often connected to the style of the most recent management tier.
I often hear potential clients say that they can’t afford an agency, but I know from experience that hiring the right level of skill internally is not only challenging and time-consuming, it costs far more in the medium term. The same can be said of brands that outsource a raft of areas that I believe are fundamental to the brand and should be wholly owned by them. It’s swings and roundabouts - a mix always wins but it’s for each business to think hard about how best to achieve their biggest objectives and guard against risk of disruption from competitors to get that mix just right.