A head of digital at ASOS, the online fashion retailer, welcomed a cadre of 20-somethings into the group’s Camden headquarters earlier this year. Far from seeking style tips, the youngsters were there to mentor a squad of e-commerce workers who were trying to brush up on their digital skillsets.
As companies feel the impact of technology on their brands, consulting firms are increasingly being brought into large listed groups like ASOS which need new digital services – big data, mobile applications and the cloud. These online areas demand a new breed of strategist and firms are turning to younger, more technically skilled “digital natives” to help them expand into the next big growth area in consulting.
“We’re seeing across the industry more appetite for recruiting people with core digital skills,” says Paul Connolly, director of the Management Consultancies Association Think Tank.
Digital and technology services increased their share of UK consulting revenues in the UK by 6% in 2013 and now account for a quarter of income, according to the MCA. “It’s easily the largest single service line of consulting activity,” says Paul.
While audit revenues are growing more slowly or remain flat at the Big Four professional services firms, growth in lucrative digital services is helping to drive revenues up – but they are also becoming the hardest areas to attract the right talent too.
“To address the digital challenge we need a range of skills,” says Paul Thompson, partner at Deloitte Digital.
“We recognized… That increasingly clients were looking for digital services, and in order to offer those we needed to look at [the] skillsets we’ve got,” he says.
Consultancies need people who approach problems from a strategic perspective but also “creatives”, engineers and people who can design digital products. “The breadth of skills we require has got quite broad,” says Paul.
But there is a skills shortage of this digital talent and the potential recruits that are being targeted – “millennials” born between 1980 and 1995 – have shifting priorities.
“That’s not necessarily just a shortage of people who can code or have STEM backgrounds,” says Paul from the MCA. “Actually it’s more to do with the need for people who view the world differently and can use digital creativity.”
Consulting firms are adapting their recruitment strategies to look at not just business schools but also talent from industry, creative agencies and IT organizations.
“We’ve had to look at a number of things to make sure we can attract, retain and deploy that talent,” says Paul at Deloitte Digital.
“We’re hiring very aggressively within digital across all of those skillsets,” he adds.
Deloitte Digital was set up in April 2014 and brought together people from across the entire professional services firm. It is a separate brand from Deloitte and this is a deliberate move to establish a new culture and identity which will attract the right recruits. “It allows us to make a very important statement,” says Paul.
Deloitte Digital’s office, a studio in Clerkenwell, has a different feel. It is separate from the firm’s London campus nearby in the City, east London, where a chunk of its 210,000 global workforce is based. Its wide open spaces provide a start-up flavour to the digital team.
“That tangible demonstration of what’s different about us has been very important,” says Paul.
Consulting recruitment is up 16% this year, according to statistics from UK-based MCA, and much of that is being driven by separate digital operations.
Accenture Digital has some 28,000 employees, according to Mike Sutcliff, group chief executive.
Deloitte Digital’s UK team is made up of 440 people, as well as a separate “halo team” of 200 who are working on digital projects, according to Paul. “It’s grown very fast,” he says.
Other firms are making no specific response or changes. They say that digital has never been a separate operation, and has always been central to their consulting services.
“It’s a mixture of approaches [but] what we’re seeing is a real engagement with the challenge of digital,” says Paul from the MCA. “They are all responding,” he adds.
Consultancies are widening their search for talent but they are not overlooking business schools. Most of the Big Four have specific postgraduate tracks, like PwC’s MBA EDGE scheme of consulting internships.
Conrad Chua, head of careers at Cambridge Judge Business School, says: “Corporate clients want to know how to use technology… And that opens up opportunities for MBA students to work on [both] the technology and the client side.”
He singles out MBAs with a background in IT or data science as particularly well suited for digital consulting firms.
Conrad says that combining functional skills with the broader understanding of business gained on an MBA is an increasingly attractive combination.
EY, Deloitte, Accenture Digital, Analysis Group and PA Consulting all say that to help fill talent gaps they have increased their mid-career hires, a demographic that typically flocks to MBA programs.
But rather than just providing a new avenue of opportunity, digital skillsets are fast becoming a requirement for all consulting services, according to Stephan Weidinger, corporate development manager at HEC Paris, the French business school.
“MBAs could provide a real contribution in some areas if they are trained during their MBA to relate these skills to the needs of their corporate clients,” he says.
One area where MBAs may have an advantage is in data analytics or big data – one of the digital service areas that is leading the consulting charge.
Firms are increasingly offering named products, branded as “solutions”, and many are data-orientated. McKinsey, for example offers ClickFox, a service that uses data analytics to provide detailed maps of clients’ relationships with their customers, and Performance Lens, which provides sales analysis for asset managers.
Data analytics has become increasingly important to Deloitte Digital, according to Paul.
“One of the characteristics of digital becoming more mature in organizations is that the customer journey needs to be contextually sensitive,” he says. “It needs to be delivering marketing messages that make sense to the consumer – and that’s driven by analytics.”
Companies’ reliance on data is why HEC Paris trains its MBAs in business analytics as part of the school’s strategy and marketing specializations, says Stephan.
Conrad says: “Data technologists or people who have done digital campaigns – those CVs will jump out.”
With such digital growth, consulting firms seem to be recovering from the effects of the financial crisis. On average, consulting projects in the UK generate benefits for clients worth £6 for every £1 spent in fees, according to research carried out for the MCA.
But with growth comes enhanced competition, and boutique consultancies, which have traditionally been more able to focus on tech and digital services, are fighting for market share.
“We believe we moved quicker than most in the market to establish our position in-between those areas,” says Paul from Deloitte Digital, referring to a cross between general consulting firms and niche boutiques. “We don’t see those areas as direct competitors.”
Aside from career opportunities opening up in mid-tier firms such as AT Kearney, PA Consulting and LEK as a result of the digital charge, at Cambridge Judge Conrad sees growth in internal consulting jobs within corporations.
“There’s going to be opportunities across the range – from boutiques to larger firms but also the end corporate clients themselves,” he says.