Published in Jan-Feb 2015
It’s 2015 and digital is still a buzzword in brand and advertising circles and although there are plenty of digital marketing agencies, hiring skilled and experienced human resources to populate these agencies is, in the words of one agency owner and CEO, “one of the toughest things to do.”
Digital is an evolving medium and while the term has been bandied about ad nauseum for the last few years, brand investment in digital has been conservative. Although digital marketing budgets have doubled in 2013-14 (see ‘Investing in digital’ on page 4), it still constitutes under five percent of the overall marketing budget in most companies. Consequently, digital agencies do not command the same level of compensation that brands pay to other marketing communications partners, something which ultimately has an impact on staff salaries.
The lack of investment has also influenced training and education in digital marketing disciplines. Only a handful of local universities are offering short courses in digital marketing or ecommerce, but these are by no means comprehensive, and neither are there any degrees or specialisation in digital design or strategy. This has led to a dearth of trained resources in the market. Yet, as MNCs face pressure from their global offices to invest more in the medium and local brands become more interested in digital marketing, staffing digital agencies with people who understand digital platforms, are able to craft digital strategies and then execute them in meaningful ways is absolutely essential.
Looking for passion, training for skill
In the absence of a pool of skilled digital marketing professionals, agencies prefer to look for a diverse workforce that is made up of at least three broad groups: fresh graduates from various disciplines with an innate understanding of digital, by virtue of the fact that they are millennials who have grown up with technology (i.e. digital natives); people from conventional advertising and media agencies with a limited understanding of digital but an excellent understanding of brands; and professionals who have some work experience in other digital agencies.
Regardless of how much experience they bring to the table, every agency first assesses candidates on qualities such as passion, enthusiasm, curiosity and a willingness to learn. Although it can be argued that these traits are highly valued in any job, they are of greater importance for digital agencies which have little else to go on. Additionally, the survival of digital agencies is based on the ability to stay in step with trends and developments, and this can only be done by people who take initiative and are eager to learn and grow.
Ejaz Asi, Head of Operations, The Brand Crew encapsulates this well:
“Digital is widespread and each field within it requires a level of specialisation and this makes it next to impossible to find the right people. Therefore, the best you can hope for is to find people who are diversely predisposed in terms of education, passion and interests.”
As a second step, agencies assess whether potential employees have an understanding of digital platforms by asking them about their online habits. Some agencies ask candidates to name the blogs they read, others look at their Klout scores, and still others ask them to Google stuff during the interview. It’s safe to say that the process is less than scientific.
Interestingly, for social media management positions (where employees are expected to update and maintain a client’s social media accounts), passion, enthusiasm and a basic understanding of digital are the main criteria for assessment, as in this case candidates tend to be fresh graduates. This may appear somewhat surprising considering that social media currently constitutes a significant portion of client marketing efforts. However, Farzad Bagheri, CEO and Managing Director, The Brand Crew, is of the opinion that as long as people are eager to learn and can fit into the culture of the agency, they can be trained.
“For me, the tech stuff is not important,” he says, “people can come in and learn it.”
The digital strategy dilemma
Strategy is the cornerstone of all marketing initiatives and digital marketing agencies say that the role of digital strategist is the hardest one to fill. Part of the problem is that brands have yet to take an active interest in the strategy side of the digital marketing equation.
According to Aamir Rauf, Chief Digital Officer, Lowe & Rauf, “Strategy is the building block of everything we do; it is also the hardest thing we do. Unfortunately people give it the least weightage. Most clients are not very interested in strategy, they will listen to a bit of it and then ask us what their Facebook page or website will look like.”
He adds that Lowe & Rauf prefer to hire fresh people who have an interest in strategy and then train them from scratch using Lowe’s tools.
On the other hand, agencies like Creative Chaos prefer to hire experienced digital strategists, but as Ishan Mohammad Farooq, Managing Director, Digital Business at the agency says, there are only a handful of people available so “if we cannot find a person, we create one.”
Azam Jalal Khan, COO, Digitz says that as he worked to staff Digitz, he realised that strategy people who understand brands are critical to a digital marketing agency because they are able to translate what clients want to the more ‘techie’ people in the agency. Yet, he admits it is very rare to find a person with those skills.
Given that a digital strategist is a valuable asset for an agency, but training one is a time consuming process, many agencies want to ensure that the candidates they choose are genuinely interested in digital and willing to stay for the long haul. As Rauf puts it, “We are not going to spend time and money training them if they leave us in six months.”
Training for digital success
Training and development form a significant part of what digital marketing agencies do. While training employees is a given, clients also need to be educated and practically all the digital agencies hold regular sessions in their offices to either teach brand managers about digital platforms or keep them updated on trends within the medium.
Asad Memon, MD, Digital Media Operations, Creative Chaos says that training clients is important otherwise “when we go and talk to them it is very difficult to connect with them.”
When it comes to training employees, digital marketing agencies employ a mix of methodologies. The most common is to combine on the job training with regular in-house sessions conducted by senior personnel from within the agency. Khan says that much as he would like to send his employees to local institutes for digital training, the expertise does not exist within Pakistan. For MNC agencies like JWT, regional digital trainings are an option and as Fawad Parvez, Director Planning and Digital, JWT explains, the agency hopes to send more team members to these trainings in 2015.
Larger digital agencies such as Converge and Creative Chaos also offer their employees subsidised education benefits.
Naveed Khalid Latif, CEO, Converge Technologies says, “We put a lot of stress on education. Anyone who has worked here for a year can apply to any university in Pakistan and we will pay the fees. The caveat is that the degree or course has to be relevant to their job and they have to get into the course on their own.” Whether or not students are able to find ‘relevant’ courses and degrees within Pakistan is another story altogether.
Similarly agencies pay for their employees to obtain Google Certifications and agencies like Converge also work strategically with Google and Facebook to offer their team access to webinars and other online courses.
Learn and be free
Along with training, culture plays a very important role and digital agencies are more likely to offer a two-way communication environment compared to other agencies, because the millennials who populate these agencies expect this kind of environment and also because digital media is in essence democratic in nature.
In Bagheri’s opinion, the best way to retain people and keep them motivated is to offer them a culture that is based on fairness, openness and understanding. Asi adds that “we actively encourage people to seek out other passions outside work.”
It is perhaps not surprising that in an online survey conducted by Aurora to assess how people felt about working in digital agencies, the top two responses to a question about ‘the pros of working for digital agencies’ were ‘learning’ and the ‘freedom’ to experiment and voice opinions.
A question of compensation
Although digital agencies offer exposure to new ideas and a greater measure of freedom and flexibility compared to conventional agencies, their compensation packages tend to be less attractive. However, there are exceptions. Lowe & Rauf, for example, by virtue of having its digital set-up incorporated within the larger agency has similar pay scales for digital and non-digital employees. Similarly, agencies such as Converge and Creative Chaos, which also have strong technology businesses in addition to digital marketing, pay competitive market rates. In fact, Memon says Creative Chaos has a policy of paying top market salaries to ‘key’ resources, which means that “whatever a person may get to do the same job in another agency, we will pay that much or more.”
However, competitive salaries are an issue for most pure digital marketing agencies and agency heads like Khan believe that digital resources should actually be paid more than their conventional ad agency counterparts.
“A digital agency person is always on the job. It is not like TV where you run an ad and then people meters will give you the ratings. I am not saying TV is not important but from the brand’s perspective, their customers are constantly talking to them on digital media. Therefore while the quantum of work may be more in a conventional agency, the frequency is greater in a digital agency.”
However, for the time being, lower digital marketing budgets mean that digital human resources are paid lower salaries. This may change in the next couple of years as brands not only become more serious about their digital efforts but also take a more active interest in the people working on their digital initiatives. There is already some evidence that this is happening.
Some brand teams are asking to meet the community managers working on their social media accounts, while others, such as Coca-Cola, expect their dedicated digital team at Digitz to maintain a Klout score of 50. Still others are asking their digital agencies to hire a ‘known industry name’, which in an industry where names and reputations are still being made, is a somewhat unrealistic request.
While agencies like Creative Chaos believe that clients are in a relationship with the agency and therefore it is the agency’s responsibility to deliver regardless of resources, many digital agencies believe that clients are set to become more demanding about digital hiring in the next two to three years. In fact, Rauf predicts that “by the end of 2015, if not before, every client will probably want to meet the entire team working on their account.”
The hiring challenge
Like all other industries, digital agencies have their share of challenges when it comes to hiring human resources, but these are exacerbated by the fact that the talent pool is limited.
As Asi points out in his article on page 8, “Universities here have yet to offer an extensive curriculum in fields such as web programming, digital marketing, user interface design, user experience design or data science for websites, to name a few.”
In the absence of comprehensive digital education and the presence of a small pool of experienced human resources, turnover by way of poaching between agencies is a big issue; and there are other problems as well.
Aamir Irfan, CEO, Convex Interactive says that people will often leave “for Rs 5,000 extra from another agency. They also feel that digital is very easy to do, so they work within an agency for two to three years and then start doing social media management on a freelance basis.”
This has resulted in a plethora of social media managers and ‘digital consultancies’ run by individuals who have little or no knowledge of digital strategy and can probably offer no more than one of two services. Rauf believes that when clients start taking digital seriously and begin to understand the importance of strategy, these fly by night operations will disappear.
Another issue that plagues digital agencies stems from the fact that the average age of the workforce is very young. This results in people who Irfan says “lack patience and consistency.”
His opinion is echoed by Khan who says that while “young people are brilliant they lack life experience. They are fickle, easily distracted and that sense of ownership has to be drilled into them. It can be very costly when you have a young social media manager in front of a client who then says something that is not very professional.”
This makes it especially important for agencies to assess potential employees in terms of their attitude but as Rauf says, “it is hit and miss and we don’t always get it right.”
Developing for digital
Digital is an evolving field and the challenges that Pakistani digital agencies are facing now are similar to the ones more established markets experienced a few years ago. The good news is that there is plenty of online and offline learning to address these problems.
Educational programmes that focus on various digital disciplines are essential and need to be initiated on an urgent basis. However, since digital roles are anything but standardised, universities have to be ready to design courses that are as dynamic in nature as the digital marketing industry itself. While there is no substitute for experience with real time digital campaigns, an education in digital will ensure that candidates applying to digital agencies will know more about the medium other than their own social media habits.
Digital agencies for their part need to think of better ways to source, interview and retain talent. In terms of sourcing, they could create links with academic institutions and use advanced LinkedIn filters to keep tabs on digital professionals. The interview process could be streamlined by having more than one interviewer present, including a series of tests whereby the person asking the questions knows what the right answers are, as well as finding ways of putting people in the job before hiring them to gauge passion and initiative in real time. Similarly, a strong retention programme is essential, especially for agencies which are currently counting mainly on their name and the learning opportunities they provide. While these are important, so are bi-annual performance reviews (a norm in digital agencies abroad), competitive salaries, a defined programme of perks and benefits and a sense that there is room to grow within (and outside) the agency.
Ultimately the solution to most of this lies with the brands and how much their companies plan to invest in digital marketing. The current scenario within the digital agencies mirrors client attitudes towards the medium, which is essentially lukewarm and complacent in nature. If brands are indeed as serious about digital as they say they are, they need to put their money where their mouth is. Then, with time and effort, a digital marketing industry staffed by specialists will emerge.