What is it going to take to hire marketers outside category?

In part 1 of this CMO special in-depth series, we explore the ongoing bias against senior marketers being considered for roles in new categories and industry sectors

It was when Jane Merrick completed her last role in superannuation and began seeking a senior marketing position within the technology space that she realised she in a category quandary.

“I started to look at roles within financial services, but during this process I realised the majority felt similar to those I had done before - similar environments and similar challenges, and I was looking for a new challenge to sink my teeth into,” she tells CMO. “I decided it was a great opportunity for me to move out of traditional financial services and into a global technology SaaS organisation. Technology is at the forefront of fast-paced and innovative thinking and looked like a great industry to be part of.”

As a seasoned marketing professional with more than 20 years’ experience, stretching from American Express to IAG, Vodafone and Rest Super, Merrick has operated across multiple industries, with an emphasis on financial services and B2C marketing. Yet despite her appetite for change, what she discovered was the technology sector wasn’t as ready to accept her as she was ready to accept them.

“Within the technology sector, and specifically within SaaS organisations, it was difficult to communicate the ability to translate skills from traditional platforms to a different environment,” Merrick recalls. “I found they wanted people with experience in SaaS or other tech-led organisations rather than more traditional platforms.”

A similarly jarring experience awaited Jayne Andrews when she sought to shift out of the travel industry after six years with Carnival Cruise Lines in Australia and two years in the US and relocate back to the UK.

“Despite the fact I had 15 years’ experience working across a range of brands/sectors prior to Carnival Cruise Line, I feel I have now been pigeon-holed as a travel/cruise marketer,” she says. “But I still consider myself a generalist marketer by trade, not a cruise industry person.”

Prior to Carnival Cruise Line, Andrews spent several years agency-side on brands as diverse as Tesco Clubcard, O2, T-Mobile and the Department of Health’s safe sex and teenage pregnancy programs in the UK, along with Vodafone, Foxtel, Arnott’s, Bankwest, RSVP, Unicef and NRMA in Australia.

“Much of my career has been in direct and digital, and more recently in a brand leadership role,” Andrews says. “Fundamentally, I know how to sell product and ideas - whether this is a product on a shelf, a subscription or a behavioural change, like the safe sex campaign.”

Common feedback Andrews received was that she lacked retail experience. That was a surprise to a marketer who had helped Carnival chalk up $20.8 billion in consumer revenue in 2019.

“I have been for interviews where I've been told I don't have enough retail experience or promotional experience to sell pet food or gym subscriptions. Creating a promotional calendar for selling cruises isn't that different to identifying seasonal patterns for other product purchases - it's about pricing, packages, seasonal and cultural triggers,” she argues. “One look at the Carnival website and it is pretty clear it's all about promotions.” 

Another criticism was a lack of ‘digital’ expertise. “What do people think marketers do now? Everything is digital,” Andrews says.

“I have managed CRM, loyalty, digital media, website content, booking engines, ecommerce and promotions, managed the social media team and influencers - the lot.”

As a marketer, Yvette Costi has built her career by harnessing three native skills: Problem solving, direct communication and the ability to get people to trust her. Yet like Andrews and Merrick, she’s had firsthand experience of being disregarded for new category roles at the end of 2021.

“I reached out to key recruiters to set up initial meetings and was shocked to hear the phrase ‘oh they are unlikely to consider someone outside of their category’ as a response to my interest in certain roles,” Costi shared in her blog post on the subject. “At first, I thought perhaps it was just a result of poor, lazy recruitment.

“But while some of the recruiters working on high-profile briefs clearly just wanted the commission and to move onto the next role, it felt like it was more than that.”  

What’s stopping companies hiring marketers out of category

This trio of women are not alone. While CMO has reported on senior marketers successfully making the transition from one category to another, this is not the common experience.

In canvassing expert opinions on whether Australian organisations are getting more or less conservative in their hiring practices for senior marketing managers and leaders, the resounding response was they remain stubbornly blinkered on candidates out of industry sector or category. Some exceptions exist – not-for-profit and public sector sprang up. But in the main, hiring outside category is perceived to have a higher risk profile many companies aren’t comfortable taking up.

It's an unusual situation to say the least, when you think about the rapid changes and digital disruptions many sectors are experiencing, and the need to find differentiated and competitive advantage. It also lies in stark contradiction to broader discussions around diversity. Turns out, ‘diversity and inclusion’ orients around gender or race, rather than ‘diversity of thought’ springing from distinctly different category and sector experience.

“Australian companies tend to be risk averse when it comes to recruiting outside of the category they operate in,” Six Degrees Executive manager of consumer marketing and executive, Ivor Lloyd-Rees, tells CMO. “International candidates are often baffled by this as it’s common practice in Europe, UK, and US for companies to recruit candidates from other categories and sectors.

“It’s common for clients to want their new recruit to ‘hit the ground running’, with the perception that there is less support and training involved for someone who has done a similar role in a similar business.”

Lloyd-Rees highlights FMCG, SaaS/technology and professional services as particular offenders.

“Hiring managers often play it safe by focusing on candidates from direct competitors or companies perceived to be the best in their field. But this often limits diversity, especially diversity of thought,” he says. “Forward-thinking clients are usually better equipped, prepared and open to looking for talent with the right capabilities, rather than more of the same.”

Michael Page Australia director, Laura Holden, also sees clients in the private sector continuing to request industry experience for senior-level appointments. “They tend to want competitive insights, candidates that understand their brands and audiences. We do, however, regularly challenge this and encourage diversity,” she says. 

An exception is public sector, which has demonstrated a real shift in diversity hiring in recent years. “Generally, they understand the benefit of creating teams from different backgrounds as they can all bring something different to the table,” Holden says.

“The pressures of Covid has seen a surge in recruitment across public sector and healthcare, and no doubt that would have encouraged managers to look outside the same industry. That may have a ripple effect in the private space, as we are operating in a candidate short market in mid to management level. If that pushes up to CMO level, then it will create opportunities as well.” 

Holden puts such reticence down to fears of the time it takes to bring people up to speed. This is especially the case when Australia’s private sector continues to swim in a boiling pot of candidate movement, existing teams under pressure and inadequate resourcing.

“If you are bringing someone in at the top, clients are all looking for a leader and want them up and running straight away,” she says. “If you come from outside category, there is a bit of time to take to get up to speed on the brand.

“And with the great resignation looming, you want to keep everyone in the team happy and harmonious. If you have a CMO or head of /director taking longer to get to grips with things, it could be detrimental to the rest of the team.”

Fostering an appetite for change

Michele Phillips is a former marketing leader and now executive recruitment partner at 100 Percent Partners. She’s had direct experience with clients seeking different industry experience and notes a well-known FMCG seeking a global CMO with B2C digital experience as a recent example.

“Typically, FMCG is not strong on B2C CRM. So we supplemented our search in other industries like retail, financial services and education; we then placed a CMO who had worked in the education sector, which is all about building direct relationships with students,” she explains.

Phillips also points to companies in B2B like professional services, health or industrials occasionally seeking marketers with FMCG backgrounds because they bring a strong understanding of customer segmentation and target marketing. Yet, in many instances, companies hire narrowly.

“This may be driven by the nature of the role, or the skills in the team,” Phiilips says. “In FMCG, the CMO leads a team responsible for product innovation, a P&L and working closely with manufacturing and supermarkets. If the company has junior marketers who need coaching and development, the company may be concerned to appoint a CMO who does not have the right skills to coach their teams.

“So sometimes, the skillsets of the existing team, nature of the competition or financial position of the company constrains the company and they hire narrowly. For example, if a company is having a tough time financially, they are more likely to hire someone with category expertise, who is able to act fast, assess their team and correct which way the ship is sailing; you don't have time for a leader to learn new things.

“On the other hand, if the company has a strong market position and is growing, they may be looking to go into different strategic directions and value different backgrounds.”

Being brave

Cambell Holt is the former chief customer, digital and marketing officer of financial services player, Mercer. Over his eight-year tenure, he often hired people from outside category.

“To hire from outside sector in many cases does require an above-average level of courage on the part of the hiring manager,” he says. “What drives that courage is interesting too – is it commitment to doing things differently in their business? If not, I wonder why they are in the role they are in. In any sector today, you’re looking for competitive advantage and differentiation. Unless you are in a new category, you will be scratching around.”

That’s particularly true in mature categories, Holt argues, when you’re trying to work out where differentiation and sustainable competitive advantage are going to come from.

“Because it’s not going to come from what we have been doing for the past 10 years,” he says. “Nevertheless, there genuinely is a perception that there’s asymmetrical decision in the hiring decision, which is whether you believe a person will be able to swim in this industry.

“Leaders who do hire outside sector or industry are often well established in the business they are working in, or they’re confident with the level of capability that exists below the level of role they are hiring for. There is a solid team supporting this leader I’m making a hiring decision on, therefore I’m more confident to take on that less ‘rewarding’ profile that comes with it. The other scenario is that leader is being very strategic in the capability build they’re trying to affect.”

If I’d just hired within sector, I was just going to get more of the same. I was desperate for capability, not mediocrity

Cambell Holt

The latter what Holt’s hiring imperative at Mercer. “Financial services customer experiences gets a pretty bad rap, but the scale of customer experience needed to be delivered in the sector is enormous and largely unprecedented. That makes financial services CX really hard. Not many industries have to do CX at a scale like that,” he says.

“If I’d just hired within sector, I was just going to get more of the same. I was desperate for capability, not mediocrity.”

As well as Mercer’s growing need to do things differently, what helped Holt buck the trend was feeling well-established in the organisation in terms of his own leadership.

“I had clout and influence, which drove my ability to extend out the hiring to out of category,” he says. “And 80-90 per cent of the time, the decision was vindicated by the performance of the candidates that joined the business.”

Holt isn’t the common example, though. The perceived personal risk to the hirer is a huge consideration when you’re talking about leaders hiring CMOs, or CMOs hiring mid- to senior-level people into their function.

“There’s always a natural bias to seeking a lower-risk outcome. Unless you fit one of those three categories I described: You are well established in the organisation, which means your willingness to take on more personal risk doesn’t feel as existential; or the hiring manager is confident with the capability sitting below the roles that it alters that personal risk equation; or they’re genuinely have a fire under their feet and change outweighs any perception of personal risk in hiring decisions,” Holt admits.  

Of course, being brave can come with mistakes, and Holt admits times when people just can’t swim in a different sector. “It’s not for want of trying or genuine interest. But it can be the case that it’s oil and water,” he says. 

Up next: What it takes to reposition diversity to promote alternative experiences, plus macro trends driving a change in Australia's marketing management hiring practices

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