Big Ad Agencies Now Requiring the Development of Digital Skills

Small to mid-size ad agency owners and executives need to be better equipped with digital technology. It will not only impact agency business but also new business development.

I having a discussion with the creative director of a small agency who is in his early 50’s. He was expressing his frustration with changing digital technology and its impact upon his agency and the advertising industry.

He said,  “I have no problem creating a print ad but I don’t know where to even start to create an ad for something like the iPad.”

I asked him if he was ready to retire. His answer was no. Then, I raised the question, “what are you going to do to get up to speed?” He didn’t have an answer.

Big agencies know that digital training is now critical. Rising to meet the escalating demands for digital, most of them are now requiring that almost all of their employees develop digital skills. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article,  the bigger agencies are spending roughly $750,000 to $1.5 million on digital training programs this year.

“We can no longer just acquire [digital] firms; it’s just not good enough,” says Bob Jeffrey, JWT’s chief executive.

WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather has upped their digital training by 150% this year through the following programs to help to help workers acquire digital skills:

  • Hyper Island—A workshop for senior executives including client services, creative, planning and production on the implications of digital on the business.
  • Digital Acceleration—A content-driven training program that provides in-depth learning on key new digital trends/offerings such as Internet search, customer relationship management, mobile marketing, analytics, etc.
  • Digital Boot Camp—aka “Digital 101,” an agency-wide program offered monthly that covers the basics of digital channels including social media, digital production, etc.
  • Associates Program—A training program for entry-level employees that provides them with cross-training across agency disciplines with digital as a key component.
  • Ogilvy Digital Lab—Special events featuring emerging media and innovation. Includes bringing in industry experts in specific digital areas—such as, Mobile Social Day, Google Day, Out of Home Innovation, etc.

Read the full WSJ article, ‘Kids Lend a Digital Hand: Ad Agencies Seek Help From Students, Even Preteens, to Get Up to Internet Speed’

I love this quote by author Clay Shirky, particularly as I think about how the rapidly advancing digital technology is impacting our industry:

“It is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

What are you doing to prepare your agency for this digital revolution?

Additional articles that may be of interest:

About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Michael, this was a timely column. I’ve been self-teaching my digital skills for a few years now and in the past four years it has led to winning some actual digital assignments. There is no substitute for experience! Even if you don;t work on a digital assignment, you must do SOMEthing. That said, training sessions “count” as experience. Last month I went to Hyper Island and it was very worthwhile. Here were my experiences:

  2. Thanks for the additional insights Steve.

    I would encourage others who read this to check out Steve’s article, Hyper Island: Burn the Ships

  3. Michael, I was having a conversation with my managing partner regarding this a couple of days ago. My take is that where agencies have, in the past, tried to address digital by hiring digital experts and compartmentalizing the digital expertise into departments, things are going to have to take a change in the next few years and rather than having dedicated digital departments for anything more than production, agencies will have to develop digital expertise across the board in ALL areas, particularly account services.

  4. Rich, Thanks for sharing. I think you are correct. Digital expertise needs to be developed across all areas.

  5. Ogilvy’s digital training is nothing new – at least not here in the UK. The agency group has been keeping its staff up to speed with digital developments for many years. I think it might be ahead of other agency groups in this training.

  6. Thanks for sharing Dean. I happen to be headed to London on Friday of this week.

  7. An interesting read Michael – especially noting the shift from acquisition to internal development, I imagine the cost implication of this tactic is more effective too – as not much could be acquired for $750k, but conversely that is a lot of training! Hope you enjoyed your trip to London – weather isn’t great here today!

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Al.

    I had a great trip to London. Really enjoyed the time there. A wonderful city.
    No rain the entire time I was there. Great weather at the time.

  9. Finally! Seems to me this attitude adjustment is about five years overdue. I feel very sorry for the gentleman in your opening graf who had no answer for how he was personally going to get up to speed.

    Granted, it’s easier for those of us who are on our own, and who are used to wearing a few different hats already.

    I think that’s for two reasons:

    1. In an organization, the compulsion to compartmentalize is overwhelming. Agencies couldn’t deal with my answer to the question, “Writer or art director?” Which was one word: “Yes.” So when a medium came along that required creatives to learn new skills, compartmentalizing and siloes came easy. And it separated the geeks from the creatives, for a while.

    2. The bigger the organization, the bigger the need people seem to have for permission to learn new things. And, sadly, the easier it is to use that need for permission as an excuse not to learn new things.

    Just know that among the independents, all is not lost.

    The agencies might consider a few of us half-dead (I’m 51), but we are enthusiastic multidisciplinarians who took up the digital call from the beginning (well, okay – I’ve only been writing real markup for about five years) and are constantly expanding the skillsets – CMS theming, social media (including strategy), multimedia geared for the web. (Final Cut Pro X was made for me!)

  10. Thank you for sharing your insights Mary.

  11. Clindberg95 says:

    On-going education is critical as are agencies willing to fund it, not just demanding it of staff but that is what is happening alot in a time/budget starved agency world and with checkered results. Self-teaching is why there are studied curriculums and accredited schools; quality of results is routinely better from the latter and often quicker.

  12. I continue to be amazed by the failure of some older ad agency heads here in Ohio to grasp the need to add digital skills to their skill set and to offer digital marketing services to their clients. Just like the creative director you mentioned who could not do an ad for the iPad, some agencies here or still clueless about the projects they are missing out on and money they are leaving on the table by not providing digital advertising services like search and display advertising or social media campaigns. Oh well, more work for me!

  13. Rob, I find it just as amazing where I live. As a native New Yorker now working and living in Orlando, Florida, I find that so many agencies and clients are still traditional in their focus because it’s in their comfort zone. Also, people love seeing themselves or their brand on TV. It makes them feel like they are a Hollywood celebrity.

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