The benefits of being an outsider: Why brands are hiring marketers with no sector experience
Many job ads make sector experience a prerequisite, but hiring an outsider is a powerful way to bring new thinking to a brand’s problems.
The consumer landscape is evolving at a faster rate than ever before, with more brands competing for people’s attention across an increasing number of channels, so running the same old marketing campaigns will no longer cut it. To make an impact and leave a lasting impression brands need to approach things differently.
One way to spark those new ideas is to hire a marketer with no experience of a particular sector – an outsider.
While it’s common for brands to seek previous experience in their sector and the accompanying knowledge of what drives the market, marketing is a highly transferable skill. There’s no reason why someone trained in FMCG or travel can’t take what they’ve learned and apply it to retail or finance.
There are far fewer boundaries between sectors today: if consumers get a first-class experience from one brand they will expect all other brands to offer the same level of service, regardless of whether it’s a retailer, a bank or a travel agent. By bringing in people who think differently from the norm in their category, brands get exposure to best practice that can help them stand apart from competitors.
Having worked across healthcare, tobacco, soft drinks and biscuits, Annabel Venner – who is now global brand director at insurance firm Hiscox – says not only has experience in multiple sectors made her “a much more rounded marketer”, it has also been hugely beneficial for the brands she has worked at. She says it makes her able to shake things up and bring a new way of doing things.
You can get bogged down in attempting to turn yourself into a sector expert as opposed to bringing your functional expertise
Michelle McEttrick, Tesco
“You can bring an awful lot of experience with you that they might not have within that business internally,” she says.”It just opens your eyes to different ways of doing things.”
She warns brands against thinking about things from a sector perspective and instead encourages her team at Hiscox to look at best practice across all categories, not just in financial services.
“It would be very rare for anyone here to say ‘well that’s how we do it in insurance’. A lot of the teams will go out and attend marketing conferences and look externally to see what is going on.”
That way they come back with new ideas that can be interpreted for Hiscox’s audience. “You can see that through our marketing as a lot of it isn’t the same as other insurance companies,” she adds.
Like Venner, Michelle McEttrick had never worked in retail before joining Tesco as group brand director in early 2015, but that’s exactly why she was hired.
Her appointment came shortly after Tesco reported a £6.3bn loss. With its brand trust rapidly eroding the supermarket giant knew it had to think differently to turn things around, and so specifically wanted someone with brand expertise rather than retail knowledge.
Her previous role was as managing director of group brand and marketing at Barclays, and the combination of an outsider’s perspective working alongside those with a deep knowledge of Tesco has been critical to turning the business around.
“As you become more senior you have multiple experiences that you can draw from in order to predict any given situation, and I think having experiences in multiple sectors gives you a broader base in that sense,“ she says.
Some marketers specifically seek out opportunities in different sectors so they can overcome new challenges and learn different skills.
Sacha Clark, who worked at Subway, Intercontinental Hotels Group and Carphone Warehouse before taking on her current role as a contractor at travel rewards business Avios, says moving between sectors has not only broadened her skillset but increased her confidence as a marketer.
“There are certain points in my career where I found I needed to make a move because I was starting to stagnate,” she says. “I felt like I was proficient and experienced and excelling at what I did, but I wasn’t adding to my skillset and that was part of the motivation to jump across and experience a different sector.”
She says experiencing different business cultures has also helped her refine her personal style, learn some essential leadership skills and improve her adaptability and resilience as well. “I’ve then been able to bring those different cultures into each of the teams as I’ve moved to,” she adds.
Likewise, Belinda Moore has worked across a number of sectors, including FMCG, healthcare, travel and most recently in utilities as director of marketing and communications at energy brand E.ON. Seeking out disruption has been a key factor in all her moves.
“I like to go into sectors or businesses that are going through a big change programme,” she says. “Some of that might be going into new markets with my FMCG background, or more recently going into sectors that are changing their approach. I like to learn things about different industries and the way customers react to different sectors.”
READ MORE: One marketer on the value of bringing an ‘FMCG mindset’ to healthcare and utilities
Moving between sectors can be daunting, though. Not only will there be new processes and ways of working to get familiar with, marketers also have to learn about a new category while trying to engage an established team that will know more about the sector than they do.
Venner says: “You need to spend the first couple of months being inquisitive, asking questions, being challenging. Only after that can you make a plan of what you need to do.“
Just because the sector is unfamiliar doesn’t mean marketers should assume everything the existing team is doing is right, she warns. But likewise, even if a marketer is brought in to offer a fresh perspective they shouldn’t automatically think the people already in place have been getting it all wrong.
Moore adds: “Usually when you hire someone externally you do want them to have a new way of looking at things so it’s also important to not just say, ‘well that’s the way they do it around here, so that’s the way I am going to do it too’.”
She urges senior marketers coming in to unfamiliar categories to ask the “daft” questions. “I would much rather say upfront ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘can you explain that to me again?’, otherwise you will find yourself a few months down the line having to own up to not knowing and then I think you would feel a little bit more exposed.”
Equally she says it’s important to show your worth early on. “Be very clear what strengths you’ve got and what you’re bringing to a new organisation so you can think about how you use those strengths quite quickly to demonstrate value.”
Value of industry experts
By contrast, Birds Eye CMO Steve Challouma, who has worked for the brand for almost two decades under three different owners, argues that while moving between sectors provides marketers with a variety of experiences, staying in the same sector can bring with it a depth of knowledge that can’t be matched.
He explains: “If you stick with a brand you become a real industry expert and build a closeness with your category and your brand. I feel like I know our product deeply – every micro-change over the years in fish fingers I remember, including what has worked and what hasn’t.”
Challouma argues that despite working on one brand for the majority of his career, he has worked across different divisions, product groups and under different owners, meaning it is possible to experience a range of different environments while working on the same brand.
“Though I’ve worked on one brand I have worked within Unilever for 10 years, private equity for eight years and now a US-listed company for the past three years.
“There have been different strategies, different cultures, different leadership [styles] through those periods of change, [but it] has been very energising and interesting.”
Consultant Andrew Marsden, who worked at Unilever, Danone and Britvic over three decades as a marketer, agrees sector-specific knowledge should not be underestimated: “It is relatively straightforward to understand the financial size of the business but what’s not clear is the real subtleties of the consumer behaviour you need to understand in order to find something new and move the strategy on,” he says.
However, he believes marketers get a better wealth of experience by working across businesses at different stages of their life cycle rather than sectors. “You get that from working on a brand that’s well established, working on a brand that’s just been launched, working on a brand that’s not in growth,” he says.
Staying within one sector doesn’t necessarily mean it is an easy move though and doesn’t “stop the shock” of starting at a new business. While Marsden spent his client-side career in FMCG he worked on quite different products across his various roles.
Usually when you hire someone externally you do want them to have a new way of looking at things so it’s also important to not just say, ‘well that’s the way they do it around here, so that’s the way I am going to do it too’.
Belinda Moore, E.ON
“I moved from a food business to a cleaning products business… The principles [of FMCG marketing] are the same but you don’t know the new market, you don’t know how it operates, the buying structure is different, the consumer psychology is often very different,” he says.
As it takes longer to get up to speed, he believes marketers that frequently move between sectors are less likely to be promoted.
“The old adage used to be that you can move at the same level across companies and sectors but you will only be promoted within the same sector. I think that’s still absolutely true.”
Challouma agrees that marketers should be wary of constantly looking for “the next shiny new job”, particularly at the beginning of their career.
“I see marketers want to jump ship a little earlier than they should because they think they need to progress on the career ladder,” he says. “There seems to be a fear of becoming stale but if you think about how long a career lasts I find it evens out in the end. I just ask them to question why they are rushing.“
Marsden says that moving on too quickly can reflect badly on a marketer’s CV too. “If someone has moved every 12 to 18 months you think what are they really learning? So if you look at someone’s early career and they have been moving [between jobs] quickly and not really learning anything you might think they are not at as committed,” he says.
“But equally if they have been at the same company for five years, unless it’s a very large company and they’ve changed divisions and positions, then they might not have the breadth of experience you need in more senior people”.
Hiring an outsider
When hiring, marketers agree a mix of outsiders and people with sector experience will give brands the most rounded view.
However, EON’s Moore says, above all, she focuses on the individual’s journey. She says: “I don’t rule out one or the other as long as there is a very coherent story about the decisions they’ve made – why did they make them and did they deliver?
Things don’t always run smoothly and sometimes things don’t work but as long as marketers can demonstrate how they have handled the situation she’s willing to listen.
Hiscox’s Venner feels passionately that as a brand leader diversity of thought is crucial, which comes from having a blended team of industry experts and sector outsiders.
“With the team here I have got 100 marketers working across all our different business units and there will be a lot of diversity in their backgrounds depending on what roles they’ve come in to do.”
She agrees that it all depends on the role, though. “We won’t say we need someone with FMCG experience; we will say we need someone with great experience of producing impactful brand campaigns, which is different. We will look for expertise.”
Challouma agrees that people who have experience across multiple sectors are “definitely a consideration” for him when hiring.
“We look for the all-round capability that an individual would have, and part of that would be about the kind of diversity of brands that they have worked on and how they will bring interesting perspectives, but it doesn’t compensate if there is a deficit in other capabilities or skill areas.”
Ultimately, it is important to ensure that both teams and individual marketers have a blend of experiences, but there are no hard and fast rules about how that experience should be gained.
An outsider will always be able to offer new ways of thinking that perhaps people wrapped up in the business are too involved to see. But fresh perspectives can also be gained by moving between different roles within a brand and different markets within a sector, or by gathering expertise across a number of businesses at different stages of their lifecycle.
Marsden concludes: “Remember that you as an individual are a brand, so it doesn’t matter where you go; if you are in marketing you will, because of the nature of our industry, be a brand in your own right. So what’s your brand all about?“
This is similar to breaking down silos among departments. We need to recognize that everyone has unique skills and experience that can benefit others, including people they don’t work with on a day to day basis. When knowledge from every team, department, and skill group is shared, everyone is smarter. Great read, thank you.
Jennifer Marley, Sklar Wilton & Associates
I love this article Molly. It is time that some fresh-air wisdom, is injected into the relative staleness, of marketing recruitment values.
Amen! It’s called transferable skills.
Hallelujah, some common sense at last. Companies wouldn’t think twice about hiring bookkeepers outside their sector and logically there’s no reason why marketing skills should be treated any differently. When I worked client side I was less likely to appoint a creative agency with experience in my sector as ‘they knew what worked’. There was a slight difference when it came to PR because having an established relationship with the key journalists in a sector can be a positive advantage. We can all become blinkered the longer we stay in one industry so I’ve always been pro shaking it up and bringing creativity and fresh thinking from outside.
Amen! Now, tell this to the marketing recruitment industry! 😉