How should advertising agencies invest in talent reinvention?
Over the last decade, advertising talent has been redefined. Technology, with all its potential and ambiguity, forced us to reevaluate. Agencies were bought and sold. Capabilities were broadened. Superstars were made. New roles were established. Entire departments were eliminated. Agency business models were shifted and repositioned. These changes required a new type of digital worker.
Today, agency reinvention continues to be a priority. We adjust agency processes, capabilities, and partnerships, trade talent at record speeds, support a small group of technology leaders, change seating arrangements, and force interdepartmental collaboration. Yet rarely do we invest in large-scale talent reinvention; rarely do we commit to what is arguably our most valuable asset in today’s agency landscape: the digital knowledge of employees.
Likewise, we seldom openly admit or discuss the fact that most of our employees are technologically illiterate or semi-literate (failing to understand in any depth topics such as social media, mobile, interaction design, and application development). Talent reeducation continues to take a back seat to the latest shiny offering, application, or platform. Most agency leaders are unsure about how to tackle this fundamental challenge: How do we continually elevate employee understanding of digital across all departments, all roles?
Often the question is: How do we tackle what we don’t know? As our need for expert digital talent increases, so should our investment in cultivating and educating employees. Rather than agency learning and development being the first things to go, they should be the first things to stay. We should focus as diligently on training as we do on recruiting. Future industry announcements should include details about agency education, not the latest hire.
The requirements for new types of digital workers are not going away. Digital education is no longer a “nice to have.” It is an essential component of 21st-century-agency competitive advantage. How does your agency get started? How do you design, build, and implement an education program? What are the essential components? Who should teach classes? How do you measure success?
Whether you’re looking to tweak your existing digital education program or build a new one from scratch, here are some tips to get started:
1. Launching the Program: Converting Digital Observers
Agencies need to create a culture of digital makers, not observers. We can no longer allow employees to watch and not do. Essential to learning about technology is hands-on experience. Maintain an environment in which employees feel safe to admit what they don’t know, then begin the process of filling the gaps. Start by surveying the knowledge that exists; ask direct questions about hard skills, and chart agency knowledge. Provide digital educational programming that transforms observers into active participants.
2. Building the Program: Everyone’s a Technologist
We’re all technologists. One assumes a technologist is the young, energetic twentysomething programmer. Within a successful modern advertising agency, every single employee is a technologist. It’s not confidence in code that defines this title; it’s the ability to learn, contribute, and experiment. Agencies should reevaluate the technology discovery and development process. Allow non-technology-minded employees to mix with the technology-minded on a daily basis. Own technology, invest in experts, and require that they circulate and share knowledge. Reward all employees for taking “technology risks” and participating in cross-functional technological understanding.
3. Requiring Buy-In: Leadership Belief and Investment
The most important step in creating an agency education program is ongoing executive buy-in. From the very top the commitment to education must be integrated into strategic goals and priorities. When this buy-in happens, education becomes part of everyday work. Employees understand through the example of agency leaders the value of, belief in, and commitment to learning. Education permeates meetings, space, and process. Leaders openly refer to their investment in education as their number-one talent priority. The agency CEO spends as much time with educators as he or she does with accountants.
4. Recruiting External Teachers: Objective Instruction
There are many digital experts. An agency’s digital education program should recruit outside experts to teach classes. Even if these experts are direct competitors, they can provide content that does not exist internally. The objective-expert point of view ensures that employees are learning from the best in the field. If social media is a topic, spend time recruiting professionals who are experts at the craft. These professionals are often excited to share what they know (it is often the best way for them to formalize their understanding of a topic). Experts are often already teaching. Inviting them to your agency provides an additional opportunity for them to expand their knowledge.
5. Measuring Success: Integrating with Agency Work
For education to be most effective, it must be integrated with agency work. What type of digital work does the agency do or want to do in the future? Success is measured by the direct influence of education on agency output. Require account leaders to track education-program participation. Ask employees who attend classes to apply what they learn to a real client challenge or opportunity. Integrate content learned in classes with process and output. Create reward programs for employees who “sell in” digital ideas with access to more “in class” time.
6. Getting Started: Do It Now
If agencies begin to invest in digital education as heavily as they invest in acquisitions and partnerships, the industry effects will be game-changing. If more of us take steps toward formalizing education, toward truly owning reeducation within the walls of our agency, it will become the standard rather than the exception. Talent reinvention requires shared industry commitment. Let’s all commit to knowing more rather than not enough.
Now, go build a digital education program!
Allison Kent-Smith is director of digital development at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. She spoke on the topic of "The New Black? How Digital Ed Is Everything,” at SXSW. Follow her on Twitter @swervshop.