John Kerr
Mar 2, 2017

Digital to grow, but do we have the talent to make it happen?

Mobile and digital spend in the region is forecast to grow rapidly over the next four years, but IAB Singapore’s John Kerr believes that unless the industry nurtures enough talent, those numbers won’t become a reality.

John Kerr
John Kerr

What were you doing in September 2011? For those curious, I was younger, thinner (with less white hair) and on vacation in Phuket.

It was also the last time IAB Singapore released an ad spend report, which back then, put digital spend in Singapore at just under 6 percent of total media spend. It also predicted that digital’s growth would come primarily from search and display.

We know this is not the case today, for the sheer number of new ad formats that were made real by mobile since then, have completely redefined the space. Fact is, we don’t know, what we don’t know.

The release of the eMarketer & IAB Singapore SEA Ad Spend Report in early February this year, six years after our last report, is certainly a moment worth celebrating—it also offers hard confirmation on what many of us on the ground already knew.

The top line takeaway is thus: Total media spend is forecasted to be relatively flat across the region but digital spend is expected to grow in double-digits and mobile spend will quadruple. By 2020, digital ad spend in these markets is expected to account for up to 25 percent of overall media spend. In Singapore, it has jumped from 6 percent in 2011 to over 20 percent of the total media pie in for the first time in 2017.

But if you look at just the summary numbers alone, you miss the churn; you miss the amount of transformation taking place below the surface, within our industry. You also miss a crucial piece that could make or break this rosy forecast for digital in the region.

Trade publications were spot on with their headlines when we published the ad spend report—Southeast Asia trails in shift to digital channels, relative to other markets. If there’s one thing hasn’t changed in the last six years, it is the goal to get digital ad spend to catch up with the high digital consumption behaviours of consumers.

There remains quite a job to be done to bring these forecasts to life.

The belief is that ‘where money flows, talent goes.’ While we should be excited about attracting people to build a career in an industry growing in double-digits over the next four years – if they don’t come to the party … where the heck will we find the digital talent?

For example, there is already a massive shortage of quality digital people and skills in Indonesia. This is a market whose digital ad spend is expected to grow over 200 percent and become our region’s largest digital market in the next four years.  

Yet, not one Indonesian university offers a dedicated degree in digital marketing. Then we must battle with the burgeoning e-commerce, consulting and technopreneur sectors for talent. Not to mention the brands—plus every other industry for which digital skills are now seen as transformational. Lack of talent is the fear that should grip us all.

If we do not help to build capacity and build capability, the reality of doubling digital investment and quadrupling mobile advertising investment will not happen. IAB Singapore has done its small part, training over 5,000 people across the region to date, over the past three years, with even more to come.

But it will take a digital industry village to attract, develop and retain the skilled and talented people we must have across our ecosystem.

But it’s not just about attracting new blood to the ranks. I also ask you, and especially within a mobile context—what have you personally done to improve your skills around digital marketing and mobile marketing?

If I’m asking you the question, then guess I should also put up. In addition to completing online courses, I regularly attend IAB Singapore training sessions and encourage my team to attend as well.

The industry changes so quickly that it is essential that all of us refresh and revisit our skills. This is not so much about becoming obsolete—it’s about being leaders and showing that continual skills development and learning in a transforming world is not something we just say is important, it’s how we live—and they should too.

My personal belief is that the projections in the ad spend report may be conservative. There’s no reason by 2020 why Singapore (30 percent) should not have the same level of digital ad spend as Taiwan (50 percent), or Australia, the UK or the US. There is also no reason why other markets in Southeast Asia won’t enjoy comparable levels of digital ad spend.

The lack of digital skills and talent is the single biggest inhibitor to realising (or beating) the numbers we have seen in the ad spend report, and it is this issue that we must address together.

The numbers are not going to make themselves real by themselves.

John Kerr was an IAB Singapore board member in 2016 and is chief digital officer at Zeno Group. IAB Singapore is a not-­for-profit industry body that represents the digital advertising industry in Southeast Asia.

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