Jarred Cinman is concerned about the war for digital expertise and the shortage of talent in the sector.
Being an employer in digital marketing is like walking a tightrope or being shot out of a cannon. It’s a bit like being in a circus: very exciting, rapidly moving and fraught with danger.
And these days, who isn’t a ’digital employer‘? From banks to media agencies, newspapers to fast moving consumer goods brands and, of course, digital agencies, online publishers and web development folk, we are all in the tar pit fighting over the same tiny pool of great digital people.
I speak to other agency leaders, clients and media owners regularly. And let’s be frank: we’re all going slowly insane trying to find great (even good) people – to train them up fast, keep them interested and grow our businesses to meet increasing digital demand.
However, there is good news. We are growing. And there is demand. These are, as problems go, nice ones to have. And while we still watch advertisers squander countless millions making heavy-handed ads, we know the future, for us, is a bright one.
But to capture that future, nice problems or not, we need to solve what amounts to a crippling skills crisis in our industry. The equation is simple. Demand for skills pushes up the value of anyone with skills. That means even fairly junior people are commanding salaries that we, the middle-aged, worked for a decade to earn.
Paradoxically, this is making the industry weaker and the work worse. Overpaid young people generally do not have either the hunger or time to master their craft. One eye is always on LinkedIn, awaiting the next bid from a desperate competitor.
At the same time, the value of marketing and digital services is being questioned on a global scale. CEOs are tired of spending their money on uncertain returns, particularly in an economy like South Africa. In this country, the speed of growth can currently be unfavourably compared to that of a snail walking uphill with a bowling ball tethered to its shell.
A lot of the mystique about digital has also vanished. Clients want to be able to see data, calculate return on investment, see products fly off their shelves and witness the value of their brands grow measurably.
We are faced with contradictory trends. On one hand, we have employees maximising monetary gain through endless competing offers, fuelled by the urgent need to grow teams and lubricated by employment intermediaries (online and off) who have no motive other than maximising their take. And, on the other, there is a corporate world tired of spending money on marketing and IT projects that are sold to them by geek wizards with wands composed half of fear and half of impossible promises.
To come back to being an employer, this is a contradiction that threatens not only our individual livelihoods, but also that of the entire South African digital industry. Do not forget we continue to compete on a global stage. And much of our pricing is approaching levels that would not be out of place in London or New York. If we can’t deliver the same value at those rates, then our customers may well turn to the two strategies we fear most: taking it ‘in house’ or global outsourcing.
What to do? One thing is clear: we cannot regulate our way out of this problem. I frequently hear talk about imposing limitations on staff or other businesses’ hiring options. While there are times and places for restraints of trade and other such mechanisms, these need to be deployed very carefully. Force is not compatible with staff motivation either.
The only long-term solution is to produce far more qualified, skilled and able members of this industry. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is going to be throwing a lot of resources this year at training and accreditation. It aims to build a bridge between the many people who need and want work, and an industry that cannot feed itself. Of course there are deeper problems in the broader education system that cannot be solved this way. It is also arguable that as a nation we are getting more ignorant and less capable. But we have to do something.
It is key for the digital industry to market itself to young people and present an attractive option for those graduates with the smarts to do great things. Becoming undifferentiated with the advertising business could, in this respect, work against us. Many young people are turning against advertising and commercialism and, while the same trends are changing what advertising is, that is hard to explain to idealistic outsiders.
It is only by making digital jobs more scarce and talent more plentiful that we can have an industry that excels at what it does and sustainable businesses. This is the next great challenge we face.
This post was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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