One-dimensionality pervades much of modern society, but nowhere more than the realm of the digital.

Everything accelerates; especially thought. In the process, nuance and depth collapse.

Solutions are prioritized over questions; ‘quick wins’ over long-term thinking; and meaningless titles over genuine knowledge.

We want simplicity without enduring the necessary complexity to get there. But if we’re always grabbing ‘low-hanging fruit’, true progress will remain beyond our grasp.

During my years at digital marketing agencies, I observed some interesting phenomena in this regard. The agencies I worked at differed greatly in their size and sophistication, which provides a useful frame of reference.

As a relatively nascent discipline, there are no set guidelines for managing the progression of what is quite a sizeable digital marketing workforce. I felt this on a personal level, but I witnessed it across large groups of colleagues too.

Where will the PPC account managers of today be in 40 years? Is ‘client strategy’ a 50-year career?

Not everyone can be CEO by 30, so we need some new ideas to keep people motivated and moving forward.

Predictably, we tend to reach for easy answers rather than engaging directly with a problem that won't just go away.

People are promoted before they are ready, just to appease staff in the immediate short-term. 

I have recently enjoyed a varied and rewarding year working for myself, and in my attempts to re-skill and move into more ambitious areas like data analysis and teaching, I have a lingering sense of disappointment with the lack of progress I achieved in my last permanent role. Yet, I also have an increased sense of understanding when considering some important questions. 

Namely:

  • How can we balance accelerated career progression with increased maturity and leadership skills?
  • Are we acting in staff’s long-term interests by promoting them so quickly?
  • Is it truly possible to specialize and master one area of digital marketing, then transfer to a ‘cross-channel’ role?
  • How much time should we spend addressing our weaknesses, as opposed to accentuating our strengths?
  • What constitutes effective leadership in a culture that demands instant reward?

I questioned these areas while working as a full-time employee, but was too close to the scene to consider it with anything other than pure subjectivity.

Moreover, the experience of working at digital marketing agencies remains fresh enough for me to root any ruminations at least partly in the empirical rather than the purely ideal.

How we got here

We are all finding our feet in the digital world, but not everyone cares to admit it.

This is an industry built on promises to answer long-lasting questions, such as the true return on marketing spend. It makes for great sales speak, but as an industry we have not questioned the underpinnings of our work nearly enough. 

A healthy dialogue is emerging though, as we wrestle with the challenges of accurate attribution, click fraud, and the true meaning of a ‘customer-centric’ digital business model. Search, in particular, is becoming a much more interesting discipline as AI leads us towards accurate visual and voice search.

In short, the industry is growing up. 

Many traditional marketers have moved into the digital space, but many others have entered a digital marketing role straight from college. 

This sizeable workforce plays host to a range of uncertainties and imbalances. For example, some of the most knowledgeable digital marketers within a company are also those with the least work experience.

This occurs because they have specialized in an area of digital and are abreast of the latest developments, while those further up the chain simply do not have the time to do so. This younger generation also does not even recognize a distinction between the digital and the analogue. 

Simultaneously, the significance of digital continues to grow. This places greater emphasis on the skills that digital specialists possess.

The historical models for career progression no longer fit, as a result. In their place, nothing of true merit has been proposed. I have worked at agencies that have discussed the ‘industrialization’ of digital marketing within their workforce, which remains a spectacular missing of the point.

Turning people into machines won’t work; nor will the reverse. Something will always be lost in transition.

Throw in the stereotypical (but oft accurate) view of the younger generation as more demanding than their older counterparts and we end up with 25 year-old heads of department.

There is nothing innately wrong with this and some of the typical objections tend to come from those who simply wish they had been granted the same responsibility at such an inchoate stage of their development.

We do, however, have a duty to nurture careers and create rounded leaders with a broad range of skills, especially the softer skills such as people management. Throwing people in at the deep end as ‘reward’ for excelling at their specialism is short-sighted and possibly even negligent.

I have experienced this first-hand and do not pretend to have the right answers. That said, I’ve certainly encountered some of the wrong ones.

The core question that sits with me is: how can we take a specialist in one area of digital marketing and turn them into an expert in multiple channels, with the ability not only to set cross-discipline strategy but also lead a team?

It is a question requiring a thoughtful answer, because this situation is rarely just hypothetical.

clark boyd

‘Branching out’

A marketer that performs exceptionally in one area of digital - paid social, for example - will reach a point where they inevitably want to ‘branch out’ and become more ‘holistic’. 

If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. It’s also the best we have and I would posit that it’s not good enough.

In lieu of an agreed and effective language to discuss these challenges, we are left with platitudes and nebulous promises of progression.

If one is promoted to head of paid social by the age of, say, 25 years old, there is still a lot of road left to run in that particular career. Having received so many promotions in so few years, expectations have been set high. Such an ambitious person will naturally start looking for the next rung on the ladder and will not want to stay in situ for too long.

A convenient answer would be that this is an ever-developing field and new opportunities will always open up. Paid social will keep evolving and new specialisms we haven’t even thought of yet will spring up, too.

That is overly convenient, however.

We need to tie progression to more than just a hierarchy if we are to prepare people to avail of an uncertain, but potentially lucrative, future.

Perhaps the most worrying trend I have seen in relation to career development in this industry is the creation of ‘cross-channel’ teams without any genuine thought on how staff will be prepared for these roles. 

In the immediate short term, this can satiate the desire of high-performers to progress their careers.

At some agencies, senior managers prefer to take the easy route rather than act in staff’s long-term interests. Promotions and titles are handed out at the slightest hint of restlessness, which actually can put staff at something of an impasse. Many interview elsewhere but are rejected due to their lack of knowledge, or offered less senior roles in line with their actual experience. As a result, they end up staying.

Perhaps some founders do not know better and are just unequipped to run a business, but therein lies another challenge. Anyone can start an agency and get a few clients, so many do so in the hope a lucrative earn-out down the line.

The real problem here, from my perspective, is that this brazen greed stunts the development of so many young professionals. Once people reach that glass ceiling of ‘director’ or ‘head of’, the next objective is to work on other areas of digital marketing. The wish is easily granted, but this is often done myopically.  

It is the responsibility of managers to advise their staff and sometimes the best advice is for them to stay in their departments, hone their craft, and learn to nurture other people’s development. 

The challenge here is that the employee may simply take the opportunity to ‘branch out’ at a rival agency, for more pay and a better title.

Of course, providing a sense of purpose beyond the material will help to engage staff and boost retention rates. As simple as that sounds, many agencies have not yet realized this. Such an approach buys time, and with time can come development. 

However, on the whole, we seem to have bought into the narrative that we specialize first, then generalize soon after. Analyst -> Account executive -> Account manager -> Director -> Head of -> [Insert title with either ‘client’ or ‘strategy’ in it].

That may be fine in and of itself; but if it is inevitable that this is the path people will tread, how can we ensure that they do so successfully? 

After all, the gravitational pull of our original specialism is hard to resist, as we innately know that this is where we can add most value.

I have attended many meetings with a client services director (or similar) and one can detect within the first five minutes what their true specialism is. They have simply been re-badged ‘holistic’, but they are in fact a PPC expert with additional responsibilities.

When negotiating contracts between agencies and clients, it is ironic that ‘Client Strategy’ is the line item I have most frequently been asked to remove. One would imagine that this would appeal instinctively to clients, but many are skeptical about what exactly this person will add.

It is important to note that this is not born of an a priori reality. These opinions are the result of lived experience, of ‘client services’ reduced to the role of note-taker, meeting-room-booker, next-steps-coordinator.

How can we overcome these challenges?

To my mind, the answer lies in a more enlightened approach to what we do and how we do it. Creating a culture of curiosity, of an enjoyment in the pursuit of knowledge over its saleable acquisition, is key to achieving this.

We also learn by doing, of course. I have taken on projects in a range of digital marketing disciplines in the last 12 months and have learned more through this approach than I would have from reading articles or listening into meetings. I have also been able to take in-depth courses without having to worry about my timesheets.

The problem is that this is not a luxury that would have been afforded me at many agencies. Staff are billable hours; time spent figuring out how to run a display campaign is not particularly bankable - at least not when the learner is also on a hefty pay packet.

We must deliver outcomes, all the time.

One potential answer has lain in the field of data analysis.

By developing a base level of data literacy across an organization, there is at least a common vocabulary for discussing ideas in a reasonably objective manner.

It would also be possible to send staff on an external ‘boot camp’ to boost their skills in the shortest possible time. I do think this type of training has value, but only as part of a broader plan. It delivers a ‘good ROI’ in a spreadsheet, but we are dealing with intangibles here and intangibles do not fit so readily into Excel.

Perhaps there, we have our answer. 

When I have raised these questions, it has been rare to see a senior leader lift their head from their laptop. It has been rarer still to witness or participate in a rewarding discussion. If we only want shortcuts, we’ll end up with lesser experiences.

I wrote an article like this one a few years ago and was asked by a CEO, "But what's your point? Summarize it for me." Sometimes, a situation is beyond salvation.

The aim is not to be the world’s greatest expert in all areas of digital. That would be fantastic, but it would be impossible to maintain this heightened level of knowledge across so many ever-changing disciplines, if it could ever even be attained.

Rather, the aim is to satiate an innate passion for knowledge and channel this into the development of sophisticated critical faculties. That seems as ‘future-proof’ a plan as any.

What I’ve done

When I left my first digital marketing agency, where I had spent five pretty happy and successful years, I had vague ambitions of ‘branching out’ beyond SEO. 

I did not need to leave in order to fulfil that ambition, as it would have been possible to move into a cross-channel team in the relatively short term. Simply changing title does not equate to possessing new skills, however. I didn't think I could do justice to such a role just yet.

Perhaps I required some space to reflect on what exactly it meant to move into such a role, beyond simply taking on a new title that I would be ill-equipped to justify. Perhaps I needed a new environment and a fresh start.

Personal pride is a factor in my desire to work on my development in isolation. When one has developed into an advanced professional in one area, it is difficult to assume the role of the beginner again. 

Without starting from the bottom, it is also impossible to understand the details of each practice. This has been easier to do on my own than it would have been within a large company.

From an agency perspective, this is an understandably difficult paradox to resolve. It may even be insoluble, placed in a wider societal context. Healthy discussion and an emphasis on developing both hard and soft skills will only help, I believe.

In a minority of companies, however, to pose questions without also providing answers is to be ‘troublesome’. If one knew the answer, one wouldn’t pose the question, but that’s precisely what some leaders want.

Questions put strain on a straining infrastructure.

Answers - even wrong ones - are comforting in their certainty.

This is, unfortunately, entirely lost on those who claim their business is built on ‘disruption’ and ‘challenging the status quo’. Nothing could be more conformist than some of the digital agencies I have observed. One wonders why they would truly want things to stay as they are, other than to prop up their own positions. 

Since I am no longer obliged to spew platitudes (not that I ever did so with conviction), there is room to ruminate, to question, to accept that there need not be a ‘quick win’ or ‘actionable outcome’ at the end.

Ironically, it will lead me to better answers. My life is infinitely richer for that.

Needless to say, Econsultancy offers a range of training courses if, like Clark, you are looking to branch out.

Clark Boyd

Published 10 May, 2018 by Clark Boyd

Clark Boyd is a digital marketing and branding specialist. Over the last 9 years, he has devised and implemented international strategies for brands including American Express, adidas, and ASOS.

After running large departments at digital marketing agencies, Clark founded Candid Digital to provide digital marketing consultancy built on transparency and deep consumer understanding.

He teaches online courses for AVADO/Google Squared Online, Columbia Business School, and MIT Sloan.

Clark splits his time between New York and London, and is originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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J P, Content Marketing Specialist at VA Marketing

Thank you for this article. I really identify with what you said about starting out as a specialist (I'm currently a "Content Marketing Specialist," whatever that means) with nowhere to go but generalist/leadership roles that I'm trying to gain enough experience for. Finding mentorship has been a challenge, and it feels like the only way to grow, get promoted and gain more experience is by hopping to another job. Based just on the turnover in marketing in my city, I agree that too many agencies have not planned for how to address this, if they even see the problem.

3 months ago

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