Filter the digital talent pool

Creatives – in our case digital designers – have to be treated differently to technical or account management teams if you want to recruit, manage and provide a flourishing environment for them.

There has been a touch of hysteria over the past few months regarding the perceived lack of available talent in the digital design pool. But the talent is there, it is mostly a question of how to attract and manage it and look beyond just salary.

We are experiencing very dynamic market conditions, which if played carefully, should contribute to a healthy and wealthy industry. Marketing departments have been switching significant amounts of their traditional media budget to on-line – they are no longer dipping toes in the water, they’re making digital central to their communications strategy.

Traditional ad agencies are now hurriedly unveiling their claimed digital core. But without a digital heritage, they are panic buying the perceived required skills. This generates a huge demand for not only top-notch experienced players, but also, often, anyone whose CV fits the bill.

Therein lies the main problem, separating the wheat from the chaff. And in this market the chaff often rates itself a lot higher than it should in terms of salary. We have all sat in interviews where the candidate with two or three years’ digital design experience is not only demanding but fully expecting a salary that equates to six or seven years’ experience. With traditional agencies panic buying it takes a cool head to maintain a reasonable, mutually beneficial salary structure with a company, which genuinely rewards talent for their skills.

As a full-service interactive consultancy, historically we’ve managed with a core set of key people and topped them up with freelance depending on demand. Recently we’ve been assured by the longevity of the digital marketplace and have switched to a higher ratio of permanent to freelances to both maintain quality of work and grow our margin.

Our freelance pool is just that, a pool of people with whom we have worked. We know them and we know their strengths and talents. Most importantly we hire them directly and not, generally, through recruitment consultants or agencies.

We do use a select number of recruitment agencies on special occasions, when the hire is sensitive or top-level, but we don’t get the best service or value when sourcing lower level recruits. We prefer using social networks for permanent staff, and the Syzygy team is financially incentivised with a ‘finder’s fee’ paid to them after people they have recommended are still employed six months on. We’ve also increased our human resources staff by 50 per cent to drive direct recruitment, which is significantly paying off from both profit margin and quality perspectives. Added to that, we have increased our full-time employee benefits scheme dramatically to take us significantly above the market offering; finally, we have recently appointed our first operations director to pioneer new ways of working.

There is always the question, in periods of rapid expansion, where to house the growing talent pool and how to secure enough office space to allow for growth. In the early dotcom days, landlords in new media villages such as London’s Farringdon and Shoreditch were rubbing their hands with glee with the high-premium, long-term office rentals they were securing. Hopefully lessons have been learnt, and companies now expand with caution, which is why you have to maintain the right ratio of employees to freelances.

Once you have the talent, keeping them motivated is crucial. We’re not just talking about salary, bonuses, holiday entitlement and on-site massages. Nurturing the next generation and developing a clear company culture that encourages personal development is essential.

We would all love for the labour market to be less tight but we also all want to embrace the rapid increase in client demand for digital briefs, so we have to adapt and change the way we hire. If there is one thing our industry has learnt it’s that there is always a downturn around the corner, so being ready for feast or famine is the key.

Gareth Phillips is managing director of Syzygy

Digital lessons

• Salaries are not the only way to attract staff – you need to offer them an opportunity for personal development

• A reliable pool of freelances is useful, but hiring more permanent staff is wise if you are confident that you will have enough work for them

• Be prepared for boom or bust – expand with caution and learn the lessons of the early dotcom days

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