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A typical client for a full Marketing Transformation Programme has typically just recruited, or is about to recruit, into their first marketing leadership role. That is, their first head of marketing or marketing director as a key strategic member of the team. Finding the right person is rarely simple. Let’s explore why this is. ~ Bryony Thomas, Author | Watertight Marketing

When recruiting into a role that has never previously existed within an organisation, it can be particularly tough to know what you’re looking for. Firstly, because you have no previous role to model it on, and usually because you’re recruiting to fill a skill gap… which means there’s no expert on your side of the table.

Many of our clients have come to us bruised by a bad hire, or struggling to get the strategic impact having missed the mark on the job specification. So, let’s look at the ingredients that make someone an effective marketing director in a scaling business.

A careful cocktail of seemingly contradictory skills…

As I’ve written this article, what’s struck me is how many of the attributes, that I consider essential to a high performing marketing director, appear to be a finely balanced mix of what might initially seem to be contradictory skills. That might be why these people are hard to find, and hard to keep!

Now, I’ve been heard saying that I love marketing as a career because we get the best bits of everybody else’s jobs. So, let’s go beyond what you might find by Googling a role spec, to take that perspective – a look around an organisation at how the marketing director interfaces into each of the classic leadership roles. Then, I’ll add on a few other must-haves in those marketers that are truly exceptional. In the interest of not turning this into another book, I’ll keep these thoughts short and sweet. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments, as I’m sure this is one of those that could run and run.

A look around a board room table…

  • Finance… An effective marketing director is financially savvy, fully aligned with the financial goals of the business, but is very often the one to ensure that decisions are not made based on profit any any cost.
  • Technology… There’s no doubt that an effective marketing director needs to be much more technically astute than ever before. They need to know what is possible with digital techniques, but – crucially – they need to know when digital is not the answer.
  • Operational management… One of the key things we do in our programmes is to embed a marketing operation into a business. It’s the marketing director’s role to run and continually improve this. Where no such thing has previously existed, they’ll need to build this. This takes a commitment to process, and to a consistent rhythm – both in the way the internal system runs – and in the way the business shows up in the outside world. Having a marketing director who wants to continually reinvent the wheel, or who doesn’t see the value in good process, will definitely slow your business down.
  • Customer service… Any follower of Watertight Marketing will know that we consider the purpose of marketing to support someone through to a buying decision with which they remain happy. And, that our first focus is always on the customers you already have. An effective marketing director will always consider customer and account-based marketing to be one of their top priorities. Anyone who sees the role of marketing as chucking leads over the fence to sales, or that existing customers are someone else’s responsibility, is not right for a scaling business.
  • Sales… ahh, that old chestnut! This may not make me popular, but I think sales and marketing should be seen as elements of the same discipline, and should have one reporting line. A marketing director worth their salt is one that understands sales as a process, and as a skill. A salesperson who reaches for a blank sheet of paper, or who thinks marketing is a waste of effort, has been badly let down by their marketing director.
  • People… As with all leadership roles, it’s most often people you need to lead! For the marketing director, getting buy-in from across the organisation is often the most challenging part of the role. Being able to handle a cynic in finance, bring longevity into the view of a short-term focused head of a sales, or introducing a new approach to a risk-averse operational manager, can be make or break on getting the marketing plan delivered. They also need to get and keep everyone on message. Then there’s understanding and meeting the needs of the people in their own team (if they have one) and within the marketing suppliers… and taking the perspective of those other people in the picture… your customers!

What they bring to the board room…

Whilst the skills above are often about the points of interface with other disciplines, a marketing director will also need to bring their own expertise. Specifically:

  • Insight… Many will argue that data-driven marketing is what we mean by insight in a marketing context. Now, I’m from a big data background and have seen the power of predictive modelling and deep data insight. But, remember, an effective marketing director needs to know when to look up from the numbers and trust their wider instincts.
  • Innovation… Is there anything more faddy around the board room table than marketing? There’s a real tension here. An effective marketing director needs to be up to date with trends and emerging channels, but not easily distracted by shiny things.
  • Creativity… This is a quality that many claim to look for in a marketer. For me, it’s the ability to draw out the creativity in others that is often more important in a marketing leadership role. I’d also say that ensuring that creativity has a grounding in common sense is vital, particularly in a scale-up context.
  • Visual communication… What a company looks like most often falls to the marketer, which is as it should be, but I’d caution against someone in the leadership role who fancies themselves to be a designer. They should understand design principles, but getting pixel deep in each design will be a massive distraction.
  • Written communication… Again, the tone of voice, stories, and metaphor a company uses is often driven by the marketer. I’d caution against employing someone who fancies themselves a journalist. They need to be able to identify the needs, brief the writers, get the team excited about the content you need – but, actually writing every word is unlikely to be time well spent.
  • Psychology… This! This is probably at the heart of what sets someone apart. Understanding how real people make decisions is critical to putting together marketing activity that facilitates them to do so. For me, truly effective marketing directors know not only that a technique works, but also (at a reasonable level) why that is.

My little list of contradictions…

What struck me is the tension in the role. So much balancing. For example:

  • A strategic thinker, also able to select great tactics.
  • A big picture person, who also has an eye for detail.
  • Taking a long term view, whilst being responsive to a changing market.
  • An opportunity spotter, but not easily distracted by shiny things.
  • On top of the latest trends, whilst also schooled in fundamentals.
  • Able to look at the world from many perspectives, whilst also having an opinion.
  • Being informed by validated insights and evidence, but also having great instincts.
  • Being collaborative, whilst being willing to take a stand when necessary.
  • Being sales minded and profit focussed, whilst protecting the brand values.
  • Being the customers’ champion, whilst having the best interests of the company in mind.
  • Being efficient with all resources, but not starving the process with penny pinching.

You get the picture! And, why defining the role, finding that special mix of skills, and keeping them can be a tricky task indeed.

Where to compromise…

These are not easy people to find. You’ll almost always find yourself having to compromise. But where?

Go for breadth rather than depth

Find yourself a great generalist, rather than a marketer with deep expertise in a specific area. Many of the deeper skills in marketing (like copywriting, design, digital tools, PR, etc.) can be affordably resourced with plentiful freelance or agency support. Finding someone who understands buying psychology, has a structured approach, and can work well with the other key areas of your business is much more important in the long term.

If you’re thinking of hiring your first marketer, do talk to one of our Certified Practitioners. They can help you to scope the role, interview, on-board and mentor them to ensure you get exactly what your scaling business needs.

© Watertight Marketing Ltd


Bryony Thomas

Bryony Thomas

Author & Founder, Watertight Marketing

Bryony Thomas is the creator of the multi-award winning  Watertight Marketing methodology, captured in her best-selling book of the same name. She is one of the UK's foremost marketing thinkers, featured by the likes of Forbes, The Guardian, Business Insider and many more, and in-demand speaker for business conferences, in-house sales days and high-level Board strategy days.

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