The fragmentation of digital marketing, combined with cuts in training budgets, is creating a serious digital skills gap. As the 'go-to' person in organisations seeking to keep pace with digital innovation, marketing directors who don't stay on top of the game risk appearing out of touch. So how can they ensure they stay ahead of the pack?
There is a multitude of training courses to choose from. This week the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) rolls out Tier One of its Mobile Marketer Certification Programme, a UK first which, according to its EMEA managing director, Paul Berney, will tackle the chronic skills shortages in digital marketing by providing up-to-date, industry-recognised knowledge.
'The moment we launched this course, we had massive interest, not just from corporate marketers, but from agencies, who see certification as a badge that will offer competitive advantage,' he claims.
Laudable as these aims are, and despite marketers owning up to holes in their knowledge, it seems many at a senior level remain to be convinced of the need to invest time in dedicated digital training.
'These (certifications) are a waste of our management skills,' retorts Laura Chambers, marketing director of global serviced apartments company SilverDoor, 70% of the marketing for which is digital. 'The (number of invitations) I get to free training and networking events is staggering,' she says. 'Lack of training opportunities is not the issue - it's more that it would be irresponsible of me to get involved with the minutiae of it. That's what I have my digital agency for.'
Chambers repeats a familiar rebuttal to such specific learning: that senior-level marketers, at least, don't need to be experts in every discipline, as the experts sit below them. 'If you took too much training, you'd never be able to implement it all,' she adds. 'I'd be neglecting my core duties.'
Svetlana Omeltchenko, global marketing development manager at British American Tobacco, has another criticism. 'Most corporates, us included, do things very differently,' she says. 'Off-the-shelf training does not fit. We need to be more agile.'
As long as these arguably 'old-school' defences exist, skills shortages seem set to remain. Yet even trainers sympathise. 'It's almost inevitable marketing directors have skills gaps,' says Andreas Pouros, chief operating officer of search engine agency Greenlight. 'That's not to criticise them; things have got more complicated.'
A matter of pride
Pouros believes there is also an embarrassment factor in effect. 'We run Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing courses, but marketing directors are not there,' he says. 'We think they are afraid to be seen in a room with people three grades lower than them.' However, he concedes, it is an unsustainable situation. 'Of course, people like us fill in these gaps. But at the same time, when I tell a marketing director to invest in social media, I want them to know why.'
So, while no one denies that a digital skills gap exists, what is up for debate is how to solve it. Many marketers see using freelancers as a quick fix. OfficeCavalry.com's '2011 Freelancers Trends Report' found that firms have increased their use of freelancers by 76% and will spend £2.1bn on them this year to plug gaps. The rise is highest in the digital sector (up 91%).
According to Seb Haire, digital team leader at Dylan Recruitment - where, he says, demand for digital experts has doubled in the past six months - this solves little. 'Freelancers know they are in demand - there are three jobs for every candidate in digital marketing - but marketers haven't decided whether they want to hire these people on an as-and-when basis, or bring them in to specifically "up-skill" everyone else,' he says. 'As such, freelancers are divulging only what they need to, to keep demand high. Compounding this is freelancers' refusal to go permanent, which would involve taking a pay cut. They are better off keeping the skills shortage going.'
Some argue that rather than being held to ransom by freelancers, the need for sustainable internal knowledge will create demand for investment in formal digital training. 'We've finally reached a tipping point,' says Mark Beales, group account director at Brand Learning. 'The hurdle that needs getting over is marketing directors saying "This is not relevant to me".'
Nonetheless, it seems there are still hurdles even to this, specifically regarding how different digital marketing actually is and, therefore, what real training is needed. 'Skills gaps have existed ever since the internet arrived,' argues Mizzy Lees, training development manager at the Internet Advertising Bureau UK. 'It's important the industry acknowledges how core principles have changed with it.'
Others claim this is peddling a viewpoint that has a vested interest in making digital seem dramatically different. 'There's a cadre that wants to turn digital marketing into a complicated monster,' argues Dr Philip Alford, senior lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University, who promotes the institution's Digital Hub to local businesses as an alternative to expensive, generic training. 'Companies need to have a clear vision of what their overall marketing strategy is first,' he adds. 'Spending £300 for a day-long course on SEO is just information when done in isolation without a plan.'
Perhaps, in reality, an overall 'strategy gap' is the problem, creating fertile conditions for a digital skills gap to take root.
'I tell clients they need to stay abreast of digital, but stay true to core marketing values,' says Hannah McNamara, chief executive of training consultancy HRM Global and a former Laura Ashley marketer. 'It may be digital, but it's still connecting with people, and that hasn't changed at all. That's how digital training needs to connect.'
Some contend that the skills shortage cannot last, and it is simply a case of waiting for social-media-familiar Generation Y - credited with having greater curiosity to develop their skills to rise through the ranks and spread a culture of learning.
Not surprisingly, however, there is debate here, too.
'Having digital skills is one thing, but how it translates into the real world is another,' warns Beales, who suggests a 'training gap' rather than 'skills gap' may eventually replace the current situation. 'Organisational capability - that's what really needs addressing,' he says. 'This requires investment. We're seeing budgets come back though, so there is at least reason to be hopeful.'
As Haire observes, leaning about digital in isolation could be equally counter-intuitive, because, paradoxically, 'they won't have enough offline skills to see how their part fits into the bigger picture'.
No one said training is easy. Clearly, marketers need to be aware of the broader picture, and how digital completes it. But whatever their decision about how much training to take up, it could well mean that marketing directors have to swallow some pride, and allow themselves to be seen at training courses.
HOW DO YOU ENSURE YOU ARE 'DIGITALLY FIT'?
- Jo Briody, Head of marketing, UK & Ireland, Royal Caribbean International
Most marketers need to have a good level of digital marketing knowledge, but they don't need to know how to manage it on a day-to-day basis if they are working through-the-line.
Regular contact with the experts and agencies is my way of keeping up to date. I also tend to attend seminars and courses if they meet an immediate need. I get invited to at least one social-media seminar every week, but apart from that, I think there is a good range of courses out there across the different specialisms.
We have brought in E-consultancy in the past to provide all-round training and I know of other reputable training organisations, like the IDM, that I would consider if we had a specific need.
Although we increase digital investment every year, traditional channels are still a significant part of our mix and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Having a dedicated online team has created the in-house expertise that we need and our segmentation of agency partners has allowed us to work with absolute specialists, providing us with the skills and insight that we need to stay ahead.
- Matthew Timms, Ecommerce director, Santander
You need to stay ahead of emerging trends, but I wouldn't say I do specific training. Instead, I try to challenge myself to take new risks. I don't rule anything out just because it's new. My mantra is that to stay on top, you have to be aware, take risks, and then test these and learn from it.
Training is quite a personal thing, though, and everyone learns differently. I'm more experiential, so I need to actually do something to learn it. I go out to suppliers and agencies to show me this, so that while I may not be able to run something from scratch, I'm able to ask the right questions. A one-day training course on something like social media wouldn't do it for me.