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Digital boom drives demand for creative staff

Published 16 April 2013 10:46, Updated 18 April 2013 00:45

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Digital boom drives demand for creative staff

Alex Lynch, founder of online design marketplace DesignCrowd. Photo: Jim Rice

Careers in creative industries have often been seen as fraught with risk; candidates are likely to have to slug it out in hospitality jobs while they go through the arduous task of finding well-paying employment.

The truth is there has never been a better time to start a creative business or to develop a set of skills that can classify you as a creative person.

For young people wanting to get paid to design cool stuff, the explosion of internet sites, apps and tech start-ups in recent years, and an increasing focus on smooth usability, has led to an insatiable appetite for demonstrable creative skills.

The skills in demand are those that turn a product or service into something people just have to have, skills which will enable economies like ours to compete with low-cost economies overseas.

A study of the creative economy by Queensland University of Technology’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) found employment in creative sectors grew by a steady 2.8 per cent a year from 2006 to 2011, Australian Bureau of Statistics census data show, to a total of 531,000 people in 2011. This was 40 per cent faster than the economy as a whole, and represented 5.3 per cent of the national workforce.

CCI director, Stuart Cunningham, argues the creative sector does not get enough credit for its innovation and the huge benefits it brings to the economy.

In a new book, Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector he argues growth in the creative economy could take the baton as mineral and commodity exports slow.

“We tend to think of this as culture, and of course it is culture, but it’s not culture as in the (Sydney) Opera House,” he says.

“This is about the growth in the ways in which this economy – like all advanced service-based economies, high tech economies – needs creative solutions in business.”

Research by CCI finds cultural production like art products, books and music grew at half the rate of the national workforce over the previous census period.

The real growth was in creative services like photography, digital content and software development. Specialised design – such as graphic arts, product design and fashion design – grew at twice the average rate of the total workforce.

Digital publishing grew at a remarkable annual rate of 14 per cent despite the shrinking traditional publishing industry and there was a 7.4 per cent growth in self-employed creative artists.

About 161,000 people worked as “embedded creatives” in industries not normally thought of as suited to creative types – such as banking, manufacturing and government.

“This is the creative services sector,” Cunningham says.

“They’re creative firms that provide services to creative industries themselves but also more and more beyond the creative industries.

“There’s simulation for defence and mining industries. There’s the question of who makes sure the writing in our online education materials is cross-culturally sensitive and appropriate in an industry that was worth up to $20 billion to Australia.

“Who does the mobile apps for mobile banking and how do you marry the need for security with the need for mobility and convenience? Creative people are working alongside the software engineers at the major banks.”

Crowd-sourcing creativity

DesignCrowd – an online marketplace for businesses to crowd-source graphic logos or web designs – sees at the coalface the rising demand for creative people who make products stand out.

“There’s a huge demand for creatives – graphic designers, web designers and photographers – in Australia, Silicon Valley and around the world,” says DesignCrowd CEO and founder Alec Lynch, who is based in Sydney.

“We’ve seen global demand on our site almost double in the last four months and we’re desperate for more designers, in Australia but also overseas, to keep up with that demand.”

DesignCrowd has transacted more than $8 million between designers and businesses seeking websites, logos, app designs and Wordpress or Facebook pages since it started in January 2008. It has about 110,000 designers worldwide on its books pitching to businesses and employs 20 people.

In 2011 it raised $3 million from Starfish Ventures. Lynch says demand for his company’s services has increased 87 per cent in Australia in the past three months.

He puts it down to lower barriers to entry to starting a business, and rising internet use. A report by web monitoring company Pingdom found there were 635 million websites worldwide in December 2012. This was an astonishing increase from two years ago when there were 255 million.

“That growth drives demand for creative services,” Lynch says.

A wide range of businesses harnesses the brains of the creative community.

Internet start-up Brand Honee runs online competitions to see who can create the best video to match a company’s brief.

Laurence Wolf formed the company after running a highly successful short film competition for a major pharmaceutical company to de-stigmatise the awkward subject of herpes. He received 120 entries and the winner was awarded $10,000.

Brand Honee has since run six campaigns with some entries winning television contracts or being screened in film festivals.

“I’m of the view the starving artist is going to become a thing of the past,” Wolf says.

“The information age is evolving into a new creative renaissance. If you can’t nail that experience and it isn’t intuitive and sexy, you’re going to be behind the game.”

Others like Social Callout and Brand Meets Blog are assisting businesses to integrate campaigns with bloggers.

Living in a gamer’s paradise

Entrepreneur Shainiel Deo’s Brisbane-based computer game studio Halfbrickis another creative success story. Deo studied and worked in IT while designing games for fun.

Halfbrick allowed him to combine the two. Its highly addictive games like Fruit Ninja have racked up 500 million downloads worldwide and it even earned a mention as an important cultural export in the federal government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper.

While Halfbrick was once a behind-the-scenes player, as the numbers of mobile devices exploded, it was no longer chained to proprietary game platforms like Playstation and Nintendo, and could create its own games and intellectual property.

Phil Larsen, Halfbrick’s chief marketing officer, says the best ideas people have a bright future in a world saturated with content.

“The number of websites and apps is increasing exponentially, and there’s only so many people in the world,” Larsen says.

“The most creative ideas, the most creative content is the stuff that’s going to become popular, so that’s where having that skillset and mindset is really powerful. It enables you to stand out from the crowd.”

Winning the fight for something special

For Larsen, the talent is in understanding the medium and who uses it and building on that understanding to design what’s perfect for those users There is a lot of skill in coming up with the addictive simplicity of Halfbrick’s games, he says..

“What people want on mobile is quick, social, casual fun experiences,” he says.

“It’s easy to say but there’s so much design skill that goes into what makes a product like that great.”

Halfbrick’s newest game, Fish out of Water, involves skimming fish across the ocean as far as possible. The player has to account for the size of the fish and weather conditions.

Creative skills take other forms as well, such as helping companies market themselves to the best talent, and create a workplace they would like to be part of.

This has opened up new business avenues for consultancies like Human Capital Management Solutions to assist with recruitment strategies.

“Gone are the days where you’d say go to this website and fill out a 45-page application form,” says Martin Warren, principal consultant at HCMS’s InsideJob division.

“Candidates are saying I want to engage with you through your social media page, learn more about you and have an interaction that’s authentic before I apply, and organisations are really struggling with that.

“For example people want to see what it’s like in an organisation; they want to see pictures and videos.”

It’s official: creatives don’t get enough credit

Creative industries are not what typically comes to mind in addressing the big economic challenges like offsetting the impact of a slowdown in mineral and commodity exports.

But Cunningham believes creative industries are rich in hidden innovation. The advances the sector is making, however, are kept out of view.

The ABS defines cultural employment to include things like zoos, botanical gardens, nature reserves and religious and funeral services but doesn’t count key elements of digital media and software development that are crucial to creative and cultural production and consumption.

It can also be difficult to make a case for innovation grants to bodies that are historically skewed towards science, engineering and technology.

Creative firms are overwhelmingly small and medium-sized enterprises, that don’t have the resources to hire dedicated people to study and tally up all the things that can be claimed under R&D tax breaks. Even if they make this a focus, a lot of their innovation is not acknowledged as such – an experience that is shared in other countries.

Cunningham cites the video game character Lara Croft – played by Angelina Jolie in an action movie – as an example.

“If you come up with a new character that you’re building into a game, for instance, Lara Croft from Tombraider,” Cunningham says. “She did great business for the UK games economy but they couldn’t get R&D support for inventing a new narrative approach to games. It gives you an idea what the creative sector is up against. And they don’t know how to formulate a case.”

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