Advertising agencies notoriously downsize staff when a client is lost or individuals are not billable, creating anxiety for their employees. In this day and age, the margin pressures on agencies are more heightened than ever, generating an environment where even highly talented employees are vulnerable. This makes many feel exposed to the threat of unemployment and doubts about the ability to attain career success. So, how does one build a sustainable career in digital marketing that can overcome the ups and downs of agency performance? Here are five tips to swear by if you want long-term success, less anxiety, and a sure shot at climbing the agency ladder.
Have deep expertise in your discipline
It is important to build core knowledge and expertise in your discipline so that you are able to perform as a specialist who can go incredibly deep. The world is getting more specialized, requiring "go-to" experts within an agency. This is especially the case in certain aspects of technology where very few people may have the right specific knowledge required to pull off a challenging client project. For instance, a superstar UX expert is not going to be all that vulnerable to a layoff. Very difficult to find, they are the type of experts that decision-makers will invest in beyond temporary ups and downs in revenues.
Agencies are always looking for the best person within a specific space. In some disciplines that require strict expertise, different recruiters from different agencies will come up with the same 10 names of professionals. If you are on that list, your value dictates the interest of agencies to hire and retain you. Those folks who are true superstars at their specialty can always get a job. It is harder to sell yourself if you are too much of a generalist who can't bring something truly special to the table.
But, work beyond your discipline
While specialization is essential, you are even more beneficial to an agency if you are a substantial expert who can dabble in different disciplines. One creative at a digital agency describes it as being a "T"; you go super deep in one discipline but have capability to float across the others. Not only does this open up the possibility for the employee to manage multiple aspects of a client deliverable, it helps him or her to think through the project in its entirety, creating a more strategic player for the agency.
Creatives who can play in technology are a perfect example. More and more, digital agencies want a creative who can do both sides of the process: the idea and the code. Creatives who can code and prototype their own work and be knowledgeable about UX are a huge asset to any agency. Over time, many predict that the delineated sides of creative and technology will start to meld. The evolution of these roles could ultimately mean a combination at some point. The future of creative is the power of making where clear lines of responsibility get blurry. This is already happening in the start-up world and beginning to bleed into agency life.
The same is true of other disciplines. If you work in social, you need to be able to do more than one aspect of social. This can include ability in social listening, site planning, community management, and content development. The strategic planners need to be storytellers who can pitch to clients and win new business. Driving revenue is highly valued by agencies, and planners have a unique position in that process if they are able to hone persuasive skills. A media person needs to understand what it takes and the means to build a wireframe. And, account managers necessarily need to wear multiple hats to keep the client satisfied.
As clients and brands demand faster, quicker, and cheaper from their agencies, they will put pressure on marketers to have fewer layers of people doing the work. If there are fewer people, it necessarily demands individuals who can cover multiple areas of expertise. This is even true of freelancers who become more valuable and employable if they are able to work across disciplines.
In today's marketing environment, being agile is the single most important skill that agencies need from their people. Employees cannot be stuck in their ways or draw clear lines across disciplines. Agile is the new constant and the hallmark of employability in digital marketing.
Agencies are continually asking their employees to change what they are doing and the way they are doing it. Put simply, your job will continually shift and so better you. Marketers who are up for this challenge are curious and experimental employees, who ask great questions, look for new approaches to managing their work, and share knowledge willingly. Rigid, closed, and inflexible approaches to doing the work do not work anymore.
The need for agility is not simply because of growth in technology and the emergence of social and mobile as channels in marketing. Agencies are being challenged to consider how they staff projects because of negotiations over fees. In fact, some smaller and more nimble agencies are offering disruptive financial schemes that include "skin in the game." This is a move from retainer-based payout to a performance-based payout which is based on goals and metrics. Many believe this will become more of a norm over time. And, this shift will necessarily change the way agencies understand and utilize roles within a client team. The bottom line is that new pay schemes will increase pressure on agency employees to be agile.
Collaborate with others
Not only should you be able to demonstrate core expertise with an ability to work across disciplines, you need to play well in the sandbox. Despite its reputation of having superstar hotheads, advertising's new normal requires individuals who know how to work well in high-performance teams and demonstrate the ability to work collaboratively. Because individuals from different disciplines work so closely in a team environment, their specific disciplines will necessarily blur. The work is not a relay, there are no hand-offs to the next person in line. In this environment, a writer will not care if the technologist on a team comes up with a great idea. The creative will want to partner with a technologist who knows creative well. The planner will not be the only brand steward on the team; all members of the team will bear responsibility for that role. If you stay in your vertical, you will not be invited to the party. Instead, you need to understand how your vertical matters and connects to others. Individual contribution is only achieved within a collaborative eco-system.
Career advancement will come for those employees who demonstrate an ability to build and lead a team. Leadership roles will not go to those individuals with amazing "hard" skills around their particular area of expertise. Leadership roles will go to those who have shown the "soft" skills of developing a winning team. These include the ability to bring out the best in team members, to manage and inspire different types of personalities when forming a unified team, and to demonstrate an ability to resolve conflicts that undoubtedly arise with a group of passionate individuals.
Stay ahead of technology
There is no doubt that increasing one's knowledge of technology is essential in today's marketing world. Continually learning about technological advances ensures that you are relevant and can apply new information to your work in real time. But, we should also admit that advances in technology will make some roles more vulnerable over the long haul. It is crucial for anyone focusing on long-term career success to stay ahead of these advances and know their potential impact on one's discipline. Employees within an industry so dependent on technology need to work at ensuring that their work will continue to provide value.
This is especially true where advances in automation could impact the future workforce within advertising. Some jobs in media and roles like SEO may become more vulnerable to outsourcing if better software solutions are created. We already see some low-level SEO and web development positions are getting sent offshore. Similar risks could arise for folks in project management, data analysis, and basic creative production.
Beyond knowing this reality, it's important to build new skills that complement technological developments. For instance, data analysis employees should work at developing their skills for storytelling about the data in a way that enlightens the client's understanding. No computer will ever replace this ability.
Alternatively, recent advancements have produced opportunity for employees in advertising. For instance, social has created an entire new field called "real-time" marketing, which requires new skills and capabilities from employees. This is marketing provided "on the fly" during a noteworthy event where brands leverage the opportunity to attract attention and interest from the marketplace at large. Individuals working in this space need to be able to succeed in this highly technical and fast-paced environment, which is similar to a news room where speed and relevance are essential. This demands the ability to rapidly build ideas, create content, and disseminate messages that offer unique brand exposure. Social media has also increased the focus on user communities where loyalty to brands is structured and organized. Individuals who can bring the right skills to these new ways of reaching consumers are not only building their own future, they are creating the future of the industry.
While advertising can be a challenging industry to build long-term success, there is a clear pathway toward having a sustainable career. It is incredibly important to never settle on the skills you already have, but to always strive to build new ones. In doing so, learn how to work well with others and be a strong, reliable teammate. Despite the crazy challenges of your work day, refuse to keep your head down and buried in the work. Look out to see where this all might be going so you can work on ways to be personally ready for the future. While digital marketers are challenged by the new normal and all its complexities, they can build a sustainable career by preparing for the next normal.
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