Handicapping Talent in the Tradigital Age

The Revenge of the Nerds

More than occasionally I am asked “just what the hell is going on out there?”  Roughly translated, this means, “what are the trends in the talent marketplace –who’s hiring? who’s laying off? who wants what? who doesn’t want what?”… and so on.

Let’s start with this simple truth: EVERYONE WANTS WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE.

By that I mean, digital agencies are scrambling for traditional talent and traditional agencies are scrambling for digital talent. The reason is obvious, everyone wants to be everything (and anything) to clients and prospective clients. Maybe everyone should focus on what they do best, huh? There seems to be this futile race being run to some mythic finish line of a total, irrefutable, adaptable, flexible, collaborative, fully integrated, supremely omniscient, master of the universe perfection in communications. It’s pretty comical to hear exactly what the heck is actually going on out there. The last time that I felt this way was in the 80’s in a bar near Wall Street playing liar’s poker with dollar bills and a bunch of coked-up stockbrokers. I could just make up any hand and then play it.

Marketers say they value integration, yet they unbundle their accounts faster than Macauley Culkin on Christmas morning. Agencies sing the integration song, but too often they make up the lyrics as they go — changing verses and choruses to suit the next sucker (er, I mean prospect). So they focus on what they don’t have and try to find it — and not focus on what they do best and make it even better. As a result, the landscape is covered with a hybrid grass that looks and feels like AstroTurf. One fact remains, nobody does anything as well as they claim to in their case studies.

There is a New Order, however. And Media is the clear winner (almost by default). I remember going into pitches with agencies and we’d leave 10 minutes at the end of the presentation for Media. Usually, that 10 minutes became 2 — or even worse, a follow-up email from the Media Director to explain their slides in the Powerpoint. Media was like, well, shit. What happened? Media Conglomerates sprung up the world over and effectively said, “look, your money is too important to be handled by those creative guys at the ad agency.” So, now, most agencies have become forced to sell creative ideas instead of business strategies. They’ve become forced to sell service and order-taking instead of business leadership. How can they possibly be business leaders when they can’t even determine where the media money will be spent? Make no mistake, today MEDIA leads the process — not account planning or creative. The medium is the message.

Let’s look at how that has affected the food chain hierarchy of the talent pool. Let’s start with creative, since this is a creative blog but let’s also take a look at the entire roster. Last week, the New York Times ran an advertising column about how agencies are all bellyaching about the dearth of digital and technological talent in the marketplace. Agency leaders whine and fret over a “talent gap” — as if they weren’t the ones that caused it in the first place through their negligence. I mean, the revolutionary book “Being Digital” was published  almost 15 years ago. The column can be read here (but read the rest of this post first, Podner): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/business/media/ad-companies-face-a-widening-talent-gap.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1

DESIGNERS: The single most demanded job on my desk this year is something called a UX Designer, it also helps if they have “mad skills”. No education required. No background checks necessary. No references needed. If you can do that — you can go to the head of the creative class and you are in the hunt to be successor to your CEO. Congratulations. You other digital designers, way to go, you have succeeded in taking an art form with unlimited possibilities and replaced them with sterile and finite devices and widgets. Last week a client asked me to find a designer of  “cool apps”. So I found one. He had an app for an airline that looked really cool. Except the only problem was, I couldn’t book a flight on it. If you are a digital designer, you are set for life, even if you are a registered sex offender.

COPYWRITERS:  As noted in my previous post, this game has really changed. The new breed of digital writer writes something called “rich content”. Unfortunately, the majority of what passes for “rich content” is actually very poor content. Hey, I’d settle for middle-class content. They write compelling tweets, like this one from The Gap: Check out our new I Want Candy kids line! To celebrate,@mariiiaofficial helped us make a video to “I Want Candy”. Is there a correlation between this kind of nonsense and the fact that The Gap is one of the worst performing retailers in the word? Could this be part of the reason Gap sales are down 15%? I remember when The Gap did their own ads — they were the most entertaining and beautiful spots on television. The retailer thrived. the brand was the strongest in a strong apparel category. Now they tweet out this crap and call it ‘consumer engagement”. This comes from bookoo research that tells them “people want to make commercials”. Hey guess what? I want to play left field for the Boston Red Sox and bat cleanup. Gimme a break. The Gap gets what it deserves: I Want Candy videos and sluggish sales. Their brand is lost. To read more about copywriting in today’s brave, new world, pease read my last post.

ART DIRECTORS: If you’re a traditional art director in today’s creative world, boy are you fucked. Who in their right mind would hire you? What value do you bring? Fortunately, there are some brands that value your skills (the new Captain Morgan and Heineken TV campaigns come to mind) — but most of them are heading towards DRTV and Print. Read the newspapers, magazines and watch TV — have you ever seen more 800 numbers?  Recently, the Chief Creative Officer of one of the largest agencies in the Southeast told me, “we’ll never hire someone with the title ‘art director’ ever again”. Huh? I’ll dig deeper into the new Captain Morgan and Heineken campaigns in my forthcoming Creative Musings column.

STRATEGISTS/PLANNERS:  You guys are way ahead of the chess game — castling when everyone else is pushing pawns around the board. You renamed yourselves “connection Planners” and tried to latch on to the coattails of media types long ago. As if we can’t see through the charade. You morphed into what you tried to kill — media planners. Are you a hybrid? Are you media? Are you strategy? or both? What are you? How about coming up with an insight that is unexpected? Surprise me. Scare me. But don’t tell me you are a “Connection Planner”. 25 year-old digital media planners can replace you. The Planning jobs I get are for strategic folks that can get to the heart of a brand’s essence — not media hybrids. It’s everyone’s responsibility to understand digital media and apply that knowledge to their own discipline. Account people once strove to become planners (especially after their account left the agency). Now planners strive to become media people. We’ve come full circle.

ACCOUNT SERVICE/CLIENT LEADERSHIP:  Most of the strategic oomph of this lot has been sucked dry by Planners, Media and even advanced forms of the Creative species. They’ve been reduced to order-taking servers. Back slapping High-Fivers. The empty suits have never been emptier. Never have Account service salaries been lower. Never has the job been less distinctive. Those lucky to survive and advance Darwinistically to the role Account Director are fortunate. because based on trends — there won’t be any Account Directors in the future. The client will be the Account Director because that’s what we are letting them be now.

SALES:  Finally, a growth sector in the industry of creative communications. In the struggle to be so technologically advanced and digitally cool — we forgot one key thing along the way. We forgot to sell. We forgot to sell our clients’ products and we forgot to sell our own services and point of differentiation. We forgot to sell our value proposition to clients and prospects. Heck, we forgot what our value proposition even was. Strangely and ironically, our industry is devoid of professional salespeople. This is good news for the disciplined and perseverant sales pro — someone who can actually sell an idea or an insight; someone that won’t rely on creative work to “sell itself” (as if it were heroin and people were addicted to it). To the new and next breed of rainmaker: your future is bright.

9 thoughts on “Handicapping Talent in the Tradigital Age

  1. Jimmy Gilmore

    Nice post Michael.
    Part of Digital Atlanta was a bitch session on the dearth of digital talent. Like it’s their right to have 100 cheap, well trained applicants with a perfect resume for every opening. I think it could have been better titled ” the lack of industry leadership” panel. As an industry we’re responsible for our own environment. Whatever happened building talent and giving otherwise smart and talented people a chance to earn their “digital chops.”

  2. Bergen Standish

    It’s all true. So what are the solutions?
    Not the solution if the world were our oyster, but the solution in this world, the real world, where the business is on fire?
    We can wait for the fire to go out.
    New stuff gets built then.
    Sometimes that stuff is beautiful, and built to better withstand the pressures of the new world its in.
    On the other hand, maybe these odd words of Roger Daltrey’s are finally true, for the very first time:
    “After the fire, the fire still burns.”
    What then?
    Your obviously smart, Mr. Palma.
    So tell us – because we are lost, and these mirages are starting to taste like sand…

    1. mikepalma Post author

      Thanks for your note, Mr. Standish. That song, “After the Fire” was written and sung solo by Pete Townsend. And it contains an indelible lyric acknowledging the humor of Dom DeLuise. Thanks for reminding me about that song. I don’t have the answers, sir. The solution is to write well, design well, develop well, communicate well and conceive simple but strong ideas. I guess. Thanks for reading.

  3. jstapleton43

    Might as well throw developers on that pile. If you are a developer with ideas, you can change the world. If you just so happen to be working at an ad agency, you can demand weekly raises.

  4. Taylor Crawford

    Super-funny and painfully honest.

    However, I’d say their is hope for the creatives that are blurring the lines between all of these roles. I think your breakdowns only hold up for people who are clinging to their traditional job functions. If the vision for a branding experience is shared across the team, all of these points of view are valuable.


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