The field of digital marketing is changing at a lightning fast pace, driven by factors such as emerging technologies and changing social and search algorithms.
In this fast-moving climate, the cost of a bad hire can be substantial, and the opportunity cost that comes with NOT having the right marketer can mean the difference between a business hitting its growth goals or falling behind.
I’ve spent the last 13 years — first as a digital agency owner and now as VP of Marketing at IMPACT — hiring high-performing marketers. What I’ve learned in that time is that it's not as easy as it seems it should be to hire what I would call “marketing rock stars.”
Don’t get me wrong. Finding candidates who understand marketing and have strong technical skills is relatively easy. It’s the soft skills and more intangible qualities that are tougher to find - and those are the things that make the difference between an average marketing manager and a great one.
Over time, I’ve learned the hard way what to look for and what to avoid in marketing candidates. Here, I’m sharing the top 7 qualities I look for so that you (hopefully) don’t make the same mistakes I have.
Someone I respect very much once said: “We should be looking for people who force us to say ‘whoa’ rather than ‘giddyup’ when hiring marketers.”
To me, this simply and accurately captures what it means to have a motivated employee.
When a process isn’t working, I want someone who will fix it, not someone who will wait to be asked. If my team isn’t hitting its marketing goals, I’d prefer that the marketers I work with take risks, try new things, and test bold assumptions rather than sit back and wring their hands over lackluster results.
Motivated marketers move fast. They solve problems and introduce new ideas without asking for permission. They get results.
But how do you measure motivation? How can you tell if the candidate you are interviewing has it?
Some of the typical interview questions (Why are you interested in the position? Why this company specifically? What are your personal and professional goals in 1 year/3 years/5 years?) can help with this, but I like to go deeper.
In my experience, what a candidate does is far more telling than what they say. Because we use HubSpot, I’m able to go into the back end and see a wealth of information about each marketing candidate, from the pages on our site that they’ve viewed to the emails they’ve opened and read and the forms they’ve filled out. I can also see when they did these things.
There’s a big difference between a candidate who has read 50+ blogs on our site and one who has only skimmed our careers page - or someone who crammed in their homework on us in the 20 minutes before our interview and a candidate who has spent days or even weeks getting to know our company and content.
Of course this kind of data is only available if the candidate is cookied (meaning they have filled out a form on our website), so if you’re planning to use this approach, it’s generally a good idea to require that candidates fill out some kind of form (job application, etc.) on your site early in the application process.
In short, a highly motivated marketer doesn’t just have big career goals and a strong desire to work for you - they make it their business to get to know every aspect of your business and come prepared to an interview with insightful questions that show a deep understanding of what you do.
2. Communication Skills
In my experience, marketers will, by virtue of their role, encounter adversity. This is true whether they work in an agency setting or in-house.
Typical challenges that marketers face include:
Convincing internal subject matter experts that creating content is vital to the company’s success (and then getting their buy-in to participate in the content creation process);
Justifying requests for increased budget to fund new marketing hires, software purchases, ad budgets, etc.;
Explaining marketing performance data in a way that company leadership (who are often not marketing experts) can understand and appreciate; and
Managing the frustration that occurs when marketing targets are missed or take too long to hit.
The way in which marketers handle these conversations has a dramatic impact on their effectiveness within the organization, and that’s why the best marketers are also strong communicators.
They are good listeners who seek first to understand before launching into a presentation or conversation (note: this skill is not just useful for forming good internal relationships - it is also how the best marketers formulate messaging strategy and marketing copy).
They don’t get defensive when confronted with doubt or disagreement. Instead, they own 200% of the conversation and focus on adjusting their own message or communication style to suit the needs of the other party.
They are able to simplify the complex and deliver information quickly and concisely so that executive decision-makers can easily understand it and don’t feel they are wasting their time.
Most importantly, they care deeply about using communication to build relationships, whether that be with their colleagues, managers, clients, or other stakeholders within the company.
Measuring a candidate’s communication skills is something that naturally occurs throughout the hiring process, from evaluating their cover letter (Is it direct and to the point or long and rambling? Does it persuasively explain why they are the best candidate for the job? Do you like them just a little bit more after reading it?) to the interview (How do they respond when you ask them a challenging question? Do they use lots of “um’s” and “uh’s” or do they speak with confidence?) and - hopefully - the situation activity (I like to present them with a fictional situation and ask them to report to me - as the client - on the company’s marketing performance).
While it may seem like a given that someone with strong marketing skills will be a great communicator, that is - unfortunately - not always the case, so evaluating candidates for their communication style is an essential part of the interview process.
With every marketer I hire, I look for leadership skills and potential. This might seem odd, because not every marketing candidate is being hired for a role that will entail leading others.
I look at it this way. The best leaders know how to manage themselves, and that not only makes them better at their job - it inherently makes them capable of leading others.
What do I mean by this?
Well, great leaders understand their weaknesses and actively work to overcome them. They know their strengths and leverage them to increase their effectiveness. They are proactive, not reactive and they are skilled at controlling their emotions. They set goals and work towards them, and they manage their time effectively. They believe strongly that if they are going to do something, they will do it well, and passionately pursue mastery of their craft.
Some might call this “leading by example.”
I think it’s just plain “leadership.”
Throughout my years interviewing and hiring marketing managers, I’ve learned that the best way to identify leaders is to look for examples in other areas of their life.
Have they held a leadership role in school or a club they belong to? What are their interests outside of work and how do they balance those with their career? What are they passionate about and how are they working on getting better at it?
A candidate with strong leadership skills will naturally be a better and more effective marketer and if at some point they are interested in moving into a leadership role, they will have greater potential for advancement.
4. Lifelong Learner
Over the years I have there to be one trait that every single high performing marketer has - they are committed to being a lifelong learner.
They don’t view marketing as simply a job. For them, it's a passion.
They have an insatiable desire to deepen their knowledge about marketing, and to stay abreast of new developments in the field. When their workday ends, they don’t simply “clock out” - they read marketing and business books in their free time, listen to podcasts, and have a favorite blogger (or two or three) that they follow.
In short, they are always learning.
One of the questions I like to ask marketing manager candidates is “What is your favorite marketing book or blog?” The lifelong learners can immediately respond with a list of authors they follow and books they’ve enjoyed reading, along with the reasons why. These are the candidates you want to hire.
5. Critical Thinking
Marketing isn’t like math. When presented with a problem, you can’t simply use a set of pre-determined rules to solve it. Instead, you need to apply critical thinking skills.
“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”
Strong critical thinking skills are so important in marketing precisely because our own innate biases as human beings are the things that can prevent us from being effective marketers.
Our job is, by definition, to create, communicate and deliver value to the audiences we are trying to reach - and those audiences are diverse. Creating a successful marketing campaign requires that we set aside our opinions, life experiences and assumptions and dig deep into the needs, challenges, and preferences of our audience.
It also requires that we consistently question the status quo. Great marketing doesn’t come from running the same playbook over and over again. It is the product of educated risks.
How can you measure a candidates critical thinking skills?
Present them with a problem to solve. At IMPACT, our hiring process always includes a situation activity - a practical exercise that involves a problem-solving component. For marketing managers, that might mean providing them with a set of marketing data about a company and asking them to analyze it, diagnose any problems, and come up with a set of recommendations.
I also like to ask candidates questions like “What are the three biggest challenges facing companies today when it comes to marketing?” The answers I’ve gotten to this are very telling. The average candidate might give a surface level response such as “getting found online,” whereas the truly stellar marketer will provide a more thoughtful and nuanced answer.
There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than a marketer who sits around waiting to be told what to do. Heck, there’s nothing worse than any type of employee like this.
When I hire marketers, I look for people who will take the initiative. I want someone who will be a problem solver, and not wait around for someone to hand them a solution - someone who can assess a situation and take action.
This is particularly important in marketing, where you can frequently see the results of your work very quickly and take corrective action to get better results. For example, if we test out a new button color for call to action buttons and see that it performs well, I want my team to see that and immediately move to update the color of our other buttons - not to wait until they are asked to do so.
One way to assess initiative is to ask prospective marketing candidates about an idea or a concept that they’ve introduced or championed in a previous job. Can they cite an example of a time they’ve spoken up and shared a new idea? Did they take action and implement it?
Candidates with initiative tend to think like owners rather than employees and that makes them more likely to contribute to the growth of the company over the long term.
Marketing is all about results. It really doesn’t matter if you design the best email in the world if no one reads it. You can create what seems like an incredible campaign, but if it doesn’t drive business, what’s the point?
Marketers who are results-oriented are more aligned with the goals of the overall organization because they focus on the outcomes of their work rather than the process used to create it. That focus on outcomes also means they tend to be more efficient and effective because it frees them from the constraints of following a pre-defined process and encourages creativity.
I measure results-orientation in marketing candidates with one simple question: “How will you define success for yourself in this role?”
If the answer is something like “I get my work done on time and it is accurate,” or “I tried my best,” that is a red flag to me.
I much prefer a candidate who responds with something like, “The work I do delivers an increase in the number of qualified leads for the company,” or “We as a company hit our revenue targets.”
It’s Not Really About Marketing
You might have noticed that all 7 of the traits I’ve listed here have one thing in common - they’re not really about marketing. In fact, I would argue that every one of these 7 traits is something that you should look for regardless of the type of role you’re looking to fill.
The challenge with all of these is that they are not easily measured by simply looking at a resume or cover letter. Instead, you need carefully crafted interview questions, role plays, and situation activities to suss out a candidate’s soft skills and determine if they have what it takes to success as a marketing manager.
Most importantly, don’t compromise. Here at IMPACT, we like to say “If it’s a maybe, it’s a no” when evaluating marketing candidates.