Back

Developing Your Skill Set On The Other Side Of The Tracks

by Nicola Smith

For Toby Horry, digital marketing director at Tesco, his progress up the ranks on the agency side, culminating in being managing director at digital agency Dare, brought with it certain frustrations. “Coming from a planning and strategy background, I really enjoy getting under the skin of a business and understanding how it works,” he said. “However, I found that the more senior I became agency side, the further I got from this.”

In late 2015, Horry made the move brand side, allowing him, as he says, “to get into a business where I could experience what I love first-hand.”

He is not alone in crossing the great divide. Research from executive search company Grace Blue this year has revealed that almost 40% of senior-level marketing talent has an agency-side background, up from nearer 25% a few years ago.

David Pemsel, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, has a rich agency background, including being managing partner at St Luke’s London, before embracing the media owner side, first becoming a partner at Shine TV and then group marketing director at ITV. He cites loss of control as the impetus for his switch. “I felt I was capping out on my abilities to be governed by a client all the time,” he said. “I decided that I would probably much rather be a client myself.”

Developing In-House Capabilities
As brands increasingly demand a wider skill set, under growing pressure to work smarter in a digital world, marketers with a more diverse agency background fit the bill. Horry said: “The media landscape is changing, so I think businesses will continue to optimise, make teams more efficient, and develop more capability in-house.”

Patrick Collister is creative lead at The Zoo EMEA, Google’s self-appointed “creative think tank” that helps ad agencies make the best use of Google products. He has a lengthy agency background, having most recently been vice-chairman and executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather. When Collister started the digital creative department at Ogilvy, he recognised the need for a new breed of creative in the digital world, hiring people with diverse backgrounds who had never set foot in art school. “For me, they were the paradigm of the new ad man—neither a planner, nor a suit, nor a writer, nor an art director—they were wired, digitally literate, and understood there was confluence between brands, technology, and entertainment.”

It is this diversity of skills which is a big attraction for brands, enabling them to get a better handle on the entire customer journey. Pemsel, too, has built a rich and varied management team with backgrounds spanning Google and government. “By design, we have deliberately made sure we have as much of an eclectic mix of experience as possible.”

There is a cruder force at play too, as Sara Bennison, chief marketing officer at Nationwide and formerly a managing partner at Grey London, points out: “It's driven by simple economics. We all need to produce so much more stuff to feed the digital and content monster, and, yet, budgets are the same, so it simply doesn’t make sense to do many things more expensively and more slowly externally.”

Creativity Is Not Enough
But as the digital and content monster proliferates, the skill set required of marketers has become more complex. No longer is creativity enough. Bennison describes the proficiencies needed as a “rare alchemy of business acumen, strategic perspective, creative flair, and ability to get things executed fabulously.”

Horry echoes her thoughts, adding that creatives who also understand the commercial side of the business and the potential of data are the holy grail. “I don’t think there are many of them out there,” he said.

The growing reliance on data necessitates a good grasp of analytics. Pemsel says that as Guardian Media Group becomes more digitally oriented, the company is increasingly seeking people who understand audience conversion and funnels. “The levels of sophistication that we have around understanding our audiences and audience journeys and data analytics has moved on—it is all very scientific,” he said.

He adds that brands or media owners looking for a head of marketing are unlikely to go knocking on the door of an ad agency. “You are more likely to find it going into Amazon or Experian, or someone who has lived and breathed analytics.”

In The Opposite Direction
While Grace Blue’s research supports the growing trend of marketers moving from agency side to client side, and there is a feeling that brands will continue to invest in developing more capability in-house, there are some who move in the opposite direction too, underlying the increasing cross-fertilisation taking place.

Simon Martin has formerly worked client side at Aviva as well as in marketing service production at Bridge Group and Intygra, before founding OLIVER agency in 2004. He is a big believer in marketers enjoying a broad range of experiences in their career, something he feels he personally benefited from. “With OLIVER and its proposition, having had client side experience, I knew the frustrations,” he said. “It is all about taking the learnings from the brilliant training and experiences I had on the brand side and applying them to the model and the opportunity to create a differentiated proposition on the services side.”

Yet, he says the number of senior people who have varied experience and have been exposed to both worlds is limited. “I would go as far as to say it is less than 10% in my experience of senior people who have experience on both sides of the fence. They are very valuable, and that is why we need help finding them.”

He believes that the younger generation is more likely than previous generations to move between the two worlds, although Bennison adds that one of the factors in her decision to move from agency to brand was her need for a career that would sustain her for 20 years, stating that “the lack of older, successful role models in agencies was startling.”

The up-and-coming generation also have a need for freedom in their work. As Collister points out, the two youngest people he hired at The Zoo have left to form startups. “They have no sense of the need to belong to a company, no sense of answerability to them, certainly, no understanding of hierarchy. For a lot of creative people, the future is about doing their own thing,” he said.

More change is, surely, afoot.

CMO.