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


Repositioning diversity

Over at Merrick’s new employer, Intuit Quickbooks Australia, where she holds the position of marketing director, a more inclusive hiring practice means someone’s location or background doesn’t get in the way of attracting and hiring the best talent out there, says HR business partner for Australia, Nada Wassef.  

“Building a high-performing team is at the core of our business strategy, and we have a cohesive process that assesses candidates in the market. This process ensures our candidates match our skillset, values and craft,” Wassef says.

Nevertheless, Wassef doesn’t discount the fear that continues to exist around exploring new ways of working and is stifling many hiring practices.

“Job seekers are steering away from more traditional ways of finding the perfect role for them, and what they are looking for in a role continues to evolve, as do ways of working. In order to continue attracting the best talent, we need to meet them where they are. By not challenging the status quo, many organisations are missing out on top talent,” she says.

“Having a flexible mindset is integral to the hiring process, as is having a focus on diversity and inclusion, and the flexibility and culture that allows for hiring people anywhere.”  

To counteract this, Holt highlights the need for enhanced support and oversight when choosing to bring a candidate into a foreign environment as a necessary commitment.

“Then it’s incumbent on you to make sure you do everything you possibly can to help those people succeed,” he says. “I’ve always found there is an initial enhanced need for oversight, which translates to enhanced expenditure of my own personal energy as a leader to make sure that people succeeds. I suspect an out-of-sector hiring decision also has implications for other hiring managers, and maybe they just don’t want to expend that level of energy.

“But the payoff for doing that in terms of innovation, fresh thinking and new perspectives outweighs the disadvantages.” 

Who’s to blame?

But is it really organisations solely to blame? Or do recruiters need to be more accountable for this trend? Andrews certainly believes so.

“I fear sometimes the recruiter doesn’t want to take the time to really understand a candidate's experience,” she says. “It is just easier for them to fit like for like. There is an element of snobbery around people who have worked for a Unilever or a P&G being seen to be preferred over someone who has learnt 'on the job' or through experience, trial and error and test and learn in less 'classic industry'.”

Merrick thinks it’s both. “Often, recruiters have a very specific brief they need to meet, so as they are shortlisting the candidates who reflect the direct and industry experience the client is looking for,” she says. “It's a circular impact. This may have been more emphasised over the last couple of years due to the lack of international talent coming into the Australian market.”

In defence, Six Degrees Executive manager of marketing and sales in Queensland, Fabian Paterson, says recruiters are generally happy to consider all candidates with suitably transferrable skills and experience and don’t view other industry or category credentials as a problem.

“However, clients often specify category experience in the job brief and won’t interview shortlisted candidates that don’t meet that brief,” he says.

when it comes down to it crunching numbers and you’re under pressure, people will go back to old habits

Laura Holden, Michael Page


Michael Page tries to manage expectations on both sides of the employee and employer equation. “It’s in our best interest to find the right role for an employee and candidate for an employer,” Holden says.

“Every business is going to say they’re pro-diversity and inclusion and it can mean so many things to different people. But when it comes down to it crunching numbers and you’re under pressure, people will go back to old habits. Getting someone from category can be seen as the easier option, especially when you’re under pressure. However, we are seeing some positive change because of the added pressure of the candidate short market, and this may work in the candidate’s favour.”  

The positives of other category and industry experience

While there are no doubt hurdles, everyone CMO spoke to can see positives from an outside category hire.

“In a category, it is easily to keep getting distracted by what the competition is doing and trying to do 'similar but better' versus turning things on their head and creating something totally fresh,” Andrews comments. “When I first joined Carnival, I had never worked in travel, let alone stepped on a cruise ship. I looked at everything fresh, like a new customer/guest would.”

Within four years of being in market, Carnival had 80 per cent brand awareness and by 2017, Andrews had won Travel Marketer of Year at the Women in Travel Awards.

Group Think is a deep-rooted organisational evil. I’ve seen real value in being part of a team that comes from all walks of life, and a mix of careers

Melanie Portelli


Diversity of thought is critical to better outcomes and more innovative ways of solving problems for Melanie Portelli, another marketer who’s experienced narrow thinking as she transitioned from agency to client-side. Portelli is now head of marketing strategy and campaigns for business lending at Westpac, and has also worked for Publicis Groupe, Saatchi & Saatchi, 180 Amsterdam, Now Advertising and CHI & Partners.

“Progress, transformation and marketing awesomeness are not achieved by a bunch of folks cut from the same cloth agreeing with one another the whole time,” she says. “‘Group Think’ is a deep-rooted organisational evil. I’ve seen real value in being part of a team that comes from all walks of life, and a mix of careers. I often use the phrase ‘you don't know what you don't know’ and that really is at the heart of what we are talking about here.

“It’s not until you see a colleague's fresh approach to running a workshop, or them bringing a strategy to life, or even them working through a problem that you gain a new perspective, that you gain a new tool to add to your armoury. It's not that one way is necessarily better than the other, rather that you have a broader frame of reference for next time.”

Everyone learns different skills along the way, which are often easily transferable across different industries jobs and challenges, Merrick says. In her current team at Intuit, Merrick has people who have come from music, travel and agency.  

“We know bringing different perspectives allows various and different questions to be asked, and points of view to be included at the beginning of the challenge identification.” 

Bringing people from retail into financial services paid dividends for Holt at Mercer given the natural bias towards customer in retail. Transferring retail banking expertise into superannuation within sector but across category proved another winning combination.

 “We often talk about gender and race when we talk about diversity rather than sector experience. But that diversity of thought is key too,” Holt says. “I made this clear to one candidate I hired – you are here to be the change agent for our culture. That means it’s going to be quite scratchy, but you have my unwavering support. All I’m asking is for you to stick it out for as long as it feels scratchy because what I’m looking for from you is to effect change.”   

It’s not just disrupting the status quo either: Iterative innovation is vital for most organisations today.

“It can also be simple things like looking at language used to sell the product. Is it plain English? Is it clear to someone outside the category? Does it appeal to consumers new to the category?” Andrews asks.

“When you are not as 'familiar' with category norms, you are likely to suggest and present new, creative ways of promoting the product. Also introducing new suppliers, agencies and partners to work with. Even if a product or service is selling well, it is easy to get complacent. It is not about 'fixing things that are not broken', it can just be about enhancing, adding new test and learns, taking things to places, so the team has more tools in the toolbox and is future proofing.” 

The great resignation

Ultimately, the impetus for a change could come from outside forces. Just look at the macro trend of the ‘great resignation’ coming off the back of the pandemic. Ability to retain, motivate and drive a team remotely and in hybrid environments are vital skills right now.

“As a CMO, it’s not just about marketing anymore – it’s driving the team to success, keeping people engaged and retaining them in the face of the great resignation. That cannot be overlooked,” Holden advises. “Throughout this year, it’ll be a skill that becomes more prevalent and gains preference over category experience.

“Soft skills, the leadership piece, system knowledge, digital marketing, social media and managing these platforms – being across that or teams that have managed those places are major pluses.”

Holt is witnessing the effect of the great resignation already. “In the type of business I was accountable for running, particularly in mid-level roles, beggars can’t be choosers anymore,” he says.

“Unless you can get comfortable with the fact there is a major talent gap and skills shortage in Australia today, particularly in mid-level roles, the imperative to hire out of sector is heightened again. You will struggle to fill roles with quality people otherwise.” 

Candidates’ eyes have certainly been opened that they can do their job fairly efficiently remotely or with hybrid working. This is a positive when you consider Australia’s low unemployment rate, the dearth of mid-level marketing management skills and the need to diverse hiring in terms of geographic reach, Andrews says.

“I worked my last few weeks for Carnival in Miami from the UK. I was very efficient working on jobs I needed to concentrate on, approving work, reviewing emails when everyone in Miami was asleep. And then scheduled any meetings for when Miami team woke up. We made it work and it meant I could help the team for longer than we’d planned,” she comments.

And don’t forget this phenomenon doesn’t just exist intra-company; inter-company is another opportunity. Holt has found success taking people out of operations into marketing teams.

“Some of the most successful hires I’ve ever made were done this way: Someone who spent 10 years in finance coming into a marketing function and knocking it out of the park,” he says. “They had a perspective on the business they’d harboured for 10 years in an unrelated discipline, and that was such an advantage for the marketing team.

“There are people wanting to advance their careers but possibly not knowing or realising a shift within the company is within their reach.”

With so many companies embracing hybrid and remote working arrangements, Lloyd-Rees believes hiring sentiment is stronger and companies are more open to taking calculated risks, especially to secure marketing talent in the current candidate-driven market. As a result, he’s hopeful organisations will continue to be more willing to embrace diversity of thought and experience when hiring leaders and senior managers into their marketing, customer and digital teams.

“Companies are getting better at managing diverse teams, implementing inclusion from all levels, and avoiding the unconscious bias and stereotypes that often stand in the way of diversity ‘sticking’,” Lloyd-Rees says. “Organisations now realise the importance of creating an environment of psychological safety where they can thrive and providing aspects of inclusion and belonging to make them stay in the long term.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of CMO's special diversity in hiring report, where we'll look at how marketing chiefs can ensure out-of-category hiring success.

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