Social experts and digital specialists: The state of the marketing jobs market

With brands on the hunt for ‘digital natives’ and the focus very much on harder skills in digital, data, social and ecommerce, what do marketers need to do to prepare?

InterviewEmployment has taken a severe hit since the onset of the pandemic, with roles in marketing in no way immune as many companies concluded marketing was nice to have rather than essential.

Marketing budgets were slashed and many brands shifted spend to digital media as consumers were forced to stay at home. All this means that in addition to there being fewer jobs in marketing, those that are on the table seem to skew heavily towards digital.

In fact, digital marketing jobs were some of the fastest growing in the UK last year, according to data from LinkedIn, which shows a 52% rise in demand for such roles. The focus is very much on “innovative alternatives” to traditional marketing, it says, with these types of roles attracting a younger demographic with an average age of 28.

Looking at the specific skills that are increasing in demand most rapidly, eight of the top 10 are related to digital and data. Paid social media has increased by 116% over the past year, followed by ad serving (85%), analytics (46%) and social media advertising (46%).

Steep rise in demand for marketers with digital skills

So what does this mean for senior marketers going forward? Ritson highlighted the problem in a recent article, suggesting out-of-work marketers need to pretend they believe in ‘digital marketing’ if they have any hope of securing a job.

This staunch focus on digital means brands are looking for marketers to not only have a general understanding of harder skills relating to digital, data, ecommerce and social, but to be fully proficient.

Joel Barnett, managing director of recruitment firm Fortune Hill, says: “The reality is, if you can’t talk with substance about the digital aspect of the marketing mix, you’re going to find it very hard to get a good job.”

Put bluntly, he says without these digital skills, former CMOs will find it very difficult to be appointed as CMO now.

“We are seeing a few instances where people have taken a number two job in effect, and gone in as a ‘CMO minus one’ to get that digital company exposure and learn, with a view that it is going to be much easier for them to go back to where they were in terms of position within the organisation once they can give a much more credible understanding of digital in an interview,” he adds.

You’ve got to be really careful if using the term ‘digital native’ as a business that you’re actually not opening yourselves up for anti-discriminatory action.

Joel Barnett, Fortune Hill

While ‘first in, first out’ might have been the mantra for some businesses looking to reduce headcount, Rebecca Moore, manager at Michael Page, says where redundancies have been made in marketing, it’s often the more senior, higher paid roles that have been cut first.

“If companies were needing to cut costs it was probably more focused on stripping those senior leadership positions out,” she says. “It wasn’t always the case, but that’s what some companies were doing – getting rid of those hefty salaries and upskilling those coming through the ranks.”

While Barnett believes brands still recognise the value of broader marketing and brand strategy, he says the skills most in demand do relate to digital and data, which supports the LinkedIn data.

“When companies are allocating more budget to digital media, they are going to be looking for experts in that space. And increasingly because companies are under financial pressure they are looking at in-housing some of the stuff they would previously have outsourced to agency partners,” he says.

This rise in demand for marketers with harder digital skills is something recruiters across the marketing sector have witnessed in recent years, but something that has accelerated over the past 10 months.

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

“It is definitely a sign of the times that nearly every marketing role now has an element of digital or social media to it, and businesses across the board are looking to increase or include their digital marketing or ecommerce offering,” says Danielle Lavin, senior consultant at Ball and Hoolahan.

“A lot of marketers have worked their way up the ladder as all-rounders, working on a 360-degree model. Depending on the size of the company, the more senior the role, the less hands-on they tend to be, so they have had social media, digital and ecommerce executives or agencies to delegate to and pick up on these elements of the responsibilities.

“But with marketing budgets currently being cut and teams becoming leaner, this is where you see the call for senior marketing professionals to take a step back to being involved in all aspects of the marketing process,” she adds.

marketing influence CMOThe level of digital skill marketers need does depend on the size of the business, though, Moore suggests.

“Where you’ve got smaller, leaner structures [marketers] are probably going to be more technically digital and hands-on. Where you’ve got bigger teams, typically marketers need to have a really good understanding of where digital sits within the strategy and they need to be able to manage digital agencies or manage someone on their team who is a digital specialist, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be an absolute expert.”

It’s not just marketers that are being required to brush up on digital and ecommerce, according to David Nobbs partner and head of consumer at Grace Blue Partnership, who says CEOs as much as CMOs now need to ensure they have a good understanding.

“Being buzzword proficient is one thing, but truly understanding those customer journeys across all the different digital customer points is becoming critical because that determines the success or failure of businesses,” he says.

Using food as an example, he says businesses that may have supplied to restaurants prior to the pandemic have moved to a more customer-focused, direct-to-consumer proposition overnight, whether that’s building direct channels or repackaging products.

“You just can’t rely on hiring a person who is a digital expert to be able to do that, you’ve got to be able to think of the whole strategy across all facets of the business, because it’s all interconnected across the supply chain, from product manufacture through to the customer’s door,” he says.

“I’m not saying every CMO needs to be a digital director, but they need to have a much better understanding of the full marketing mix in order to be able to pivot themselves throughout that start-stop environment.”

Discriminatory nature of terms like ‘digital native’

Brands need to be careful when it comes to recruiting that they don’t use terms like ‘digital native’ – anecdotally something marketers have seen more of – as this could rule out a whole swathe of people who can’t technically be digital natives given their age.

“By using that term you risk coming across as discriminatory,” Barnett says. “If you started your career before [Facebook and YouTube became prominent], it’s hard to define yourself as a digital native. The internet has been prevalent in consumers’ lives since just before the turn of the century, but before that all media was offline. You could argue you’re a digital native if you started work before 2000, but typically what companies mean when they say digital native is somebody who grew up in a largely digital world.”

He suggests most companies actually mean they want someone with a deeply evolved understanding of digital business.

The gravitas and knowledge that comes from spending time in the industry and working your way up organically is not something that a lot of digital specialists will have.

Danielle Lavin, Ball and Hoolahan

Nobbs agrees, recalling a number of clients over the past 15 years wanting to hire “a young highflyer, someone who’s digital”, adding “it’s usually younger, entrepreneurial business leaders who will say that”.

While he listens to these requests from clients, he always challenges them. “I remember a big sports rights organisation saying they wanted someone ‘a bit like us’ – they had two chief execs who were in their 30s. The person I appointed was 54 and actually he had more energy and did triathlons for breakfast… He had the right expertise, he understood digital for sure. Was he a digital native? Well, it depends how you define it.”

Nobbs also warns that someone who has grown up entirely focused on digital “often has blindspots around brand”.

“I wouldn’t use the phrase digital native in a brief or an advert. [To me] it’s someone who gets digital in addition to having broader expertise,” he adds.

By focusing their attention on the need for a ‘digital native’, companies also risk missing out on the expertise and skills more senior marketers can bring to the table.

Lavin says in most cases mainstream social media and digital marketing hasn’t been around long enough for there to be senior level people in these roles.

“The gravitas and knowledge that comes from spending time in the industry and working your way up organically is not something that a lot of digital specialists will have, so there is definitely still a call for senior marketers that are willing to be agile, flexible and adaptable to avoid being ‘left on the shelf’,” she adds.

Senior marketers shouldn’t be at a disadvantage

Despite the increased focus on digital skills, Barnett says senior marketers, who given their experience tend to be older, shouldn’t automatically be at a disadvantage.

“It’s a fallacy to state that younger people know more about the digital world than older people,” he suggests. “There is the reality that if it’s all you’ve ever known then you’ve got nothing to compare it to, but I know a huge numbers of people who have done an enormous amount of work to self-educate, have taken reverse mentoring and spent a lot of time with customers and tech functions within their business to evolve their understanding.”

He references Adidas’s vice-president of marketing Roy Gardner who is included in Fortune Hill’s book ‘Excerpts From Experts: Marketing’. “[Gardner] says to remember that the answer to every question is not prefixed with the word digital. There is a lot more to marketing than what shows up online and through social channels.”

It’s also not unattainable for senior marketers to learn these skills and be in as good a position from a recruitment perspective as someone who has been involved in digital marketing for much longer given the past pace of change.

“Things are happening so fast and people are constantly having to get to grips with [changes and updates],” says John Hunter, senior consultant at Fortune Hill. “If you’ve worked in digital businesses for the past decade or so it’s not necessarily the case that you will have a better digital skillset than someone who has just done digital for the past few years. You’ll have a comparable understanding of what’s currently happening.

“A lot of people think they can’t compete with someone who’s got decades of experience, but actually a lot of that experience is now redundant, it’s not relevant in this day and age.”