The digital skills gap in Asia-Pacific can be summarised in a few neatly packaged percentages. According to research from the CMO Council, concern for digital marketing ROI among regional marketers has risen 21 per cent in 2014 and only 13 per cent are measuring throughout the life of digital campaigns.
But what do these figures really tell you?
“It’s dangerous to look at percentages,” says Kathryn Parsons, co-founder of DeCoded, a digital training academy with offices in London, New York and Sydney.
The academy’s aim is to instill “digital enlightenment” through one-day courses in coding, data and technology whilst offering custom training solutions to individuals, enterprises and agencies. “Firstly we need to humanise the technology. We need to remember that all this was created by humans for humans.”
Parsons has a grand vision of digital and its place in the world, one where code is just a language we use to communicate — like English or any other. “What’s the point in having bespoke training sessions on the latest tech and tools when we don’t yet have a digital mindset?”
Parsons says DeCoded has worked with 2,000 businesses, 20 per cent of which are creative agencies.
Similarly, General Assembly, a digital academy that grew out of a co-working space in New York offers hands-on, project-based training. Kalina King, regional director of GA Asia, helped launch the academy in Hong Kong in 2013.
“We talk to agencies and companies about the local industry needs and build our courses out of these criteria,” King says. “We’re seeing more employees talking to their employers about practical training to develop a digital mentality and the skills to go with it.”
This line of thought is mirrored by creative agencies attempting to deliver training across diverse territories in the Asia-Pacific region. Josie Brown, APAC director of digital at JWT, believes that the ‘digital mindset’ is the only way to transcend cultural differences in the region while focusing on the specific learning needs of each territory.
“We have a global partnership with the Online Marketing Institute for on-going training,” says Brown. “While there’s a universal course for everyone in the agency, we make sure it’s localised. For example, Line is important in Thailand, so we cover this.” The courses are online and on-demand. The agency also gathers data on learning needs through surveys and feedback sessions in addition to arranging bespoke workshops with industry experts and practitioners.
The huge demand for digital talent comes down to the fact that it’s no longer a specialisation. It’s required by virtually every industry and covers a wide spectrum of skills and technologies that range from front-end web development to ecommerce.
“Many companies are looking for overseas returnees for their senior positions,” says Simon Lance, regional director of Hays China. Lance has observed a lack of candidates in SEM and integrated digital marketing. He believes education providers need to prepare graduates with the foundations to “execute world-class digital initiatives” and that the business community need to be more willing to foster talent as the evolution of digital marketing is set to continue over the next decade.
Jacqui Barratt, director at Font, an Asia-Pacific recruitment agency specialising in digital, marketing and the creative industries, says digital skills inflation is bringing challenges to recruitment, talent retention and business operations.
“There’s a lot of headhunting in the region and more movement in digital than in any other sector,” says Barratt. “The supply-and-demand problem means agencies and clients are fighting for the same talent. In desperation, poor recruitment decisions are being made and people are being hired for positions they can’t handle, more often than not.”
According to Barratt, the skills shortage is so severe some candidates are staying in digital roles for only six to nine months, being paid high salaries they can’t always deliver on and yet “easily find work when they move on”.
The combination of this skills shortage with high turnover in digital is having a domino effect.
“When people can’t deliver or suddenly leave, it creates stress, which impacts work-life balance. Companies lose their top performers. Others have to put in overtime and sick leave goes up, which in turn affects clients,” says Barratt. “When clients have to meet their third account manager, they aren’t impressed because consistency is lost, they have to explain everything again, and the quality of work suffers.”
Barratt says that the agencies which are investing in training and promoting digital are the ones that are performing best in regards to managing and attracting digital talent. These range from the bigger agencies that are well integrated regionally, right down to boutique agencies with vision and have established “good international networks”.
Ultimately, Barratt believes talent in Asia-Pacific cannot rely completely on their employers for training and development. “If people want to guide their own success, they will need to take control of their development path,” she says. “Be active, invest in yourself and think carefully about the outcome you want when learning the skills that you need.
“There will always be a skills gap. The industry needs to look at developing its digital talent by giving people a chance to learn on the job because hunting ready-made [talent] just isn’t sustainable.”
This article was first published in the December/January 2015 issue of Campaign Asia-Pacific. It has been made available on a complimentary basis as part of the Campaign Innovate series, a collection of articles that examine the way innovation, startups and technology are affecting the advertising and marketing industry.
Campaign Asia-Pacific has also launched the Campaign Innovate competition, an event that aims to provide a platform for Asia-Pacific's startups to pitch to some of the world's biggest brands.