The Fight for Marketing Talent

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Tracking the Elusive Unicorn

The skill set that is required of today's marketers is different than it has been in the past. Jon Franko, co-founder and partner of Gorilla 76, a St. Louis-based inbound marketing company specializing in manufacturing, says, "When my business partner and I started this business, talent acquisition was low on our list of priorities. We just didn't think it would be that difficult. Fast forward to today. There are more and more digital jobs. It's getting tougher and tougher to find good talent."

In addition to growing demand, part of the difficulty for those looking for digital marketing talent to help with today's marketing challenges is that the skill set is complex. Tim Bourgeois is a partner with East Coast Catalyst, a digital strategy firm based in Boston. "The way the industry has been describing the hot skill in demand is the marketing ‘unicorn': The individual who possesses both left- and right-brain skills and can move comfortably among creative, technology, and senior management functions of an organization," says Bourgeois. "They refer to this person as a ‘unicorn,' because it's a rare skill set." It's a skill set also referred to as a "full stack" marketer, he says.

Bourgeois points to a study by BCG (Boston Consulting Group) and Google, which identifies significant, self-identified gaps in marketing capabilities among those in the industry. BCG and Google created the Talent Revolution Initiative, and, as one of the first steps, they conducted a survey of 1,100 marketers in 57 companies in the U.K. and Germany. The results show that the average "digital-skills score" for all marketers was 57 (on a scale of 100). "While a few companies ranked higher than 70, the majority fell squarely into the 55-60 point range," the report says.

Because the digital marketing environment is changing so rapidly--and will likely continue to do so-those hiring these professionals are wise to focus on potential, in addition to specific, competencies. Bourgeois says, "We look for two skill sets: a demonstrated competency in a specific area--such as digital design, technology platform, or certification-and a demonstrated ability and interest in learning new skills quickly." That second piece can't be overemphasized, he says. "Digital moves so fast, and is so cross-functional, that continuous learning is a requirement."

Franko agrees: "We look for self-starters, self-learners-kids who are hungry to develop as digital professionals. We don't necessarily look at resumes or collegiate pedigree, as universities aren't really teaching what we're looking for. Instead, we want to know what blogs a candidate is reading, what they do for fun, where they spend their non-working hours. This will tell us a lot more than a diploma will."

Deborah Kilpatrick is VP of marketing at SourceKnowledge, a Canada-based performance video advertising tech company. In addition to technical talent and a penchant for lifelong learning, notes Kilpatrick, cultural fit matters. "‘Culture' is one of these words that is hard to pin down and define," she acknowledges. "But there is something to say for having like-minded employees. While competence is important, work slows down if they cannot fit into the team and work with their group." This doesn't mean that employees shouldn't feel free to share their thoughts and opinions, and even disagree. "Open discussions and opinions need to be cultivated in a fast-changing industry like ours, and they contribute to idea generation," Kilpatrick says. "We can get a general feeling in an interview if someone will fit into the team or not."

It's a tall order, and it's easy to see why marketers consider it challenging to find candidates who embody all of the varied aptitudes needed to compete in a crowded digital landscape. Where can you find the talent you need?

How Can You Find and Retain Top Talent?

Just as when you're engaged in a job search, for recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers hoping to land top digital talent, networking matters, says Frey. "When the labor markets get tighter and it gets harder to find good people, I always tell my friends, ‘You have to get involved with professional or industry associations in your area,'" Frey says. AIGA and the American Advertising Federation (AAF) are two she mentions. Attending campus and college career fairs can be another good way to find talent, Frey says. "You have to be able to do that because it's still competitive to find people. You can't just put an ad on Craigslist."

Kristen Zierau, director of executive recruiting at JMJ Phillip Executive Search, agrees. In addition to trade associations, college campuses represent potential for recruitment. Recent graduates are a potentially good focus, especially when coming from schools known for their digital marketing curriculum. But traditional backgrounds can serve as a good foundation as well, notes Zierau. "We target candidates with journalism and other writing degrees and have found that writing for a living is really equal to being a starving artist these days," she says. "There are these young creative minds that couldn't land a job at a newspaper, for example, as the industry has been shrinking. But they also make great content writers or marketers because they really do love to write. These candidates can produce a lot of content."

For her own organization's internal recruitment, Zierau says, "We always look to target someone with a ‘hacker's mentality,' and we say that in a good way. That type of mentality is always looking for gaps in the markets, notices things our competitors do poorly-and this type of thinking often leads to our next big idea." Importantly, she says, these candidates need to be nimble and constantly doing new things. "What you don't want is someone that is going to come in, brag about what they did at their last company and try to do the same thing at your company. Digital marketing isn't one size fits all, and sometimes things only work one time, so you need to find someone that will find underserved opportunities in the market and develop strategies to attack them," Zierau says. And, once you've found them, you need to work hard to keep them.

"We want someone who is a long-term employee," says Kilpatrick. "We want people who want to grow and develop their skill set with us. We like to promote internally, so there is a lot of internal growth potential for employees. Having employees that stay with us for one year or less is costly in terms of training and reduces momentum on projects. Nobody stays forever, but with lots of projects and learning possibilities, we hope to make an atmosphere where employees want to stay."

The likelihood of this is boosted by culturing a group of "rock star" employees, she says. "Employees have to be rock stars in their own right, and the more rock stars you have, the more it raises the collective rock star bar. Everybody wants to be on the winning team and feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. If you have good people around, it will attract more good people." For marketing and creative professionals, the tide has definitely turned. "The employment prospects for people in our industry continue to be good," says Frey.

Bourgeois agrees. "Over the next 3-5 years, more small and midsized companies that haven't historically done much advertising will engage with agencies for the first time to help them get digitally enabled," he says. "The same is true for middle market companies that have traditionally managed all of the marketing with in-house resources, as the complexities associated with digital marketing become increasingly overwhelming." Larger companies, he says, are more likely to "aggressively build their in-house digital capabilities." But he adds, "I think that part of the marketplace will engage more specifically and strategically with external providers in areas such as auditing, digital media buying, and conversion optimization."

"It's a great time to be a talented digital marketer and a terrible time to be a marketing organization or agency," Bourgeois says. "Demand far outstrips supply, and it's only going to get more acute in the coming 2-3 years, as more marketing executives embrace digital as their primary channel."  

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