Digital is booming - but that's not all good news

Recruiters such as Gemini People are riding the wave of the expanding creative and digital market. But, as Colin Cottell discovers, success brings its own challenges that must be overcome if recruiters are to build a sustainable future

Sat, 1 October 2016 | By Colin Cottell

FROM OCTOBER'S RECRUITER MAGAZINE

Recruiters such as Gemini People are riding the wave of the expanding creative and digital market. But, as Colin Cottell discovers, success brings its own challenges that must be overcome if recruiters are to build a sustainable future 

When Michelle Watson, chief executive at digital and creative recruiter Gemini People, speaks to recruitment peers operating in the finance and public sectors she says “a little prayer”. It’s a prayer of thanks, she says. “Thank goodness we are not in those markets.”

For recruiters such as Watson, the creative, digital and media sector must indeed feel like the answer to their prayers. Starting with just three staff in 2011, Gemini People is riding the wave of one of the UK’s most dynamic and fastest-growing industries. In five years, staff numbers have rocketed to 56, and the company is looking to open its first office overseas, probably in New York. 

And Gemini People is not alone. On the back of the UK’s £71bn a year creative sector, which employs one in 12 of the UK’s workforce, creative, marketing and digital recruiter Major Players has grown 30% year-on-year, and plans to recruit 20 more staff by the end of 2016. 

According to a report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, published in June 2015, the UK’s digital and creative sector is expected to need 1.2m new workers between 2012 and 2022, both to support growth and to replace those leaving the sector. 

“By anyone’s measure that is huge growth,” says Steve Wright of IT recruiter and talent management consultancy Rethink Group, which bought itself a bit of the action in March when it acquired international digital recruiter Digital Gurus. 

The diversity of the creative, digital and media industries sector is vast, ranging from advertising and design, to film, TV and video music, publishing, and IT and technology. The sector has been given greater impetus as more and more organisations migrate delivery of their services, and their internal operations online. 

“The world is going digital,” Watson says. “The lines between digital and creative are becoming increasingly blurred,” she notes, as employers look to hire those with a fusion of both creative and digital skills. 

Melina Jacovou, founder of digital recruitment business Propel London, says: “It’s not an industry anymore; it’s more of an economy. All businesses require digital skills.”

Paul Farrer, chairman of specialist digital, media and marketing communications recruiter Aspire, adds: “The market is very, very 

strong. London is the world beacon for the sector and the best talent is prepared to come here from mainland Europe. There are tonnes of business. It’s a job-rich, candidate-short market, and it is going to continue because as digital develops, new jobs are being created all the time.”

However, along with undoubted opportunity, they say operating in such a buoyant market creates its own dynamic and brings its unique challenges. 

Consolidation 

The acquisition in March of Digital Gurus by Rethink Group highlighted how the sector’s growth had not gone unnoticed by recruiters outside it, says Watson. “Everybody has their eyes on this market. They see the money being made from what we are doing.” 

Farooq Mohammed, managing director of Digital Gurus, predicts further consolidation, with companies “merging or partnering up with larger companies such as Rethink Group”. “There are loads of start-ups and there are large players who have been established for 10-12 years, who are at the stage where they either consolidate or go backwards,” he says. 

Mohammed says one factor that will drive consolidation is “companies that want to add a digital/creative/marketing offering to their existing offering”. The other factor is that in a young but growing market, merging or being acquired is a “tried and trusted” option. 

“I would never say it is impossible to get the same growth organically, but it is difficult because the market is saturated,” he says. 

Steve Wright, group chief executive at Rethink Group, adds: “I suspect that digital players in the recruitment sector will be quite niche. But as the digital sector as a whole scales up and starts to mature, I would imagine dominant players would start to emerge.”

However, Jack Gratton, CEO of creative and marketing recruiter Major Players, says he sees the sector characterised by niche recruiters with a boutique feel. “Market knowledge is paramount and most SMEs don’t like the big recruiters’ generic approach,” he says. 

Watson says specialist niche recruiters are better able than larger corporates to tap into and understand the sector’s distinctive culture. For example, she says, Gemini People’s staff dress casually in line with many of their clients’ dress code policies.  

Keeping up with the pace of change

But one of the biggest challenges recruiters face is keeping up with the pace of change. “A lot of new jobs have appeared virtually out of nowhere,” says Propel’s Jacovou, citing a whole family of new jobs in data and data science as an example. As technology continues to evolve this will continue. “What we see today in terms of job specifications is going to be unrecognisable even in the next two or three years,” she says. 

And Farrer adds: “We are being asked to find people with two years’ experience when the job title didn’t exist two years ago.”

Gratton says the upside of change is that new business opportunities are constantly emerging. “Imminent growth areas” for Major Players are in the area of emerging technology, particularly UX (user experience)/tech, Big Data and e-commerce, he says. 

To keep on top of change, Jacovou says Propel places great emphasis on educating its consultants. As well as standard training courses, this includes events that the company runs, as well as others they attend. Watson says Gemini People’s teams holds weekly industry updates in which they talk about what is happening in the market, what their clients have told them, and discuss 

any research papers that have come out. “We also make use of information that we get from online communities,” she says. 

Technological change is a constant feature of the sector. But Jacovou says that keeping up to speed is easier because most consultants are part of the generation that is “technology savvy and know what is going on in the wider digital/technology world”. 

Mohammed agrees that most consultants don’t have to be taught those skills. It’s more a problem for himself and the other directors, he says. “We wouldn’t know where to start and we wouldn’t be able to engage [with clients and candidates] on a genuine level.”

Candidate shortages

A candidate-short market is normally manna from heaven for recruiters. But according to Mohammed, in this case it can be too much of a good thing. “There are not enough candidates to service all those jobs,” he says, “and that is where the growth struggles a little bit because, clearly, when you have more candidates than jobs the market can’t sustain itself and it tends to stagnate.” 

Mohammed says the situation highlights the need for recruiters to manage clients’ expectations: “The client assumes you can just take 20, 30, 40 requisitions, and you will automatically be able to fill them. It is about being able to manage clients’ expectations and keeping them realistic.” 

Globalisation 

The creative, digital and media sector workforce is globally transient, says Watson. “Globalisation in this market is beginning, though it is still in its infancy,” agrees Mohammed “Digital is becoming a truly global phenomenon, so the offering has to be global also.” Jacovou says another aspect of globalisation is US technology companies setting up their first offices in Europe, predominantly in London, with the help of recruitment companies, and continuing to use recruiters “to populate their businesses”.

Finding good consultants

“Staff turnover is probably at an all-time high, and any recruiter who says they are finding it easy to find good recruiters is not being honest. It is a big challenge,” says Farrer. In a highly competitive market where many companies employ fewer than 20 staff, “losing three of four of your best people” to competitors poses “a significant risk” to the success of recruitment firms in the sector, he warns.

 “We all have a responsibility to take on staff with no recruitment experience either from other sectors or as graduates,” Gratton adds.

Power points: plugging the skills gap

  1. The UK’s digital and creative sector is expected to need 1.2m new workers between 2012 and 2022, both to support growth and to replace those leaving the sector, according to a June 2015 report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
  2. The report notes the merging of digital and creative roles, with employers seeking a fusion of technical expertise, creativity and softer skills. An increased need for digital skills will develop right across the digital and creative sector and, indeed, the whole economy.

  3. The UK’s creative sector was worth £71bn in 2012 and accounted for 1.68m jobs, according to Department for Culture, Media & Sport figures.


Colin Cottell 
is a reporter for Recruiter magazine and recruiter.co.uk

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