With 7% of Britain’s gross domestic product stemming from marketing, it would be easy to conclude that the industry is doing very nicely, thank you.
Scratch the surface, though, and there are plenty of significant challenges ahead for the sector – not least the need to attract a more diverse, younger, digitally skilled workforce.
That was the key message from a seminar hosted by the Guardian in association with the Marketing Agencies Association (MAA). The event featured talks from a panel of industry experts, before a wider discussion was opened to an invited audience of marketing professionals and those interested in the creative industries.
Panel member Ian Millner said that as chair of the MAA he felt the importance of economic growth and the role of young people was not being taken seriously enough in the industry.
“It’s being talked about, but not enough is actually happening,” he said. “We’re four years into a recession. We’ve got to find really good ideas to help our businesses grow their way out of it.
“For every pound that is spent on marketing, the economy gets six pounds back,” he added, reflecting on the increased sales generated by a successful advertising campaign.
Tim Lefroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, enthused from the panel about the excitement offered by working in marketing even during a time of recession, because of all the technological innovations taking root.
“It’s the most exciting time ever to be in the marketing and communications industries, because of the rate of change,” he said. “It’s open season, fantastic opportunity time.”
Millner said that agencies needed to bring young people in to take advantage of their technological literacy and their new ideas.
One agency exemplifying good practice in this area is Livity, which picked up Best Agency at the recent MAA Best Awards. Livity’s Lianre Robinson talked about its role as a youth engagement agency, creating campaigns in partnership with young people and improving their lives through the power of marketing and training schemes. She said: “You can’t talk about the creative industries and digital skills without talking about young people.”
She admitted that it can seem quite scary for more traditional people and companies to confess that they have a knowledge gap, and to let young people in to the workplace. “We shouldn’t let fear stop innovation,” she pointed out.
It’s apparent that there is not a coherent strategy within the industry aimed at attracting the best young talent, the seminar was told. Indeed, Millner said that most people tended to end up in marketing through “some kind of happy accident”, and suggested that simply was not good enough, because new talent needed to be prepared for the world of work. “When people have left college, that’s too late,” he said.
That need for preparation is one of the driving forces behind Livity’s Advantage partnership with Google, a scheme for non-graduates aged 17 to 26 from a range of backgrounds.
“Google knows that diversity will create innovation in your workplace,” said Robinson. “It’s critical for forward-thinking business in the future.”
Panel member Tom Murray is one of the young people about to take up a place on the eight-week scheme. He told the seminar that after not enjoying his “boring” college course in business management, he decided to apply for marketing placements via the National Apprenticeship Scheme website.
“I’ve always been interested in business,” he said. “I thought I’d have a look, and [marketing] seemed like an interesting sector.”
Lefroy said that UK education had equipped “a really outstanding creative nation”, with inventive people who were not necessarily entrepreneurial, and thus failed to take their ideas to market. He criticised the attitude that measures success by monetary gain resulting in early retirement, rather than coming up with more new concepts.
“We tend to invent so many things which are then exploited by other nations,” he said. Adding that while the UK has the originality, there’s a “bone missing” in the British psyche, which means innovations are not monetised.
Robinson said that many young people did not realise that opportunities like those offered by Livity existed, and that meant they did not realise they could use their skills in social media and web writing – developed as par for the course in their multimedia-savvy childhoods – in a career.
Millner agreed, saying there was an issue around young people not knowing about marketing full stop.
“If you’re young and you’re growing up, you tend to be very heavily influenced by what your dad did, what your friends do. Unless you’re growing up in a family that works in the industry, it is quite difficult for you to know what to do,” he said.
James Eder, panel member, entrepreneur and founder of discount site Student Beans, urged people to go back to schools and universities to share their stories about working in the media and encourage young people to enter the industry. “Every single person in this room has a duty and a responsibility,” he said.
The panel agreed, although there was a question-mark over who had overall responsibility for attracting young people into the industry and ensuring that they had the appropriate skills for the sector; and Millner wondered if this was the reason why nothing ever seemed to move on.
Unsurprisingly, the government’s role in promoting the industry – and encouraging even more growth – was discussed at length, with most agreeing that not enough was currently being done.
“I think it’s the government’s opportunity to showcase the innovation that’s coming out of the UK,” said panel member Kathryn Parsons of Decoded, a company that teaches people how to write program languages over the space of just one day.
She talked about the kinds of people who wanted to learn coding through one of her company’s courses, explaining: “People are feeling a little bit lost about where they fit in a changing landscape.” She added that people did not understand how their skills could be used and wanted to develop them.
From the audience, Scott Knox, managing director of the MAA, said that in China, digital innovation is taught in schools, and the same needs to be done in the UK. Parsons said the finger should not be pointed just at ICT teachers; other teachers needed to be shown how creativity and communications can inspire young people.
However, the responsibility is not the government’s alone, the panel agreed. Lefroy argued that the marketing industry needed to undergo some self-interrogation and think about how they select and develop their staff.
He said he was unsure how many agencies actually taught marketing and provided training to their staff. He pointed to his own experience of work, which began as an office-based apprentice dealing with stock requisitions: “If we wanted to move, we had to fight to move.”
Leffroy said he had been taught marketing on the job at Cadbury’s, which he described as “a cathedral of marketing”, and emphasised the importance of doing a job that one loves.
He was quick to point out that technicians, analysts and sales people were needed in marketing just as much as “creatives”, and asked the audience to go away and consider exactly how they were competing for the best young talent and making the industry attractive.
“It’s not enough for us to say ‘we need them, we need this talent’,” he said. “If we’ve learnt anything from marketing, it’s the question, ‘What’s in it for them?’”
Millner speculated about the potential of a “British university of marketing” working in collaboration with the private sector. He added this could offer skills training for young people wanting to go into the industry, and said: “It’s about preparation and stimulation as much as anything else.”
Livity’s Robinson stressed the importance of diversity – and not just bringing in more women, but also bringing in young people from less traditional “marketing” backgrounds with less traditional skillsets.
“Having a truly diverse workplace,” she concluded “is the only way that you’re going to create truly innovative solutions.”
Key discussion points
• The marketing industry is currently making a sizeable contribution to the UK economy.
• The marketing industry needs people with digital skills, including social media, programming, coding and web writing.
• Young people can offer digital skills to the industry – but there is a lack of knowledge around potential careers in marketing and communications.
• The government and the industry need to collaborate to raise awareness about marketing careers, but also to inform young people how to best use their digital skillset for the world of work.
• This needs to be done at school, in further and higher education, and also in the workplace itself.
On the panel
Jemima Kiss (Chair) Media reporter, the Guardian
Ian Millner Chair, MAA; CEO, Iris
Kathryn Parsons Co-founder, Decoded
Lianre Robinson Livity
Tom Murray Advantage Partnership scheme member
James Eder Founder, Student Beans
Tim Lefroy Chief executive, Advertising Association
Seminar report commissioned by Seven Plus and controlled by the Guardian. Discussion hosted to a brief agreed with the Marketing Agencies Association. Funded by the Marketing Agencies Association. Contact Matthew Race on 020-3353 2884 (email@example.com). Scott Knox (firstname.lastname@example.org). For information on roundtables visit: guardian.co.uk/sponsored-content
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