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What’s Wrong with the Agency…Digitally

  |  February 7, 2014   |  Comments

A look at agencies' fundamental challenges with digital competency and talent management, plus three top tips to right the ship and fix it.

As a founding partner of an agency and executive for nearly 10 years, I know how bad the agency's digital competency and talent management (even the digital agency) really is. Managing the client, the razor-thin margins, the set of offerings you go deep on, and most challenging, managing the talent needed for your agency to compete. If you are a brand marketer reading this, be a bit kinder to your agency partners...life is not as simple as "just do it."

So, many of my thoughts stem from that experience, but more from the results of the Digital Talent Gap Study. Recently there has been a bit of a conversation around "auditing" the skills, aptitude, and general situation at big agencies needing to ramp up digital marketing acumen. And same goes for big brands and in-house B2B marketing teams. It's a worthy cause, and I must commend those who are trying to take a step toward getting some answers. But, after hundreds of general team skills assessments and thousands and thousands of digital IQ tests taken by agency staff, let me save you some time and money.

We know, unequivocally, what's wrong, and you are losing a lot of business because of it, Mr. and Mrs. agency head, HR director, or digital lead. Your account managers don't know much about even the fundamental drivers of digital and your SMEs are far and few between. Same goes for the brands employing the agency; they need to get a push, as does your internal team. Let's put it this way: You are losing out on pitches, right? Your client and talent retention is an issue. So, what are we going to do about it?

Here is my strong recommendation...

Skip the survey, skip the assessment, and start to fix it, now.

What We Know From Digital IQ
We know that the average digital IQ of an agency account manager is in the 41st percentile. The average brand-marketing manager is at 63. That gap is a problem. The client services teams from the big agencies, on the whole, are marginally better, at the 44th percentile, which means they fall below the average general marketer's knowledge base at nearly every level. As you can see below, the average digital IQ of a marketer with some digital responsibilities (we call her Mary Jo) is at 71. So, if your account team is managing someone with any digital experience, they will not be in a good place to drive confidence or recommend new areas to expand services, and the renewal is already in jeopardy -- you just don't know it.

Average social media IQ is at 53, average mobile is at 22 (can you say red flag?), the average integrated marketing score is 55, and email, search marketing, and analytics all fall below 30. So, even if your group scores individually higher in a few of these areas, I can assure you, on my next paycheck, you don't vary too greatly. You have a few specialists that carry the weight of expertise, but client services is in a dark place.

What's the takeaway? Survey assessments are good and all (if they are free and take days and not week or months), but putting a program in place and giving your team the opportunity to learn the fundamentals now is critical. 

What We Know Inherently
But you already know this, right? We know it in our gut. We've known it for a while and we just failed to invest in our folks because it was so hard to prioritize. Especially in the fast-paced, thin-margin environment of the agency. You know your team is deficient. You know you need some help. You don't need my stats other than to convince the purse holders how bad the problem is...right?

But now, with strong e-learning programs available that are highly saleable, customizable, and plain old cheap, we can get away from relying on the one-day, in-person training that costs an arm and leg and was lost the next day. We have a continuous way to learn.

The Big Three Tips
Watching countless agency chief executives (CEOs), HR directors, client service team leads, and digital heads struggle with learning inside the agency culture, I've learned three great lessons the hard way to really make an immediate impact.

1. Eliminate the Long-Term Thinking
I know that this sounds a bit contradictory from good business advice, and it is. But when we think about "how do we train the team right?"; "how do we scale this to various offices?"; "what topics and areas should we focus on?"; and "let's get some consensus around this," you hit a major major bottleneck. As with most businesses, short-term needs like driving new business, serving the existing customer, and talent management issues will always take precedent. Consequently, the right impetus to get a good program off the ground will fall low on the priority list.

My advice is to think, "Let's pilot this out." Get started and take a small group and just do it. Once you get into it, then and only then will you see all the pros and cons and things you need to figure out for bigger scale. But just agree to do something by said date and don't make it a big drawn-out budget-intensive decision. Do it. Do it small initially, and do it now.

2. Tie It Back to Revenue
Education is such an amorphous creature. We all know it's critical, but we all have a hard time quantifying its return. In that regard, start to have conversations about areas like "what would it mean if someone's knowledge got us one more customer?" or prompted two more customers to renew or simply just made everyone's job and interactions with each other and the client that much easier, more satisfying (talent retention), and efficient. Do some simple math and life gets a lot easier when justifying the budget.

3. Talent as the Foundation
It's competitive as all get-out for acquiring good talent out there. It's even more challenging to keep good talent. Then you have the onboarding programs needed to properly ensure all your efforts to hire are started off correctly and give great baseline for success. Remind yourself of the undeniable fact that when a human being learns something (like a child) and then uses that learning to do something new and finally sees results from that learning, they are innately happy. Job satisfaction goes up. Customer ROI goes up. Client retention goes up and talent retention goes way up. Think of how easily you can differentiate and appeal to new hires when you say, "We have a digital and social media training (or certificate) program to help you build and grow your career. Does Smith and Associates have that?"

Stop the Assessing...Start the Learning
What people say versus what they do is drastically different. Any researcher will tell you that. Moreover, people don't answer honestly and must test that knowledge, not "how they feel" about their knowledge.

Get a quick (and free) IQ score of your team and individuals that takes 10 minutes. Then set forth on building priorities around that. Choose your courseware off the shelf of customized (usually a combo) and open the komono of learning next week, not next quarter! It's there for the taking. The question is, will you take it?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Kahlow

After selling the Online Marking Summit (OMS) event company in 2011, Aaron is now leading the charge of the newest venture, the Online Marketing Institute - the leading eLearning platform and training destination for digital marketing education.

Kahlow is one of the most recognized thought-leaders in the digital marketing and social media space. Having founded, funded, and built three prolific and highly profitable digital marketing companies, Kahlow has also delivered hundreds of marquee keynote speeches around the globe. As a speaker, Kahlow is known for his inspirational style and plain-spoken nature where audiences always walk away feeling both motivated and educated. Aaron is a leading educator translating online marketing technology jargon into simple marketing and business terms. He is a recognized author, columnist (ClickZ, NYT) and authority on social media marketing, sales and marketing integration, demand generation, business-to-business marketing, search marketing, usability, analytics, and digital marketing strategy.

Named Metropolitan Magazine's "Top 40 Entrepreneurs under the Age of 40" Kahlow is also well known for his endless energy as an entrepreneur. Having built Business Online from three guys and a brother in a dentist office to BtoB Digital Agency of the Year; founding and selling the industry's premier digital marketing event, the Online Marketing Summit, and now on his third successful start-up, Online Marketing Institute, Kahlow is synonymous with building successful digital companies. Kahlow also has served on the Board of Directors and Advisory Board to many digital associations and media companies like the International Business Marketers Association, Search Engine Strategies/ClickZ, Microsoft/ BING Prof. Accreditation, Social Media Examiner, as well as many digital technology start-ups.

Today, Aaron can be found in his new home city of San Francisco, working on the global expansion of "Teaching the World Digital" in his eLearning technology venture, the Online Marketing Institute. Facebook and LinkedIn are his preferred places to connect.

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