Thursday, 7 May 2009

Saving the Digital Marketing Industry

Few can argue with the fact that these economic times force you into making decisions that go against your natural behaviour – where head wins the fight over heart (which generally goes against the DNA of most creative agency decision-makers), and this is never truer than in the context of the people who work in your agency. The most difficult decision any agency head has to make is whether to make redundancies in order to secure the future of the business, and this is an experience that the vast majority of business leaders and owners have been forced to at least review over the past months as forecasting abilities are compromised due to visibility decreasing to nail-biting levels.

These conditions tend to dictate that you focus your investment on more experienced team members – in Account and Project Management for example, an experienced Senior PM will deliver more to the bottom line than a junior or even a mid-weight. This not only starves the talent pool of senior PM candidates, but it also heaps sometimes intolerable pressure on them day-to-day whilst agencies push their workloads up and up in order to manage a non-decreasing revenue stream with a decreasing headcount, relying on that extra experience to pick up the slack – we should expect to see an increasing departure of Senior PM’s from the Industry over the coming months as a result. However, this is not unique to the service skills – it impacts the product specialists in creative, tech and design disciplines too, for much the same reason.

This focus on investment in ‘already senior’ staff has the effect of cutting off the future-proofing investment in junior and mid-weight levels – those with 0-3 years experience being the most vulnerable. This is a short-term effect that will have long-term repercussions – in 2-3 years time, the industry will be forced to adapt to a severe lack of seniority, as the seniors continue to move onwards, upwards or outwards, their natural successors will be absent.

This presents an interesting dilemma – in an attempt to secure the short-to-mid-term health of the business, it is sacrificing the long-term continuum of experience. It’s a vicious circle, that could have far-reaching effects on the ability of the Industry to realise its own potential. So what to do? We have an overriding responsibility to protect the business from these unpredictable economic conditions, at the same time as needing to ensure that the business does not starve in the future as a result. It’s like climbing up the palm tree to escape the flood, whilst slowly dehydrating the longer you are up there – at what point to you decide it’s safe to swim for it, and in what direction?

The industry really needs to work together to prevent its own dehydration of talent, but the past passion for vying against each other for talent makes this a hopelessly idealistic notion.

There is another risk related to this that will also threaten this longer term continuum – the past 3 years have nurtured a culture of job-hopping that is going to come back to haunt the Industry. It’s considered the norm to stick in a job for just a year and then move for a pay rise, with no regard for the investment that the incumbent agency has made in their development – the Agencies who are committing to the graduate intakes are not getting to benefit from the seniority that they have invested to nurture, they are merely incubators, who, with the inability to match inflated salaries offered by the smaller agencies with lower overheads, then see their investment fly the nest without a bye or leave. This has enabled comparatively junior people to realise senior salaries and titles in half the time that it would have taken in an offline agency as little as 5 or 6 years ago. We are seeing GADs with 4 or 5 years of total career experience where it would have taken 10 years to reach that position in an ATL Agency. The fact is, as a rule (obviously there are uber-talented exceptions), it takes 10 years to become a true GAD (online or offline) – because it takes 10 years to gain the experience to manage a Senior Client relationship – the part of the industry, above/below/through-the-line/digital, you exist in is irrelevant. The levels of candidate expectation have risen to an unsustainable level and the industry risks collapsing in on itself as a result.

This all sounds like scary stuff, and I think it’s about time we took a bit more collective responsibility for the health of the Industry; innovation isn’t just about technology, it’s about finding new ways to do things - and it’s imperative that we harness this to keep the paths to, and through, the Industry open. Everyone has a part to play – from entry level stars respecting the investment their agencies are making in them and showing some loyalty, right up to the Business Leaders who need to focus a little bit more on the state of the market in 3 years time when they are deciding where to heap the pressure in the short term, and also to commit to continuing to invest, train and develop at all levels.

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