UK digital marketing sector doing well during crisis, but faces skills shortage
UK digital marketing is fast becoming a leading jewel in the country’s economic crown. The sector experienced double-digit growth after 2010, leading to the founding of thousands of agencies, all promising to use Britain’s extensive knowledge base to deliver world-class marketing products to customers domestically and overseas.
The global pandemic put a slight damper on the industry. However, unlike many sectors, the current problem is not a lack of demand but a lack of skills.
A recent report from analytics firm Acquia shows that marketing teams across the UK view their most significant challenge as finding talented people able to do the kind of work the sector offers.
The survey revealed that around 83 per cent of UK brands intend to ramp up their marketing spending either immediately or following the relaxation of restrictions. And some companies haven’t taken a break, with over 70 per cent of UK businesses reporting that they expect higher marketing budgets to become available over the coming year.
Despite the slump in demand across the economy, around a third of UK businesses told Acquia that they were struggling to find the skills and talents that they needed during the crisis. According to research, marketers say that there is a lack of people with genuine leadership ability. Furthermore, around 37 per cent say that they haven’t been able to develop specialist marketing campaigns because of a lack of computer science talent. Firms would like to use more artificial intelligence and machine learning in their outreach efforts. But finding employees who have the right skills to build and manage such systems is proving more challenging than many imagined at the outset of the crisis.
The skills shortage is also being driven by changes in how UK consumers behave. In 2019, the in-person retail market was still quite substantial. Companies could rely on footfall marketing and window shopping to sell their wares. With renewed lockdowns and increasing infection rates in September and October, that is changing. Now consumers are increasingly moving online; the search for effective marketing is dominating their decision-making.
Freelance providers also see an uptick in their sales. Many are expanding what they offer too to better appeal to companies caught off-guard by the ever-changing situation.
The type of skills that companies need is also changing fast. Riordan SEO – a freelance digital marketing service that focuses on helping customers rank higher on Google – says that website ranking is becoming more local. Companies need to meet the needs of the people in their particular communities, not those who live on the other side of the country.
The shift to remote working
The skills shortage isn’t just a geographical problem – it is more global than that.
Modern digital marketing is less about meeting technical digital marketing needs and more about creating valuable content for people. The industry is undergoing a shift where the value-added segment is changing. It is not the technical analysts being paid the most – instead, it’s the creatives who produce the content. It turns out that that is now the rarer skill.
The switch to remote working has impacted UK marketing teams. Around 84 per cent say that they will be moving to a more digital working environment, with around four-fifths claiming that they were well-prepared before the pandemic to make the move.
Marketers now suggest that around half of their work is in the digital realm. The pandemic is forcing companies to migrate to the cloud faster than they would have otherwise – something that could radically improve productivity and increase average incomes in the future.
The shift to remote working, however, doesn’t do a lot to address the skills shortage. For the most part, companies are merely operating with the same staff complement as they would usually and they’re not taking on outside staff.
Where marketing needs exceed the internal capacity to provide them, brands are reaching out to agencies. In response, agencies are having to add more professionals and freelancers to their networks, but, again, supply is limited.
Those in the industry are already seeing prices for content go up. While the UK is a highly literate population, the supply of people able to write quickly and accurately remains stubbornly low. Until recently, developing those kinds of skills was not particularly rewarding. That’s all changing.
The digital brain drain
The market is already responding in complicated and interesting ways to the unemployment spike created by COVID-19. Data from the Serpico survey suggest that around 49 per cent of UK marketers are planning on moving their operations in house. It’s part of a drive for a “blended strategy” which means some agency talent, but mostly in-house operations.
Unfortunately, however, the vast majority can’t get hold of the people they need. Around 57 per cent of firms surveyed said that they had lost talent because of forced redundancies. Another 43 per cent said that furlough was a significant issue for them.
According to UK firms, accessing talent was the most significant barrier to bringing their marketing in-house. Given the nature of the industry, most experts in the field would prefer to work independently of any particular company instead of adopting a traditional career.
Firms are adopting several strategies to deal with this pattern. One approach is to view the agency or freelancer as part of the “extended team.” The concept is to bring them into the company de facto, even if they remain officially on a contractor basis.
The other aim is to bring entire agencies in-house – an option some of the largest UK companies, like Vodafone, are considering.
COVID-19 has not benefited the UK digital marketing sector, but it doesn’t appear to have hurt it either. If anything, it shows that there is a need for talent influx into the sector. Wages are rising, indicating a shortage of people with the skills that companies want.
Long-term, UK digital marketing stands to benefit tremendously from the changes wrought by the pandemic. The drive towards online shopping and service will likely take the demand for content creation and SEO services to new levels.