Media: Robins eyes the bigger talent in his digital world

The vice-chairman of the IPA's Digital Media Group says bringing broader media skills into digital is vital.

Pete Robins, the founder of the independent digital agency Agenda21 and the vice-chairman of the IPA's Digital Media Group, says: "If you had a business full of people like me, then you'd fail miserably."

A surprising remark, perhaps, given Robins' rounded career experience. He started life as a traditional planner and buyer before becoming one of the first digital media planners at Modem Media.

He then went on to set up his own agency, Media21, which he sold to Grey Global, a move that led to him running Media.Com, the digital arm of the UK's largest media agency.

He left to launch Agenda21, a digital media agency with a focus on planning, in November 2005.

But Robins' comment sums up his view that digital media requires a broad set of skills that need to be supplied by people from different backgrounds. It's a view that underpins his approach to talent and training, an area he focuses on as part of his IPA role.

Robins took on the IPA position last August as part of the team that works under Matt Simpson, OMD's head of digital and the chair of the IPA Digital Group.

The issue of talent seems especially central to digital media - a sector which is crying out for technology and data knowledge combined with more traditional media skills.

Encouraging this wider media experience - or "medianess", as he puts it - into digital is one of Robins' main goals at the IPA.

He says: "Digital has struggled in the sense that it tends to be very 'micro'-focused - looking at small stuff that is aggregated together, whereas traditional media tends to start with the much larger 'macro' stuff.

"Sometimes there is a need to look at the bigger picture. This should be in the context of doing a lot with a longer-term view, rather than the here and now."

Yet, in addition to people from a traditional media background, Robins says that he is enjoying employing people from other industries.

For instance, he has worked with a data modeller from an architecture background and argues that some finance people have greater aptitude and enthusiasm for the rigours of search marketing than media people might.

Robins says: "You wouldn't go and pluck a traditional media planner and put them into search, because it's unlikely they will ever have the skill-sets."

He is currently taking a long look at everything the IPA offers in terms of digital training. However, he is unconvinced of the merits of offering overly detailed training in specific digital disciplines, favouring a more general approach of inspiring talent. He says: "Training is tough because, as digital gets bigger, the requirements for a digital agency become more extensive. Most people working in digital have just picked it up as they've gone along.

"But if we meet regularly in a hotel in Surrey, even if we just say to people 'get involved', then they will learn stuff."

Robins also argues that people with a flexible mindset will succeed in digital agencies: "Digital doesn't offer a distinct career path because it's so prone to change. People with flexibility and the willingness to change on a regular basis, combined with the ability to work with other people, will succeed." His attempt to spearhead an improvement in standards in digital coincides with the economic downturn. Yet Robins' IPA colleague, Simpson, argues the recession has benefits for the digital media sector.

He says: "There are some interesting trends at the moment because the job pool has contracted, which needed to happen. It's a harsh thing to say, but maybe some good will come out of the bad because we were in a situation where there weren't as many people as there were jobs, but now in digital it's a very competitive marketplace."

Simpson also adds that digital media is getting to grips with a skills gap that saw a shortage of agency people with four or five years' experience. "As an employer, you're less worried about going into the market," he says.

However, Robins believes there remain significant challenges ahead for digital media. Not least in improving its image. He says: "Advertising wants to be glamorous and exciting and digital media should be seen as the most exciting area within advertising, especially because most of the young people coming into advertising are big users of digital media. But it's a challenge to make it as exciting as it should be because, at times, it's so easy to get ground down."

Robins says that work still has to be done in correctly harnessing technology to "take away the pain" involved in running digital campaigns, so that agency staff can spend their time planning, having meetings with clients and making phone calls rather than constantly tackling Excel spreadsheets.

In terms of his own experience, Robins says that in going from "the biggest media agency to the smallest" (Agenda21 launched with just the three founders - Robins, Nick Suckley and Rhys Williams) he has learnt a lot about creating the right environment for staff: "We want to be an agency that exists to make a difference for employees and for clients.

"If people come to work and give a shit about what they do, that's great - it would be criminal if we owned this business and then didn't try to retain that spirit.

"If we do this then we'll keep our best staff - doing media is easy but doing it really well is hard, so the aim is to create an environment that will help with that."

Now in its fourth year, Agenda21 seems to be prospering in its niche position. It employs 20 staff and works for small clients such as Epson, Investec and totaljobs.com.

It might not be the biggest around, but the fact it is still hiring through the recession bodes well and indicates that Robins is keen to top up his talent pool.

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