(This Post first appeared on the CAM Foundation Blog – http://digitalqualifications.blogspot.com)

There are times when one needs to be sure one is dealing with skilled, thoroughly-trained professionals.

A very senior and experienced Marketing Director said to me the other day: “You know Mike, the single biggest thing holding back Digital right now is the shortage of experienced, knowledgeable people who really know what they’re doing online.  I can’t hire them as employees and I don’t see enough of them in my agencies. Of course, there are plenty of people with experience of design and build, SEO or paid search, but they tend to be do-ers rather than thinkers, and there is a lot of dead wood out there- at every level, from project manager to MD. And don’t even get me started on Social Media – talk about The Land of the Blind…”

Then she referred me to this video, which on one hand proved that she had a sense of humour, but on the other left me hoping that I’d never told her I was a “social media expert”.

In September last year, figures produced by the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PwC revealed that £1.75bn was spent on online advertising in the first 6 months of 2009, which meant that online had overtaken TV as the UK’s biggest advertising medium. This was a ‘world first’ for a developed advertising market. The announcement shocked many of the ‘Old Guard’ in Marketing Departments and their ad agencies. There was no denying that Digital had arrived. TV had been the leading ad medium for almost 50 years; now online had overtaken it in ten. There were, admittedly and perhaps deservedly, some accusations of ‘comparing apples with oranges’ but no-one disputes that online advertising in all its forms has come a long way, in the UK and globally.

The point my client was making was that the rapid growth of Digital has left what HR people call a “skills gap”. At all levels there is a lack of experience and there is widespread concern that this is actually holding back the emergence of Digital as a serious, grown-up and respected part of the marketing mix. There is no doubt that budgets are moving from traditional media into digital channels, but for many marketing directors this is something of a voyage into the unknown; it is certainly difficult to know where to get impartial advice; everyone who appears to know about Digital seems to have an agenda; most of all, it could be argued, the big digital agencies. Mistakes are being made, opportunities missed. Cowboys (naming no names) are surviving and even prospering.

As we know, pretty much everything in Digital is measurable but this may not be as big an advantage as it sounds. Many online marketers are currently drowning in a sea of analytics: an excess of data and a shortage of actionable information. They are, all too frequently, at the mercy of the ‘Web Analytics Guru’ whose position of power is akin to that of the car mechanic dealing with the distressed and ignorant customer; sucking his teeth, shaking his head and naming an outrageous sum: “Bad news I’m afraid; your big end’s gone…” And then doing a poor job…

So how is the buyer (of digital marketing services) to find reputable, professional suppliers? Well for one thing, I suggest you should ask your agency about its policy on training its people. Granted, an organization’s involvement in professional training and qualifications doesn’t guarantee that its employees are competent, but it does show a commitment by the employer to professional development and a willingness to invest in its people and their careers.

Digital marketing is certainly growing: driven by technology and also partly by the belief that is it more measurable than other sorts of marketing so that ROI can be demonstrated. However: unless we, as a profession, can train a group of Digital Marketing professionals, there is a real danger that there will be a backlash; the CFO will turn to the Marketing Director, demanding proof of return and, if it is not forthcoming, next year’s budget may well be smaller. (“Well we tried Digital…”)

It has been suggested that ‘Digital’ as a discriminator will soon disappear as online channels are integrated into the overall marketing mix and the big ad agencies increasingly ‘get’ digital (very much as TV was rapidly integrated into Press, Poster and Radio advertising agencies in the 1960s ). The jury is still out on how quickly and to what extent this will happen, but regardless of this trend there will still be a need for skilled practitioners who understand the unique features of online display advertising, of natural and paid search and social media and how they all fit together into the marketing mix. There is already a substantial body of knowledge about Digital but it needs to be shared more effectively; training and professional qualifications can help, increasing digital expertise and understanding, both in marketing departments and in their agencies.

It is in everyone’s interest, and the interest of marketing in general, that sufficient people in the marketing profession get the right training in digital skills so that they can use these exciting new channels in the appropriate manner; as a key part of the marketing mix; alongside, not necessarily instead of, ‘traditional’ media. This means not only learning relevant craft skills / ‘techie’ knowledge but also gaining strategic understanding of how Digital channels can be utilized within the overall marketing mix, which of course is based on principles formulated long before the internet was invented.

Time is money of course, so you will want the highest quality, most appropriate training, tailored to your specific needs; why not resolve to send your people (and dare I suggest yourself?) on a professionally developed and delivered Digital Marketing course? For your highest fliers, consider a professional qualification; the right people will find this highly motivating and better people get better results! Don’t look at training and professional development in these rapidly-evolving Digital Channels as a cost; think of it as an investment in your people and their future – i.e. the future of your organisation.