DM Employers Seek Analytic Skills, Cross-Discipline Knowledge

Posted on by Richard H. Levey

Marketing departments are hiring, at least as of mid-summer. Most-desired candidates include those who bring analytic skills to a variety of marketing functions, followed by those who understand the integrated nature of marketing.

"It's relatively easy to find people who are experienced in one or two things such as brand management and direct response, or direct marketing and analytics," says David Brown, executive vice president and general manager at Meredith Integrated Marketing. "It's very rare to find people who are competent across a broad spectrum of disciplines. The broader you go, the shallower their experience is."

How can one judge whether candidates are right for a direct marketing position? "Ask them to describe the best idea they've had for a client," says Brown. "People may not have thought about what an idea is. An idea—a big idea—works across more than one discipline. If it just works in digital or TV it's not a big idea. We want people to understand that a big idea is one that travels across disciplines, getting better and better."

Bryan Pearson, president and CEO of loyalty marketing services firm LoyaltyOne, agrees, saying there's more to being a 21st century marketer then merely understanding the mechanics of a given channel.

"Think about social media," Pearson says. "Anyone can understand how to plant a 'like' button on something, or create conversations, or whatever else. The real magic is in understanding the medium and the nuances of how you create adhesion or momentum behind the ideas, so that consumers will grasp them and make them their own and proliferate them on your behalf."

The challenge, according to Pearson, is to avoid populating marketing departments with "monoline" specialists—those who only know mobile or social or mass advertising. And that means recognizing that there is a human element to direct marketing.

"When hiring CRM people, they need to be marketers first," says Michael Ousely, CMO at firearm supply firm Brownells. "Yes, they need to understand the technical aspects, but they also must understand the customer experience and customer sensitivity side.

"A marketing person should be able to identify patterns of purchase activity indicating when someone is ready to move from being a gunsmith or active shooter to becoming deeply embedded in the sport," Ousley adds.

Brownell's offers additional challenges for its hires. The company has recognized several divergent markets for its products, including "super shooters", and those who want guns for protection, a classification that increasingly includes women. "There is a softer side," Ousley notes. "We need people who can design messaging and creative around that." And that's in addition to the law enforcement, consumer and government markets the firm serves.

Brownell's Ousley himself is a relatively recent hire, having started in April. He recalls interviewing with the finance, operations and marketing teams—a process that is standard for the company, as it helps demonstrate whether a candidate has the personality to work across all those functions.

The company also asks candidates to demonstrate knowledge of its various brands, each of which sells to a different market.

Companies Are Rebuilding

"The toughest hire is the middle manager," says Daniel Flamberg, managing director of digital and CRM at ad agency The Kalplan Thaler Group. Why is there a dearth of available talent among this group? "There have been two bad cycles where people have washed out of the [direct marketing] business."

The first was the Internet bust of 2000-2001, during which a lot of younger people, who would be filling mid-level positions today, left the direct marketing community.

[The community lost] "the people who would be 10-12-15 years in, between the ages of 35 and 45, who would have moved up the ranks or had other experiences," says Flamberg. "We also had massive title inflation. You had relatively junior people who were managers, directors and vice presidents of businesses that ultimately failed. Once you have been one of those, you don't want to be an account executive."

The second was the recent recession, which resulted in "a fair amount of contraction," Flamberg says.

Additionally, "for the last 10 years, the industry has underinvested in training," Flamberg continues. "As a result, most of [the direct marketing community's] supervisory people have learned by example, and in many cases negative example, rather than having formal training in how to motivate people."

"Marketing departments are lean all around the country," notes Brownell's Ousley. "They may have one or two analysts where they previously had five, or one e-commerce specialist where they might have had three." Because of this, there is a greater burden on finding people who can cross-communicate their marketing roles both within the department and throughout the organization as a whole.

While certain skills, such as data analysts, are in demand, companies are still being very selective, says Jerry Bernhart, principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search LLC.

"There's a lot of 'checkbox syndrome,'" Bernhart says, referencing the laundry list of must-have qualifications a given position may require. Hiring firms "can afford to wait. They don't have to settle. During the days when the economy was really booming, they needed butts in seats, particularly in the services side."

That said, they are hiring. "If there were an unemployment rate among direct and digital marketers [alone], I'll be it would be half what it is for the rest of the country," Bernhart adds.

His company's quarterly direct marketing employment survey bears this out. The second-quarter 2011 study found that hiring levels among these employers were at "healthy, post-recession levels" with analytics, account management and sales capabilities among the most-sought qualifications. Even more telling, nearly none of the digital or direct firms reported plans for layoffs.

Analysts Always Welcome

Hands-on experience with analytics and measurable results is playing an ever-more-important role, even in the interview process. "Candidates need to talk about accomplishments and achievements beyond how they fulfilled the responsibilities of the job," says Bernhart. "They need to discuss how [their actions] moved the needle."

"When you identify strong analysts, they're worth their weight in gold regarding what they can return in predictive [functions] and understanding customer behavior, and in identifying either the next promotional activity or who should get the next catalog or e-mail campaign," says Brownell's Ousley.

Sometimes being an analyst alone isn't enough. LoyaltyOne's Pearson notes that there are two elements necessary for successful use of data: An analyst has to be able to interpret what the data is revealing, and a "storyteller" has to translate that information so it is relevant to the intended market, whether internal management or external customers and prospects.

"That storyteller piece is a hard person to find," Pearson says.

"The verbal numbers cruncher is about as available as hen's teeth," agrees Flamberg. "The personality of someone naturally creative is the antithesis of your average nerd." Even without the creative aspect, a good number cruncher is hard to find, he adds.

Schools Do Only So Much

Pearson believes business schools have only recently begun to rigorously focus on the quantitative side of marketing. "Think about the advent of changes around databases and predictive modeling," he says. These disciplines "had been more the purview of math departments than business departments. It's only been within the last 10-to-15 years that marketers have really had access to this deeper pool of data on customers.

"Direct marketing really has not been taught in a meaningful way, despite it being a well-established means of creating value for organizations for decades," Pearson continues. "Schools teach the four Ps [traditionally product, price, place, promotion], the three Cs [content, community and commerce], but never the dark, dirty side, which was the DM side. You learned about it by entering the industry and becoming a practitioner."

Meredith's Brown agrees. "It's better to be in the arena, as opposed to the academic world standing outside and looking in," he says. "My sense of the academic arena is that it should be just a little behind what is happening on the frontline. The marketing arena is changing so fast right now. Social and mobile best practices are being created as we speak."

So where does one find them? Kaplan Thaler's Flamberg recalls locating one creative type "in an obscure art school in Vancouver." Another wasn't cut out for being an analyst at Goldman Sachs and moved into the marketing world. And a third joined the company from Bell Labs.

The good news, Flamberg says, is that there is still some shine on the advertising industry. "There are a lot of kids coming to New York who want to break into advertising."

Brown suggests looking at candidates who come out of a subscription marketing business. "If you know how to acquire, retain or win back a subscriber, you can apply that to any other marketing model," he says. "Marketing comes down to acquisition, retention or winback."

Brown says social channels such as LinkedIn have their place—but they also have limitations. Companies can use LinkedIn to "quickly identify long list and short list candidates for any position," he notes. But companies that solely rely on LinkedIn and its ilk can miss qualified candidates, especially when it comes to recruiting certain types of individuals.

"I don't think they're good for mavericks, and the agency world needs mavericks," he says. "When clients come to agencies they don't want the same level of thinking. They want different thinking, innovative thinking, and mavericks are really important. I hope mavericks still find a way into our business, and find our business interesting.

"I remember interviewing someone who sat in a missile silo for three years," Brown says. "That was interesting because it took a lot of discipline and control. He then explained how he applied imagination into being a missile silo commander. It was all about maintaining your sanity. In the agency world sanity is important, because with all the pressures we are under it is easy to need help in that area."

What position was the commander applying for? Account management. And for what it's worth, Brown ended up not hiring that applicant.

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