Much has been made of late regarding the challenge of finding good, experienced interactive/digital media people. It's a consistent topic in just about every trade publication you pick up or trade website you peruse. It's even starting to get some play in some mainstream business publications, in print and online.
I have been relatively lucky in that I have a good, solid core of talent that has allowed for much organic growth as our clients' interactive / digital / new / emerging media budgets have grown (note to headhunters and my esteemed colleagues-- HANDS OFF); a great core of talent that has (more or less) willingly given up on the concept of "normal" work hours and work weeks as the workload has steadily increased.
I've become a bit exasperated of late, however, both in terms of my recent searches for outside talent, as well as with the trade buzz around this topic. I'm a firm believer in the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the best way to get insight about the future is to examine the past. Since we live in the digital age that we do (I haven't done the math on this officially but I'm thinking there are about 15 digital years per every calendar year), all I had to do was take a quick look back to the not-so-distant past for some insight on this current event.
There was a trend some 10 years ago of media planners and buyers making a jump into this internet thing without a safety net, primarily driven by curiosity, to establish themselves in this space. Paraphrasing Willy Wonka, we were the music makers; we were the dreamers of dreams.
I have many fond memories of just trying to figure it out. Back when sock puppets sold dog food online, and someone thought there was a viable business plan in paying people to surf the internet, stock options fell like manna from heaven (even for companies using sock puppets to sell dog food online and companies paying people to surf the internet), and The Big Guys' main sales strategy was "We're big. Buy us." (See, 15 digital years per calendar year bring trends back a lot more quickly in our world.)
Nostalgia aside, the main reason I got into interactive / digital / new / emerging / title-of-the-week media was because I had a curiosity about media in which people were an active participant in the experience. There was the thrill of being able to see the loop close-- seeing the actual behaviors resultant from our advertising. What's more, the ability to use that data to make the plan better-- immediately. And there were many folks like me (many of you reading this now) in the previous decade having a similar epiphany.
Do you think such curious folk in this industry ceased to exist in 1995 or 1998 or 2001 when you came into the game? Is there not a strong safety net now in place to show the way for the next generation of digitally curious media planners and buyers, digitally experienced or not? Are we not the potential Jedi Masters to these potential Padawon Learners? OK, I'll stop now.
As lines blur between traditional and non-traditional, as most media move to digital and more measurable platforms, do we need to, in a media analogy, parse a finite universe of experienced digital planners and buyers until that audience is no longer efficient or stable to target? Or do we need to find an audience with a propensity for curiosity regardless of their demographic make up (traditional vs. digital) and show them the way?
Look, if we're going to walk the talk of convergence / cross-platform / integration, it CANNOT all be driven by interactive and digital media experts (weren't we the first ones in the recent past to extol the virtues of "media agnostic" approaches?). Likewise, in a world where medium is message and people use rather than consume media, all pertinent knowledge about a client's business needs and goals CANNOT only reside with account folks and "traditional" media planning teams. It has to be a partnership in which knowledge and information are shared freely to get to a common goal. In the words of another wise sage -- potentially as crazy as Willy Wonka -- Roy Spence, "We do not have the corner on smarts."
Roy loves to speak about the model of "Dynamic Collaboration" as the key to success. In order to get to innovative solutions, all disciplines must collaborate and ideate together BEFORE integration can truly happen. Otherwise, you're just integrating the wrong things. And, the key to collaboration is removing the chip from your shoulder and checking your ego at the door-- digital folks have just as much to learn from traditional planners and buyers as they from us.
I think we're a long way away from an uber-planner/buyer who can effectively strategize, execute and optimize across the spectrum of media vehicles now at our disposal. Wonka also said, "We have so much time and so little to do. Scratch that, reverse it." Whenever asked about the potential for "splitting" a person between traditional work and interactive work, I'm fond of pointing out that folks working for me have 40+ hour per week jobs, folks in traditional media have 40+ hour per week jobs, and I'm relatively certain no one (voluntarily) works 80+ hours per week.
Perhaps one day we will have a purely digital media marketplace where front-end planning systems are tied to media inventory management-negotiation systems that then feed seamlessly into tracking and billing systems across all media vehicles; something that is adaptable to the dynamic nature of seamlessly integrating messaging into content and programming, as well as efficient at placing "spots and dots" as needed. And it will come with a slick dashboard showing all of your results across all your spending in one place. That's a bit more than a few digital years off, I think.
We live in a culture of media mash ups; the same could be said for the ways and means of how media gets planned and bought. A pertinent example in this very digital year: As search is touted for its efficacy in building brands, the industry is rampant with talk of broadcast being purchased on an auction model.
That seems to beg for well-rounded media people who have a working knowledge and understanding of all platforms; people who are comfortable with and can act on instantly available data allowing for real-time optimization, but also are comfortable working in an environment where efficient audience delivery is key; people who can walk the talk of the effect of media mix on communication goals-- as well as business goals.
In my estimation, this requires hands-on knowledge where media people can be dedicated to working within an interactive/digital media team for at least a year, preferably within the first few years of their career. Conversely, a year-long "work study" for a young digital media person who has never worked in the traditional world is a must as well. Where they go from that point is up to them, but one thing is for certain: They will have sufficient context and tools to do any job in media well, regardless of how these various platforms evolve.
My favorite line from Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail" is, "It is when the tools of production are transparent that we are inspired to create. When people understand how great work is made, they're more likely to want to do it themselves." I believe that sums it up nicely. Give solid, young media planners and buyers the tools they need and watch the innovation and creativity flow.
Perhaps I'm over simplifying. Perhaps with media agencies separate from creative agencies separate from interactive agencies such a system can't work and flourish. Where clients manage bricks-and-mortar in silos from the digital world, perhaps what I'm talking about can't flourish.
Or perhaps we just need to try harder to make sure that such a system can flourish. Mr. Spence also likes to say, "You've gotta kiss change on the lips." Pucker up.
Jerry Courtney is VP/director of interactive & digital media at GSD&M in Austin, TX. .