The Digital Agency Egosystem

We’ve never been afraid of a healthy amount of ego in digital media. There are plenty of influences to feed it, stoke and stroke it – largely fed by the growth of the market and the demand for people with digital marketing skills (and perpetuated by people like yours truly, along with the rest of the recruitment industry).

It’s 2014 and the digital ego is about as big as it’s ever been. Is it about to explode?

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Let’s start with a clear definition of the word ‘ego’ (with thanks to Google):

ego

ˈiːgəʊ,ˈɛ-/
noun
a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

 

In a job context, an ego’s not necessarily a bad thing – properly balanced against experience and ability, it can mean confidence and assertiveness. A ‘healthy ego’ (commensurate with ability) is good for persuasion, presenting ideas, making decisions. Once out of kilter with experience and ability though, an ego can be a dangerous thing.

So how does this relate to the digital market? Well let’s go back a few years…

It’s 2005. Compare a typical offline Account Director with their digital counterpart and you’re likely to find that the offline AD has 5 years more experience, and an age difference to match. That’s to be expected – back then, digital was a comparatively young market and the digital ADs at that time were comparatively experienced (comparatively speaking).

That was nearly 10 years ago, so things must have levelled out a bit by now, right?

If anything, it’s done the opposite.

Our Digital Account Directors are getting younger, and they’re less experienced too. We’re certainly not denying that there are plenty of great people in the market, but there are also many examples where ego has overtaken ability.

So why is this?

One critical factor is that there are simply less people in the market past a certain level. Part of the reason for this is that the career path has changed – agency to in-house jumps are much more commonplace now, thanks in part to increased investment by companies to bring more digital marketing resource in-house. A lot of people we talk to at AM level and above feel that they have ‘done their time’ agency-side and end up moving in-house (or at least out of the agency circuit). It’s creating a genuine shortfall of qualified people at AD level and above.

But agencies still need people at this level, so what’s the solution?

One solution, adopted by a few agencies is to promote on relative merit rather than factoring in experience. Precedence becomes the problem here – however good they might be, promoting someone to Account Director who has less than three years experience presents challenges – how do you justify not promoting others who have the same (or more) experience? How easy will it be to find people who will respect and be happy reporting into a director who’s still in their mid twenties?

When it comes to decisions like this, we’re in a dangerously small market – such a precedence isn’t localised to one agency for long. If one agency won’t offer someone with 3 years experience at AD level, you can bet that someone else will. Rinse and repeat a few times and it quickly becomes ‘the norm’ for an AD to have 3 years experience.

The issue this creates isn’t necessarily on the technical or operational side – there are some very bright and very capable young marketers out there. It’s the managerial skills that are often forfeited – the sort of skills you get from having been there and done that. With clear hierarchy less evident than it was so there’s often less distinction between levels. Lacking training and exposure, many struggle with their current level, but still have their sights set on the next rung on the ladder. This is actually happening. Our digital ADs are becoming more junior but more expectant at the same time. You can’t fault the ambition, but it really feels that the walk before you run mantra has been left by the wayside.

There are definite upsides to all this too though – fast career progression keeps people motivated and interested and also makes our market more attractive to graduates on the way in. There’s something to be said for being dropped into the deep end too – a sure fire way to sort the swimmers from the sinkers (and the healthy egos from the super egos).