Why UX is the next battlefront in the war for agency talent

A midsize Los Angeles agency recently hired a new user-experience designer at a $75,000 salary (plus benefits.) The rub? This new hire has no professional UX background at all — the entire sum total of his experience is a 10-week immersive course at General Assembly that costs just over $9,000.

While just one anecdote, the story underscores the fact that the newest battleground for talent in the agency space is user experience. “Recruiting for UX is a very challenging situation right now,” said Tara Greer, executive creative director of platforms at Deutsch. “UX people are basically hot property.”

That agencies are fighting for talent is not a new phenomenon. Digiday (and others) have detailed at length that low starting salaries — and in some cases, the nature of the work itself — is making young people either flee the agency business or choose not to enter it in the first place.

But UX in particular is a hot button issue. David Eastman, partner at MCD Partners and the former North American CEO at JWT said that clients have gotten savvier about interface design. He points to the appointment of John Maeda, former president at the Rhode Island School of Design, as design partner at venture firm KPCB as evidence of the trend. Shannon Moorman, head of talent acquisition at GSD&M said that more brands are doing more user-experience testing on apps and campaigns, which has driven the call for more experts.

More interestingly, there’s been a cultural shift — apps with great user interfaces are now prized even if their tech isn’t revolutionary. Uber has been prized for making the act of hailing and booking cabs look easy; it didn’t re-invent cabs. The new Foursquare is all about ease-of-use. And new Apple products don’t re-invent the technology wheel each time — their innovation lies in their design.

“The piece of the jigsaw is that from a private-equity point of view, they’re bringing in a design person to think about startups,” said MCD Partners’ Eastman. “It’s not that tech isn’t interesting, but the experience has become more so.” Moorman said that graduates from Carnegie Mellon’s Masters in Experience Design course can fetch salaries up to 50 percent higher than the average portfolio school grad.

That means that smart UX people are in high demand everywhere. But agencies, with traditionally lower salaries, feel the tug the most. “We want to be playing in the space, but we don’t have the people,” said Eastman.

“General advertising, digital agencies and product innovation consultancies like IDEO are no longer the primary organizations recruiting and hiring experience designers,” said Moorman. “They are now being sought after by product companies like Apple, tech service firms like Amazon, startups, software companies, architecture firms and consultancies like Bain.” GSD&M has six people in the UX department. And it just hired a director-level position to come in to hire and craft the team.

Aside from just lower salaries, the nature of the work at agencies is often also what puts smart UX people off agencies. Greer of Deutsch said that UX professionals tend to also be deep into product design. “Most agencies struggle to offer that kind of interesting, meaty work,” she said. “Your classic agency has UX people doing a lot of campaign landing pages. Or touchpoints for campaigns.”

Another issue is the siloed nature of the business. Greer said in most agencies, UX people are considered part of the creative process. They sit separately and are brought in at the end: a sharp contrast to product-oriented companies that bring them in right at the beginning of the conversation.

For her part, Greer said she normally never worries about losing her people. “But I do worry about losing UX people to product design companies,” she said. To combat this, she said, a serious practice needs to be developed to sell and develop new products, so smart UX people will have work they actually want to do. Agencies can offer a rich diversity in projects on a wide range of brands, said Greer, who added that this is why her agency is focused on actively building a product design practice to give the talent in the UX community a reason to stay in the agency world.

Homepage image courtesy Shutterstock


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