The big debate: Is coding a must-have skill for marketers?

Should marketers add coding to their ever growing skillset or is it better to build “whole-brained” teams that possess complementary skills?


Highly creative, commercially savvy and digitally literate – just some of the attributes required of marketers in 2017. And it doesn’t stop there. Over the past few years there have been a growing number of calls for marketers to add ‘competent coder’ to their skill set.

But is coding really intrinsic to a marketer’s job, and if not, should it be?

As marketing becomes inherently more analytical in nature, rooted in rich data and insight, marketers need to understand how their websites function in order to better optimise the customer journey.

One voice in favour of marketers coding is Ryanair CMO Kenny Jacobs who argues the next generation of CMOs will need to be able to build their own websites.

“Marketers should absolutely be able to look at a website and know how that website is working and the code behind it,” Jacobs tells Marketing Week.

“I don’t believe in the model that the CMO should do the traditional marketing and the chief digital officer should do the digital marketing job. I think you should have the right customer officer doing the right job that straddles both.

READ MORE: Ryanair CMO: Brands don’t need to be loved to win over consumers

Dan Gilbert, CEO of programmatic and PPC specialist agency Brainlabs goes one step further, suggesting coding is the number one skill he would teach a marketer.

“Everyone should learn to code and the next generation will definitely learn how,” he said at a recent event hosted by consultancy Oystercatchers.

“The digital world we’re in now is one where you have to experiment first and then learn from whatever you’ve experimented with later.”

While it is helpful for CMOs to be aware of the processes and skills needed to stay at the frontier of developments, ultimately it is better for them to remain agnostic to channels and technology.

Mark Evans, Direct Line Group

Helen Warren-Piper, marketing director for grocery at Premier Foods, claims it is no longer sufficient for marketers to have superficial knowledge of any subject. This is why Premier Foods sends all its marketers on advanced finance courses and ensures they understand the product costs behind advertising.

“Similarly, if a marketer knows how to create and build a website, and knows the basics of coding, it has two benefits,” she explains. “It makes them drive a better cost deal for the company because they know the true cost of doing it and how long things take, but it also means that creatively they know what’s possible and not possible.”

Being curious about human behaviour often means being analytically and technically literate, according to Alessandra Di Lorenzo, chief commercial officer media and partnerships at group. As a result marketers may need to develop a whole new suite of skills such as coding, website design and data analytics.

The need for marketers to be become digitally literate becomes even more crucial in a small business, she argues.

“In smaller or more integrated companies, these skills are increasingly becoming part of the marketing team’s responsibility – so it’s crucial teams attract the expertise to support this, and invest in training and development to plug any skills gaps that exist.”

Asking the right questions

Whether marketers learn to code or not, Marie Curie’s head of digital Steve Armstrong, believes they must have a “good working knowledge” of technology so they can ask the right questions of their internal tech teams or digital agency partners.

“So much of marketing, certainly in the digital space, is driven by automation and technology, and unless you know a little bit about it then you’re in no real position to make intelligent decisions that actually might have quite a big impact on how you operate in one, two or three year’s time,” says Armstrong.

“Marketers don’t necessarily need to know how to code in HTML 5, but a working knowledge of technology definitely helps. Digital people are very good at using technology jargon to obscure or over complicate, so a working knowledge of code would cut through that.”

Being digitally literate not only helps marketers ask better questions, but ensures they make data collection part their planning, says Tamsin Todd, chief commercial officer at private hire taxi firm Addison Lee. Innovation in her business has been driven by marketers’ willingness to collaborate closely with the tech teams.

“Some of the most exciting marketing experiences today are built on creative uses of technology. The Addison Lee app, which is fundamental to our business and at the core of our current ‘At Your Service’ marketing campaign, is the result of close collaboration between our marketing and technology teams, from prototyping new ideas to designing, testing customer journeys, and assessing performance,” she adds.

Close collaboration between the marketing and tech teams has driven innovation on the Addison Lee app

While upskilling marketers in digital is undoubtedly important, Direct Line marketing director Mark Evans believes some skills are “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” for marketing leaders.

“While it is helpful for CMOs to be aware of the processes and skills needed to stay at the frontier of developments, ultimately it is better for them to remain agnostic to channels and technology,” he argues.

“Therefore, while staying in touch with the latest digital developments is important, it is more critical to cultivate a learning culture where collective curiosity and capability ensures that the marketing team are able to maintain an edge.”

Marketers don’t necessary need to know how to code in HTML 5, but a working knowledge of technology definitely helps.

Steve Armstrong, Marie Curie

Ultimately it is important to fully appreciate the speed at which the marketing skillset is evolving, says head of digital marketing at Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Rick Oakley.

“Marketers need to be creative, to manage agencies, to be commercially accountable and if you add into that they should also be able to code you’re talking about quite a skilled individual,” he states.

However, not being a skilled coder does not mean marketers can leave the “technology” to someone else, Oakley argues.

“One of the things that really surprises me is when marketers say ‘I’m not techie’. You’d be very surprised if someone said ‘sorry I can’t read’. Technology is a modern language that more of us have to speak.”

Who owns data?

Whether marketers can code or have a deep understanding of analytics, it is essential for them to have a strong grasp of data and insight. However, the debate over who owns the data function within a business remains a divisive issue.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe in March, RBS director of customer insight, Paul Smith, explained the advantages of data sitting outside marketing.

“We have a massive data and analytics team, and a huge technology team that need to keep our core systems going. For us in marketing that is brilliant, because we have people worrying about the robustness and connectivity of the data, so we don’t have to,” Smith explained.

“We have to think about what are the use cases, how can we use the insights to better serve and offer products to our customers. It’s not just about marketing owning stuff, it has to sit across the organisation. It gives you the power back that you are a demanding end user.”

Taking a cross-functional approach to data is a strategy supported by Direct Line’s Mark Evans, who believes it is far more important for data and insights to be integrated into every aspect of the business, rather than being owned by any one individual or department.

“We already had a very strong analytics capability within marketing, but we wanted to supercharge our data capability across the organisation more broadly. This led to us investing in a centralised data science team,” Evans explains.

“However, we are not necessarily rigid about this being a centralised function forever and will continually revisit what sits within the function and what sits centrally as both capability and requirements evolve.”

Lucozade Missguided
Lucozade marketers shared data generated by its tie-up with retailer Missguided with colleagues across the company

Di Lorenzo at group believes that while it is crucial for marketers to have full sight of the data ecosystem, being able to apply the numbers creatively is the most important element, regardless of where the data sits.

“While it’s essential to use data, you also have to understand the inspiration behind the numbers. That’s why the creative delivery is as important as the inspiration,” she adds.

Oakley agrees that the responsibility to turn data into strong consumer insights should sit with marketing. During Lucozade Ribena Suntory’s recent partnership with fast fashion retailer Missguided, Oakley’s team kept the company up-to-date with the campaign’s progress via a 75-inch screen in the reception area showing how many people redeemed the unique code printed on Lucozade Zero cans given away free to Missguided customers.

“It was really interesting because we were taking data and turning it into something that was visually stimulating,” Oakley explains.

“Every one in the business was watching how the data was changing – people from R&D, sales and marketing – so it was using data in an exciting and engaging way.”

Should data analysts sit in marketing teams?

Following the example of streaming giant Netflix, adopting a ‘squad’ mentality is one tactic being discussed to help organisations break down silos and bring data closer to marketing. For Brainlabs’ CEO Daniel Gilbert, the very idea of having a tech or data department is a problem.

“There are lots of interesting organisational structures emerging that don’t actually follow that path. And ones where you have a data analyst on every team,” Gilbert said.

“So there’s a data analyst that sits in marketing and one that sits in HR. This is what Netflix calls squads. It’s not as old school or corporate. We have technologists that sit in every one of our departments, so that if HR wants to automate the way it collects surveys it can do that automatically rather than having to go to a tech department to get it done. I think that’s the structure of the future.”

While Marie Curie head of digital Steve Armstrong has a full-time digital analyst in his team, he also looks to hire ‘T’ shaped people, who have a depth of knowledge in one area and a breadth of experience across a number of others.

“They’re not experts in everything because you can’t be, but they have competency in one area and know enough about others to ask the right questions, join the right dots and hire the right people,” he explains.

It’s a real misnomer to say marketing people are just creative people, because that’s not true. There are many things they need to be a bit of an expert in.”

Helen Warren-Piper, Premier Foods

“You need to hire T shaped people with different core expertise in different disciplines, who have enough breadth to think outside their individual silos.”

Di Lorenzo agrees that the more integrated and broader skilled the marketing team, the better the results. However, wide skillsets mean collaboration is key.

“The common threads between employees’ skills need to be the ability to work as a team, understanding each other’s jobs and the capacity to work towards the same goals. Setting KPIs that everyone can contribute to will be fundamental to this,” she adds.

At Addison Lee, the marketing and digital product teams, including front-end developers, are part of the same team, explains Todd, who believes that teams with a diversity of skills and perspectives perform better.

“I always think about the balance of people with creative, digital, analytical and other skills, as well as a healthy dose of curiosity about everything going on outside the marketing team,” she states.

“Customers don’t differentiate between a marketing touchpoint and a ‘tech’ touchpoint, and neither should we. I expect that over the next few years, we’ll see more digital and marketing teams working in this way.”

Direct Line
The focus at Direct Line is on building neurodiverse teams with a range of skills

Instead of thinking of adding data analysts to the team, Oakley argues that many brand managers possess relevant data analytics skills and therefore upskilling the whole team is key.

However, he stills sees the clear need for specialists. Over the past year Lucozade Ribena Suntory has built an in-house agency team which collaborated with the marketing team to deliver two apps in the first quarter of 2017. Working so closely with the in-house agency team has brought the senior brand managers, who were near novices at the start of the process, up to app expert level.

At Premier Foods, the research and insight function reports into marketing, with members of the insight team working on ad-hoc research inside the brand teams. The marketers, however, are also expected to manipulate the data themselves to deliver insights.

“We might feel something is working, but we can’t explain why. So we devise a hypothesis and then you use data to get to the bottom of it. That’s the left- and right-brained thing,” explains Warren-Piper.

“It’s a real misnomer to say marketing people are just creative people, because that’s not true. You work on product development, profit & loss, pricing, promotion, analysis, insight and advertising. So there are many things you need to be a bit of an expert in.”

The ambition at insurer Direct Line Group is to have a healthy complement of highly analytical people focusing on modelling and econometrics. Evans also notes the importance of looking beyond specific skillsets to build “wholebrained” and neuro-diverse teams to drive innovation, rather than relying on individuals to possess all the relevant skills

“The big change I expect to see is marketing teams having a greater appreciation of diversity of thought and becoming more neuro-diverse in their makeup. This means that the marketing team can benefit from extremes of left and right brain thinking, and everything in between, without expecting it to reside in any single person’s brain,” says Evans.

“Many creative breakthroughs in the world have come from people who suffer from dyslexia, like my daughter, as well as other aspects of neuro-divergence including dyspraxia, dyscalculia and autism. In the end, if as predicted AI automates many of the tasks that require repeatable precision, then sustainable differentiation will only come from thinking that exists at the edges.”

Want to learn more about coding?

Coding for Non-Technical Professionals Training‘ is a one-day, hands-on training session on how web technology works for non-technical business professionals who manage web sites or web teams, run by Marketing Week’s sister title Econsultancy.

This course is for anyone in a digital role within an organisation or with responsibility for an aspect of digital performance and who feel they need a firmer grounding in how web sites actually work. It requires no previous knowledge or experience of programming or IT – if you can use a browser, you will be able to do the course.

Click here to find out more.