How to succeed as an interim marketer
Whether brought in to drive transformation or provide temporary cover, interim marketers only have a finite amount of time to achieve objectives so they must ensure they hit the ground running.
Starting a new job always brings with it a whole new set of challenges: new processes, a new team and new objectives. It can take several weeks, if not months, to feel properly settled.
But when taking on a new role on an interim basis time is a luxury marketers don’t have. Whether brought in to drive strategic change or provide temporary cover, the one thing interim roles all have in common is a very definite end date. Any goals have to be met in the time frame required, so hitting the ground running is a prerequisite.
“You’ve got to expect the unexpected,” says Sam Bridger, who has been an interim marketer for more than a decade, working at brands including Whitbread Restaurants and Avios. “No matter what a brief looks like, inevitably you’ll get there and find things that will throw you off course, whether it’s internal politics, a change of strategy or a team where marketing is trying to do one thing and sales is trying to do something else.
“There will always be something that you’ll have to deal with, but you have to be mindful of the fact you’ve got a very short space of time in which to do it so you’ve got to focus on the objectives you’ve been given.”
Rather than being brought in to “keep the ship steady” in someone’s absence, Bridger specialises in kick-starting change.
“I’m very focused on strategy and delivering business growth so I tend to go for the sorts of roles that have a specific challenge attached to them rather than what I call a keep-the-chair-warm role when someone’s on maternity leave,” she says.
Taking on these transformative roles can be challenging though, particularly when it comes to managing a team, and especially if the appointment has come from the top and isn’t necessarily endorsed by the CMO.
There will always be an opportunity to make your mark, to adapt plans or drive efficiencies but I was responsible for delivering against a strategy, so for me it was important to respect that.
Victoria Bell, News UK
Louise Fowler, who also specialises in turnaround projects and has worked for businesses including the Post Office and First Direct, says when this happens you can be seen as a bit of a threat.
READ MORE: The Post Office on swapping tactics for strategic transformation
“If, for example, a CEO has brought me in to review how marketing is doing, how effective it is, and you’ve got the CMO sitting there thinking ‘it’s been pretty effective, thank you very much’, you just have to be really sensitive,” she says.
In that situation being open and honest is critical. “I don’t believe in one message for one person and one for another: I tell people everything I can about what I’m doing and what I’m looking at,” she explains. “Then you listen. That helps me understand if the people involved really know what they’re doing – sometimes they just need a bit more help or guidance, sometimes the wrong people are in place – but you can’t go in with prejudged ideas.”
While Bridger agrees that managing an existing team is one of the most challenging aspects of being an interim marketer, she says it can give employees an opportunity to offload to a senior manager who doesn’t have a political or corporate agenda to follow.
“It’s an opportunity for them to address the things that may be frustrating them, holding them back or making life difficult. That’s why it is hugely important in the first couple of weeks to go around and talk to absolutely everybody and ask, ‘what’s your take on this?’.”
She says this engages employees as it “shows you value their opinion”, but it also indicates that working collaboratively is important and helps ensure the strategy that is developed works for the team as well as the business.
Given time is finite, interim marketers must also be realistic about what they’re able to deliver, and be mindful of taking on any additional tasks if it means they won’t be able to achieve their initial brief.
“There’s an awful lot of ‘while you’re here could you also’,” says Bridger. “And that’s absolutely fine because you’ll do whatever the business needs you to do, but you do need to agree how that changes the parameters of what you’ve been brought in to do: what additional resources are needed, what additional time is needed because otherwise it becomes unmanageable.”
Rob Rees, who has been an interim marketer for 20 years, working across brands as diverse as Dairy Crest, British Airways and Barclays, says it’s also worth doing a thorough assessment of a business before starting.
“You have to go in well-armed,” he says. “I would always look at publicly published information, which is more readily available these days. I’ve got friends that work in the city, so I get analysts’ reports. I’ll walk around the supermarket and do mystery shops [to see] what’s going on. What’s this business about, how does it deliver its products, are its products good, is it being promoted a lot on shelf, what’s its packaging like, does it have good advertising? I also talk to mates in agencies, who may know people who work there, and I go on LinkedIn.”
Unlike some marketers who have made a career out of being an interim, Victoria Bell was brought in as interim CMO of The Times and Sunday Times to cover maternity and has since taken on a permanent role as CMO of News UK’s News Productions business.
Bell took the interim position after being made redundant while on maternity leave herself, which she says made her more respectful of the fact that she was caretaking someone else’s job.
“We had a comprehensive handover to establish what level of contact she wanted over that period, what she wanted to be involved in, what she didn’t, so there was no doubt on either side,” she says.
“There will always be an opportunity to make your mark, to adapt plans or drive efficiencies but I was responsible for delivering against a strategy, so for me it was important to respect the role I was brought in to do.”
As well as being a stepping stone back into the corporate world after being on maternity leave, being an interim is also a great way to develop new skills, says Bell.
“My background was quite heavily in brand marketing and this gave me an opportunity to expand into CRM, customer services and performance marketing. It’s very fast paced here but it was a really enjoyable learning curve. For me, you know you’ve done a good job when they create a permanent role for you afterwards.”
No matter what a brief looks like, inevitably you’ll get there and find things that will throw you off course.
Sam Bridger, interim marketer
Rees agrees that working on an interim basis does mean marketers can build up skills at a faster rate than in a permanent role.
“I’ve been brought into [companies] for a variety of needs, but I’ve always been given a challenge: [to lead] a change agenda, a transformation, startup funding, mergers & acquisitions. There is no way I could have accumulated that amount of experience in that short amount of time [otherwise].
While at Campbell’s, for example, Rees worked on four different projects over two years in multiple locations. “I got brilliant experience and they got a brilliant servant, someone they could turn on to new projects but turn off as soon as I’d done the work.”
As an interim, marketers also have a good overview of a number of businesses and sectors, which means they are able to take learnings from one to another.
“You definitely find businesses face similar problems and challenges whatever the sector, so although the circumstances might differ and it might be a completely different sector or set of challenges, the actual issue is something you’ve probably come across before,” says Bridger.
Given some sectors tend to be relatively insular, she says it can be really useful to “bring insight from other industries and businesses to help freshen up the thinking and unblock challenges”.
Risks and rewards
Being an interim isn’t for everyone, though. There are risks involved, particularly as it means foregoing a regular income.
“It isn’t as easy as people think,” says Rees. “The flexi-day rates must cover your pension, illness, holidays – for the first five years I didn’t take a holiday because I thought it could cost me £20,000. There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says.
Bridger agrees it can be “a bit feast or famine financially”, plus it means you’re essentially always job hunting so if that’s not something you enjoy it might not be the right career choice.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years but I’m just updating my CV again, updating my website, looking at my LinkedIn profile – that stuff never stops. It’s not something you can just do every five years when it’s time to look for a new job, it’s constant,” she says.
Given the time pressures and the nature of some interim roles, Bridger says it can also be a fairly stressful way to work.
“It can be quite intensive for three to six months. You have to get your head around a whole new sector. You’re trying to understand the organisation, the challenges and the people. The level I work at you’re pretty much expected to just get in and get on with it and know the answer from day one. There might be travelling – you never know where you’re going to end up – it can be quite exhausting,” she says.
It does, however, give marketers more flexibility and work/life balance, according to Bridger, who usually takes several months off between roles to “recharge and reset”, which also gives her time to do consultancy work and short-term projects.
This flexibility is perhaps why both Bridger and Fowler have seen a rise in the number of people pursuing interim roles lately.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m at the age where all the people I know are pursuing it or if there is perhaps a Brexit effect as people take a bit of time to wait and see, but I have noticed a bit of a change,” says Fowler. “I’m not sure though if these are all people doing it as a permanent career choice.”
If a CEO has brought me in to review how marketing is doing and you’ve got the CMO sitting there thinking ‘it’s been pretty effective, thank you very much’, you just have to be really sensitive.
Louise Fowler, interim marketer
Either way she advises marketers to be very clear with prospective employers about what they are offering.
“I come across quite a lot of people who are pursuing interim roles because they have for whatever reason left a permanent job and they’re waiting for another permanent job to come along,” she explains. “That’s absolutely fine but I think you need to be honest with employers and head hunters that that’s the case. Likewise, if you’re doing it as a career choice then be clear because it will lead to slightly different types of roles.”
She says it’s important to find a niche too and be clear about where your strengths lie, which she admits took her a while.
“I thought, well I’m a marketing director so I can do anything to do with marketing, but people [tend to have] a specific problem and they want a specific specialism,” Fowler explains.
“I suppose it’s classic marketing: understand your proposition and what your USP is and focus on that.”
Great points here. Taking a senior role as an interim moved me into a completely new industry and a full-time role. Having a clear brief from the start is essential along with to-do and not to-do lists so focus is never lost on what the mission is. I would never advise against it, particularly when you want to keep learning, stay sharp and to stretch yourself while really showing an organisation what real marketing looks like.
Very informative but only gives examples of positive cases. I worked a maternity contract for a brand and it eventually dawned on me that the management weren’t interested in spending money on marketing or investing in branding, just quick wins. They don’t exist. It didn’t end well!