Talent to market

Aliza Sweiry, UK managing director, Aquent gives a view over trends for marketing and creative talent.

The marketing and creative sector has faced much disruption over the past few years. From tech giants encroaching into their territory, to increased competition from management consultancies and the development of new tech, these outside forces have had an effect on the industry and led to increased demand for particular skillsets, while some types of traditional market talent has found itself left in the cold. To stay ahead of fast developing trends, we analysed salaries across the sector, culminating in our 2020 Salary Guide. The data allows recruiters to take a more robust approach to their marketer and creative recruitment.

Employers competing for new talent

It remains a candidates’ market, particularly at entry level roles as companies compete for new recruits. Junior positions across the board have seen much bigger pay rises (6.95 per cent average) compared to mid-level (two per cent) and senior (2.22 per cent) roles as employers scramble for new talent. UK unemployment has been steadily dropping since 2011 and now sits at just 3.8 per cent. With a smaller available labour pool coupled with the rising cost of university education and living means fresh graduates are seeking higher wages, so employers have to go to extra lengths to compete for and secure new talent. The increased demand for junior workers is no doubt excellent for people trying to break into the industry, but also indicates a change in attitude amongst companies and brands. Their focus on fresh recruits shows a willingness to invest more resources into employee development, rather than hiring costlier senior staff.

Stagnation at the top

However, a rising tide apparently does not lift all ships, as mid-level to senior staff are not enjoying the pay rises seen by junior colleagues. Many experienced design roles have gone without a salary bump in the past five years, and have thus seen in real terms a pay drop of nine per cent. At senior levels many roles including creative directors, digital designers, marketing directors and content strategists have had not had a pay rise in the past five years. For mid-level roles, on average their wages increased by just two per cent, below the UK inflation rate (2.48 per cent), meaning real-term wages actually decreased. In fact the majority of mid-level positions saw no increase in wages and were outperformed by senior role pay rises. One explanation for tightening wages in high places could be an industry-wide effort to cut back on costs to become more competitive. Marketing has probably faced more disruption than any other sector over the last decade with the advent of digital, leading to agencies of all types having to compete with tech giants for ad dollars. Unfortunately this streamlining could hurt brands and agencies more than it helps. As a service driven industry, their biggest costs are people. Without the technological prowess and access to vast banks of data of Silicon Valley, talented, creative staff are their best asset in this fight. With the cost of living rising and the labour pool shrinking, agency bosses are going to need a serious think about how they can retain their top talent or could find themselves outflanked by management consultancies moving into the sector, or see an exodus of staff to freelance opportunities. If those things happen, they will find themselves helpless against the onslaught of the likes of Google and Facebook. (Who are also snapping up some of the most ambitious talent that would traditionally have gone agency or brand side). However, amongst creative circles there may be a less ominous reason for diminishing pay rises. An experienced creative director at an agency we’ve worked with puts it down to the fact that creatives are motivated by things other than pay. “They want to be fulfilled by their work. Junior talent looking for their dream job will have to first gain experience to secure it. Once they’ve found work that inspires them, often a few years in, they’ll likely stay put.” Generally, switching jobs comes with a larger pay packet, so less moves at mid to high levels means lower wage growth.

New tech brings new expectations

The most dramatic changes in pay over the last few years has been amongst those developing user experience (UX). UX Architects, UX Leads and Front End Developers have seen pay go up 26.3 per cent, 17.9 per cent and 14.3 per cent respectively. UX’s success is echoed at junior levels too. For entry-level workers, UX & Development is the best paid sector within marketing and design, with the average starting wage being £32,500. Employers are reporting that UX specialists are especially tricky to find and hotly fought over, explaining why they’ve managed to maintain consistently high wages. The reason for this UX boom is there has been be a continued push to improve digital offerings and customer experience in recent years, helped by advancements in technology. High quality UX design is probably one of the most sought after commodities within our sector. People today are used to intuitive, seamless service as delivered by Netflix, Amazon and Apple, so expect it from any digital interaction. It helps companies’ bottom lines as well. A principle UX consultant says “for every one dollar invested in UX research, you save $10 in development and $100 in post-release maintenance.” UX professionals also have an added advantage, in that it’s still a relatively new field, so there isn’t a wide pool of talent yet. As a rare breed, UX specialists can charge a lot more for their services than other professionals. However, with the industry’s increased focus on this and skyrocketing wages it’s highly likely that more people will train as a UX specialist, so I expect to see a strong rise in available talent over the next few years.


In contrast to UX salaries’ runaway success, more traditional marketing methods have a bleaker outlook. Across the board pay for content and copy writing over the past five years has frozen in real terms. Last year the average wage rose by just 1.86 per cent, below UK inflation of 2.48 per cent. Unfortunately, I predict this remain the status quo, as the likely reason for stagnating pay is the knock-on effect from a struggling industry: journalism. Sales are down within the print media industry, leading to a reduced demand for journalists. As many reporters find it harder to command strong wages at news outlets (or even find work at all), more will look to the commercial sector for copywriting and content work. This influx of writing talent is depressing demand, putting employers in a stronger position during the recruitment process.

Freelancing vs payroll

There has been a tide of marketers and creatives turning to freelance opportunities in recent years, however, I believe this will be short-lived as incentives to go independent are diminishing. The introduction of IR35, legislation to crackdown on tax avoidance by off-payroll employees, has added to freelancers’ headaches as they have to navigate this during contract negotiations. It could even make them reconsider their decision to avoid permanent roles. Pay-rolled opportunities are starting to appeal more to those with a freelance mind set as well. According to research we conducted 80 per cent said they did so due to a desire for a healthy work/life balance. We’re now seeing changes in benefit packages beyond pay, with more brands’ and agencies’ offerings including increased flexible and remote working.


The marketing and creative sector is fast moving and dynamic, so employers need to stay ahead of trends to make sure their recruitment strategy is effective. Carefully navigating booms and busts amongst different professions and knowing how to balance recruitment with training will all be vital tools in the near future.

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