Digital agencies are hiring, focusing on retention in 2019

Competition for talent closely followed client in-housing as a top challenge facing agencies, Marketing Land's Digital Agency Survey 2019 of agency professionals found. Forty-five percent of respondents cited competition for talent as a key issue for their businesses.

Many agencies say they are meeting challenges head-on and are focused on growing and retaining staff in nearly all areas. Some have implemented deliberate strategies to make sure they hire the right people.

Digital agencies are hiring for a wide variety of roles

Agencies say they are looking to fill roles that require technical expertise and experience, and expect to grow their teams across a wide range of roles in 2019. A majority (72 percent) of those surveyed by Marketing Land said that data science and analytics will be the most needed technical skill set in the next two years. Conversion rate optimization (58.3 percent) and technical SEO (51.6 percent) came in second and third.

“Positions we hired for included business development, digital marketing manager, PPC specialist, digital marketing coordinator, project manager, production manager, video producer and creative designer,” said Amanda Farley, accounts director and partner at SS Digital Media, in an interview. “We are planning on continuing to hire more creative and digital marketing support in 2019.”

Sean Bucher, SEO director at HVAC-focused digital agency Rocket Media, said he is hiring more mid- and junior-level SEO and PPC team members in 2019.

“We continue to see a pretty big knowledge gap from candidates fresh out of school, which makes finding qualified entry-level employees a little more difficult. Colleges and universities still struggle to prepare students for careers in digital marketing. Our goal is to increase our client services team (paid, SEO and content) by 40 percent each year over year,” Bucher said.

Michael Coppola, founder and CEO of Path Interactive, also reported a growth in personnel.

“Over the last several years our agency has grown consistently 15-20 percent and we have staffed in our core services areas around account services, digital media, SEO and analytics to meet the servicing needs of the client,” Coppola said. “When we are looking forward in 2019; we not only will continue staff in these historical roles but are now having to solve for additional client staffing challenges that seem to be becoming more difficult as the level of sophistication in digital continues to rapidly advance.”

A focus on stemming turnover, improving retention

Agencies have always struggled with turnover, so agencies are implementing deliberate hiring strategies to bring on employees that are likely to stay a while.

Farley said that a switch-up in their hiring practices is one of the biggest reasons for their increase in staff.

“The largest shift we've had in our hiring process is how we were vetting,” Farley said. “Digital requires fast thinkers and people that are self-motivated, accountable, and flexible in learning new skills. It's not enough that you have PPC on your resume. We are hiring more for intangible skills and providing additional training if needed for job-specific needs. ”

Farley recounted a strategic hiring process, which includes asking prospective employees questions prior to asking for a resume, two phone screening calls and two to three in-person interviews, including at least one group interview.

“The staff that has come of this process has been ten-fold a better fit for the company, culture, and work. I will note that this has extended hiring timelines, what would take 30-days to staff now is in the 60+ days to staff. The quality of the results has been great,” Farley said.

KW2, an advertising agency in Madison, Wisconsin, has also implemented stringent pre-hire scrutiny.

“In larger shops, marginal talent can hide,” said KW2 President and Co-owner Andy Wallman. “As a 30-person shop, everybody here at KW2 has to be a rock-solid performer. So we look for a combination of a determined work ethic, talent, intelligence and passion, all of which can't be taught. We can teach the rest.”

Specialized services require specialized advanced skills

Melissa Mackey, search supervisor at ad agency gyro, says that staffing for search positions can be challenging.

“Search is a specialized field, and even in 2019 there are relatively few experienced practitioners, leaving agencies with a choice: either hire and train, or try to find someone with experience,” Mackey said. “At the same time, the level of complexity of the work for search and paid social has increased dramatically. … Many clients are using sophisticated tools and tactics, all of which require an understanding of analytics, CRM, design, etc.”

Some agencies have turned to alternative solutions for staffing, such as Path's Copolla whose agency leverages its partnership with direct mail and data management firm Sourcelink to “fill that gap for hiring needs; we now have a staff of over 60 analytics and data professionals to solve for that need.”

“We also are investing more in our content leadership with strategic content leads, creatives in order to help our clients move faster as it relates to getting creative in market,” Copolla said. “The landscape of digital media is so dynamic; that we need to move faster than ever in evolving our creatives and very few clients or creative agency partners of our clients can move quick enough to limit any erosion in our core media metrics.”

Hiring processes key for long-term staff success

Eric Enge, general manager of Perficient Digital, said that cutting corners during the hiring process can result in hiring employees who are not up to snuff.

“You live with a hire for a long period of time,” Enge said. “If you bring someone is who is not a culture fit, it can be a disaster. If you bring someone whose skills are not up to snuff, you don't actually fill the need. Either way, in the medium to long term, you'll pay the price.”

“You're nearly always better off toughing it out through the process of having too much work to deal with and making the right hire than you are by pulling the trigger early and ending up with a weak hire,” Enge said.

And sometimes agencies report hires that exceeded their expectations.

“One of our best hires was for a traffic position, almost 15 years ago,” KW2's Wallman said. “The guy had been at Carmichael [agency], and had just taken two years off to raise his boys while his wife worked. He shows up without a resume, pen, briefcase, nothing but a suit and wing tips. For a traffic guy. He sat at the head of the table. He was so non-BS, so confident and so smart, we hired him right away. He's since become our digital director and is now a vice president,” Wallman said.

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