5 skills you can't succeed without

Gone are the days when a marketer's job title alone engendered respect. Suzy Bashford unveils the must-have skills for the digital age.

Digital has democratised the workplace, smashing traditional hierarchies. In the process it has created an interesting dichotomy: the most senior marketers, for all their power and influence, don't necessarily understand certain markets as well as the fresh recruits, whose relationship with digital is intrinsic, but who have little scope to make important decisions.

As AKQA product strategy director Toby Barnes puts it: '(To) a junior - somebody who has done all the things the senior managers have only ever heard about in presentation decks - how can traditional structures remain as powerful?'

The implications for training are immense, particularly for those high-ranking marketers who have experience, but are operating outside their comfort zone.

The good news is that, with so much knowledge and technology readily accessible, it is relatively easy to plug these vital skills gaps. Here we identify five key actions necessary to get ahead in the world of digital democratisation.

1. Acknowledge the death of line management

Being a good leader in the digital era is about giving colleagues freedom and autonomy, while making sure the ground rules and corporate parameters are clear and respected. Dell is renowned as a brand that does this well. Kathy Schneider, executive director, global channel marketing and programs at the technology company, argues that its tendency to give junior staff plenty of responsibility is key.

She is acutely mindful of the power shift in such an organisation. 'When team members join, I don't give them prescriptive steps telling them how things should be done,' says Schneider. 'They don't walk around with a guidebook of how to do their jobs, or necessarily have to deal with rigid sign-off processes. My role is to help them understand the end goal and help them work toward it themselves, checking in with me. We're finding more people want that accountability and want to add that value when they start their career.'

In contrast with tech brands, many of the big FMCG companies - previously considered the best option for an ambitious marketer seeking solid training - appear to be lagging behind. A raft of observers insists that the unwieldy, process-heavy systems prevalent at such organisations frustrate Generation Y, with the result that talented young marketers are taking their entrepreneurial skills elsewhere.

Gregor Lawson, co-founder of online fancy dress brand Morphsuits, seems a case in point. He left Procter & Gamble two years ago to set up the brand, which turned over almost £5m in its second year and is often held up as a good example of how to build a brand via social-media platforms. Lawson says he enjoyed his time at P&G, but felt he was not able to fulfil his potential.

'I got bogged down by bureaucracy and "brown-nosing". So much of my time was spent planning and chasing sign-off, rather than executing,' he explains. 'I would have loved to have been adding more value.

At Morphsuits, everything I do is based on making the brand better. Companies such as P&G take pride in understanding the consumer, but consumers change so quickly now. You can't wait around for four sign-offs before you reply to a customer on Facebook.'

There is a caveat, however, to this brave new world of leadership. Andy Bird, co-founder of consultancy Brand Learning, warns that marketers shouldn't neglect the solid, traditional skills either.

'Yes, it's important as a leader to encourage these new skills, but it's just as important to build technical skills, such as brand positioning or how to carry out a segmentation,' he adds.

2. Embrace open-sourced marketing

Many marketers have been saying for years that an idea can 'come from anywhere'. Now, however, with digital platforms such as social-media sites becoming mainstream, this mantra really rings true. This can be disconcerting - even intimidating - for any marketers who went into the profession thinking that creativity was 'their' turf.

Marketers must now hone the skill of encouraging the flow, development and commercialisation of ideas. Those who take ownership of this curation role, and focus energy on effective cross-company collaboration, are the ones who will thrive. Forget old-fashioned notions of line management; the best idea wins. There is no place for being territorial or trying to hold back ideas or knowledge with the aim of claiming more of the credit.

Jolie Hunt, chief marketing and communications officer at AOL, says: 'This business environment means you have to be nice to your neighbours. We have to play nicely together. I want people to say they like doing business with my team. I want them to say they are a pleasure to work with. I want (my team) to do the right thing when no one is looking.'

Jimmy Ingram, head of marketing recruitment at agency Major Players, concurs. 'We are experiencing a demand for candidates with well-developed stakeholder management skills, who can effectively build relationships with various teams and third parties,' he says.

Many companies are attempting to stimulate the flow of ideas by creating an entrepreneurial culture within a big organisation, a trend that is being dubbed 'intrapreneurship'. Typically this is done by encouraging employees to pitch ideas to senior management, running contests, giving staff dedicated time to 'think' about how the company might innovate, and working directly with start-ups, through initiatives such as 'entrepreneurs in residence'.

Brands such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Pixar, Amazon, Virgin and Adidas are at the forefront of this type of approach. Even more-traditional brands, such as Ernst & Young and PwC, are starting to embrace it. It is often not only an effective staff-retention tool, but can also lead to some star innovations. Facebook's 'like' functionality, for instance, was reportedly conceived as a result of one of the company's 'Hackathons', where software engineers get together for short, intense periods of brainstorming.

3. Acquire data skills

Many marketers are dealing with unprecedented levels of data. According to Sheree Hellier, development and engagement manager at the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM), the challenge the industry faces is not data generation, but 'how to optimise it and apply it intelligently'.

Faced with a broad spectrum of important data skills to learn, individuals should assess their own needs before picking a training path. However, the IDM's 'Customer insight tools and techniques' is currently one of its most popular courses, according to Hellier.

'Data visualisation is a key skill that is in demand, and will help marketers to interpret data, use it and prove its worth. "Digital intelligence" is another popular term. This encompasses more than web analytics, and gets under the skin of data,' she adds.

4. Learn the language of the web

This is a subject that makes many 'traditional' marketers feel out of their depth. Though many of them are involved in briefing agencies or their internal team about designing a site or a smartphone app, few tend to know how to actually build these marketing tools. The situation is understandable, as this area was previously thought of as the domain of the 'techies'.

However, as the boundaries between disciplines blur and collaboration continues apace, it is in a marketer's interests to acquire this knowledge. HHCL founder Steve Henry, who is also the founder of digital training firm Decoded, says: 'The internet is the most amazing marketing tool yet invented. Marketers have a competitive advantage in business if they can write code. Code underlines our modern world. It's the creative language of the future. It's the commercial language of the future.'

Henry developed the 'learn code in a day' course with time-poor marketers in mind; it has already been used by Google, Facebook, eBay, TalkTalk, Nokia, O2, Unilever, Barclaycard and the BBC.

The idea is not to make marketers professional software developers, but to enhance their capacity for creativity.

Henry adds: 'A huge amount of creativity comes from knowing the language. If you don't, the difficulty is that while you might think you are just outsourcing the design, it's actually a lot of the creative and strategic thinking, too. If you don't know what is possible with the technology, it's hard to be creative, and nigh-on impossible to push the boundaries of creativity.'

5.Gain direct experience

Some marketers are getting ahead through direct experience of online marketing, by creating their own blogs, sites, apps, communities and products, often in their leisure time.

'As the barriers to the creative processes and access to audiences are reduced to a click, young marketers have all they need to become creative heroes,' says AKQA's Barnes. 'Why read about how you should do things, when you can do it yourself? Why wait for someone to give you permission to launch a product when you can do it yourself? Many (marketers) are learning how to craft digital as a material.'

This has led to the rise of 'personal branding' (see box below), with many marketers being recruited on the strength of their online following and influence.


Being expert on old and new tools will help marketers become more prominent, while yielding better results. It's less about hierarchies and job titles, and more about delivery and mastery.

Older marketers should pair with Gen-Y newcomers to create reverse mentoring, where older workers teach Gen-Y traditional strategies and Gen-Y helps them gain knowledge of modern tools. All marketers should be up to date with tech tools, research and trends by subscribing to blogs and trade mags and attending conferences.

Learning about advances in your field should be an everyday routine. Also, test marketing strategies on yourself - your personal brand - before bringing them into a corporate setting. Start a blog or test a Facebook social ad using yourself or a mock product.

Brands such as Adidas have a corporate blog to explain the skills they want staff to have, while others, like Google, have these marketing techniques ingrained in their culture.


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