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Digital-Talent Dearth Breeds Crisis

Dot-Bomb Aftermath: We Laid Them Off in 2000, Now We Can't Afford Them

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Crispin thought it had its man, a digital producer experienced in getting integrated programs out the door. He was a West Coast freelancer with about six years of experience, perfect in every way but one: He was demanding $400,000, roughly what he's pulling in as a hired gun.
'The greatest threat facing the continued growth of interactive advertising is the paucity of great talent,' said Andy Sims, senior VP-interactive at ZenithOptimedia.
'The greatest threat facing the continued growth of interactive advertising is the paucity of great talent,' said Andy Sims, senior VP-interactive at ZenithOptimedia.

Even if the number is exaggerated, the fact remains that it's a great time to be in digital, provided you're part of the select group that has real experience in Flash development or web design and can help create the sophisticated integrated-marketing programs that agencies and their clients increasingly are demanding. Salaries are soaring, perks are proliferating and promotions are pouring in.

But it's not so wonderful if you're in the market for interactive talent. There's not enough of it to go around, and what is out there will cost you -- dearly.

Market gone haywire
This extreme seller's market is a result of general ad and media agencies' reactions to an increasingly digital world. They're gobbling up talent and creating an environment where interactive shops, ad agencies, and even direct marketers and PR firms are scrapping over the same people.

"It reminds me of interviewing candidates during the dot-com boom, when people would ask for company-car leases," said Jeff Steinhour, partner-director of account services at Crispin Porter & Bogusky. "It's gone haywire."

"It's a real problem that just sort of snuck up on the industry," said Amy Hoover, exec VP at the recruiter Talent Zoo. "Salaries are rising, and there's a game of musical chairs going on at the agencies, with a finite amount of people available for these positions."

The big difference
Moreover, pricier Flash developers and interactive art directors are driving up production costs considerably, something marketers will be forced to consider when creating interactive budgets.
Sasha Koren of the digital shop Organic last week moved to Arnold Worldwide to become its senior VP-creative director.
Sasha Koren of the digital shop Organic last week moved to Arnold Worldwide to become its senior VP-creative director.

"Pricing pressure on their services is creating a very tight labor market that is not accurately reflected in many marketers' interactive production budgets," said Andy Sims, senior VP-interactive at ZenithOptimedia. "This is because in 2004 and 2005, a lot of incredible interactive work came out and was priced very low and sometimes at a loss."

He added: "The greatest threat facing the continued growth of interactive advertising is the paucity of great talent."

'90s go-go days
You could say the current environment has a whiff of the late '90s go-go days -- minus, of course, the stock options, in-office massages and house-of-cards business models.

But before you start shooting gerbils out of a cannon, it's worth observing a significant difference between the dot-com era and now. Back then, everyone prospered. These days, there's a clear advantage for a small subset of the business: those schooled in Flash, web architecture and data analytics. At all experience levels, these folks are reeling in big raises, getting chased by headhunters and being poached by bigger outfits.

Consider Arnold's recent efforts to add an interactive creative director to its New York office. Chief Creative Officer John Staffen started out with about a dozen potential candidates who could work in a multidisciplinary, multimedia environment, a job description much like Crispin's.
Out of price range
"We immediately found that six to eight were out of our price range," he said. "They were open to talking with us because we offered the chance to do innovative work for big clients. We just couldn't afford them." Last week, Arnold announced the hire of Sasha Koren, an award-winning creative from digital shop Organic, as senior VP-creative director.

Or consider the plight of R/GA. Asked whether his fast-growing firm would be growing even faster were it not for the paucity of talent out there, Chairman-CEO Bob Greenberg didn't need to think about it. "We turn down a fair amount of work," he said. "This week we turned down a major global brand because we decided it would take up too many resources to pitch it and staff it."

Mr. Greenberg said his executives are highly sought-after, and a pioneer like R/GA is bound to take on a Serengeti-like feel in this environment, with poachers from all sides targeting folks with deep interactive backgrounds.

Value digital thinking
He said the key is to keep them happy with a strong culture and new challenges -- not to mention a philosophy that genuinely values interactive and digital thinking. "At many ad agencies, digital is treated like a third cousin," Mr. Greenberg said in a phone interview from St. Barts. (Yeah, St. Barts. Let's keep these woes in perspective.)

Like many things -- reality TV, extreme sports, the William Shatner renaissance -- this all can be blamed on the late 1990s, with its dot-com bubble and a lack of foresight when it burst. The industry sent its young into unemployment or other businesses, leaving it high and dry now.

"Just when we were training the second generation of interactive-agency folks, the dot-com bust came along and we laid them off by the hundreds," Mr. Sims said. "We're still feeling the repercussions of that. A whole generation of talent was lost."

~ ~ ~
Digital stars
Three interactive specialists who have moved to general ad and media agencies

Sasha Koren: Ms. Koren jumped from Omnicom interactive shop Organic to Havas' Arnold New York. As senior VP-creative director, she'll work on multidisciplinary campaigns for marketers such as Hershey and Lee Jeans.

Colleen DeCourcy: JWT New York Co-President Ty Montague spent seven months wooing this former chief creative officer at Organic. He eventually got her to become his chief experience officer.

Andy Sims: The former Butler Shine Stern & Partners exec jumped to Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia, where he's charged with infusing the culture at the media network with digital-minded creativity.
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