Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why we must free digital talent from agency silos

By Ciaran Deering, Head of Online, The Grove Media

Since the birth of TV, advertising has been one of the most creative and exciting industries to work in. And with the emergence of online and digital, a whole new set of talent opportunities – particularly in media – were created at the cutting edge of the new world of communication and entertainment.

Media agencies have continued to grow in size and importance, fuelled by digital expansion. And many people in digital have been able to hone their skills, work on exciting accounts and play a key part in the growth of their clients’ business.

But some agencies are now struggling to attract and retain the digital best talent. There are several factors at play here. The return to the office is turning attention once again to the long hours, stress and huge expectations we place on our people – across all agencies in advertising and marketing. The experiences of the past 18 months have led many people – digital talent included – to focus on the work they want to be doing and where they want to do it.

And there is the ongoing issue of the digital talent drain. Not surprisingly some of our best people have been and continue to be attracted by the big tech players, by start-ups and by other tech-enabled industries. The likes of Google of Facebook have a lot to offer, so it’s understandable that some of our people will be enticed by them.

But there’s another part to the story. In an increasingly specialist media industry, we make big demands of our people, particularly those in digital and tech. We want them to bring impressive technical skills, but we also want them to be great collaborators and to be able to work-cross discipline.

But we don’t always make it easy for digital talent to deliver against expectations. Media agencies tend to place skilled digital talent in specialist teams: social, programmatic, search etc. We ask them to collaborate when it suits us, but too often they are working in silos that are not always the most engaging or expansive environments.

It’s not surprising this has happened. The media industry has had to respond to rapid digital growth and the emergence of countless new platforms that now command the majority of media spend. Each channel works differently and requires slightly different skillsets. And for some big, global clients, having large, dedicated teams, separated out in specialisms, is the only way to manage volume digital business.

But I would argue that media agencies now need to redress the balance and focus on more integrated agency models.

As we look to build our talent pool, I am seeing more and more digital candidates who are desperate to get away from silos and to broaden their horizons. These are skilled and bright individuals but they have not had the exposure and experience of working across a client account. I’ve seen digital people in their 30s who’ve never had any real involvement in the business planning or strategy of an account or worked collaboratively with a creative or PR agency.

I would advocate, where possible, for more agencies to adopt non-siloed, non-discipline based teams. This is obviously easier for smaller agencies, where digital talent tends to learn and work across search, social and display and play a bigger role in overall strategy. But it is also possible to create structures and ways of working in bigger agencies that better integrate digital teams. Where silos can’t be avoided, then consider approaches such as job swapping and planned hot-desking that enables people to experience and collaborate with other departments that are also working on the same client.

We need to involve our digital people in the business planning and strategy of the work. Clients are demanding greater levels of innovation and seeking their agencies to support them with transformation and our digital talent have key roles to play in that.

We need to structure and refocus our training, so digital talent learn broad media, marketing and business skills. But not only that, training must be expanded to ensure that non-digital staff become proficient in digital to work effectively and collaboratively with the digital teams.

By investing properly in our digital staff and changing their day-to-day working structures, we will improve retention levels. This investment is also the right thing to do in terms of supporting the career development of digital talent. While some will move to tech companies and continue to do very focused and technical work, some will have the opportunity to move into agency management or leadership roles, to go client-side, or to become entrepreneurs and launch their own start-up businesses.

Media agencies have rightly adapted to become leaders in the digital transformation of advertising. As this journey continues, they need to continue to adapt to ensure that digital talent can flourish and play an ever more important role in client growth.