Digital Marketing Hiring: Transitioning from Agency to Client Side
As a digital marketer, you have multiple options when it comes to your digital marketing career path: Agencies, brands, or going your own way. The go-it-alone crowd is still a small minority. Most marketers will find themselves either working on the agency/services side, or on the client side. In my book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” I talk about the agency side ( or digital marketing brand hiring as I call it), and the advantages of starting your digital marketing career path on the agency side. There are many: It’s the perfect environment for developing your interpersonal skills as you interact with different clients and varied internal teams, you learn to be accountable for your time, agency people learn a variety of problem solving skills, you get good a multi-tasking and handling pressure, and agencies are all about creating and presenting ideas which allows you to hone your communication skills. These qualities will set up you well for your future on the client side where someday you’ll develop strategy, grow a brand, analyze your audience, and use data to make key business decisions.
At the more junior levels, resumes that switch back and forth between agencies and marketers are not uncommon. However, as anyone who’s been on the agency side for many years knows, it’s not always easy to make that jump later in your career. That was especially true in the days before ecommerce became mainstream. Candidates back then with 15 or 20 years of agency experience rarely had a shot. They were stereotyped, pidgenholed. “We live in a different world,” agency clients would exclaim. “We need someone who knows the challenges of growing a business.” But a funny thing happened on the way to the digital revolution: The lines began to blur. Disruption is disruption, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Companies are striving to break outside the norm, and agencies are where much of that breakage begins. Company cultures used to be more like, “work sort of hard, play sort of hard.” Now it’s, “work hard, play hard.” That’s the way agencies have always been. You want fast, frenetic and high pressure? Agency candidates have you covered there. Looking to bring a particular digital marketing or ecommerce expertise in-house? I’ve placed some killer agency-side candidates who live and breath this stuff, essentially becoming de facto internal go-to experts for their clients. Want good leaders? Agencies have many of the best I know. Looking for top strategic thinkers, prioritizers and project managers? Agencies have tons of them.
The typical workday of a client-side Digital Marketing Manger is anything but mundane, as this video demonstrates:
What Client-Side Employers Look For in Digital Marketing Brand Hiring
In my book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing”, I discuss the hands-on nuts and bolts skills that are required for success in ecommerce, SEM, mobile marketing, web analytics, social media, and email. Bu there are other important characteristics that client-side employers look for when sizing up candidates for their open positions in digital marketing. These are what I call the “between the lines” requirements that are important for successful performance. So important, in fact, that I’ve devoted an entirely separate chapter to it. I hear story after story from candidates who’ve come out of interviews thinking that they aced it, only to learn that the hiring manager has decided to move forward with someone else. It’s pretty straightforward for an employer to determine if you have the required subject matter knowledge to actually do the job. Where candidates often fall short, however, is when the discussion turns to what I call the “softer” attributes which are no less important in the hiring equation. In fact, I will contend that they carry more weight than job specific experience and knowledge of certain software tools. Those things you can mostly learn from a book. Here are some of the other key qualities that every digital marketer should strive for and be able to effectively demonstrate in a job interview as they travel down the digital marketing career path:
Companies have never faced so much uncertainty and risk. In the space of only a few months they can slip from market leader to follower. The ability to deal with major changes in the workplace, complete projects with very little direction, endure stress, handle multiple priorities, these are among the competencies that employers look for in all professionals, regardless of the industry they’re in. But this applies especially to digital marketing brand hiring. What might have been considered a crazy idea one day might be the next day’s most anticipated experiment. Companies can test new ideas and try out new features on websites and get almost instantaneous results. All businesses want their marketers to be adaptable, but in digital marketing that’s especially important because the only thing that doesn’t change is…. well, change. Expect change to be the norm. Learn to adapt and you will stay a step ahead.
Analyzing and Leveraging Data
Big data is getting even bigger. Digital marketers pour through mountains of data to understand customer behavior and identify opportunities. They translate those insights into integrated marketing strategies across multiple channels and a growing number of platforms with clear and measurable goals. They use advanced analytics to identify the media and audiences that will best reach those goals and quantify the value of each. They analyze results and optimize to deliver more of what’s working and less of what isn’t. I’ve always called data and analytics the “second language” of digital marketing, second only in importance to the actual coding that makes digital marketing possible.
Success in digital marketing brand hiring without this critical skill set would be impossible to achieve.
Some might describe this as “thinking outside the box.” BusinessDictionary.com defines creative thinking as a “way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions.” However you want to define it, I can’t think of too many professions where this applies more than in digital marketing, where new technologies are emerging at breakneck pace. It’s not always on the job description, but believe me: This is high priority for employers when hiring digital marketers.
Comfortable with Technology
Employers have a very strong preference for candidates who are fluent in the technical aspects of digital marketing. This does not mean you must be proficient at writing code. That’s what programmers do. But technology is to digital marketing as a tail wind is to pilots: It’s always pushing forward, and the best digital marketers, just like good pilots, know how it works and how to use it to their advantage. Knowing technology also fosters better collaboration with IT, and for those with marketing organizations (brands), it also puts you in a better position to work and communicate more effectively with your agencies and service providers. Know your “inner geek”!
If you think about it, digital marketers are true trailblazers, the ones who are among the very first to boldly go where no marketer has gone before. Author Mark Goldblatt, who has conducted research on intellectual curiosity, says that what you know is not always as important as what you want to know. That’s where “why” comes in. Knowing why some tactics work and why others don’t, and learning from it to do it better the next time, is a highly sought after skill in digital marketing brand hiring.
Thirst for Knowledge
Digital marketing is, by definition, an exercise in life-long learning. The day you quit learning is the day you should quit digital marketing as a career. Technologies and solutions that work today could be outdated tomorrow. What is so self-fulfilling about digital marketing is that it’s those very same innovations that have never made it easier for learners to keep informed about the latest advancements with the help of media options like blogs, video, rss feeds, and social networks.
Bridging Business and Technology
I call these individuals the “techno-marketers.” They stand comfortably with their feet in two different buckets: Marketing and technology. Everything you do in digital marketing is made possible by the technology that takes place behind the pixels, and the ability to communicate technical ideas clearly and concisely to non-technical people cannot be overstated.
Business acumen.Usually when you think of business acumen, you think of the managers whose daily decisions and actions directly impact the operations and performance of the business. But it’s becoming more than a just a critical competency for leaders. Companies want all employees to understand that everything they do, in some way, impacts the bottom line. Even at lower levels, employers expect candidates to be able to connect the dots between their day-to-day responsibilities and departmental goals. Make it your goal to be business savvy so you’ll have an understanding of how your personal, team, and departmental objectives contribute to the company’s overall success.
People Skills. Digital Marketing Managers need more than just business and technical knowledge. If they have staff, they need to be able to organize and motivate a team. At some of the biggest media companies, digital marketing leaders have responsibility over as many as 100 direct and indirect reports. While many managers I know have been schooled in the art of leadership either as part of an MBA program or through outside training provided by their employer, others find themselves being promoted into roles for which they are simply not prepared. Being an individual contributor is one thing, but delegating, motivating and coaching others to become top performers requires an entirely different skill set. Fortunately, making that shift is something you can learn through the knowledge and experience of others. I’ve observed it first hand for more than 25 years: The most successful leaders are those who have developed excellent people skills.
This one is pretty obvious. Digital marketers, by definition, are swimming in details all day long. Rarely do I see a job description for a position in any of the specialties within digital marketing that doesn’t address the importance of having an eye for detail, and it’s an absolutely crucial skill for web development and other programming-related positions. On the flip side, being too intense over minutiae can also be a hindrance-“analysis paralysis” they call it. You need to be in that middle ground: Small things matter, but you need to be able to recognize when things are good enough and when to delegate tasks to others and trust that they will complete them competently.
This isn’t something you’ll ever see on a job description or always be asked about during a digital marketing brand hiring interview. It’s almost assumed. You might have heard the term “digital native,” which means someone born when digital technology has always existed, living in a highly networked and always “switched on” world. Not all of us are digital natives, but most of us are almost always plugged in and connected. To put it bluntly, digital marketing is not a job you can think about only during normal business hours and hope to be successful. Digital marketers do their homework. I don’t mean spending endless hours every week with online classes or taking work home with you each night. What I mean is, you need to be aware of your digital surroundings, and much more so than the average Joe. When you shop online or when you observe what other advertisers are doing, you can learn from that. It gives you clues into how other marketers are leveraging the latest trends and best practices in digital marketing, and that’s something you should be thinking about whenever you grab for your mobile phone, your laptop or your tablet.
No question about it: The barriers for agency types to join the client-side club have been coming down. My advice for anyone looking to make that transition is pretty straightforward: When interviewing for a brand position, emphasize every aspect of your agency experience and skills that speak to their need, and often, that starts with the industry they’re in. Find a company in an industry that you have some experience with that is NOT on the leading edge of digital commerce, and show them how you can get them there.
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation's preeminent and veteran digital marketing and ecommerce recruiters, and has been called the "voice" of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, "Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing," on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 29 years.