The state of digital skills in agencies

Discover the digital skills your agency needs and how to develop your team

Our guide to developing digital skills in your agency came about through conversations I have had with agency clients over the past few years. And from my time running large teams in agencies, recruiting or developing new digital talent.

I’m biased but the teams I recruited and developed (both as employed ‘Head Of’ and for agency clients in my consultancy role) have been excellent people, across all disciplines. But oh-my-goodness .. they took some recruiting on occasion!

I can’t think of a time where they were enough digitally skilled people in the market. And that dearth of skilled practitioners is only increasing, as we look to bring in those conversant in machine learning, AI, analytics and ever-evolving media channels and tech tools into agencies. And recruiting digitally-savvy client-facing or planning / strategic team members can also be a challenge.

I’m talking from a UK perspective here but we do have a digital gap. If you look at a range of news stories over the past few years, the words ‘digital skills’ and ‘shortage’ often sit together. Some of that is within the wider context of digital literacy in society of course and it isn’t just the UK, it is across many global markets.

How we nurture digital skills (from an early age and with true inclusiveness) was the subject of the recent Manchester Digital skills conference that I attended. It focused on the North West England digital sector but the themes are relevant and applicable to all; so here is a link to the report summary.

Many sobering stats were coming from the guide but in the context of agency services (and the clients they serve) it was alarming to hear that 27% of those surveyed had had to turn away work as a result of not being able to find the right talent.

Back to the guide, and with an optimists’ hat on, the digital skills gap is a threat but also an opportunity for your agency. A threat if you don’t address it of course – but an opportunity if you put together a skills development plan for the agency and get ahead of your competition.

That’s where the guide will hopefully support you.

It covers two areas:

Section one gets you to think about this subject and on assessing your agency in terms of its digital skills abilities. it addresses the digital skills gap in marketing agencies, the types of digital skills required, and finally how you can assess your agency’s overall ‘digital readiness’ and the skills needed to grow it.

Section two addresses building the right type of skills for your agency using a range of ‘tools’ that include: job descriptions, planned talent, team development plans, developing a culture of curiosity, sources of training and (back to an earlier point) your role in developing the talent of tomorrow.

I’ll look here at one specific area in the guide related to team development – engendering a ‘culture of curiosity’ in the agency. I’m focusing in on that because it’s a topic that comes up a fair bit when I’m in with agencies; ‘how do we keep the team up with what’s new in digital? And in any engaging way?’.

There is more detail on what a culture of curiosity can mean covered in another of our guides – keeping your team up to date with digital marketing. – you’ll see that there is much you can do to keep yourself and your colleagues up ‘on all things digital’.

The aim is to build learning (about all areas of digital) into the fabric of the agency. You will achieve that by having a systematic approach to gathering information about digital developments, regularly. Everyone in the business should be involved.

It’s fair to say that being curious is partly innate in all digital marketers (and in agency folk in general)) but you can encourage that further by consistently following a learning framework.

The framework is one I talk to clients about and it alliterates nicely. That’s deliberate – lots of agencies have learning sessions that alliterate (for example ‘Brown Bag’, ‘Learning Lunch’, ‘Wednesday Wisdom’) which are meant to be memorable and encoded into agency life.

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In this case, there are three parts to the framework:

1. Curate

This is where everyone gathers digital innovation (or best practice) news from a variety of sources. Exactly which sources (‘knowledge channels’) you curate will depend on the focus of your agency. The thirteen we discuss in detail in our Keeping Digital Teams Up-To-Date guide are Feedly, Zest, Podcasts, YouTube channels, Twitter Lists, Twitter searches, certified Training, Events and Seminars / Conferences, Specialist Partner workshops and presentations, having an innovation space in the agency, blogging within the agency, books, and awards sites for innovative digital work.

2. Debate

Having an inquisitive and challenging mindset is a great soft skill (these are also disused in the digital skills guide). By encouraging debate within the agency and not taking every digital update from vendors or start-ups at face value, you start to build confidence in the team. Those with more digital experience will know that not every new technique or technology you see will be right for you or your clients.

The idea of debating news stories and innovations in an open forum is that the team ‘test drive’ the potential value of new techniques or technologies. You can then move the most promising into your digital lab/innovation space if you have that. And look to allocate ‘the new’ into (say) 10% of your work for clients. Read more about the 70/20/10 rule in digital marketing in this article by Dave Chaffey.

3. Extrapolate

The information gathering and then the debate that follows builds agency insight that helps you help your clients. For example, some agencies have ideas walls where they keep a note of emerging digital tech that could help them with their proactive client account growth plans. Or they pull in some new ideas outside of the stated scope of work in a new business/request for proposal – adding value to the client right from the start.

The objective of this approach is not just to generate new business/client growth ideas but to widen the ‘digital mindset’ of the agency. It doesn’t mean that account handlers become coders – although that could be a learning strand.

Speaking of coding, and to end on a positive note, in January Teresa May announced an initiative for the North West of England called the ‘Institute of Coding’. The Institute of Coding sees universities, corporates, SMEs and industry groups working together with a £40M budget. There will be new undergraduate and postgraduate courses. And a mandate to encourage more women, ethnic minorities, and mature students/career switchers into the tech industry. Which can only benefit the agency sector.

How are you tackling the digital skills gap to keep your agency ahead of the curve? I am interested to know and hear what initiatives you have run.


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