Navigating the Digital Talent Crunch

Without exception, every client of mine—typically CMOs or marketing VPs at small and midsized companies—is dealing with a digital staffing challenge. That is to say, one or more members of their team have recently left for another job or have given notice, and these folks typically have strong digital skills—in either search engine marketing, content marketing, analytics, or a webmaster-style role.  

Both corporate brands and agencies have been vying aggressively for digital talent for at least the past 5 years, especially midlevel staffers—individuals with more than 3 years of experience. That type of employee brings some practical experience to the job, doesn’t cost too much, and can be acquired with a modest bump in salary and/or a signing bonus. This sort of digital talent is productive, mobile, and relatively inexpensive.

For small and midsized companies that have grown increasingly reliant on digital marketing tactics, the loss of this type of employee can be crippling. Here are a few tactics that can help mitigate the impact of their losses.

  1. Foster group performance thinking. If it ever was, marketing is no longer a function of tactic-specific actions that yield results. Certainly, it requires individuals with talents in media buying, event planning, copywriting, and design—as it has for decades. But the emergence of the digital medium’s importance requires that marketing professionals are at best multifunctional, and marketing leaders are able to foster this kind of thinking. With everyone working toward the same goals, the byproduct is that individuals are, at the very least, more aware of what’s going on across the group as a whole.
  2. Standardize measurement protocols and prioritize a handful of metrics. The book and movie Moneyball put a spotlight on the way one small market, small budget team figured out how to compete with big market, big budget teams (such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox): by homing in on one or two key metrics (such as on-base percentage) and translating that focus into success. Senior marketing managers can mitigate the impact of inevitable turnover among staffers with trendy skills by getting their teams to buy in to and focus on a handful of critical metrics—and as the byproduct, developing an understanding of what’s required to optimize those metrics.
  3. Force cross-training. Most marketing professionals are hungry to learn new skills, if only because they are interested in self-preservation and/or advancement and success. Marketing executives can work to both strengthen team performance and encourage the development of the “utility player” by exploiting this reality. Scheduling weekly or biweekly meetings with the internal and extended teams (i.e., external vendors) and discussing the details of varied tactics—both online and offline—can help get everyone exposed to the issues and make them better able to “pinch hit” when/if someone leaves for another job unexpectedly. Having a marketing team comprised of multi-talented individuals—who still maintain their particular domain expertise—is a situation that most marketing executives would celebrate.
  4. Anticipate fluidity. Digital marketing professionals have options. According to a recent LinkedIn study, 96% of creative professionals “say they can find a job easily, which means there’s a perception that the ad agency talent market is extremely liquid.” According to the same study, ad agencies pay significantly less than brands, but they do a much better job of fostering favorable work environments. There’s much that can be learned from these lessons. While there isn’t a lot most senior marketing managers can do to create genuine advancement opportunities or even get staffers more money, team dynamics is a variable that can be controlled.

Managing a marketing team in 2016 or 2017 is no easy endeavor, especially at small and midsized companies. Turnover among key staffers is going to be high. Handling C-level expectations will require a great deal of attention and finesse, and adjusting to constantly evolving market conditions will involve both skill and luck. But by focusing on a few key areas, senior marketers can take a big step toward increasing their likelihood of success.   

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