Plugging the digital skills gap in your agency

This post ties in with a guide I wrote recently on the Smart insights Agency Growth Hub (see link at end of this post). It focuses on growing digital skills in agencies but applies to client teams too.

Why I wrote a guide to plugging the digital skills gap in agencies.

One of the key ways I support agency clients is by boosting their digital marketing offer. That might be:

– devising exactly what that service blend offer should be (services should vary depending on your agency) and how to promote and price it (we develop that via workshops and consultancy sessions).

– by being more hands-on and working on with the agency team e.g on their pitches, devising campaign strategies for their existing clients, project managing site builds, training the agency team directly and /  or via ‘futurology’ sessions

I get a real buzz out of both those areas (direct support and developing the agency’s ‘stand alone’ capability).

And there’s a clear need for that type of support based on the enquiries I get.

That’s because there’s a real digital skills gap in the industry.

Is the digital skills gap real?

The lack of digital marketing skills affects many agencies. To the point where a recent survey highlighted that around 27% of agencies have turned away work because they don’t have the skills to service that opportunity:

“27% of those surveyed had had to turn away work as a result of not being able to find the right digital talent.” Manchester Digital skills survey

This stark statistic is echoed by an earlier report into digital skills from Smith and Beta who ran research from 2013 to 2016, talking to thousands of agency employees. A couple of stats from that report showed:

“62% of agency respondents claimed their clients are asking for more advanced digital work, yet more than 43% of respondents feel that they aren’t prepared.“

“Only 5.6% of account handlers felt that they were exceeding client expectations of their digital capabilities.”

Why should you invest in improving your agency’s collective digital skills?

You may be tempted to ‘make do’ with the skills you have in-house. Or use specialist partners (which can be a sound approach) to plug the gap in your own digital capabilities.

But if you don’t really understand what it is those specialists do, you are not really able to judge if the brief you gave them was effective or that the work they undertake for you (and your clients) is the best it could be.

By ignoring the issue of a skills gap in the agency, or consciously choosing to not invest in improving your agency digital skills, you are making a mistake I think:

– greater digital skills in the agency lead to more effective work and happier clients. So invest in your team and boost your account growth endeavours.

– by investing in your team’s professional development you’ll reduce the agency staff churn rate and in turn reduce recruitment costs.

– a benefit of having your people learn and discuss digital marketing (from tech to media to creative to comms) is the generation of lots of thought-pieces: of content for you to share with your prospects and clients. Ultimately improving your inbound marketing efforts and account retention.

– The general skills shortage in digital marketing drives up the salaries needed to recruit that scarce talent

– There are 10,000s of agencies globally and the ones who can attest to continuous upskilling of teams will get the attention of savvy brands

How can you improve digital skills in your agency?

As I mentioned before, the digital skills guide came about because I had seen the challenge whilst working alongside agency clients over the past few years. And from direct experience, running digital teams in agencies over several years.

Whilst I was at McCann, I was responsible for recruiting or developing new digital talent. And that wasn’t always easy. I helped hire really some excellent people, across all disciplines. But often they took some recruiting! There just weren’t enough truly digital candidates to choose from.

So we looked to grow digital talent in-house (as well as continue with external recruitment). We devised and ran a digital training initiative for existing staff who weren’t at that stage working directly in digital. It was built in conjunction with MMU and whilst it was hard work for those who took part, it really delivered: having a comprehensive training approach can help you plug the digital skills gap. And it was used as a model in some other European offices.

Beyond a formal ‘academic’ training scheme, there are other approaches to plugging the gap, which I’ll touch on here (with more detail in the guide).

But whatever approach you take, you’re not just playing catch-up on existing digital channels and techniques.

You’ll be looking to train your team (or more likely train them to manage external specialists) on the new-new stuff: machine learning, AI, analytics and other ever-evolving media channels and tech tools.


creative agency interior shot to illustrate digital skills in action
photo credit:

By planning out a skills development approach, you can turn the threat of being less relevant and less effective to marketers and brands into an opportunity, and get ahead of your competition.

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Start by (1) by reading the guide I mention a couple of times here and / or (2) hiring me to work on that plan with you

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So, where do you start?

I think you need to take a two-pronged approach to attacking a skills shortfall in your agency.

To paraphrase (me) from the Smart Insights guide:

Approach 1 is all about framing the issue, to get you thinking about what type of skills you might need in the team and your wider ‘digital readiness’ (every agency is different).

The guide gets you thinking about context (which frames ideas for you)

– the digital skills gap in marketing agencies
– the types of digital skills required in today’s agency
– how you can assess your agency’s overall ‘digital readiness’ and the skills needed to grow it.

Approach 2 gets into more detail on tactics to improve your agency’s digital skills. These include looking in-depth at:

– job descriptions
– talent acquisition (through in-house training, external recruitment or partnering)
– team development plans
– developing a ‘culture of curiosity’ to encourage skills development
– sources of training (with a focus on CPD – continuing professional development)
– new talent development (getting your agency involved in developing the talent of tomorrow, with schools and higher education partnership initiatives).

Speaking of which…

Developing the talent of the future

It could be a good idea for your agency to get involved with nurturing the digital talent of tomorrow. You won’t see an immediate payback but you’ll help steer this conversation, have great bragging (marketing) rights and may well hire a future star on the back of it. There are lots of initiatives around, including:

– ‘Girls Who Code’. This USA scheme partners with a range of schools and universities to get girls into dev / coding and software engineering.

– ‘Agency Life’ which comes from Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester, North West England) and teaches undergrads the kinds of agency-ready skills that will give them an advantage when they go into that world.

– Also based in NW England, the Juice Academy looks to create more jobs for young people within the digital marketing sector.

– Looking at digital marketing apprenticeships, Arch Apprentices have placed apprentices in some great places, including Google, Facebook and some excellent digital media agencies.

Lastly, there’s the Institute of Coding, a “consortium of more than 60 universities, businesses and industry experts set to receive £20 million to tackle the UK’s digital skills gap”. Good news all-round.

There will be examples like this in your region and country.


Here is the link to the Smart Insights agency digital skills guide I put together.

And if you want direct support, give me a shout.

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