What does the election, football audiences and freelance contractors have in common? Neil Harrison, head of employer branding and insight at TMP Worldwide explains all. 

‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea’. Nope, no prizes for correctly guessing the origins of the quote: Mr Michael Caine’s seminal The Italian Job. We never find out what Caine’s great idea might be, faced as he and his team are with either toppling down a rocky Piedmontese mountain or losing the gold bullion they’ve spent the greater part of the film attempting to liberate. Interestingly, the conundrum was the subject of a competition through the Royal Society of Chemistry a few years ago.

And there’s a whole raft of difference between having a great idea and this idea striking a chord with the intended audience.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the frenzy of the UK election race. Some interesting ideas were presented to the electorate – and there can be few more challenging audiences – and some gained more traction than others.

Cameron’s decision to mistake his football team, Aston Villa, for West Ham brought not only his sincerity but also geographical exactitude into question. Come on, David, West Ham? Not to be outdone, Ed Miliband positively exuded ideas in the run up, with some demonstrating more wisdom and audience engagement than others. The bacon sandwich/man of the people incident wasn’t his finest hour. The number of kitchens chez Miliband also raised eyebrows, but  his most telling idea was liaison with Russell Brand. I’m not sure his audience reacted too well to that.

We’ve seen sports teams make questionable decisions over the last month or so, apparently in total disconnect with some of the people most affected by such decisions. Football teams across the land – that would be you, Liverpool FC and Newcastle Utd – have seen fans boycott matches in response to inflation busting season ticket increases. This despite the positive reaction that West Ham received following their decision to reduce such prices as they move into the re-purposed Olympic Stadium.

And commercial organisations are not immune to an apparent disregard of their core audiences. Sky was in the news last week following one memorable customer complaint. The broadcaster has clearly introduced a new policy around customers attempting to cancel their subscriptions. On the surface, a prudent decision. However, when news broke that departing Sky customer, Gavin Hackwood, had been kept on the phone for no less than an hour and 36 minutes and was no nearer cancelling his subscription, the story escalated. Sky’s overly assertive cajoling of their customer base must have had their rivals rubbing their hands with glee.

The Gig Economy

I was reminded about labour market audience insight and knowledge just this week. The Gig Economy has been a recognised term for some time – those workers who effectively freelance between one project, employer or gig and another. For many, this is seen as a consequence of the recession and has been associated, not perhaps always sympathetically, with the likes of Uber, Handy, Lyft and zero hours contracts. There has been an implicit belief that the employer, rather than the employee holds the power in this relationship.

This, in certain skill shortage sectors, is increasingly less and less the case. Let’s take digital professionals, software engineers, developers, coders – they go by a number of names and job titles. I cannot remember speaking with a major employer over the last year for whom this group of professionals does not represent a huge hiring challenge. And if we note that the UK unemployment figure dipped down to 5.6% this month – with the overall total its lowest since mid 2008 – it’s worth reminding ourselves that this relates to the entire working population. What must the unemployment figure be for software engineers?

And organisations’ responses to this? Entirely sensible. Let’s reduce, freelance and consultancy headcount, make people permanent, increase engagement, loyalty and belonging and reduce third party expenditure.

What does talent want?

A great idea, a sensible idea – but the wrong idea, because that’s not what this talent pool is after.

They are active and very enthusiastic participants in the Gig Economy. Without the baggage of job security, these professionals are looking for the next technological challenge. They want to be stretched. They want to continually develop their skill sets. They want interest, variety and disruption.

Their focus is on what they might be doing tomorrow not on what a more prosaic today has to offer.

And they feel they are unlikely to get this by working permanently for just one organisation. Signing just such a contract might provide initial interest, but they feel that their professional experience would all too easily topple into the mundane and the everyday.

In a world of technology evolving at speed and complexity, in-demand software talent feel the virtues of stability, permanence and security of tenure feel like restrictive not enabling.

For many organisations, the transformation of the talent economy from being employer driven to employee driven over the last two years, has been something they have perhaps chosen to ignore.

The imperatives of understanding what drives digital talent have blown the doors off that particular belief. (Sorry).

A great resourcing idea will only land successfully if it truly understands the motivations and stimuli of the prevailing talent audience with which it seeks to engage.

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Written by Neil Harrison, head of employer branding & insight, TMP Worldwide

Heading up TMP’s employer branding practice, I have lead major branding projects for organisations such as Unilever, Santander, Telefonica, Pizza Express, HSBC, the MoD, Bank of America and EON. Employer branding is now established as a core offering within TMP and an integral part of our corporate vision. I am also responsible for the delivery of both best practice research-based discovery within employer branding but also new industry initiatives – this includes a major presentation of some bespoke employer branding research earlier this year.

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