Agency marketers outperform in-house teams in digital skills

New research published by the training body Target Internet in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) reveals that agency marketers are significantly more advanced in the implementation of digital marketing techniques than the sector as a whole.

Agency marketers outperformed the average digital skill level among marketers across all 12 areas of a robust test of core digital marketing competencies. In the face of an increasingly complex digital marketing landscape, in-house marketers appear to be well behind agency marketers, not just in emerging specialist digital skills, but also on digital strategy and in using traditional online channels, such as email. 

The results come from a benchmarking test of digital marketing skills of almost 9,000 marketing professionals, carried out by Target Internet in 2018 and repeated in 2020. Over 500 professionals from 56 agencies throughout the UK completed the test.

Leading the sector on emerging digital skills:

Agencies significantly outperform the average in new and emerging digital skills vital to boosting sales and customer engagement. This is particularly important as online sales are expected to continue to rise, with ecommerce transactions higher in July than pre-pandemic levels.

  • Agency marketers scored highly in specialist areas of digital marketing such as content marketing (31%, 28% average), Search Engine Optimisation (42%, 34% average) and usability (35%, 28% average).
  • They also performed strongly in specific areas that boost sales and growth such as online advertising (40%, 31% average), ecommerce (43%, 37% average), paid search (36%, 31% average) and analytics and data (41%, 35% average).
  • In addition, 37% of agency marketers possess the skills used for social media marketing, while the average sits at 34%.
  • When compared specifically against other industries, agencies fared better against a number of its in-house peers. Agency marketers had better levels of skill competency in mobile marketing, paid search, SEO and social media techniques than the financial, retail, IT/Tech and charity sectors.

Strategic edge:

Implementing marketing strategies that leverage digital and mobile channels are vital today for brand awareness, acquiring and retaining customers, and maximising sales efforts.

  • Four in ten (40%) agency marketers possess the skills to develop a comprehensive digital strategy, in comparison to 34% of marketers on average. This was also higher than specific industries such as charity (32%), IT/Tech (38%) and retail (35%). However it fares the same as those working in the financial services industry (40%).
  • 48% possess the skills required to carry out fundamental marketing activities such as strategy implementation, audience segmentation and brand building techniques. However, skills in this area were generally similar, as the average stands at 47%.

Strongest on traditional digital marketing:

  • The agency sector scored highest in email marketing (59%), where the average score is 48%, highlighting a strong footing in traditional direct marketing techniques.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for digital skills with businesses increasingly looking to drive online awareness and using the latest digital techniques to retain relevance and commercial competitiveness.

Yet, at the same time, agency marketers have been hit hard by the pandemic. UK marketing budgets have been cut to their lowest level in 20 years leading to a cut in spending on agencies, meaning brands may be missing out on specialist digital support.

Daniel Rowles, CEO Targett Internet: “It is perhaps unsurprising that within the agency world people possess higher levels of digital specialism than in-house teams who can often find themselves pulled into areas of work outside of their marketing role. But for agency marketers to outperform the average marketer on every digital measure, including strategy and traditional online channels, is something that should raise an eyebrow in many businesses and organisations; especially those who are not currently using agency support.”

Gemma Butler, director of marketing of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, said: “The complex nature of digital means that marketers need to be continually upskilling themselves just to stay in the same place. The agency sector is taking seriously its role in providing counsel and consultation to organisations and brands, proving that it is keeping pace with technology and can deliver marketing advantage.”

“However, in general, the results of the report ought not to be too disheartening, this is a real opportunity for marketing teams to identify the skills gaps in their teams and do something about it.”

The report finds that overall, there has been a decline in the digital skills of most disciplines, indicating the challenge of staying up to date in an increasingly complex and fast changing world.  For UK agencies, the challenge remains persuading organisations of the value they add, despite significant cuts to marketing budgets.

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