3 Big Reasons Why Most Agencies (& Brands) Are Losing on Digital Talent

Digital Talent, digital talent gap

July 30, 2014 by

And the 3 ways to fix the problem on both Fronts of Digital ROI & the Talent to Execute.

In light of the recent quote in ClickZ’s press release this week, thought now would be a good time to help clarify the problem of Digital Talent and Skills as well as offer some solutions.


“I’d go as far to say this issue has reached a crisis level.  Over the years at OMI we've watched this backlog of skills needed to drive awareness and drive sales through digital grow and grow.  Content Marketing is the perfect poster child for this epidemic as we found in our survey with Forrester and BMA and our related Digital Skills and Talent Gap study,” Kahlow said.

“Marketing teams are missing the ROI mark, agencies are failing their clients and senior leadership including HR, L&D, are failing their teams in an epic fashion. This is yet another reason I am thrilled to be moderating the keynote panel at the ClickZ Live digital marketing conference and helping unearth how these great companies are the exception to the rule and how we can learn from them."


As an organization’s leader or professional development head, it’s no secret that the balance between short-term financial results and long-term planning and investment is the key to sustainable success. As with all things in life, we must survive in the short-term but make sacrifices for the long-term if we want to see results beyond just day-to-day existence.   

Yet every level of the organization, from the C-level leader to the entry-level staff and more poignantly professional and learning development (HR, too), is failing at playing the long-term game. Your profits, revenue, operating income, and talent are being greatly affected by it. Most are paying just enough attention to see it. What is it?

Investment in your people.

The most talked about priority (aka lip service) that rarely ever gets the proper leadership mindshare, organization priority, and monetary investment in the history of business itself. Why? We just are too short-term focused. And we avert painful longer-term programs that don’t show immediate impact. Instant gratification is a societal challenge and an epidemic in good business leadership as well as interpersonal development.

Let’s discuss some quick ways to fix it before I dive into unraveling what’s happening. If you’re nodding your head in agreement, read no further than these four steps and skip my explanation of what’s actually happening below.

Nothing worthwhile comes easy…nor overnight. So let’s think about our solutions in a four-step process to begin the journey to getting back on track.

1)   Ask. In the right setting, one-on-one or at a team meeting, simply ask, “How important are our people and the talent we attract to the success of our organization?” You will get a lot of “Very important” responses. Then, follow up with, “Where does this rank on our mid- and long-term priorities to ensure we get it right and do it well? Is it before or after increasing profits by X percent?”
Much has been written about eLearning (and yes, I too run a company that offers such for digital), but most of it is true. It’s a very low-cost way to pilot a program to easily engage everyone around the world or the local office by giving them the power to learn at their own pace and time.

2)   Pilot. As we gain a consensus on the level of importance, it’s time to do something different. The same program with a little more money or the same training impetus with a different spin won’t do the trick. So find something new and even audacious to “pilot.” Getting the risk vs. reward argument to do so usually works well. For instance, “If we can roll out a scalable, engaging eLearning program that provides credentials and badging for our team worldwide, the impact to job satisfaction, talent retention, and improved execution could increase by factors of two or more. If this pilot doesn’t work, we at least learned what we need to do, and will go do it later with only X dollars lost. The reward dwarfs the risk.” It’s here where the whole game changes. You now have a chance to do something new and special with the whole organization watching.

3)   Measure and testimonial. Stating the obvious here, but before you go forward set some simple and agreed upon goals to measure success.  Amount of engagement, number of folks that complete program (ex: how many get the Digital Essentials Certificate) and simple qualitative feedback on the learning or improvement experience.  Those quotes like “wow, I wish we had access to these social media classes online years ago. Finally, great work guys” from even the lowest level employee goes a long way. 

4)   Go for the program. Now it’s time to speak up in the strategic meeting during the planning and budget phase and ask for a complete relook at how we instill great culture, improve our employees, and make them happy! Learning is always one of the critical keys, so build that program you dreamed of years ago, and hold yourself, your leaders, and your overall team accountable to the most important investment a company can make…its people.

In summation, go get some focus and discipline around the long-term vs. short-term goals; think about true investment vs. the line item in your budget; utilize mindshare vs. a meeting agenda item of senior executives to help drive internal revenue.

And remember, truly caring vs. checking things off the list will be the difference between the winners and the losers.

A Deeper Look at the Problem

As promised, here are the unspoken challenges at the three key levels of a company: leaders, professional development/HR managers, and you, the employee.

You, the Leaders: Time for Some Long-Term Accountability

Nearly every company leader I have had the chance to talk to in my many meetings is fully consumed with the short-term and pays lip service to the long-term. The ideal example is investment in your team: giving them the tools, the motivation, the knowledge, and the culture to continuously improve (aka professional development).

Explain content to clients

Worse than this is what I call the “Yes to death” effect - where the learning, training, and professional development conversations are a line item on the annual or quarterly meeting (or budget), but the focus and priority is nothing more of a head nod, “Yes, let’s do this” and then moving on.

As a board member of a few companies, I say to other boards of both public and private companies, how many times do you ask for a report or insight on how the company is investing in its people? Maybe you and the shareholders you represent need to get off the short-term profit wagon and show a little care for the long-term health of the organization, yes?

You, the Professional Development (or Digital Head) Champion: HR, L&D, and Business Ops Needs to Take Charge 

Take HR as an example - so many battles and attempts to make the case for corporate culture and improvement programs have been waged with minimal success that even the most passionate have become disenfranchised. This causes an even more systemic risk that the good folks in charge of making sure professional development and learning are at least a line item (HR, learning and development, business operations, and for smaller companies, the CEO/president) nearly always concede to this head nod and check it off their list if the budget is approved. Little true care is given to the depth of impact on the staff, the quality of the deliverable and its total outcome to the business.

For example, in the digital marketing industry where I reside, many times this is the global head of digital, or for smaller organizations, the marketing person who is the most digitally savvy. And they are keen to help folks at least “level set” on their knowledge and improve on the ability to use new skills to drive improved execution. But, because they are understaffed and overworked (aka the talent shortage in digital), they too succumb to the “Check ‘er off the list” mentality.

It’s not that these items are completely missing from the strategic leadership meetings, there is just an unspoken element of “Yes, yes, this is important for our culture, let’s do something.” And that is much more detrimental than not having a program at all. Because now you’ll have a half thought-out, partial program that has very little energy, passion, or executive impetus to gain traction, and the malaise of learning and improvement will set in from top to bottom. Cynics who roll their eyes at words like “training” will become the norm.

As the ones responsible for job satisfaction, company culture, professional development, and learning programs know, “Having a program” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Working under the same paradigm, budget structure and a blasé training impetus is killing your culture of curiosity and learning. It’s high time we start getting the passion back and making strides toward moving the organization forward. Or are we just worried about keeping our job and related budget? If so, then you have failed leadership, and the senior executives above you have failed the organization by not asking you for more.

Mind you, there are great examples of companies taking the lead on making the long-term investment, many I have the pleasure to work with (probably why they hire us), so I do not wish to detract from the great strides and plans they are making. But, we must hold the rest of the world accountable and go a bit deeper.

You, Yourself, and I: Personal Job Satisfaction Be Thy Own

Those not in leadership positions or a professional development role need to look at themselves in the mirror as well. It’s incumbent on you to take your destiny into your hands vs. complaining about the lack of such leadership in your organization. What I mean by this is if learning and improving your skills to build a career path is important to you, then go do it. Join the local association, commit to reading the research and educational publications, and subscribe to one of the many video-based eLearning providers to watch and learn from some of the best educators in the world. Most of this is priced to be super affordable to the consumer and a lot is just plain ‘ol free.

But be careful with the free. While information is usually free, education is assuredly not. And, of course, ask the powers that be for more of what you need as opposed to just taking what they give you.

To summarize, leadership needs accountability and commitment to long-term investment of people; first-line managers need to take responsibility for relentlessly pushing the cause; and all levels need to look in the mirror and take professional development into their own hands.

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