Spot the substance: Andrew Hawley on identifying digital talent

You’d think the maturity of digital and its central role in customer and brand experience would’ve made it much easier to hire quality talent in 2015. But it still seems challenging. I’m sure like many others in our industry, you’ve either heard of, or witnessed, the fallout that occurs when a relatively new hire is exposed as digital vapourware, or simply has a different digital world-view.

Because digital itself has become so vast and pervasive, it can mean many things to many people. Substance and knowledge aside, any discord in the definition of ‘digital’ between organisations and the individuals they hire can completely undermine the solutions they are trying to create.

For a more traditional agency, digital might mean ‘digital campaigns’ with less client-side systemic integration and utility, less UX and less development rigour; for a retail business the ideal digital candidate might wield UX, business logic, analytics and e-commerce experience coupled with a specific vertical expertise; for a development shop, a digital world-view may focus on platforms, languages, environments and systems integration; and for a digital agency, digital intersects all those things, so valuable digital practitioners are those that recognise and appreciate good thinking through the lens of code, data, mechanics, UX and business logic as well as copy, motion, sound, graphic and image. 

After all, some of the best communication solutions might manifest as service design evolution or product improvement rather than a clever line of copy. And some of the best creative thinking comes from those in the development team. In a digital agency, knowing what can be achieved practically and systemically, and for what budget, means teams can conceptualise fantastic digital business solutions and deliver those solutions robustly and within budget. Needless to say, a person who doesn’t fit one organisation, may be the perfect fit for another, all depending on their digital world-view.

Assuming the organisation and its people share the same digital world-view, the issue of substance becomes critical. Discovering a lack of it in an individual mid-project can be devastating, which is why so many organisations have developed techniques honed to specific roles; to weed out the human vapourware. We primarily rely on multiple interviews, testing and our own experience in the industry to spot the difference, and after making some mistakes over the past few years we think we’ve become quite good (but not yet perfect) at identifying those without substance.

Obviously this isn’t new. Companies have been testing prospective employees for eons. What is new and always evolving are the bespoke tests beyond these that enable us to apply pressure to specific skills like problem solving, code and efficiency. These have proven effective, especially with technical roles. I work in a digital agency, so for us, production and project management are areas we tend to focus on as well, especially considering the success or failure of many digital projects relying heavily on flexible work-flow management. Some people thrive under this pressure and others fold. 

I’d say the most challenging area to quantify experience and real ability is in account management and strategy. Making it more complex can be the range of digital work an organisation does. We do a lot, which means we work with a wide range of different client stakeholders, so personalities and working style really matter.

  • Andrew Hawley is the managing director of Touchcast.
  • This column was originally published as part of a content partnership in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing.

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