Nick Keenan: For whom the bell tolls

Nick Keenan
By Nick Keenan | 30 October 2012

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” was first published in 1624 in a book of prayers by John Donne, who celebrated the belief we are all connected, and in doing so established that timeless phrase; “no man is an island”. A powerful proverb that was made famous by Ernest Hemingway who used it as the title of one his most successful works set during the Spanish civil war.

So why the trip down literary lane? Well firstly the parallels of JD’s beliefs, Ernest’s book, and our changing media industry are just too good to ignore, and given the brutal speed of change it provides an excellent microscope to study an industry as confederated, yet volatile as ours.

Secondly and more relevantly it is because I wanted to use their 'connective ethos' to make sense of what has fast become the media industry’s greatest challenge, the ever increasing shortage of digital skill versus the growing volume of digital work. It’s an industry challenge which should not have come as any surprise, particularly when you do the boring thing and look at the numbers, digital is up 20% while the overall market is back 1%.

Be it a total surprise or an emerging problem it did however manage to creep up on everyone. Proof of which can be plainly seen through disturbing levels of inflation for digital specialists this year, which in the last 12 months at all levels within digital have led to some astronomical and unsustainable increases in remuneration. No agency escaped unharmed and all were left more than a little out of pocket. Self-inflicted wounds we as an industry perpetuated upon ourselves by feeding the market with urgent un-quarantined levels of digital demand.

The principle cause is an increasingly media agnostic world due to “technological disruption” so that what was on the edge of our business models is quickly evolving to become our businesses core sum and reason for being, hence why these staff are in such high demand. Perhaps we should take a leaf out the AFL’s draft pick and create a similar model so we can horse trade new and used talent. Whatever the model, now more than ever the search for the right structure, people and product is on.

What can be best described (if you like to mix your metaphors) as the tail starting to become the dog, and in doing so it has left all media businesses (vendor and agency) having big expensive resources in low growth areas, and less resources and experience in the high growth areas.

While this metamorphic transition takes place every media business now has to decide who should be hired to do the work? Surely we should not just pay the increased salaries regardless? Certainly not! No business model employing that method can succeed, nor should it, as it runs the risk of being a business that is beholden to a limited pool of specialists.

So what is the business model of the future? Kim Williams rightly stated a cloudy crystal ball is all anyone has left in reading the media future, but when it comes to staff the answer has to be more clear, the solution to this digital growth or temporary imbalance has to exist with the people we already have in our businesses. The ones operating the low growth departments.

There is an obvious decline in the number of briefs; we have lot more automation, less billings, and therefore an increasing level of capacity, particularly if the current trends continue. As an extreme example print alone is back collectively by as much 14% year to date, and if you look at the first quarter of the current fiscal that number has contracted by as much as one fifth of last year’s advertising volume. For the rest of the majors take your pick, TV, Radio, there all back, as the bell continues to ring loudly for most parts of traditional media.

When it comes to our greatest asset (people) we should all remember however we are all connected in this game, and when one door closes another one is breaking open on the other side of the media hallway. Therefore surely the time has certainly arrived to stop applying a siloed approach to any operation within media, least of all digital as there should be a greater emphasis in creating a structure and product which grows these specialists organically rather than by recruiting externally.

Market volatility is also no excuse to delay tooling up and training your existing staff as the long term trend in media although never absolute it is certainly looking more set, and one thing for sure is that it will remain volatile. That means advertising volume across all the channel mix will swing up and down with less consistency so you need people who can jump from one to the other, and do so base on the work not the discipline.  Volatility is now the new normal, modern media is in a permanent state of flux and as a result staff will be required to learn, unlearn, and learn again new skills sets based on demand.

So as we continue to witness more change, receive more digital briefs, and see less digital talent we should stop and listen to the media bell and contemplate our own business models mortality. Your existing staff are ready to migrate, learn a new skill, and alleviate your digital specialists from drowning in work. We should remember no agency; vendor, client or department is an island and the next time you need to fill a role look within.

Nick Keenan
Department Head

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