Why marketers are opting for upskilling

Written by: Charlotte Rogers
Published on: 6 Jul 2016

In a period of post-Brexit uncertainty and potential recruitment freezes, marketers will need to embrace upskilling to maintain a competitive advantage.


Uncertainty following the vote to leave the European Union, coupled with the relentless pace of change, means there is a real business case for marketers to invest in upskilling rather than spending resources on searching for new talent.

Given that 35% of employers are unsure if they will be able to recruit talent with key marketing skills this year, according to a study conducted ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June by recruitment specialist Hays, the need for on-the-job learning becomes even more relevant.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of employers have programmes in place to help employees overcome development barriers, with 42% offering additional training benefits such as time off for study. However, more needs to be done, since 58% of marketers believe restricted training budgets are hindering their professional development.

“You need to upskill if your business is going to survive as the consumer is not standing still,” says Trainline chief commercial officer Simon Darling. “The value of upskilling is that you will be able to serve your customer better and be a more profitable business.”

An advocate of mentoring, Darling is building a network of expert external advisors who work with the marketing team on a monthly or quarterly basis on topics such as search engine optimisation, customer relationship management and pay-per-click. Each marketer
is then expected to share their learnings at weekly team meetings.

    “Upskilling is vital for new marketers. Bringing in expertise encourages on-the-job learning with real tasks and results”
    Patrick Venning, Pernod Ricard

The acquisition of French train booking platform Captain Train in March also brought with it upskilling opportunities, since the French team shared their expertise in developing a clear tone of voice, while the UK marketers shared their skills in paid search.

“We are also upskilling by working with other in-house teams. Our product development team are really good at working in an agile way to test and deploy, so we’re copying some of their processes,” explains Darling.

Meanwhile, one member of the 40-strong marketing team is undertaking a three-month training programme via video to learn from marketers at Airbnb and Uber in the US.


At GlaxoSmithKline, all employees have an individual performance and development plan

Learning from agencies

One of the biggest upskilling resources open to brands is their agencies, argues Peter Boucher, chief commercial officer at private car hire firm Addison Lee, who believes forging a close partnership will benefit in-house marketers.

“This may be a challenge for the agency, as traditionally there has been an aura [of mystery] around what they do,” he acknowledges. “But going forward I see the relationship as something like a partnership.”

To adapt to the speed of change Boucher sees agencies providing specialist skills for a period of time, which the brand then brings in-house, before moving on to outsource a different skill set as dictated by the changing market. Addison Lee’s main upskilling priorities are focused on insight and developing a stronger understanding of digital analytics.

The advantages of brand and agency cross-fertilisation are particularly important for small marketing teams, such as the three-person department at HS1, the company that owns St Pancras International train station.

“We treat our agencies like an extension of the in-house team,” explains commercial director Wendy Spinks. “We meet up fortnightly for a two-hour workshop to share what we have learned across the wider team. Then twice a year we have a one-day workshop where we share skills and set targets.”

In order to encourage collaboration and not competition, Spinks sets ground rules for her creative, digital and PR agencies to work together on idea generation, encouraging her in-house marketers to absorb as much information as possible.

She believes upskilling is essential for staff retention. “You have to invest in people and keep doing new things because customers keep moving. From a retention perspective, people who are constantly learning are happier in their jobs and do a better job.”

Start to specialise

Drinks giant Pernod Ricard assesses its in-house marketing capabilities in relation to the skills its agencies can offer. So whereas there is an advantage to upskilling the team to take charge of social media management, other specialist skills such as video production might be better left to an agency, explains UK marketing director, Patrick Venning.

To foster a learning environment Venning focuses on building balanced teams with complementary skill sets. The UK marketing department is made up of 50% traditional marketers, 50% specialists, including three digital specialists, one content manager, a CRM manager and two social media community managers.

Enhancing the team’s data capabilities, as a means of developing effective targeting, is a key priority for Pernod Ricard. “Upskilling is vital for new marketers,” Venning argues. “Bringing in expertise to support teams is by far the best way because it encourages learning on-the-job with real tasks and real results.”


A priority at Pernod Ricard is enhancing its marketing team’s data capabilities, says marketing director Patrick Venning

Michael Benson, marketing director at Church & Dwight, owner of the Arm & Hammer and Femfresh brands, designed a bespoke training programme to help his team gain a greater understanding of digital skills and stronger grounding in the fundamentals of marketing.

Running from January to April, the two three-day workshops run by consultancy Brand Learning blended case studies with practical work relating to customer insight, brand positioning, strategy, planning and consumer engagement.

Although Benson admits it is unrealistic to expect an instant transformation, he has already noticed his marketers approaching challenges in a more targeted way. The key measure will be how each brand is growing its market share in 2017.

With regards to the trade-off between outsourcing, bringing in new talent and upskilling, Benson is an advocate of investing in the existing team. “It is definitely better to upskill your own people as you often have very good people who just need to be taught a different way and it would be demotivating to see people promoted above them.

“It’s about giving teams the ability to grow and that way you retain talent. The point of effective training is that it is so motivating,” he adds.

At Procter & Gamble, much of the upskilling activity is carried out on-the-job through internal courses. Every marketer joining the company attends the ‘marketing college’, which provides the chance to network with colleagues across the global business.

Under its ‘brand university’ umbrella, P&G offers marketers a formal training plan comprising short, advanced seminars, a ‘commercial bootcamp’ and elective skills-building courses
on an annual basis.

“We also encourage everyone to seek out a mentor,” explains Caroline Gorrie, marketing manager at P&G Northern Europe, who works to identify the skills gaps in the marketing team as part of P&G’s UK marketing capability programme.

“We have a mentor-matching scheme which works really well. This could be peer-to-peer or with someone more senior. Our people give us a competitive advantage and we have a strong culture of ‘share and reapply’ within the brand team.”

READ MORE: Helen Tupper – The best way to get a mentor is to never ask for one

Whether it is through peer-to-peer mentoring, formal training programmes or shadowing agency specialists, upskilling not only improves the in-house skill set, it also motivates the workforce and helps retain talent.

The benefits for the wider business are clear. As Addison Lee’s Boucher suggests, putting a hungry, self-learning marketing team at the heart of a business can only drive value.

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It’s unusual to manage both people and brand – how does your role work?

When Sky Bet was carved out of Sky in March 2015, there was a huge amount of change as we took ownership of functions such as HR. This gave the marketing department the chance to define what we wanted our company vision and values to be, but we also needed someone in the HR function to help define our company culture.

That being said, I don’t think my unique role is the reason I can understand the skills gaps in marketing. That comes from my marketing background. However, it is important that HR teams branch out in order to understand all sides of the business.

What are your upskilling priorities?

One area of focus over the next 12 months will be exploiting our data to its full potential so we can get ahead in the online betting sector.

How do you go about upskilling?

We rotate people into different roles and also have a high level of promotion from within.

It is part of our company culture that we want people to diagnose themselves. That is why we have a £1,000 ‘tech ninja’ fund available to every [tech-based employee] who joins us to find the course, book or experience that will help develop their learning.

It is a big part of their commitment to share these learnings and over the next nine months we are looking to build a portal, perhaps on our intranet, for sharing these skills.

How does your dual role help with recruiting?

Over the past year, we went on a big recruitment drive, hiring 500 people. We approached the process as if it were another marketing campaign, using a full mix of channels such as social, pay-per-click and TV, like we would to engage consumers.

GSK: Upskilling drives engagement

“By investing in people through upskilling we can keep talent in our organisation, which will give us a competitive advantage, and when people feel supported to grow they are far more engaged,” says Anna Hale, area marketing director, for Northern Europe at GlaxoSmithKline.

Everyone at GSK is given an individual performance and development plan, which is split into 70% on-the-job development, 20% coaching and 10% training.

On-the-job development is project based. If a marketer has never worked on a media brief, for example, they will shadow another team or spend time with an agency. Peer-to-peer coaching is also key. “Our ‘Job Plus Coaching’ programme is run by people in the business who have been put through big training courses and buddy up with colleagues to coach and support them,” she says. “We also run our own internal training course, which focuses on nutrition, mindfulness and how to build a purpose and vision.”

Employees are also sent on assignments across GSK’s global business. Hale believes this is a great way for people to approach each role with a fresh perspective, informed by their worldwide experience.