If you work in the digital marketing world like me, you might have noticed a gradual increase in the number of recruiters calling with a wish to fill some pretty big roles in Fortune 500 companies. Just last week my friend Pete Blackshaw was hired as Global Digital Officer for Nestle. I won’t list other searches I’ve heard about here for obvious reasons, but let’s just say that some of the largest, most respected brands in the world are looking for senior digital talent. Roles like Senior VP of Digital Marketing and Chief Digital Officer are opening up. These companies are looking to hire candidates with skills that you might expect—things like several years of experience with both traditional and digital marketing. But there is a bigger theme running through this rising need. Companies are looking for digital experts who can confidently lead them through change. Digital experience, titles, knowledge, and awards do not equal leadership, but if you have the latter, the doors could open quickly.
It should serve as no surprise that major marketing-driven corporations are elevating digital leadership roles. Their consumers are increasingly going to digital media first, and the line between offline and online has become sufficiently blurred. In some cases, Chief Marketing Officers are looking for a right-hand digital native who can help them learn the new rules of the lead marketer role. And a little more than 15 years since the first websites and banners went up, there is now a pool of candidates with seniority and experience.
Despite the high demand for such roles and what should be an ample supply by now, recruiters tell me that many potential candidates lack the ability to provide the needed level of organizational leadership. I hear this in comments like, “We need someone who is confident in front of the CEO,” and, “Digital people seem less willing to bring forward recommendations and more frequently just wait to receive guidance.”
After spending my past 15 years working on both the client side at Procter & Gamble and now on the agency side, I generally believe that there are both perceived and real issues around the leadership skills of digital experts at large companies. Perception-wise, there is usually a bias to give more weight to the opinions of those who “own the P&L.” Experts in every area—from PR to Design to Product Supply—rarely have direct business decision-making responsibility, so senior leadership can have a tendency to discount what they say.
But I believe this lack of P&L ownership leads to a very real issue: Digital experts can come to believe that they are not really key business influencers, and end up waiting for an assignment or request for input rather than driving the dialogue, project list, and budget requests. One friend of mine in a senior digital position recently told me that, “I am waiting for one of my people to come into my office with a recommendation on what our brand should do next.” Instead of “managing up” and leading the thinking on what the team should be doing—say, what new technology is ripe for attention—his team was waiting for assignments to trickle down.
The good news is that a leadership mentality is something that you can take on at any time in your career. You certainly do not have to come from the client side or have owned a P&L at some point. Sometimes you just need to reset your thinking and choose to drive your work plan rather than waiting for it.
I have generally seen digital experts succeed in leading when they are given more specific ownership of projects or pieces of the business (for example, “owning” the brand website, a CRM program, or an e-commerce initiative). In these cases individuals tend to feel that they are expected to drive overall business success, rather than simply delivering on a project plan. The best digital leaders take on this mentality at a corporate-wide scale. They convince themselves (and others) that the entire company is depending on them to figure out how to win in digital marketing, and they propose and fight for the strategies, budgets, and work plans needed to win.
Thinking bigger picture—I expect that in the future we will see the “digital expert” role go away and instead brand leaders have digital knowledge and experience baked in. This goes hand-in-hand with all of the talk that traditional and digital advertising agencies will merge into one. So if you’re in a digitally focused role today, this is your opportunity, your mandate, to lead your organization into a new land. You just might become the CMO of the future.