From generalists to specialists: Why brands are struggling to find marketers with the right skills

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Technology has flipped the traditional marketing model on its head and with it completely re-written the marketing job spec.

While once it was the norm for marketers to be generalists, specialist roles in data, programmatic and search are becoming increasingly desirable for businesses looking to crack the rapidly evolving complexities of the digital space.

As part of a restructure aiming to get its marketing team to take a “specialist rather than generalist” approach, Marks & Spencer (M&S) has set up specialised teams for areas such as merchandising, paid search, CRM and search engine optimisation.

Marketers are also among the 1,000 staff M&S is training in areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence as part of its retail data academy.

FMCG giant Unilever, meanwhile, is also moving away from generalist roles such as group product managers and brand managers, with its brand communications now led by a “deliberate and data-driven” audience segmentation and a programmatic approach to media buying.

“Nowadays we will increasingly specialise in business management experts, communications experts and innovation experts,” Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope told Marketing Week in June.

“Then within communications expertise you will have audience segmentation analysts, pure data analysts, programmatic media people, so there will be even further specialisations within the communications space.”

But the shift is by no means easy, with Jope admitting last week that hiring digital experts is not only challenging but expensive.

“The bottleneck on great work is having warm bodies to run digital campaigns, rather than absolute digital spend,” Jope said. “[We need to get] people in place to run more complex digital campaigns.”

Because businesses haven’t tended to operate in this way in the past, with marketers instead gaining skills across a range of disciplines, this means there are fewer suitable candidates and hiring people able to run complex campaigns can be costly.

Unilever sees ‘significant step up’ in effectiveness in shift to data-driven marketing

This shift from generalists to specialists is something Christine Ebeling Long of recruitment firm Stopgap has witnessed over the past two years.

At a senior level, Ebeling Long says she is increasingly searching for roles such as head of CRM, head of performance and head of affiliates, which adds “several layers of complication” when it comes to recruitment, capability training and retention.

“Firstly, [candidates] are hard to find because most companies want to hire someone who already has the experience and few companies are taking the responsibility for training them at grad level,” she explains.

“Secondly, because they are in demand, they tend to get head hunted quite regularly and often you will see CVs from someone who has had four or five roles in as many years rather than career marketers like Jope himself.”

As marketers, we must be very comfortable working with people who have a different profile, like data analysts.

Berta de Pablos, Mars

Like M&S, this is contributing to an increase in the number of businesses upskilling their marketers. But training takes time and will unlikely be able to sustain the pace of technological change in the long-term.

Sonia Sudhakar, marketing director at Guardian News and Media, says she worked endlessly to gain experience across all marketing disciplines because she felt she “had to have a depth of knowledge in each area” before she was ready to become marketing director.

“I found [gaining experience in every discipline] really difficult and it took such a long time,” she says. “But now I see as long as you’ve got an open mind, a great team and mindset you can learn what you need to know as you go.”

Ebeling Long notes there is often a dichotomy between the types of people traditionally drawn into marketing as well. When looking at Myers Briggs profiles, for example, most marketers present as extrovert: they are confident presenters, expressive communicators and outgoing with good stakeholder management skills.

Analysts, meanwhile, are often more scientific in their approach and manner. This means they usually prefer dealing on a one-to-one basis while working in a quiet environment, which allows them to concentrate and get their work done.

“Unfortunately, particularly as you move up the career ladder in these types of roles, you are expected and required to have strong communication and stakeholder skills too,” Ebeling Long says.

This is something Mars has had to take into account as part of its drive to shift from having a number of generalists to a team of experts that complement each other.

“[The shift in focus] ultimately changes the talent we recruit, the culture that we create and the type of talent we attract,” explains Mars’s chief growth officer, Berta de Pablos. “As marketers we must be very comfortable working with people who have a different profile, like a data analyst, for example. They have a very different profile to a traditional marketer, but they are essential.”

CMOs shift focus away from customer experience

Another common occurrence, Ebeling Long says, is people who start out in data-centric roles are often keen to move on quickly to a broader marketing role because they don’t see their careers developing in these areas.

For example, at a senior level, a head of CRM might want to move into a marketing director or head of marketing role but will find themselves “pigeon-holed” by their in-demand skill set.

What can be done to ensure there are enough experts suitable for the tasks marketers now need them to perform?

First, Ebeling Long says there is a need to define clear career paths for these types of candidates to help them reach their full potential.

Businesses may also want to start thinking about recruiting graduates with a science, analytical, mathematical or statistics skill sets, rather than those traditionally associated with marketing.

“That might be an interesting way of getting them into marketing at an early stage,” Ebeling Long says. “And then coaching them on the softer skills.”

What does seem clear is that the best marketers will have a combination of both skill sets. Generalists must have a decent grip on new digital tools. Specialists must understand basic marketing rules.

Technology isn’t going away any time soon, but old-school marketing is still part of the mix for a reason.

The post From generalists to specialists: Why brands are struggling to find marketers with the right skills appeared first on Marketing Week.

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