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How to Recruit and Retain the Best Digital Talent

There is no doubt about it, recruiting and retaining digital talent is tough.

The digital skills shortage is one of the biggest challenges that our industry faces, and as such has been high on the UK news agenda lately – and I am guessing that is the same for other countries around the world too.

Job-hopping seems to be the norm these days in the ‘digital’ industry. It appears that there are too many employers chasing too few candidates, and that is driving up salaries – something which is great for employees, but not so great for businesses.

So what can employers do to put themselves front of mind with potential recruits?

Before I carry on, this post is not about digital skills per se. Instead I want to look at how employers can get ahead in the jobs market, so they can recruit and retain the best talent.

Digital Skills

Have a successful business in the first place

This first point is difficult to tackle overnight, but ‘success attracts success’ – if you have a successful business and appear to be growing and doing great work, then talent will find you.

Many digital businesses are successful, but if an organisation doesn’t tell the world how incredible they are then they will be overlooked by candidates. In a competitive recruitment market, employers need to be self-promotional, in an attractive, humble, but proud way.

If you can’t sum up why people want to work for you in under 30 seconds then maybe you have a problem with your employer brand.

Pay more than the going rate for great people

The first thing I learnt as both an employee and then as an employer is that money talks. People don’t work for free. You want the best? Then you are going to have to pay through the nose for it.

If you pay well, you will get more CVs, and what is more, you will keep employees longer – therefore reducing the amount of times you will need to recruit.

Benchmark your salaries against the industry. Finding out what your competitors are paying is not hard. Phone a few recruiters and find out, and read the trade press which will have relevant information – such as this salary survey.

Don’t low ball people. If an employer shares their revenues equitably with their staff then they are motivated and are less likely to get itchy feet and leave.

Digital recruiters

Ironically smaller, owner managed businesses have more freedom with salaries than larger companies. Some larger companies simply won’t break from their salary structure. This means that smaller businesses can be more competitive than they might think.

Bonuses should also be clear and awarded in a transparent way. But, be warned, staff soon come to expect their annual bonus rather than look at bonuses as a reward for good work – so be careful with your bonus structure.

Offer a good benefits package

Employee benefits are important to some people, but not to others. Back in my day, I wanted a pension as soon as I started work. Now, I’ve practically had to give my staff Chinese burns to take up a pension. In the UK, this will soon change, as all sizes of businesses now have staging dates for when all employees will have to take a pension by law.

We offer a great, pension, childcare vouchers and holiday allowance. Staff above a certain pay grade get a mobile phone, health insurance and a wide range of other employee benefits.

And don’t forget the power of a spot bonus. A few ad hoc drinks, a meal or a little treat from time to time goes a long way.

Create an employer brand

An employer brand is crucial to attracting and retaining the best people.

Some people like to know that where they work is fun, challenging and rewarding. Others want to work in cool offices. Karma Communications Group in London were in last year’s Sunday Times Best Places to Work and not only have very cool offices but they also look at a broad range of other KPIs such as personal wellbeing, cycle to work, reiki, free breakfasts and a leadership development programme.

If you don’t have the budget for that, then don’t worry. Start small and work from there. Putting in place professional development programmes just takes thought, offering training isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of things. Neither is trying to make your office look a bit nicer. And buying breakfasts is a damn sight cheaper than recruitment fees.

Build a company culture that attracts candidates and retains key staff

Company culture is of major importance. It is important because it shapes how your business operates and is then communicated to potential job candidates.

The marketing community is a small and interconnected place, often staffed by a large proportion of young people. These people care about the working culture almost as much as salaries or job titles.

The easiest time to create an organisational culture is in the start up phase. Equally, changing an existing culture can be very difficult. This is why change management is held in such high regard in the HR industry.

So, sit down and think about your culture. Write it down. Discuss it. Formalise it. Make sure everyone in your business has good feel for what your company culture is.

For example, do you have an inclusive management style? Are your managers approachable or are they taskmasters with no social skills? Do the Dev team really get on with the Content Marketing team? How do you accommodate a broad range of different personality types? Is working until 8pm at night the norm or an exceptional occurrence? An organisation’s biggest assets are its people so employers must build genuinely compassionate relationships with employees.

If you look after the emotional and social culture of your company, then this will pay dividends. I’m always surprised how a quick trip to the pub for a drink is often shared on social media and over time the word will get out that a business like to work hard and have fun too. On the other hand, I can also think of a handful of businesses with a “mushroom culture”, where employees are kept in the dark and covered in s**t – bad news travels fast, too.

Reduce your staff attrition rate

I am always amazed at companies which have a high staff attrition rate. These companies need to ask themselves why and tackle the problem. Not only will it put extra pressure on the team and cause morale to fall, but because the marketing community is an interconnected village, word will get out and the employer brand will get tarnished.

Exit interviews are important and identifying the problem which has caused someone to leave can be a challenge. It is especially challenging to find out the problem when it is the person holding the exit interview who is causing it!

My advice is to find out the problem and tackle it straight away. Was the person leaving for more money? A counter offer can be a good solution if you truly value them. Had they been overlooked? Is there a problem with the culture or are they not fulfilled with their work?

Regularly review staff performance and set objectives

It is obvious, but a good performance management process is attractive to staff. There are thousands of articles on best practice out there. I’d suggest starting with this one by the CIPD.

I was lucky because my first job was for an organisation which was recognised by Investors in People. I also spent my early years in PR doing media relations for Investors In People UK, so I learnt quite a lot about what are the rights and wrongs in workplace development.

While I’m no longer working for the company that represents them, I can safely say that going through the Investors in People process is worthwhile (which reminds me, my current agency should really go through the process – I like to think I have stolen the best bits of Investors in People and implemented them.)

Offer world-class training

Off the back of our performance management process we offer training to our staff. We have graduate recruitment programme, induction training, in house training, mentoring, on the job training and we also pay for training with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and Manchester Digital.

digital training

I know of digital agencies that are Magento partners, which have to spend significant amounts of money on training their staff.

We are lucky in that compared to being an engineer or a doctor, marketing training isn’t as costly.

So think yourselves lucky and invest in training for your people.

Work with recruiters and pay them a good commission

This point might be controversial, as recruiters are widely hated by marketers – mainly because they charge you through the nose for commission and then go around poaching your staff (although none of them will admit it)!

But, over time I’ve built up a network of recruiters that I trust, and brief on roles as and when I require them.

What I have learned over the years is that it is probably to best to pay them a good commission and not to haggle too much. My thinking is that, all other things being equal, a recruiter is going to deliver candidates to the employer that they like the most and who pays them handsomely. Offer to pay their commission but make sure they damn well know that everybody else would have haggled them down and that you are a good payer.

Make sure your recruiter understands your employer brand and can pitch your company back to you. These guys are often salesmen and no offence to any of you reading this, but they aren’t always that bothered with the details. So tell them about your employer brand, then tell them again. And again and again.

Be flexible and family-friendly

Flexibility is important. Life can be difficult sometimes and in marketing you are often dealing with younger people whose lives can change and be volatile.

Relationships come and go which can impact on people’s happiness, plumbers are always late and as are trams in Manchester. My people work hard and they know that they can work from home one morning or afternoon if they need to. In return I know that they will work late if they are needed or a Saturday if there is a weekend media sell in.

As people become parents, give them the space to either work shorter hours or shorter weeks. If their kids are ill, let them work from home.

Don’t be a dickhead

My final piece of advice is, “don’t be a dickhead.” I’m leaving myself open here for my team to point out all the times I have been exactly this, but I like to think that while I can be demanding, argumentative, pig headed, and annoying, I am also aware of my weaknesses and try my best to make sure they are happy in themselves and in their work.

Marketing can be full of passive aggressive control freaks. If this is describing you then make sure you understand that your staff probably don’t enjoy being managed by you. They’ll probably leave and recruiting new candidates will become harder over time as your employer brand is tarnished.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”




James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.