Leading the Way Out of the Skills Gap in Digital Marketing

Leading the Way Out of the Skills Gap in Digital Marketing

“The survey results suggest that many organizations are prioritizing execution above strategy in an attempt to get ahead of the rapid development of online platforms.” – Marketing Got Complicated: Challenges (and Opportunities) for Marketers at Mid-Sized Companies, 2014 Industry Research Report from DNN Software and Lawless Research. 

After reading this report, we decided to check in with executive search specialist Barbara Ashton to hear her views on what’s behind the challenges of creating an effective digital marketing strategy. With more than 25 years as a top recruiter in the high tech and industrial sectors, Barb has heard it all and has a lot of insights to offer.

  1. What are the dynamics you’ve been seeing behind this concern?

    Companies these days face stressful, fast-paced environments, and digital marketing moves so fast it makes the whole picture truly overwhelming. Marketing is so complex now. It’s multi-media and multi-channel. Marketing managers need to get comfortable with digital marketing. Not just because they’ll create better strategies, but also because these days they’re leading teams with a wider range of skills.
    I definitely see a skills gap problem. I see experienced marketing managers who are uncomfortable with digital marketing, and when that happens, there’s a tendency to run online campaigns separately from the rest of the marketing programs. So they miss out on the benefits of an integrated strategy. 

    I also see marketing becoming more IT-intensive and technical. I’m hearing the term “marketing IT” a lot. That’s IT support for marketing operations, which used to be a lot simpler. But when IT departments are stretched and their first priority is to keep enterprise systems running, marketing teams either stand at the back of the line or start hiring their own technical staff.
    Aren’t the team members doing digital marketing able to bring about that integrated approach?
    The skills gap here is one of business knowledge: how the company operates, what matters to their customers, what’s going on with the market and the competition. The problem is that most companies hire junior staff for digital marketing. New hires might understand how to use social media but they haven’t been in the workforce long enough to understand business. So they’re tactical.
  2. Hasn’t this ‘knowledge of the business’ gap always been the case with new hires?

    Yes. Normally you’d expect them to pick up that knowledge through on-the-job learning.
    Unfortunately, new hires in this situation are as overwhelmed as their managers. They don’t have as much time to absorb what the work environment can teach because they need to stay on top of changes in the market. Whenever Google or Facebook change their algorithms, they have to figure out how that affects marketing practices. 

    Plus, in smaller companies, they’re trying to learn such a wide range of skills. The person who’s good at SEO isn’t always the best one for planning content marketing strategy or community management, but they’re under pressure to try anyway.
  3. Is the answer as simple as hiring experienced digital marketers instead of junior staff?

    That would be a great solution, but the truth is that right now marketing professionals with experience in both traditional and digital marketing are extremely hard to find. 

    It’s a time of transition. Businesses are just starting to acknowledge the need for new competencies. They’re hiring people who can use digital marketing tools because those are the skills they need to execute programs. But if you want strategy, it’s still up to senior managers to formulate strategy, to set goals and oversee marketing programs. They’re the ones who guide the team, right?
  4. What do you think is easier? Teaching younger marketing team members about the business or updating senior team members?

    If marketing strategy is what’s at stake, I think the priority is to train senior marketing professionals. They need to be comfortable creating strategies and executing on them with campaigns that make the best use of traditional print and PR, media, SEO, content marketing, PPC, and social media. They need to feel confident about the outcomes.  

    It sounds as though you’re putting the onus on senior marketing managers to bridge the gap.

    Absolutely. I would like to see more marketing executives update their skills. They don’t need to know how to set up a Google Analytics dashboard or run an Adwords campaign. They just need to understand where these fit into the marketing toolbox: what’s the role of SEO, social media, blogging, content marketing, pay-per-click, and mobile? How can one tactic leverage the other? What results should you expect or not expect? What’s measurable and what’s worth measuring?
  5. So are we talking night school for executives?

    No. I would start with a one or two-day training course where you can get a group rate and bring in the whole team. This is the best value for your training dollars because you can ask questions based on real-life examples, which makes it more productive for everyone. Turn it into an off-site meeting. Plus, at the end of the course, you have a team that’s operating from the same knowledge base. 

    The other thing I’ve seen work well is to follow up by hiring a digital marketing agency to work on a campaign or two. In this situation, make it clear to both your team and the agency that knowledge transfer is part of the deal. Make it an on-the-job training opportunity for your team members. They benefit from the guidance of professionals who have done this type of work before, so it speeds up the team’s learning curve. 
  6. What’s your biggest beef these days when you see a marketing job posting?

    When I see employers asking for a ‘social media ninja’ or some other type of ninja, I worry they might be operating from a limited perspective that says ‘I just need someone to do X’. I worry they might be ignoring the metrics in their rush to accomplish X. 

    Digital marketing is a game of incremental improvements. There’s never been so much data for marketing to drool over. But unless you pay attention to metrics, you won’t get the insights you need to optimize your marketing programs. And without that, you don’t get marketing ROI.  
  7. What’s the next hot job in marketing?

    The technical marketing specialist. This is the person you need for your SEO, to support your pay-per-click campaigns, to help optimize your eCommerce site. This is the number cruncher, the one who pulls the data and helps interpret the results. The one who can discuss marketing needs with the IT department. I can see stats majors heading into this role. If you find stats majors who enjoy marketing, it’s worth the investment to give them the training to be technical marketing specialists.

    And of course, the other hot job is the marketing manager we talked about – the one who is savvy about both traditional and digital marketing!

    Barbara Ashton is an executive search and recruiting professional at Ashton & Associates Recruiting. She has spent over 30 years in B.C. as a top recruiter, hiring key, hard-to-find employees in management, sales, high tech, trades, accounting, administration, human resources, and operations. She is widely known for her insight, clarity and expert hiring results, no matter the level of seniority. She is the consummate recruiter, and someone who doesn’t pull any punches, because it’s her passion to pursue the highest and greatest good for all parties.

    Martin Wong is Chief Marketing Officer at Smartt.com, a digital consulting agency based in Vancouver, Canada. Martin enjoys using his marketing, technology, creative and analytical skills to help clients execute digital marketing programs that achieve measurable results. 

Head Office

#113-3855 Henning Drive
BC V5C 6N3 Canada


Toll Free
in North America: 1-888-407-6937
Tel: 604.473.9700
Fax: 604.473.9080



# Social media

Get a free proposal