Agency workers don't think their digital skills are up to snuff, survey says

More than half rate themselves as "novice" in mobile advertising, data analytics and production, according to Smith & Beta report

Advertising is an increasingly digital pursuit, but ad agency employees say they are ill prepared to meet the technical demands of their clients’ digital projects, according to a three-year survey of more than 2,000 agency employees around the world.

The State of Advertising Talent Report, released today, asked agency employees to anonymously rate their own ability in a variety of digital skills. Fifty-five percent of them said their experience in mobile ad strategy was "novice" or even lower. Half of all respondents said the same of their data analytics and KPI skills, as well as their production expertise. The results were similar for creatives, strategists, account people and production teams working at agencies of different types, sizes and on different continents.

A full 65% of respondents called their prototyping skills "novice." Thirty-three percent said the same about their ability with cross-platform storytelling, 34% for content strategy and 47% for user experience. Across the board, a large portion of employees ranked their digital skills as lacking – 43% said they didn’t feel prepared to handle the kind of work that will be expected of people in the industry in the future.

Overall, only 7% of employees said they thought their agency was exceeding their client’s expectations for digital work. And that result wasn’t caused by an abundance of low-level grunts. The longer a respondent’s tenure in the ad industry, the lower his assessment of his agency’s capability to exceed client expectations.

Allison Kent-Smith, founder of Smith & Beta, the talent development firm that conducted the report, placed the blame on the misguided belief among agencies that technically capable workers are hired, not made.   

"Agencies continue to invest in acquiring talent versus developing talent," she said. "The surprising thing is that there’s not more investment in the people that walk in the doors every day."

Indeed, the survey suggests that agency employees frequently rely on sources other than their employers to learn how to do their jobs. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they learned helpful job skills on their own or from friends or peers. Another 23% relied on blogs, books or online resources. Only 9% said management imparted those skills, and another 9% relied on events or conferences. "Education’s not formal, it’s not part of work. It’s something that happens in the margins," Kent-Smith lamented.

Part of the problem is that agencies — like other companies — typically look to hire "experts" for their technical positions, and then expect those skills to spread throughout the company organically, said Kent-Smith. But without opportunities to share their expertise with co-workers, these skilled workers can perform their jobs without ever sharing their knowledge. Then either through burnout, boredom or brain drain, those people move on, and the agency is no better off than when it started.

For example, 44% of survey respondents called themselves social media novices, despite the outsized effect those platforms have on the industry, "Where we’ve failed is we assume only a few people need to know" these skills, Kent-Smith said.

Instead, she suggests a "distributed knowledge" model. Rather than hire five experts, an agency can hire one or two and then train people already working at the agency. "Agencies aren’t going to stop acquiring experts – we still need experts. Given that there’s around 20% on average of experts in an agency, what we’d like to see is growth in the middle area," Kent-Smith said, referring to people with average skills, not experts but not novices. She recommended that between 40% and 60% of an agency should fall in that category.

"Allowing time for experimentation and risk talking is necessary for people to evolve skills and mindsets and habits," she said. Rather than having only a few people who understand important skills, having them train others – even if it’s only to an average level of expertise – is useful. "You have more people in a room who can speak more intelligently and speak directly to the client."

Agencies that don’t invest in educating their workforce can already see the results, Kent-Smith argues. "What we’ve been doing is obviously not necessarily scaling or working. We live with 30% turnover on average. We focus quite a bit of money on acquiring people that we know will be gone in a very short period of time – 12 to 18 months.

Still, it’s likely to be a tough sell for agencies dealing with thin margins and reluctant to reduce billable hours to train employees that could just take a job elsewhere. Kent-Smith says that’s a short-sighted decision. "What happens if you don’t train them, and they stay?"

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