Marketing is an extremely broad field that contains specialists and generalists. Generalists often lean toward strategy and specialists lean toward the execution of marketing tactics. However, this does not guarantee that a generalist is a good strategist, nor does a specialist automatically excel at execution. Then we have digital marketing — a highly complex and evolving field that requires many hats to be worn for leadership positions.
In working for multiple marketing agencies and being exposed to a larger agency culture, I have made the following observations about digital marketing leaders. First, when hiring for the director level or above, a majority of companies still struggle to identify the set of traits that characterize good digital marketing leaders. Some place such weight on business-sector knowledge that marketing leadership skills are deprioritized. From being around both great leaders and average leaders, here are the six traits that the great ones have in common:
1. Business Acumen
Business acumen is often qualified through education and/or professional experience. At a higher level, digital marketing leaders need to understand not just marketing, but business. They should understand that marketing does not exist in a vacuum and how marketing relates to finance, sales, supply chain, human capital and more.
2. Tech Savvy
This is probably the easiest trait to identify and qualify because digital marketing, by nature, is based in technology. Digital leaders must be tech savvy enough to understand what technology platforms exist in the marketplace that can help bring marketing strategies to fruition. Digital leaders don’t need to be experts on the platforms but should rely on specialists on their teams to be the experts. New platforms are always being introduced and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all; however, understanding how CRM, CMS, IoT, DMP, ESP and other systems function will allow this knowledge to transfer to new tech providers.
3. Digital Channel Savvy
AdWords or Facebook ads? Email or SMS communication with customers? Digital marketing leaders should have a high level of knowledge about different digital marketing channels and the best use cases to execute on these channels. They should be able to build a multichannel ecosystem and strategy that will support overall business and marketing objectives.
The left brain gets a healthy workout among digital marketing leaders. They have an ability to spot trends in data, ask questions, lay out key performance indicators and put systems in place to measure success. This means creating test plans in different marketing channels, understanding return on investment and other finance-related metrics and knowing which metrics matter the most. Data abounds in marketing, and marketing leaders understand how to sift through the data to procure what is most important to their goals.
In this case, being bilingual does not mean speaking two languages. It means having the ability to explain digital marketing tactics and technology to an audience that is not familiar with the concepts. Digital marketers often live in a digital marketing bubble and don’t realize that the majority of their clients, co-workers and leadership team members do not. I have heard countless times that an employee is smart about digital marketing but doesn’t have the ability to articulate it at a level the audience can understand. Great digital marketing leaders have the ability to demystify the subject and speak at an accessible level for any audience.
This trait requires right-brained thinking and is one of the reasons it’s difficult to find digital marketing leaders with all six of these traits. Most people are either heavily right-brained or left-brained. To find a candidate with both is rare, which is why they are so valuable. Creativity is important for digital marketing leaders for a couple of reasons. First, creativity provides value when overseeing creative members of the digital team to ensure that what is produced aligns with overall digital marketing strategy. Second, digital leaders must be able to think at the speed of innovation. This means that while creating today’s digital marketing ecosystems, they are also thinking beyond and keeping a pulse on emerging technologies that can impact the future of marketing. Digital marketing leaders don’t have to be creative geniuses, but they do need to have a creative bone in their body.
Finding a leader that possesses all of these traits is easier than finding a unicorn — but not by much. Most digital marketing leaders I have come across over the years have a good four or five of these. The ones who have all six are the ones who help position companies for the future, are respected by their leadership teams and subordinates alike and help to shift company culture. Great digital marketing leaders not only get results but also make those around them better marketers.
If you’re in the marketing field now or considering a career in marketing, I challenge you to rank yourself on a scale of one to five for each of these traits. This will help you identify the areas in which you are soaring and the areas in which you can improve. Then, research those areas and position yourself to be the next digital marketing leader at your company. If you’re a hiring manager, let this be a guide to help identify your next digital marketing leader.