Mastering the right skills for today's marketing function

Experts discuss the challenges marketers face developing the right skillsets to survive in today's data and digital heavy tech space

Digital, data and technology have changed the face of marketing as a function, and triggered a seismic shift in the skills needed to be more agile and adaptable.

We speak to a raft of marketers and industry players about the critical capabilities they’re seeking out, and how to maintain relevance in a fast-evolving global landscape.

In the words of Oracle Marketing Cloud’s Asia-Pacific senior manager of strategic consulting, Christian Ludlow-Hyland, today’s modern marketers need to be part business guru, part data scientist and part disruptive customer advocate.

“In addition to understanding the adtech and martech ecosystem at a functional level, marketers also need creativity and ingenuity in using technical skills to build things and find clever solutions to problems, such as hacking,” he tells CMO.

“Customers are the heart of marketing innovation, not products or channels. Marketers need to apply aspects of consumer psychology to hypothesise then investigate how to improve customer experiences using data.”

Modern marketing, especially in tech, has become extremely analytical and numbers driven and these skills are now in high demand, says HotelQuickly CMO and co-founder, Christian Mischler.

“For performance marketing, I’m looking for people who can code and have an analytical background, more than anything else,” he said. “It’s different in partnership marketing, where a more traditional marketing skillset is required. We look for interpersonal skills to build a personal network and to successfully pitch campaigns, creativity to come up with new and out-of-the-box ideas, and stress resistance to be able to roll out a large number of campaigns and be able to deliver under time-pressure.”

Food delivery company Deliveroo’s country manager, Levi Aron, says companies such as his are looking for marketers who not only have extensive experience and great ideas, but have analytical and execution skills that are even greater.

“From Google Analytics, to understanding data sets across a wide range of social, app and ecommerce platforms, today's marketer needs to be able to digest huge amounts of info and make calculated decisions as a daily routine,” he claims.

From a digital marketing point of view, Appliances Online CEO, James Fleet, says it's key to understand the different metrics each channel offers, such as cost per acquisition and view through conversion, as well as attribution.

“This is so you can compare the performance and revenue accurately,” he says. “Planning is also important. Be clear about the definition of a conversion before you take on a channel. A conversion could be an email subscription, lead, repeat visit, a purchase or a particular engagement metric such as time on site.”

From broadcast to digital, so much marketing is geared to drive potential customers online, Fleet continues.

“Marketers need to work closely with the Web analytics teams to understand how effective each campaign has been,” he says. “Web analytics training in my opinion is key and you can get training from various agencies or of course, online.”

Yet at the same time, business management software company Promapp’s CMO, Sarah Berkowski, sees the marketer’s fundamental skill as being the ability to put themselves in their customer’s shoes. This is about objectively seeing and imagining things from the customer’s perspective in order to identify relevant issues and opportunities their offering can solve or exploit, she says.

“While data, technology and innovation are essential ingredients for marketing success, they can also work against you if your efforts are not firmly focused on solving or exploiting the issues or opportunities your target market really cares about,” she says. “Strong data analysis skills are certainly critical, but the most important skill is be able to quickly figure out the story the data is telling you, and determine if the data you’re looking at is actually relevant or useful.”

Generalist versus specialist skillsets

With such a long list of capability requirements, experts agree it is challenging for marketers to obtain the right base generalist knowledge, then stay on top of all the specialised skill sets that are now expected.

According to marketing agency Frost Collective’s strategy director, Cat Burgess, a polarisation is emerging with two types of marketer: The specialist with a niche skillset and expertise; and the generalist, who maintains a top-level view and provides cohesion across the niches.

“It’s very difficult for a generalist marketer to keep pace with the rate of change in specialised fields,” she says. “It’s better to surround yourself with a network of people who are immersed in their field and can provide the right strategic and technical advice. More than ever, we need people with strong imaginations who are prepared to take risks and see strategy as a truly visionary process, rather assigning line items to annual marketing budgets.”

Berkowski believes keeping skills relevant is even more difficult in Australia and New Zealand, where marketing roles tend to have more breadth.

“In larger organisations, such as in North America for example, you can be a more specialised marketer and still have lots of opportunities and options open to you,” she says. “But you need to know your strengths and areas of interest, and go deep on these. Then find others within or outside your business who have expertise in areas where you don’t.”

CMO of beauty subscription service Bellabox, Stephanie Michel, recalls starting her career in a big company where everyone was an expert in their own area.

“I learned a lot on both generalist and specialised skills,” she said. “But I've been working for startups for five years now and I am still developing my skills. The test-and-learn theory is valid for marketing performance but it’s the same for your skills.”

Michel says CMOs need to look above or next to them to find great sources for inspiration.

“It's not because you are not able to develop the most perfect marketing strategies in the company you currently work for – it’s that you can still get inspired by other companies and apply some principles to your own area,” she explains.

“It's a challenge as digital trends are leading more and more marketing strategies and things are changing constantly. But if you watch for those trends and you work in a dynamic environment, you should be able to keep the pace.”

At HotelQuickly, Mischler says it’s almost impossible to keep up with all areas of marketing, so there’s an emphasis on specialisations around content marketing, social media, performance marketing, marketing automation, or offline/traditional marketing.

“It’s better to be highly knowledgeable in one area and have a good understanding of all other areas, than to try to have an above-average understanding of all areas and not be an expert in any,” he says. “Personally at HotelQuickly, I’m allocating about 30 minutes per day to stay up to date with the latest trends in travel marketing across social media, content marketing, and performance marketing.

“This gives me a good overview of the trends and can assign resources to the areas where I feel we should be part of or take a leading role with HotelQuickly, and get a good understanding of the challenges that my team might be facing in their respective area. I usually share the most relevant articles with my respective team members to ensure we keep on talking the same language.”

The training evolution: Build your own

Building up the right marketing skillsets in data, technology and agility are so important to Commonwealth Bank, it has kicked off its own marketing academy to foster them.

“We’ve identified what we think are the critical areas – from the base, generalist level of knowledge we expect everyone to have, through to advanced,” Commonwealth group executive of marketing and strategy, Vittoria Shortt, says.

She points to data and analytics, and how the skills of a generalist marketer will be very different to the more specialised field of a data scientist.

“We have a framework that’s been established and we’re getting clear about these distinctions, supported by training and on-the-job programs,” she says. “For example, we’re thinking about rotations, getting people to sit alongside data teams and also thinking about how we use that framework with our partners.”

While these in-house academies will continue to arise, Ikon Communication’s head of digital, Sian Whitnall, says they’re destined to be the privilege of the large national and multinational companies.

“For these companies, there are multiple benefits that span beyond the simplicities of training,” she says. “Programs like this foster a way of thinking and create consistent output among existing employees. Externally, it also helps shape the brand and makes the company an attractive prospect for prospective employees.

“The only sticking point for me, is given the scale of these organisations, they can be unwieldy and will need to work hard to ensure the thinking within these academies doesn’t remain skin deep.”

Tactical PR’s marketing consultant, Abey Malouf, agrees large companies like Commbank can afford to take the initiative and mould a new generation of modern marketers in line with unique brand requirements.

“Companies can now tap into a wealth of online content and experts rather than rely on university programs to provide them with suitable candidates,” he says. “The effectiveness of these programs is that they’re not just ‘talk and chalk’ but rather learning by doing, or real-life marketing laboratories.

“Creating these academies is also a complex task, and a long-term strategy that makes sense only if you employ large, internal, multi-disciplinary marketing teams. But while it might be cost-effective and make sense for larger brands, it’s probably not the way to go for the vast majority of small to medium-sized companies.”

Mischler is a big believer in learning core marketing skills on the job and in the field.

“There are numerous tools to let marketers split test campaigns, which allow marketers to better understand what catches on with the target customer,” he says. “Marketing is a lot of trial and error and the higher the velocity of isolated experiments, the faster the learning process. Marketers should also sign up with industry newsletters to keep up to date with any changes that come their way, such as algorithm changes of social networks, new behavioural studies, or design trends.”

Oracle’s Ludlow-Hyland highlights issues around early stage training, noting universities have not caught up in developing comprehensive data-driven marketing degree programs. As a result, there’s a real need in the field for industry led education.

“In addition to customising training to suit the needs of the business, continuous learning can help to develop and retain talent,” he says. “Another trend to watch is the sophistication of e-learning providers. Many are now providing tailored multidisciplinary courses in consumer psychology, applied mathematics, marketing strategy as well as data science.”

But J. Walter Thompson and Webling’s group digital creative director, Jay Morgan, says more companies should be enabling internal academies and really investing in innovation.

“I also think the whole company should attend these academies and training programs,” he says. “Product and sales teams would do their jobs better if they understood how the consumer thinks, how they might have changed recently and where the data is telling you they’re going.

“These academies should also focus on developing robust brand platforms and how they translate into new opportunities through the tech and innovation. For instance, there are Instagram accounts now started by a single person that have compelling and crystal clear brand purposes that multi-billion brands don’t seem to be able to achieve. These Instagram brands grow so rapidly because they are a honey pot for consumers who crave clarity and a POV from the brands and personalities they follow.”

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