Solving the Advertising Talent Problem with Technology

Though some have tried to ignore it, there’s a giant elephant lumbering about in the room of advertising. We’re a decade into the programmatic marketing revolution and digital marketing remains an overwhelmingly human endeavor. And yet, optimizing people-related costs (and outcomes) is rarely discussed above a whisper level.

Not talking about this elephant won’t make it go away. Some have thrown up their hands and resigned themselves to struggling with a lack of adequate staff. That’s fine for companies that don’t want to get ahead. But for those that want to make progress and continue to grow, there are options. It does, however, require thinking outside of the traditional industry box.

The Talent Equation

The hard truth is that talent is the largest expense in media buying after media and data.  And ironically, digital media is often more labor-intensive than traditional channels like linear television or print on a dollar-for-dollar or impression basis. From what we see, It takes 200-400 people to manage a billion dollars of digital, global, multi-channel, multi-product media investment at a typical media agency.

It doesn’t help that buying digital media can be remarkably un-sexy. It involves the direct negotiation of high-impact ads and the manual review of fraud and brand safety along with facing constant problems with data quality and accuracy. And, in an industry famous for hiring liberal arts majors, the tension between the traditional talent pool and the needed skills has never been higher.

The cavalry isn’t coming

To gain relief, media buyers have put their hopes in automation, offshoring, and on-shore talent hubs. But it appears those hopes are misplaced.

Recently, Mega-conglomerate WPP trotted out some great examples of its AI-driven buying tools in an earnings call. Perhaps they will provide value at some level, but not in terms of personnel. The holding company projects no net savings in headcount as a result of automation in the foreseeable future.

The offshore option has been tried by several of the top holding companies. They may have saved some money in the near-term, but that benefit is overwhelmed by communication friction due to time zones and cultural barriers. Besides, those savings evaporate quickly as incomes rise in popular offshore destinations.

Onshore hubs seem like a great idea for growth and reaching a large number of workers. But, in practice, they quickly tap out the available talent and companies are then back where they started.

Companies to Their Own Rescue

If those solutions won’t work, what will? It’s time to get creative and consider new approaches.

The first step is to be realistic about the options and to set priorities. You can’t have it all. Think of it as a typical triangle with three constraints. You can really only solve for two. Faster, better, cheaper. On-time, high-quality, or on-spec. In this case, it’s skills and talent, flexibility or cost.

  • Skills and talent access: Getting butts in the seat is the top problem for agencies in major metro areas, brands in the middle of nowhere, and a range of entities in between. But what’s the right role or skill level? Rethink the skills. Perhaps it’s possible to substitute one rockstar for five junior folks or vice versa?
  • Flexibility: How much variation do you need in resource utilization? Do you need to ramp up or down quickly? How will this affect your ability to access talent consistently?
  • Cost: Competition and a limited talent pool drive up talent prices. What is more vital – having a high-end talent or saving money? The answer will inevitably drive the solution.

A Deep Dive Into Solutions 

With the priorities set, it’s time to look more closely at the realistic options, including what’s worked in other industries, to determine the best fit.

Owned vs. Outsourced: How important is it to directly employ a resource? Would it be better to tap into the expertise offered by others who can build and manage a specialized team without taking up company office space? In many industries, a broad trend toward outsourcing appears to be driving long-term efficiency, especially in large corporations. Advertising has been slow to pick up on this option, but now may be the right time to embrace the concept.

Full-time vs. Temp: How much help do you need at any given time? Is variation in resource utilization driving inefficiency — or more commonly, causing high employee churn?

Perhaps it is time to tap into a growing number of temp options. This could be a better use of financial resources and may help to increase the overall yield of full-time employees.

On-Location vs. Remote: Media planning and buying are context-heavy and rapidly changing. Traditionally, managers have thought that in order to cope, talent must be seated shoulder to shoulder in order to keep up. However, technology and online tools increasingly are allowing people to stay in close contact even when they aren’t in the same office. Even teams that are in the same location behave much like remote teams. If a team is having meetings via Hangouts even though they sit within arms reach, it’s a good sign that at least some of their work could be conducted remotely. Offering remote work options can decrease office overhead while vastly increasing the potential pool of talent.

As media buying heads into yet another wave of change driven by competition, regulation and maturing technology, it’s clear that the winners will overwhelmingly be those who can attract, retain and manage talent regardless of where and when they work and even whether they’re on staff.