Dotbomb talent purge casts a long shadow

2004-2008 A Partial Potted (UK) Web Media History:

Code orange alert: 2004. Sector has stabilised. Huge relief. Optimism. Hiring people. 2005. Excitement. Clients pupils are dilating... Upswing! Much client business incoming. Broadband upsurge. Money flooding into interactive advertising.

Code red alert: 2006. Projects up our eyeballs. Too many roles to fill. Experienced candidates rare. Not enough clueful graduates. Start-ups re-emerging. Digital publishing expanding. Big tech poaching. More volume required on all levels. 2007. Long hours. Situation critical. Burnout levels of activity. Craze for freelancing. M&A activity not helping. Staff pushed to limits. 2008. Refusing new clients. Business growth now slowing. Opportunities lost.

Here we go again... or do we?

Is this what we really dreamed about during the dustbowl years when tumbleweed blew through the once lush pastures of "new" media?

As soon as we knew the web (or rather the money) was "back", amid the smiles and relief in agency land and elsewhere, you also heard about the difficulties; the immediate onset of pain. So why did it happen so quickly?

Laura Jordan Bambach, Head of Art at Glue and co-founder of SheSays, was the only panelist to pinpoint a key underlying factor of the talent shortage at January's Chinwag Live Skills Emergency event. Laura commented that the lack of mid to heavyweight people in digital design and marketing was partly due to the dotcom crash.

Taking stock of the crash... 

You can't dismiss it lightly but it's long-term impact has been underestimated. The crash expelled a huge swathe of skilled, experienced people out of web media, many never to return. It's the unspoken contributory cause; the elephant in the room.

I experienced it first hand when the start-up I was at was liquidated in 2001 after the VC money ran out. This was nothing special. All of my friends in online media – at companies large and small – lost their jobs. My previous employer - Express Newspapers Ltd - axed four of its five websites in one move (;;; and - the latter was later resurrected).

Luckily I was already three months out of there when it happened. In an unusual move the Express new media staff occupied (their bit of) their floor of the Ludgate House offices overnight (they had been told to leave immediately). It took the 46 sacked employees several months and a protracted legal battle to get the final salary and redundancy payment they were entitled to.

Counting the cost...

The crash is often talked about jokingly by the old guard. It's a natural defence mechanism amongst those who went through it and experienced the decimation. The defaulted mortgages. The small businesses bankrupted. Personal lives wrecked. Friendships betrayed. Thousands of bright, talented people were flushed out their profession, their passion and their livelihoods, like so much detritus.

They claimed benefits. They tried to get back into mainstream media (Oh, you worked for the internets? Thanks for your interest, but we're full already). They moved abroad to re-group. They "reinvented themselves" in junior TV, marketing and print media positions. They re-trained for "real" careers. They became teachers, artists, cabinet makers. Three superb web editors and journalists of my acquaintance hung in there for quite a while (yep, we all fought over the crumbs during 2001/2002) before finally admitting defeat and giving up the ghost - they about-faced, studied hard and got into the legal profession.

Out in the cold 

Some very lucky people managed to be in the BBC where they carried on pretty much as normal, protected by the public purse, and even got to do some interesting stuff. Meanwhile, outside in the killing fields of the dotcom nuclear winter, the landscape was unforgivingly barren as hopes for a recovery faded and the months turned into years...

The digital agencies that didn't fold (many did) shrank to the smallest possible size and eked out an unremarkable existence with their remaining clients. Some clever bods battened down the hatches and honed their skills in email marketing - because people were still using the internet in ever greater numbers (egad) and email was the killer app. A few tech, biz and even some marketing folk went to Microsoft, Overture and the mobile networks. As for Google, in the UK it was then just a tiny sales and marketing outpost. Forget about it.

In short, we lost a sizeable chunk of a generation of professionals. Most of them aren't coming back. You can't live on nothing for four years. The people still around now who cashed out of the start-ups early were a tiny minority.

This epochal story still hasn't been done justice either. Hubristic peep-shows like the book are just gaudy peripherals. Other more journalistic efforts focus overly on start-ups.

A lasting legacy 

The upshot? The extraordinary and unique circumstances of this episode in economic history distorted a fledgling industry. The dotcom crash casts a long shadow over digital media. It walks among us, inflating our current skills crisis.

So the intensity of today's digital skills crisis is also a profoundly structural issue. It's the outcome - and legacy - of an entirely new industry largely laid waste.

Special measures..? 

And extraordinary circumstances call for special measures, right? Real joined-up action across different parts of the industry. Industry bodies meeting and collaborating. Companies rising above day-to-day contingencies and rivalries. And some swift-footed government action (would be nice...).

What else already present in our culture's DNA offers encouragement? Look around you... what about the existing communities and networks of web practitioners who are also activists and evangelists? And if some folks know so much about interactive marketing, what about joining forces to raise the profile and understanding of our career pathways in schools and colleges? Co-ordinate programmes to bring experienced people over from offline media and fast-track them into digital. Boost development by supporting and mentoring new and younger colleagues.

Other options? Distributed workforces; more inclusive workforces; new knowledge-sharing forums and initiatives. Add your own ideas; hell, there's a lot of brainpower out there.

And to just state the baldly obvious: the interactive mindsets and technologies we are gifted with could help us in all these activities...

Then we can nurture and grow our talent-base in a sustainable fashion to meet demand.

Or of course we can do nothing. Go figure.


[P.S. Less of a blog post and more of an essay, granted, but I think I've got it out of my system now :-) Normal service will resume shortly]