The Soda Academy

Talent and Advocacy

Key Insights:

Agencies drastically shift their training strategies — some shortsightedly cutting education overall, others switching to more scalable channels, but do near-term gains sacrifice long-term skill development?

Agencies and clients majorly disagree on client skill gaps, stressing the evolving relationship.

Talent wars worsen as clients join the fray, looking to staff in-house initiatives.

Staff Training

While Offering Less Training Overall, Agencies Diversify Educational Methods

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Agency Training

Between 2015 and 2016, the percentage of agencies who do not provide any training to their staff almost tripled, growing from 5% to 14%. With shrinking margins pervasive in the industry, it’s not surprising to see agencies cut non-client-facing investments. For the agencies who continue to provide training, delivery methods have diversified drastically in 2016, with an emphasis on lower cost channels. Formal corporate training grew incrementally, increasing six percentage points, while scalable formats increased significantly, particularly webinars and conferences.

Despite the drop in training, many respondents — on both the agency and client sides — listed education as a primary issue that requires industry advocacy. One marketer requested “even more online webinars,” while another called out the “importance of investing in staff recruitment and retention.”

Agencies face increasing uncertainty as clients move capabilities in-house. While education may not seem like a top priority, squeezing investments in training saves short-term budgets at the expense of long-term capability growth. Clients and agencies alike are facing a talent war — often against each other as clients poach agency talent for in-house staffing. The best talent will go where they can learn the most; cutting or diluting training signals the de-prioritization of talent development and risks a talent drought.

Talent Gaps

Q. (Agencies) Where are the most significant gaps in talent on the client side with respect to digital marketing?

Q. (Clients) Where are the most significant gaps in talent in your organization with respect to digital marketing?

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Talent gaps

Clients are feeling increasingly confident about the talent they’ve brought on and fostered in recent years. The percentage of clients saying they have no talent gap at all increased year-over-year across every single category, most notably in technology, research, and brand management. Agencies very rarely agreed with clients on this, indicating in all categories that clients’ major talent gaps have grown, with the lone exception of eCommerce. This divergence represents a critical pain point in agency-client relationships given that agencies are often called in to supplement client skill gaps.

The biggest disparity: user experience (UX). For the third consecutive year, agency respondents identified UX as the most significant talent gap on the client side at 52%, a ten-point gain over last year. As noted in the Modern Marketer section, clients recognize a gap in user experience as well, a concern given User Experience’s critical contribution to manifesting brand promises across all channels. Although not everyone agrees — one agency respondent called UX “just another bandwagon to hop on.”

Clients and agencies also disagree when it comes to clients’ technology talent gap. While 41% of agencies believe there is a major talent gap on the client side, the same percentage of clients report having no talent gap at all. The same pattern can be seen in research, where 35% of agencies think there is a major gap on the client side and clients report no gap.

Client Education

Trends from 2015 Continue into 2016

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Client education

Key: Thought Leadership = We develop and deliver thought leadership, research, and analysis as part of our planning or client service offering. Playbooks = It is a standard practice to create “playbooks” and other guidelines that help our clients effectively operate the campaigns, content, and platforms we create. Only When Asked = We offer educational or training services only when clients ask for briefings on a topic or help building a capability in-house.

In 2016, agency-to-client education patterns stayed mostly the same from previous years. Thought leadership embedded as part of agencies’ planning or client service offerings continues to grow, a promising outlook to help bridge some of the talent gaps highlighted earlier. A higher percentage of agencies also provide Playbooks than in previous years, enabling clients to execute work on their own.

Consultants and agency respondents pointed to significant areas where they see client education lagging, in contrast to the confidence portrayed by clients in the Modern Marketer section. One consultant wrote, “I don’t feel clients fully understand how to navigate the digital marketplace.” She continues, “Social channels are quickly changing and marketers today have a broad understanding, but tactically, they can’t keep up with changes.”

Many respondents also focused on clients’ understanding (or lack thereof) of digital: from the basic (“lack of awareness of the benefits of digital”) to the tactical (“integrating digital across silos”) and the strategic (“developing a digital-first mind set”). While clients report feeling confident and innovative, their agencies paint a very different picture — causing further strain in the agency-client relationship.

While agencies’ increasing use of playbooks indicates they are pushing more guides and how-tos to their clients, it won’t be enough to fill the gaps identified by agency respondents. Understanding the benefits of digital, applying digital across teams, and building a comprehensive strategy all require buy-in far beyond the marketing team or owner of the client-agency relationship. Agencies would be well served to consider other means, such as hands-on workshops or thought leadership engagements to deliver value to clients. In the age of personalization, agencies should follow suit and aim to be a partner in breaking down marketing silos and encouraging cross-team collaboration. One respondent wrote, “There’s still a huge need for education in the C-Suite. So many companies don’t understand the impact that great digital marketing can and should have on their business.”

Talent Recruitment and Retention

Agencies, clients, production companies, and consultants approach talent retention differently. Most notably, agencies and production companies are much more likely to utilize ongoing training and education (65% and 64%, respectively) compared to clients, of which 42% report using the same methods. Overall, flexible work schedules and ongoing investment in company culture were the two most commonly used tactics, followed by ongoing training and education.

Companies from all backgrounds — consultancies, clients, and agencies — report struggling with talent recruitment and retention. One UI designer bemoaned “short-sighted talent acquisition,” while other respondents noted additional challenges, such as:

  • A skills shortage/skills gap
  • The need for greater diversity and more inclusion
  • “Ensuring skilled workers are available for existing and emerging businesses and industries.”

The CEO of a web design and strategy agency summed it up best when commenting that there are “no digital all-rounders to hire” — instead, she sees too many specialists, such as “web designers with not enough UX experience.”

Education & Advocacy

We asked all survey respondents what they saw as a primary issue that requires education or advocacy. Here are more highlights, in addition to the ones mentioned above:

Embracing Digital

  • “There is still a large divide between client's understanding of digital/social marketing and traditional marketing and the role each play within the marketing mix.“
  • “A lot of organizations face challenges in integrating their global digital initiatives. The web, being a global platform, requires a comprehensive global strategy. A lot of our clients take on a regional perspective with digital initiatives and fail to recognize the big picture of what is needed around the world. This results in added costs and inefficiencies.“


  • “When building any new piece of technology, there must be a discovery/research phase. … Lack of upfront strategy leads to poor execution and mis[s]-set expectations.“
  • “Client education. Investment in digital assets is not a marketing expense.“
  • “Having the time and resources for training, and keeping up with all the trends. Connecting the dots between all the pieces related to technology is also a challenge.“

Customer Experience

  • “Combining online and offline data and experiences.“
  • “It's all about the user's experience — not what the client executive team prefers or the devices they use. Clients need to prioritize the user's experience and think about how and where users are accessing their site/apps.“
  • “The use of digital to not only improve the customer experience, but the employee experience as well.“

New Business & Procurement

  • “Because retainer relationships are hard to come by, we are spending too much time pitching and not enough time doing.“
  • “The hourly payment model is dead. Need more realistic billing relationships that better represent today's realities.“


  • “It is wrong to separate the design from the technology. Our world is becoming too divided when it should be coming together.“
  • “Teach clients to work with agencies on a partnership level, develop win-win compensation models, reduce number of pitches when they are not necessary and help clients to find courage for innovative solutions.“

Data Science and Measurement

  • “Connecting the data and using customer journeys, [which] includes a singular source of data for attribution and measurement.“
  • “Developing a best-of-class process for using big data to impact sales growth and profits.“