Hiring internally versus externally: Which is the best way to cultivate talent?

Large organisations that have traditionally recruited marketers from within are realising they need the new skill sets external candidates bring, but there is still value in organisational knowledge and opportunities for marketers looking to rise through the ranks.

internal versus external

Marketers have tended to attract the reputation of being somewhat flighty souls. It has variously been estimated that the average tenure of a marketing director is around 15 to 18 months. But this generalisation hides the fact that many marketers enjoy long tenures, working their way up through the ranks, supported by a culture of career development and a policy of internal recruitment.

The stalwarts of internal recruitment tend to be the blue-chip corporates like Procter & Gamble (P&G), Unilever, Mars and Mondelēz. The sheer size of these companies and variety of roles available means marketers hardly ever need ‘leave home’ to scratch the itch of a fresh challenge.

For the companies themselves, there are some clear advantages to fishing in the internal pool. Three quarters (75%) of internal recruits are successful in their new roles and 47% stay for three years or more, according to research from Reed Global. Because internal recruits already know the culture, they ‘get’ the operation. A natural affinity and understanding of the brand is a money-can’t-buy attribute in a prospective marketing candidate.

But P&G, which for years would only promote from within, said in 2016 that it would increasingly be looking externally for talent. In its 2017 annual results it revealed external hiring had quadrupled across five levels of management as it sought to “supplement internal development when and where appropriate to field the best team”, although this is still a drop in the ocean compared to the volume of recruitment it still sources internally.

Even so, is the end now coming for the career marketer, as brands realise they need an outside perspective to keep pace with changes in their markets, technology and consumer behaviour?

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Is recruiting internally still relevant?

Fiona Spooner is B2C global marketing director at the Financial Times (FT). She has been with the publisher in one capacity or another since 2003.

“There has to be a balance. If you have the right person for the right job and you’ve got people in the team with experience, others can be coached up. There isn’t a perfect mix,” she says. “We will need to change as the millennial audience comes through, though. That means accepting that people may want to move more. If they do, let’s still make sure that they have the best time while they’re here.”

There can be no doubt that there are definite pluses to promoting from within. Brand knowledge continues to be one of the most critical and yet elusive traits of successful marketers. It is important to gain a ‘feel’ for the organisation, not just from knowing guidelines and tone of voice backwards but also understanding what makes it and its people tick, what can be asked of it and what might be a step too far.

Market conditions change so quickly that some teams just can’t keep up with new skills.

Pete Markey, TSB

With marketers today wearing many hats, being able to experience all the nuts and bolts of a business helps to create CMOs that know how to operate effectively, although Spooner quips: “I sometimes have to remember not to drink the Kool-Aid.”

Pete Markey, recently promoted to CMO from marketing director at TSB, which he joined from Aviva in 2017, understands both schools of thought. He has had the chance to gain experience at a senior level across several brands and sectors, but also spent nearly seven years in four junior roles at BT and then five years in two senior roles at insurer RSA Group.

He certainly advocates career development internally but urges caution. He suggests that if organisations don’t look to a diverse range of departments when upskilling and promoting their staff, they risk creating marketers who are too narrow for the modern world.

“Most changes in marketing leadership come from when something is missing from a skills perspective,” he says. “The danger is that you haven’t trained your people in the things you haven’t got. The danger in marketing teams is that you do marketing programmes. You end up with people whose skill sets are contained within their part of the business.”

Shopping for experience

Fran Davies, Weetabix marketing director, believes that breaking out of the marketing mould, even if a senior marketing position is the ultimate goal, is vital to creating a marketer with a full range of competencies.

“At Weetabix we also encourage moves to different functions in the organisation, which we believe can help to improve marketing capability as they have a deeper understanding of the commercial needs of the business. I would encourage any budding marketer to consider a move outside of their trade for a period of time.”

Spooner adds that the FT offered enough diversity to keep her interested and her skills sharp. “I felt like I moved companies a few times because I worked on different teams, objectives and KPIs but they were all supporting the same goal. That keeps it fresh.”

Career ladder

However, it can’t all be about altruism towards staff. Markey firmly believes companies need to balance the need to resource quickly with the development of their own staff. Market conditions change so quickly that some teams just can’t keep up with the new skills demanded of them. The temptation is to outsource or hire anew.

“You’ve got to manage your talent pipeline. If a mid-sized business’s data function has earned its stripes on basic direct mail and you suddenly ask them to think about programmatic, that’s quite a leap. But you end up cheating your people out of development if you keep bringing in third parties.”

Instead, Markey suggests bringing in partners for the short term to help upskill internal resources, citing his previous work with Aviva and Merkel to improve the insurers’ data strengths. That said, development is a two-way street and marketers also need to grasp opportunities put in front of them.

Managing your career proactively

All too often it can seem as though thoughts of career progression only occur to marketers when they’re approaching senior roles and perhaps realising that some avenues are closing off due to a lack of appropriate experience. As Marketing Week outlined last year, companies are increasingly looking for more rounded individuals at CMO level.

That ‘rounding’ begins at a much earlier stage in marketers’ careers. “To lead the marketing function, you need to be able to not just ‘do marketing’, but you must be able to show marketing and business leadership skills, which can come from working across different roles internally,” Davies insists.

So are more junior marketers making the most of the opportunities current employers provide? If they’re moving on through lack of stimulation, is it because they’re failing to seek it out where they already are?

There can be an assumption that if you stay somewhere you just get promoted. You still have to work hard and spot opportunities.

Fiona Spooner, Financial Times

Perhaps internal promotion would happen more if the average British marketer were a little more proactive in their career development. According to research by Launchpad, 73% of French companies believe it is the employee’s responsibility to put themselves forward for an internal vacancy. In the UK, the figure is just 2%, as most believe it’s down to the HR department to make the first move.

“Internal promotion doesn’t just happen to you. There can be an assumption that if you stay somewhere you just get promoted. You still have to work hard and spot opportunities. I’ve put my hand up a lot and two of those times I was looking for a change elsewhere. No one in the business is looking around thinking ‘Who can I throw money at?’. It takes both sides [to progress],” Spooner asserts.

Davies adds: “A big part of that sits with the attitude of individuals themselves: ‘If it’s to be it’s up to me.’ Of those many talented people who I’ve seen land senior internal appointments within Weetabix, I’ve seen them lean in and take the lead. Taking responsibility to design and market your own career plan within your company is critical. Don’t wait to be served the promotion; own it and promote yourself.”