Want a job? Pretend you believe in ‘digital marketing’

You’re a talented, out-of-work marketer but every job ad seems to buy into the worst digital claptrap, so what do you do? Pretend you do too.

A growing army of unemployed marketers face the sizeable challenge of finding a new role in the midst of the most challenging social and economic period of the 21st century. Every trip to LinkedIn is a salutary reminder not just of how many marketers are looking for a new position, but how many very good marketers are job-hunting. And how competitive things will be this year for senior marketing positions.

I understand the relief that so many people expressed at the end of 2020. But I don’t buy the green grass philosophy currently portraying 2021 as a better, nicer alternative. It’s clearly going to be an equally tough, equally shit year. And that applies to the job market too. As tough as it already is, there will be even more talented marketers looking for employment as the months roll on.

And to make matters even worse, most candidates are discovering that not only are there a hundred very good rivals applying for the same senior marketing role, but that the job description asks some very uncomfortable initial questions of them.

A job interview is a shitty place to try and educate the organisation considering recruiting you.

The company looks great. The role appears perfect. But as the candidate reads down the list of required skills, anyone with proper marketing knowledge will wince and then shake their head in despair.

The role asks for “digital marketing” experience, even though the position itself is demonstrably a senior, general marketing positioning. There is a requirement to be able to develop a “digital marketing strategy”, suggesting that the person writing the brief is confused enough to put their tactical cart in front of their strategic horse. There is no mention of any of the broader tactical skills associated with pricing or product development. Instead, the ad asks for only communication skills and, even then, there is no mention of broader channel expertise. Just “social media marketing”.

It’s a classic career conundrum for so many senior marketers entering 2021 without a permanent role. They are senior, expert and experienced enough to know that digital is a crucial part of the playbook, but not the playbook itself. But around half the jobs they are attracted to are written by people that do not know this, and who are actively looking for “digital marketers” to fill “marketing manager” roles.

A job interview is a shitty place to try and educate the organisation considering recruiting you. Softly, softly catchy the career monkey. So my sincere advice is to go against your best instincts during the recruitment process and then, with job secured and feet under table, attempt to right the ship with some strategic heft and proper marketing knowledge.

Having a ‘career strategy’ means brutally examining your situation

To put it more bluntly: if you are a proper marketer, your brain might answer a recruitment question correctly but you will consequently lose the role to a lesser marketer. So, ignore the technically correct answer and go with the vocationally prudent one instead.

To help prepare you for the arduous and slightly disingenuous days ahead, let’s work through some career coaching together. I am going to pose some typical dumbass marketing recruitment questions and then show you the correct answer – the one that will lose you the job – and then the prudent answer that ticks all the boxes and gets you through the door.

Ready? Please take a seat.

 Q: Did you get here ok?

Correct answer: Parking is murder round here but I found the office no problem. Thanks.

Prudent answer: Using Google Maps, especially with the new Street View functionality, everything so easy! I just love the intuitive way the code guides you to your location.

Q: As you know, the role of senior marketing manager at Acme will require someone who can develop and then execute a digital marketing strategy. Is this something that you have experience of?

Correct answer: No, because if I ever develop a “digital marketing strategy” I clearly have no idea what I am doing.   For starters, the digital prefix is inherently tactical in nature and execution.

Don’t get me wrong – I am completely familiar with the various digital tactics and what they can and can’t do. They add considerably to my tactical arsenal. But before I get to that stage in my planning process, I am going to focus on marketing strategy and that does not need any digital prefix.

What it needs is clarity and choicefulness on the key strategic questions that Acme faces. Specifically, who are we targeting? What is our position to those targets? And an explicit focus on objective setting. Only then would I be thinking about digital as part of my overall tactical approach.

Prudent answer: Yes, of course. I think a digital marketing strategy is at the core of every successful company these days. It’s about being digital first. Marketing has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 50. As a digital native I see those changes first hand. I know the old approaches to marketing are dead. Dead!

Redundancy Chronicles: Focus on the here and now

Q: A big part of the role will involve social media marketing and developing the kind of content that creates a dialogue with our customer base. We see this as the big part of Acme’s marketing challenge. Do you feel ready to manage that kind of work?

Correct answer: 2008 called, they want their clichés back. Anyone that still clings to the idea that organic social media is going to replace paid, targeted communications has missed a whole decade of effectiveness lessons.

I really want to step back from ‘social media’ and take you to digital media where we can move from naïve, organic attempts to engage consumers to a more deliberate, targeted approach to communications. Then I want to step back even further and acknowledge that even digital advertising is still only half of most companies’ ad spend.

I’d want to look at all the possible communications options – from outdoor to radio to anything. And it’s not about picking the best option. I know from my experience that blending these tools into a diverse mix will almost always give Acme way better impact than just doing ‘social media marketing’. But I would only do that once we had the targeting, positioning, objectives and rough budget in place. Because these decisions will drive the best communications channels.

Prudent answer: So ready! I look around at brands still wasting money on outdated traditional media and I despair. Marketing is no longer about talking at consumers. It’s about talking with them. Using content.

And while we are at it, these are not consumers. These are humans. I want to use content to connect with these people at a human level. I want these humans to understand Acme and its range of industrial welding products on an interactive, emotional level. And I see social media marketing as exactly the right route.

Q: On this subject, what’s your favourite ad campaign of all time?

Correct answer: It’s very hard to get past Apple’s consistent work from ’97 onwards. Steve Jobs knew exactly the strategic levers he needed to pull and was a demanding, involved client. Lee Clow and the Chiat Day team were always at the very edge of creativity but also kept the look so distinctive the work always delivered the perceptual goods. And they maximised the campaign across pretty much every media channel and held the wheel for a quarter of a century.

Mind you, it’s pointless separating Apple’s advertising from its product development, amazing approach to pricing and the astonishing distribution play that Jobs made. I think communications is one part of the tactical puzzle, a big part. But just one part.

Prudent answer: Oreo’s ‘Dunk in the Dark’ Super Bowl campaign. A single tweet that changed the world.

Q: One of the most important traits we look for in our marketers is agility. How agile are you?

Correct answer: I appreciate the need to have flex between the strategy and the eventual execution. I don’t think any strategic plan ends up being run exactly as intended. And if we have learned anything from 2020 it is that we have to be agile in the face of gigantic events.

But so often I see agility as an excuse for no strategy. For no planning. It becomes a big mess of hot desking, bananas org charts and a complete lack of long-term direction. I am agile to a point. But I am strategic too. And you definitely want me to be both.

Prudent answer: Super fucking agile. They used to call me ‘The Cat’ in my last role because I was so fluid and ephemeral. I still see companies developing annual plans – annual?! I literally don’t know what I will do next week never mind next year. I plan on a daily basis. Always changing direction. Always responding in real time to the changes in the market. The only consistency is my complete lack of consistency. Today’s key insight is tomorrow’s limitation. Show me a scrum and I’m happy. Or am I?

Q: As you know, our CMO is very big on insights. She is especially keen on social listening, big data and then using AI to make sense of it all and come out with a total 360-degree view of the market. Is that the kind of approach you see yourself fitting into?

Correct answer: No. I already had my doubts about your CMO and that question just made me even more uncomfortable. She sounds like so many CMOs that talk a good game in the marketing media but cannot find their ass with either hand when it comes to doing the job.

Social listening is a very cool, very unrepresentative real-time barometer of brand sentiment that you should look at but it should never be more than 5% of your insight pool at a company as big as Acme. Big data is mostly a big old pile of BS and most people know it. You always want good, robust quant data but don’t underestimate small data. Get your ass out of the office and into the market to hang out with consumers. Talk to front line teams. See the consumers and your products in the only spaces that matter: the sites of purchase and consumption.

And AI? Spare me. It just means a computer program. We need an app that turns every marketing reference to ‘AI’ into ‘computer program’. But then people like your CMO would be unhappy. Because they use concepts like AI to sound smart and futuristic not because they have the faintest clue what it means or how to go about making any of it actually happen.

Prudent answer: Massive fit. I think if we can apply artificial intelligence to the big data that comes from social listening we can understand everything. I see no need for any other form of research. It’s about turning insights into action in real time.

Q: Where do you stand on personalisation? At Acme we are spending a lot of our marketing money moving in that direction.

Correct answer: It’s mostly overstated bullshit that’s shat out at a lot of marketing conferences but fails completely in the field. For starters, we know there is more power in mass marketing than we might have once believed. Don’t get me wrong, I like to target specific consumer segments for the bottom-of-the-funnel performance marketing stage. But half of Acme’s marketing spend should go on long-term, brand-based, non-targeted communications. You can afford it and, over a few years, the impact will be spectacular.

Personalisation has literally no role here. I want the target consumers to think that they and everyone else are seeing the same thing. And even when we get to the lower, performance marketing half of the funnel, I am very cynical about the practical potential of personalisation. Most objective critics point out that, unless you have access to gigantic first person data, most personalisation approaches struggle to discern your age or gender never mind all the hyper-precise bullshit we are sold during fictional marketing presentations from people with a massive hard-on for a future that will probably never transpire.

Prudent answer: As we move into an increasingly connected and switched-on digital age, personalisation is all-powerful. A million consumers mean a million consumer journeys. Acme needs to know each one and be able to optimise each of them in real time. I do not look at Acme’s customer base as a single mass group. I just see thousands of attractive, expectant faces. Each is looking up at me. Each is saying: “Understand me”, “Touch me”. “In a digital way.” And that’s exactly what I will do. One consumer at a time.

Q: Who is your marketing hero?

Correct answer: The consumer. I think we are a humble discipline. We serve the market and our role is to respect and learn from them. Rather than gurus and experts, the best place for marketers to learn is from the consumer. I make them my heroes.

Prudent answer: Gary Vaynerchuck. He is a visionary on so many marketing topics and also a personal inspiration. I remember him once saying: “The biggest thing I can tell you is that you have to make as much content as possible.” Profound.

Q: Wonderful. Do you have any questions for us?

Correct answer: [Ask something you looked up on Google that you know they know you know they cannot answer, but which indicates your interest and expertise. Something like:

The company has been engaged in a lot of brand extensions over the past 18 months with Acme Engines and Acme Rotors. The initial market data suggest a very slow uptake and your COO is already talking about shutting things down. Acme steadfastly avoided any co-branding activity, which I would have guessed could have been a safer, less capital-intensive and more successful diversification approach? What stopped you from taking that path?

Prudent answer: Do I have 5G in my office?