Keeping Millennials in the Fold: Digital Marketing's Big Staffing Challenge

And What the Industry Can Do Now to Address the Problem

By Published on .

Doug Checkeris
Doug Checkeris
As clients and agencies alike continue to enhance and solidify their digital-marketing competencies, there is an emerging challenge that has to be addressed and met now to ensure maximum growth in the interactive sector: How do we as an industry create -- and importantly, maintain -- a deep pool of qualified and sufficiently trained digital-marketing professionals, specifically at the junior and middle-management levels?

From my perch as a media-agency CEO, there are two key factors at the root of this challenge. The first is the relative youth of the sector. The industry is in essence just a whisker beyond a decade old and thus there hasn't been ample time to stockpile enough digital talent to keep up with the explosion of pent-up marketer demand. Everybody needs digital specialists -- agencies, clients and vendors -- and there just aren't enough to go around.

Secondly, there's the fluidity of the job market. Frequent job-changing by millennials presents a challenge to agencies' commitment to nurturing and developing a pool of well-rounded digital specialists with versatile skill sets. Of course, staffing volatility is something the ad industry has had to manage for decades, but the impact on quality of product and service could be more profound and more noticeably felt in a relatively nascent marketplace like digital than it would be in our traditional business.

This endemic volatility in digital will -- if unabated -- slow industry growth. Digital "vendors," which I'll define broadly from behemoths like Google to VC-backed startups, have been luring younger agency staffers away after a few years cutting their teeth in the agency world.

This all begs the important question: What can the industry do to address this challenge? As much as we would love to encourage vendors to invest more in their own training and development instead of poaching from agencies, it would be naive to expect that practice to stop. In fact, this conundrum can only be addressed by the agency world taking a good hard look in the mirror and fortifying our efforts in training and development.

At the agency level, a formal, methodical training program with mentorship opportunities would go a long way in creating good morale and inspiring commitment to your organization long enough to properly train young professionals in all of the general managerial and esoteric skills required to service your clients' businesses at best-of-class levels.

Best-of-class training programs can be a great tool to appeal to a young professional's sense of ambition. How do you get young pros to commit to your shop early in their careers? Similar to nurturing any fledgling relationship, agencies need to earn millennials' trust by proving to them in concrete ways that we are committed to their careers. The industry as a whole needs to do a better job of illustrating to our younger staffers the benefits of staying with one company at the start of their careers. Loyalty to one organization for a significant period of time can actually be an accelerator of career advancement.

Author Malcolm Gladwell has famously espoused the dictum that a minimum of 10,000 hours is required to obtain expertise in any field. This concept has gained currency in the business world. In a digital industry context, that would roughly translate to four years.

We as an industry need to communicate to our younger staffers that it is in their best interests for their long-term futures to compile those 10,000 hours at one organization. This degree of loyalty is the holy grail to the pinnacle of success. Ten thousand hours at the same shop offers young staffers benefits that can't be accrued as quickly through constant job-hopping. Intangible skills like navigating organizations and relationships, leadership and problem-solving are best developed through a thoughtful commitment to one organization.

We need look no further than digital-agency CEOs specifically for proof-of-concept. Almost to a man or a woman, all of these successful leaders have all devoted significant time to one company at the beginning of their careers. Rarely do we see someone get to the top who exhibited a tendency for skittish job-hopping early in their careers.

While HR departments do a great job, appointing someone in the C-suite whose mandate is to enhance talent management and development could be the catalyst in taking agency training and development to its ultimate level. This executive would ensure agencies keep talent management at the centers of their agendas.

Lastly, there's the responsibility the industry has overall to the issue. Even if agencies and marketers have addressed the quality-control challenge, there's still the demographic problem of drawing from an insufficient talent pool. This is where the 4A's, Association of National Advertisers, Interactive Advertising Bureau and others could make a huge difference.

What would happen if these associations would invest even more outreach and money into seeding digital advertising/marketing programs with universities, ad schools and even select high schools in an effort to educating and demystifying digital marketing? An initiative like this could go a long way in implanting the notion in young, talented creative minds that working at a digital agency might be just as fun as becoming a Hollywood animator or working at Facebook.

The idea that an agency's greatest assets leave every evening down the elevator shafts all across the country is a time-honored bromide often taken for granted to this day. In an increasingly complex and challenging marketplace marked by promising, yet often puzzling, technologies and platforms in an uncertain economic era, we cannot afford to consider an ironclad commitment towards a robust, self-sustaining world-class talent pool as a luxury.

It is an imperative for survival, much less success.

Doug Checkeris is the CEO of MediaCom North America, a Group M unit of WPP.
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