Traditional Shops Fishing For Talent In Digital Waters

With Web ad spending set to grow by as much as 20 percent in 2007, after expanding 30 percent this year, according to eMarketer, digital shops are finding it hard to find new employees with the necessary skill set to serve clients who are shifting budgets online. For traditional agencies adapting to the digital world, it can be a downright challenge.

The result: Web companies, already used to fending off rival shops and clients for talent, are now finding that their best and brightest are being wooed by general agencies, which are using their deep inroads with clients as a lure.

Renny Gleeson, formerly a managing director of Carat Fusion’s New York and Atlanta offices, last week started work at Wieden + Kennedy, where he will lead its digital strategy. Web shop Organic’s top creative Colleen DeCourcy joined JWT as chief experience officer. And McCann Worldgroup’s MRM in recent months beefed up its Web talent by poaching Tim Cunningham from Modem Media to head digital strategy in North America and Paran Johar from Tribal DDB.

While the reasons differ for the departures, they show the value still placed in established agencies in the digital era. Gleeson cited Wieden’s legendary creative heritage when making his move. Cunningham said being part of the McCann Worldgroup structure gives him “access to big decision makers at companies that I didn’t have. … The traditional agencies are getting it. They’re building the skills.”

Money and name recognition don’t hurt, either. For example, Omnicom’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has aggressively built its digital expertise in the past year. A small but growing digital shop like EVB is now more likely to lose a promising young art director to sister agency Goodby as it is to fellow interactive shops R/GA or AKQA, said EVB CEO Daniel Stein, thanks to their ability to pay top dollar. “We’re the Oakland A’s to their New York Yankees,” he noted.

Indeed, a high-profile interactive shop like R/GA is seen as fertile hunting ground for offline shops. In recent months, the agency’s top guns have had entreaties from Saatchi & Saatchi and others. “The traditional agencies want to be able to do this kind of work and be more relevant to their clients,” R/GA CEO Bob Greenberg said.

But defections from interactive shops to general ones are still the exception, argue digital agency executives. Digitas CEO David Kenny pointed to several executives from general shops who have moved to its agencies in the past year.

“With a traditional agency, they may be a stage behind because they’re still very much structured to produce TV spots,” said Chris England, who three months ago joined Digitas as a vp of account planning after more than three years at Grey Global Group.

“If you want a career in digital marketing, you’re better off being in a company that’s 100 percent in digital marketing,” added Avenue A/Razorfish worldwide president Clark Kokich. “If you’re part of a company that’s 5 percent, you’re not that critical.”

As “traditional” and “digital” blur, many digital shops see the need to add those with traditional creative expertise and account management skills as well. EVB recently hired away a pair of art directors from TBWA\Chiat\Day. R/GA has hired several copywriters and art directors from traditional shops in order to infuse “traditional storytelling” with R/GA’s expertise in digital user experience. Although Greenberg estimated that it takes up to a year to bring the new recruits up to speed on all things digital, he said the results have been promising.

Web agency execs declare they are more concerned with building the ranks of mid-level managers that do the day in, day out client work. According to Sarah Fay, U.S. president of Isobar, the Aegis Group network that includes Carat Fusion, “We really need to collectively think about how to get more people into the industry, and how to find ways for people to assimilate quickly to what we’re doing.”