Troubleshooters bail out brands

As more companies do away with marketing directors and use interim marketers who specialise in short-term project management, Jo Roberts asks whether this will have a long-term impact on how marketers view their careers.

As marketing departments all over the world shrink due to pressure on budgets, there is one set of executives who have enjoyed an average 12% increase in pay over the last year. It seems this could be the golden age for the interim marketer. 

With this in mind, is it time to stop talking about marketing roles as part of a linear career and see them as project management positions?

Rather than seeing interim marketers as people to fill gaps when no permanent role is available or affordable, it is now being argued that interims should be treated as strategy specialists to be parachuted in when times get tough.

With permanent marketers staying in roles just long enough to change around the agency roster and run an ad campaign, some brands now consider a troubleshooting interim on a fixed contract more desirable than a career-driven permanent marketer.

Interim marketer Rob Rees (see Viewpoint, below) says that permanent marketers treating jobs as projects can lead to brand inconsistency and a fragile marketing team.

He says it often makes more sense for an outsider to come in and sort out specific  problems and implement strategies because an interim marketer doesn’t come with baggage or play at office politics.

“When you get a marketing director who’s moving around every 18 months the first thing they say is the agencies are crap,” he argues. “The second thing they do is spend the next 18 months hiring and firing them. Then they move on, leaving the team behind. I can name hundreds of marketers who have made a career out of this approach.”

When Rees is assigned to a project, he says that instead of firing agencies or demotivating staff, he attempts to work with the team he inherits. He claims that sour agency relationships can often be repaired by sorting out a few simple communication issues.

Rees says that his role as an interim often finds him acting as a motivator and morale booster to marketing departments. He says: “You often find marketing directors just fighting their own corners and thinking about their own careers. Sometimes you need to stand up for the team; make them believe in themselves and re-energise them.”

Motivating and managing staff difficulties and grievances is particularly important in a recession, where marketers are being asked to do more with less on a constant basis.

Paul Botting, chairman of the Interim Management Association (IMA), says that he is also seeing a demand from brands for interims that have specialist – rather than general – marketing skills.

“Interim is in growth mode and is a newly discovered business solution,” he claims.

The interim industry overall is worth an estimated £1bn, according to Ipsos MORI. For the marketing sector, interims are proving particularly popular for those companies needing a turnaround or wholesale change to strategy.

Furniture brand Habitat is employing Mike Phillipson as an interim marketing director until the New Year. He will implement a European marketing strategy following the completion of a review of the retail chain.

Assess the business

Habitat chief executive Mark Saunders first bought in Phillipson, a director at creative agency Propaganda, along with his team, to assess the business. “As I was leading the audit at Propaganda, it made sense for me to get more involved in a more formal role, to ensure the plan that has been created is implemented correctly,” explains Phillipson.

Phillipson believes that taking on a senior marketer on a project-by-project basis enables businesses to expand and contract their team depending on their needs.

Despite the homewares and furniture brand being a sizeable player in the UK and Europe, Habitat sees a future in using an interim rather than appointing a full-time senior marketer.

“For companies like Habitat, it is a more flexible solution and driven by the need for consumer, strategic and marketing expertise at board level,” says Phillipson.

He acknowledges that practical financial considerations are also a factor in the decision. “It is driven by a common sense view that if they do not need a full-time marketing director, why have one?” he asks.

It isn’t all about cost, though, he argues. He says that his own agency has spotted a trend of clients looking for “knowledge and less assumption” from interims. As a result, Propaganda is expanding its services with its directors already on the boards of clients like Seabrook Crisps and make-up brand Illamasqua.

Keeping an open mind when coming into a new job and staying neutral to assess where the business needs to change is also an essential part of an interim’s job.

Years of complacency

Charles Russam, chairman of interim agency Russam GMS, says the recession has caused many companies to reassess their businesses after years of complacency. Those that were previously reluctant to bring in an outsider are now seeing the benefits. 

“You get more clients that don’t immediately take to interims but companies that restructure are operating with fewer staff. A lot are saying they need to drum up new business and modify new products. Bringing in an interim manager is an effective way of doing these things.”

Rupert Dobson, practice director at recruitment agency Hoggett Bowers, adds that since many businesses have lost or cut knowledgeable and experienced staff, interims can plug the skills gap. “The team in place may not posses the knowledge and skills for a particular project or initiative,” he says.

If used correctly, interims do not simply have to be a response to budget cuts or a downsizing measure. Rees claims that those brands that put their interims to best use see them as external troubleshooters rather than simply filling a gap.

He says that interims can actually help increase a brand’s investment in marketing by having the perspective required to encourage investment and kick-start the company.

“With the arrival of the recession, a lot more businesses are procrastinating with decisions. It’s a different sort of approach as interims have to be able to make decisions quickly and take risks,” he explains.

Infrastructure and ego

But not every business is ready for interim marketers, admits Phillipson. He says many companies are too conservative to consider an interim marketer as an option to implement a change in the business. “To a number of companies, the idea of having an interim marketing director would not work for a number of reasons. History, infrastructure and ego are three reasons I have encountered.”

Despite the recession not budging some business’ views on the use of interims, more individuals are becoming interim marketers – some through choice and others because their permanent job has been cut.

While most interim placements have traditionally come through agencies, the internet is enabling interims to network and find their own contracts.

Business-orientated social networking website LinkedIn puts contacts in touch with one another, for example. It allows those looking for jobs to update their status (“I’m seeking out new projects”), get written recommendations and update their CVs to highlight their experience.

Russam notes: “There’s evidence that social networks and online job boards are starting to play a more prominent role in the process as the market is changing.”

Competition for assignments is high at the moment, but as an increasing number of businesses are forced to lay off their marketing teams, more companies are likely to turn to short-term projects to fill the gaps.

However, an oversupply of marketers doesn’t necessarily mean more choice, argues Dobson. “Numbers can be very deceptive,” he argues. “There are only going to be very few of the calibre required that have the right knowledge, who are available now and who are willing to travel to Moscow to work. Finding the right person for the right role is quite a challenge.” 

Bob Weare, who has worked as an interim for six years in professional financial and business services and has recently been placed by Hoggett Bowers at a global insurance company, says it makes sense to build up specialist knowledge in a particular sector.

Successful decisions

Weare agrees that specialists will be at an advantage compared to generalists in this climate and claims that he is being asked to scrutinise each business he goes into at a much greater degree than ever before; understanding the market sector in depth is key to being able to make successful decisions. 

“It’s a much tougher market. There’s a greater emphasis on helping clients develop a compelling value propositions and making sure what they’re doing is relevant,” he notes. “There is also much greater focus and attention in terms of what they’re getting for their money, in terms of tracking marketing effectiveness.”

While these changes are evident in this current climate, interim Janet Morris (see Viewpoint, below) believes the recession will lead to a different way of working for marketers in the long term. “I believe this recession is going to be a step change because more people want to work in this way in the future,” she says.

Using short-term interims with a wealth of experience that can be employed on different projects is going to be far more beneficial to businesses than relying solely on linear positions, Morris believes. 

“I think it’s much more important to have flexible skills. It is definitely the future for companies. If businesses want to change things, then it’s difficult for a permanent person to do that,” she says.

With interim sales and marketing specialists seeing a pay increase of 12% year-on-year, there’s a clear sign that experienced interims are in demand and being rewarded for their knowledge. The success of the interim sector will no doubt have career marketers watching with interest to see if this will change the way they climb the ladder for good.


Rob Rees
Rob Rees has worked on 18 projects over a 10-year period for a variety of clients including Orange, Scottish Widows and Campbell’s.

“I’ve seen lots of different businesses, lots of different issues and lots of different cultures. Being an interim has kept me incredibly current with my skills and given me new challenges.

In my last permanent position, I was working for Pepsi at European marketing director level for the Frito-Lay business. The job became quite mundane, with a lot of presenting and political lobbying of people. Much of the job wasn’t about marketing.

I could see the industry was moving on in the age of the internet. I’ve now worked on a lot of projects with digital channels, including new product development projects that allowed me to gain a whole set of experiences that I wouldn’t have got from a permanent position.

The number one priority when you come in as an interim is to keep the business running but then you can be quite open about the changes that need to be made.

You develop a radar – interims become quite good at sniffing out problems. You can spot when a business isn’t structured properly, when its new product development process is broken and when it’s not spending the money on the right things, for example.

Some senior clients really understand the role of interim marketers. Campbell’s, for example, used me for four different projects over a two-year period. One project was a bit of troubleshooting. Then I ran a couple of brands for them. I was happy to fly to the Republic of Ireland every week for them during an acquisition. I wasn’t precious about making them pay expenses or getting my family relocated.

It’s about getting the job done objectively and apolitically. There’s a certain mindset that’s needed in order to be a successful interim. You need to be confident in yourself and have an ability to assess the situation in a short period and then start making some brave decisions.

A lot more businesses are procrastinating with decisions because of the recession. Over the last five years, financial directors have given marketing a good kicking. You need to stand up and be counted. Staff might be conservative and need people to come in from the outside to take a risk.”


Janet Morris
Janet Morris has been an interim marketer for 10 years, working for a variety of sectors including the public sector and charities.

“Initially, I was working on the launch of the Heathrow Express on secondment from a permanent job at BAA. There were some interims there and I thought their jobs looked really interesting. 

That’s how my interim career began. I love the variety of the role and the challenges that come with each assignment. One of the biggest challenges of the job is making sure people are onboard with what you’re doing. 

Being an interim is like running a business. Sometimes I have two or three assignments at one time, working a few days here and other days there. Occasionally, you are literally working on all three contracts during the day and late into the night because you have to.

I haven’t had any enforced gaps in my employment. I took six months out a while back to live in France. I try to find my next assignment and work part-time on that while finishing off the previous project.

In my current role, the previous marketing director was pushed out and I was phoned on a Friday to start the following week. I’m now handing over to someone who will be taking on the permanent position.

I had an email from one agency this morning that said they had 34 new assignments this week. In this current climate, there is more competition but experience really counts.

Interim roles really suit me because I don’t want to fill out another holiday form or a sick form – I just want to go in and make a difference.”

The perfect interim – a personality profile

Those of a nervous disposition need not apply. Interim marketers report that a tough exterior is needed to deal with the challenges thrown at them.

It takes a combination of strong personality traits and a dossier of experience from previous roles to successfully navigate from being a permanent marketer to an interim.

Bob Weare, who has been working as an interim marketer for six years, says you need “a mental toughness because it is a different world to working in-house”.

Charles Russam, chairman of interim agency Russam GMS, says that those seeking these positions must be able to juggle multiple roles. “You have to be seen as part of the team but, paradoxically, have to be seen as slightly detached. You don’t get involved in office politics and must keep a clear view on what the objectives are,” he adds.

Those who enjoy a challenge and a regular change of scene will thrive in the time-pressured environment that an interim marketer has to operate.

But those considering jumping off the permanent path could be in for a shock. “Difficulties arise when a new interim enters the market and has been used to being on payroll,” explains Russam. “This can be unsettling and difficult for some people to handle.”

Confidence in your abilities is key, especially when big decisions need to be made quickly, says interim marketer Rob Rees. He explains: “You need to be able to assess the situation in a week and then start making some brave decisions.”

Keeping away from office politics is what attracts many people to interim roles. But this can be difficult for people who have worked their way up the marketing ladder in an environment where office politics plays a positive part in your career, argues Rees.

“Not everyone is suited to an interim role. If you’re an out-and-out corporate man that enjoys playing office politics, don’t even consider becoming an interim. It suits those who are not bothered about status and are instead interested in solving the problem in hand,” he argues.

Janet Morris, an interim marketer with 10 years’ experience, has had to make difficult decisions during her short-term roles, including making redundancies.

But this responsibility has made her feel it is very important to possess strong interpersonal skills despite eschewing office politics. She says being “friendly, adaptable and flexible” are key skills needed, especially when dealing with delicate situations.

Interim marketers also have to accept that they will not always be around to see a project come to fruition. Not all marketers are suited to moving onto the next project so quickly.

Individuals who are independently minded will be most successful at working on a project-by-project basis, argues IMA chairman Paul Botting.

“People need to be happy moving on and leaving something they’ve created to blossom on its own. It won’t suit someone who wants to see their team develop over a three-year period,” he adds.

Ultimately, an interim marketer has to be able to build a rapport with others over a short time to ensure their confidence in the big decisions that are being made, says Mike Phillipson, currently an interim marketer at retailer Habitat.

He says: “The success of an interim role like this is down to the relationship that the post holder builds with the chief executive and board – trust and respect are central to it working.”

The essential traits of an interim marketer as defined by professional interims:

  • Emotionally tough
  • Willing to challenge the status quo
  • Takes calculated risks
  • Easy to get along with
  • Has experience of working with different marketing teams
  • Seamlessly jumps from one project to another
  • Flexible in all areas
  • Driven and willing to tackle issues face on
  • Incredibly organised

Vital statistics

  • Daily pay has increased for sales and marketing specialists, who saw their per-day rates rise 12%, from £527 in December 2008 to £592 in June this year.
  • The average length of assignment is 135 days, according to the second-quarter IMA Ipsos MORI market audit.
  • A third of interims placed are women, which is a steadily growing figure.
  • The public sector controlled 51% of assignments in the second quarter of the Ipsos MORI poll, up from 43% in the first quarter.
  • 28% of interim providers cite “business improvement” as a reason for placing interims in positions.
  • Sales and marketing interims who are willing to work overseas get an average of 12% more pay, according to the latest snapshot survey by interim provider Russam GMS.
  • Interims working in the retail and food sectors have been hardest hit by the recession, with a pay drop of 26% in both industries, according to Russam GMS.

Essential tips on becoming an interim marketer

  • Create your own limited company and be VAT registered.
  • Take out a professional indemnity insurance policy.
  • Network with agencies to ensure you are top of mind when a relevant placement comes along.
  • Send regular updated CVs to agencies letting them know your availability.
  • Consider becoming an interim as a career choice and not something to do in between permanent positions. Research shows that 30% of interims would never consider going back to a permanent position and 50% say it would have to be the perfect job to tempt them, according to Russam GMS.
  • Be prepared to take jobs in a variety of locations. Up to 10% of agency assignments are overseas, according to IMA chairman Paul Botting.

Inspiration for tips: Interim Management Association (IMA)


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