I recently participated in an Aspen Institute Socrates Program led by Andrew Ross Sorkin which focused on ways to address our nation's continuing struggle with high unemployment. Although we evaluated this issue in relation to the entire U.S. economy, the discussion prompted me to think about what role, if any, we in the digital media and marketing space should play in promoting job creation and higher overall employment.
As a starting point, I don't believe that businesses have a social obligation to generate employment. As every businessperson knows, it's difficult enough to create and grow businesses without taking on the additional burden of addressing broader social goals. Moreover, when a business succeeds, it inherently generates social benefits - through meeting the needs of its customers, generating compensation for its employees and positive returns for its other stakeholders, and producing tax dollars for government that help underwrite collective social investments. Conversely, when a business pursues multiple objectives that may be unaligned or even at cross-purposes, it risks weaker execution or business failure, which would of course negate the positive social benefits a company might otherwise generate.
This is not to say a business can't embed a social purpose as a core part of its mission and brand, such as Honest Tea or Tom's Shoes. In those cases, though, the embedded purpose is one of the main ways a company differentiates itself and engages consumers; the social purpose is not an ancillary objective. Looking at digital media and marketing specifically, our high-growth, tech-centric businesses tend not to generate the corresponding levels of job creation that are generated through high-growth manufacturing or service businesses. (There's a broader debate underway as to whether the current mode of technical innovation structurally limits employment, in ways that prior stages of technical advancement did not.) Finally, government, not business, is responsible for addressing macro-conditions - including the pending fiscal cliff, longer-term entitlement reform, immigration reform and tax reform - that will either stimulate or retard business investment and growth.
Given all of the above caveats and limitations, what should we in digital media and marketing be doing to create jobs?
Fire up the innovation engine.
As demonstrated by various Kauffman Foundation studies, net new job creation is almost entirely generated by new and emerging ventures - and the digital media and marketing sectors are dominated by relatively young, high-growth (and job producing) companies. By continuing to invest in innovation, and in the people who create, deploy and support our industry's new technologies, products and services, we will remain an important contributor to economic and employment growth.
Generate demand for our clients.
Our clients invest in our content, advertising and marketing in order to generate greater demand for their products and services. Even as governmental bodies and other policymakers develop programs to bring more people into the workforce (i.e., labor supply), market-driven hiring will depend on businesses generating the demand to support these new hires.
Preserve our policy edge by contributing to society.
Whether we like it or not, evolving laws and regulations exert significant influence over the direction and growth of our industry - in areas such as intellectual property , security, consumer privacy and content censorship. And if you look back at the arguments our associations and other representatives make against excessive regulation, they often cite our industry's success in creating jobs and generating economic growth as Exhibit #1. As such, we have a vested interest in maintaining our privileged status as a job-creating sector. I'm not suggesting that we all artificially inflate our payrolls as a down-payment toward making our case for self-regulation. But at the same time, we should be attentive to both the direct and indirect opportunities we have to generate new jobs consistent with our business plans. To bolster our always-challenged industry image, we may want to consider developing or supporting a non-profit initiative that promotes employment (extending beyond current industry-supported philanthropies such as the wonderful TD Foundation, and our concentrated efforts to promote consumer privacy education). For example, we might partner at an industry level with education and training programs in the major cities where our businesses operate, to inject our approaches to innovation and applied STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education into these programs. Doing so would have the added benefit of enhancing the talent pipeline for our growing businesses.
Simply put, we in digital media and marketing are already part of the solution when it comes to addressing the nation's unemployment crisis. And with regulatory latitude, a more stable macro-fiscal environment, more forward-thinking immigration policies which enable us to attract and harness the world's best talent, and more growth-friendly tax policies, we'll play an even bigger role in driving economic and employment growth.