How to source the right skill set for a modern marketing team

Written by: Morag Cuddeford-Jones
Published on: 29 Jan 2016

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Our panel of senior marketers give their advice on how to source the right mix of ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ skills for a modern marketing team.

Much is made of whether marketers need to be ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’ people. In fact, it is more important that marketing departments are ‘whole brain’ teams, assembled from people with a combination of creative and analytical skills. Ultimately, marketing needs professionals who can read data competently and also those who can identify actionable insights and communicate a business case.

But where should companies go to recruit these people and what should their academic or vocational training be in? Can you expect to find all the required skills in one person, or do you need to balance them across the team? Marketing Week spoke to five senior marketers (see the panel) with decades of experience in building teams to match the ever-changing requirements of the modern marketing function.

Where is today’s marketing skills gap?

Helen Bass: It’s difficult to say what the gap is. The market requires a constantly evolving skill set and community. My team goes from six years’ experience to 20-plus and those with  20 years’ experience still need to be learning. The days of ticking off a checklist have gone.

Philip Almond: It’s still a cultural issue. There are people who have come through the traditional brand-led marketing approach and then there are the digital natives. The skills needed are around digital or personalisation, but equally we need people who have an ability to integrate with their colleagues from the technical side of the business. We need storytellers who understand technology.

Aine Bryn: There needs to be an understanding of how to link and apply theoretical thinking to other functions in the organisation. It’s important to be able to articulate to the business where you can add value.

Kristof Fahy: There are not enough generalists. The mantra seems to have been ‘find a specialism and stick to it’. Not all marketers need to be the same. You need a wide range of skills in the unit. I’m missing people who can float anything and make it work. That said, skills gaps occur in companies because people rush into things. Some people you might only need for a short, sharp burst.

David James: There’s a big difference between a brand marketing person and a commercial marketing person and then from there to a marketer that has responsibility for profit and loss (P&L), end to end. They’re very different skill sets and people [with ambitions to be CMOs] have found themselves without those at the point where they wanted to make the leap to the C-suite, so they’ve had to acquire them before they can get going.

Where do you recruit people to get the right mix of skills?

Helen Bass: The flippant answer would be more diverse places than previously. There has been a well-trodden path between different FMCG companies and a revolving door at insight agencies. That has been a safe and productive way of filling roles but the starting point we are looking from is not where they have come from but what their experience is. It’s about opening your mind to CVs from different places.

    “Specialist roles such as head of CRM are leading more to chief customer roles“
    David James, Vodafone UK

Aine Bryn: If you’re looking for a brand new recruit, you want them to have applied some of their thinking so that the routes they have taken have allowed them to put their skills into practice. The functions they have learned about need to be not just related to marketing. Five years in, you  want someone who has had cycles of experience in different areas of the business or at least developed ideas in partnership with other areas. Marketing is too often seen as spending money, so you need to show how you generate revenue.

Kristof Fahy: I like organisations such as [government intelligence agency] GCHQ, which advertises for people in all sorts of different places. People who have done lots of different things tend to stand out.

What processes do you use for hiring?

Helen Bass: We do a mix – a lot by recommendation, some from internal talent teams and also using specialist recruiters. At the moment, there is a role for specialist recruitment around the analytical skill set. A recruiter needs to know the companies really well and be on the front foot to translate the brief. Great recruiters spend time with individuals, understanding from a leadership perspective how they will fit in the team. You can take a risk on someone with a different background if they’ve put themselves out there to be seen.

Philip Almond: It’s important to recruit skills. Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed is often quoted as saying that he has banned job titles with the word ‘data’ because people keep trying to recruit them.

Aine Bryn: Just because [a candidate hasn’t] been trained formally in a specific area doesn’t mean they can’t apply their existing skills to a problem. You don’t have to be a purist any more. The watchwords are fluid and blending. Being fluid and blending departments to grow diverse employees stops us losing good people.

David James: [When I was at BT], we were very clear that we wanted to develop a successor for my role from within and so we took a leap and got a commercial guy who had been in junior marketing roles in the past. We put him in more high-profile roles managing the agencies and by the time I left he was ready to take over. He now has a broad skill set and has already done P&L and handled communications, whereas traditionally people [only gain those responsibilities as their careers progress].

There are any number of marketing career pathways that don’t directly take you on a general management path or give a clear route to marketing director. Specialist roles such as head of CRM are leading more to chief customer roles, rather than marketing director. Where do you find the really talented specialists that can also have career progression to make up a really good team alongside the generalists? You need both.

Is there any particular requirement in academic or vocational training?

Aine Bryn: There’s a realisation that the business has a responsibility to give its people opportunities to see how the business runs and, in turn, accept marketing as a business function. When people engage across the business, you start sparking ideas because there
are different perspectives.

There’s definitely a requirement for courses to officially put numbers on the curriculum. The only way to see opportunity is to understand data. On its own it’s just another tool but when you combine it with a creative sense, you give the business the evidence it needs to support decisions.

Helen Bass: We will see more applicants from maths, science and engineering and from disciplines that are particularly analytical, but we should be open as marketers. For insight, there needs to be a fascination with how humans work, so subjects such as psychology and anthropology will be relevant.

Kristof Fahy: My biggest issue is I don’t want people’s performance to be measured on brand trackers but on the results reported to the City. Everyone in a business should understand how that business makes money.

David James: Even when you start your journey, you need to know your ambitions. No one told me to think about my journey and what my career could be so that I would build depth for marketing director level. The best people who make it into senior roles in CRM, for example, are the ones with a consultant-type mentality and are very good at working with analysts. That’s not a fad; penetrating insights that lead to added value are what it’s all for.

How do you balance your team with the right mix of people?

Philip Almond: You need to encourage cross-fertilisation. Digital startups organise around ‘tribes’ and mix them up into chapters or teams. They have flexible, cross-functional teams to deal with an issue. Marketing isn’t like the priesthood – it’s good to have people from different backgrounds. But a passion for the organisation is important.

Aine Bryn: You need people who can look at data and say what’s interesting. But it doesn’t mean that you have got actuarial geniuses in marketing. The functions cross over and if they collaborate and understand a bit about each other, it becomes wonderful to find a business that is pulling together.

Helen Bass: It’s rare, and expensive, to find a combination of analytical and creative flair but these people are unique. We lack passionate analysts who can spend time in the problem but then interpret it for business implications. That’s the team of the future – getting people who can join those dots; having a team as a whole brain with different talent spikes, putting them together and seeing the energy and conversations that emerge.
How do you lead these new-style teams?

Philip Almond: You need someone at senior level who can translate the requirements into language that is understood by the entire team. From a hiring perspective, you can look at the market or the sector or the level, but trying to change more than one thing at a time is a risk because no matter who you hire, you need them to be ready from the word go.

Helen Bass: As the leader, you have to be closest to being the whole brain. You need a good understanding of their breadth to be able to set the direction for them. You also need to have credibility at the top of the business and show business leadership and create the conditions for people to succeed.

Aine Bryn: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to presume everyone is the same. You go fishing and find out what makes people excited and how they apply themselves to a task. The Myers-Briggs [personality test] gave me such an enlightened view on how people like to work and how you can blend your team so that you’re not pouncing on an introvert, for example.

Kristof Fahy: I’ve got no issue with people being in the organisation for a long time or barely two years. Businesses need to be able to adapt to both types. For someone who wants to stay with an intrinsic passion, you have got to keep challenging them. For short-termers, there is a value transaction and that’s also fine, but some businesses struggle with operating both of those models at the same time.

David James: Career planning is underrated, both by applicants and companies. Most people don’t have a laser-like focus on the steps they need to take as a junior marketer or have a pathway in mind.

The panel

Helen Bass, Consumer planning director, Diageo

Philip Almond, Director, Marketing and audiences, BBC

David James, Commercial marketing director, Vodafone UK

Aine Bryn, Marketing director, Global financial services, PWC

Kristof Fahy, CMO, Ladbrokes