Drowning in Data, Our Business Faces a Serious Talent Crisis

The Solution: Support and Partner With Higher Ed to Attract the Best Math and Tech Graduates

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A recent headline in Advertising Age resonated with me: "When CMOs Learn to Love Data, They'll Be VIPs in the C-Suite." It points to an Achilles heel of our business: we don't have enough specialized knowledge to adequately draw insights from all the data we have. Frankly, we are amid a talent crisis.

Where are the professionals who can combine the creative, analytic, technology and communication skills desperately needed by agencies and brands alike? Read recent reports from McKinsey and IBM ("From Stretched to Strengthened"). We need these professionals by the thousands, and they are not there.

Business and government are focusing on the need to improve what's called STEM education (science-technology-engineering-math), and the competition is fierce for those who possess these skills as they enter the workforce. Yet advertising and marketing is hardly the preferred career choice for many of the graduates who are proficient in the use of data. Yet the troves of data we collect and analyze demand smart statisticians and analysts versed in modeling, segmentation, dashboards and the business rules that flow from them. We also need colleges to deliver creatives who not only are comfortable with data, but will demand data insights to inform the brief, the strategy, the art and the message.

How can we encourage advertising and marketing as a career choice in an increasingly data-driven world? First, the advertising business needs to build stronger relationships with higher education, not only to give back as business leaders, but also to help shape curriculum and course materials and aid in recruitment. As agency leaders, we might undertake any and all of the following steps:

1. Participate as an adjunct professor, as a visiting alum, or as a good neighbor at a nearby university or college. For example, I've stayed involved with Harvard Business School, initially returning annually to teach a course on how we started Epsilon and later to recruit and serve on the Dean's Advisory Board.

2. Add a professor to your board of directors, ideally an academic whose research and courses complements the skills needed for effective marketing.

3. Hire interns, especially those immersed in social media. Some may go on to be senior players in the industry, figuring out how to make new media work as a cost-effective and user-friendly marketing tool. Our company regularly taps students from nearby Southern Methodist University.

4. Contribute to your alma mater, or a local educational institution with strong STEM programs. This can lead to invitations to get involved in other ways. For myself, this has led to participation on boards at the University of Maryland, Harvard and the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation.

5. If you can, underwrite a chair. In the mid-90s, I decided to underwrite a marketing chair at Harvard Business School, and have had the pleasure of working with John Deighton, the sitting professor, on case materials. Support industry trade organizations, such as the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation and the Advertising Educational Foundation, that provide innovative programs to engage educators, graduate and undergraduate students, young professionals and others, leading to careers in marketing.

6. Sponsor scholarships, not simply for general higher education or continuing education, but dedicated specifically in STEM, advertising, marketing or analytics, where our needs are most acute.

We need to ramp up our efforts to stimulate interest in advertising and marketing among today's brightest students. How will we continue to command value, relevancy and engagement for our brands and services if we are not surrounded by the best, most talented, analytic talent?

Hal Brierley is executive chairman of The Brierley Group.
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