Is an ‘obsession’ with digital skills excluding talent from the workplace?

The pace of change within marketing often means those returning from a career break, in particular women returning from maternity leave, face a digital skills confidence gap, exacerbated by the behaviour of employers.

Digital skills
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Is an obsession with digital skills causing brands to miss out on a talent pool of dedicated, experienced and strategically savvy marketers?

In truth, is this preoccupation with a narrow skillset discriminating against women returning to the workplace, who feel their skills no longer fit the industry they love?

Speaking on a recent edition of Marketing Week’s This Much I Learned podcast, Mums in Marketing founder Claire Ferreira shared her experience of returning after maternity leave to the onset of the “digital revolution”. While her clients believed in her talent, Ferreira felt she didn’t have the digital skills the industry was fixated on.

“Our industry was changing, there was no standardisation. And I was completely at a loss on how this was going to go. That really was my first experience around feeling like an impostor,” she recalls. “They knew what I was capable of. I didn’t believe it.”

The experience led to over-delivery and overwork, as Ferreira spent evenings reading up on the latest digital trends. Returning from the birth of her second child, she was hired into a new job for her ability to deliver to deadlines and launch new products. However, the cycle of overworking and Googling digital skills at night returned.

We automatically push ourselves too hard, because we constantly feel the need to show that we offer value.

Anonymous marketer

After being let go by the business just before the start of the pandemic, Ferreira decided to speak out about her experiences.

“What did that mean? Would I never get work because I talked about not feeling like I’d had time? And you know, there’s all kinds of connotations around upskilling and catching up,” she recalls.

“I’d been raising humans. I contribute and being able to speak and say: ‘I am here for the equality of what I bring as a mother and the passion that I will absolutely pour into our industry.’ Might not have as many qualifications, but there’s no greater champion.”

Thousands of women reached out in response and the Mums in Marketing community was born.

A senior female marketer and Mums in Marketing member, speaking to Marketing Week in an anonymous capacity, relates to Ferreira’s experience. She feels the pace of change in marketing makes it difficult to keep up regardless of taking a career break.

Given her level of seniority, her skills and experience are weighted towards strategy and a broader understanding of the discipline, rather than coding a website or how to approach SEO from a technical perspective.

“You don’t want to admit that you don’t know everything, but at the same time it’s impossible to know everything. Especially when you’re where I am in between the two worlds, it’s a very difficult place to live,” she explains.

This marketer felt herself being pigeonholed as a “technophobe”, despite having a strong understanding of digital, because these ‘technical skills’ are not part of her day-to-day role.

Strategic nous

It appears some brands fail to appreciate that when marketers get to a certain level of seniority their focus shifts to setting strategy, rather than getting into the minutiae of digital delivery.

On the Marketing Week podcast, Ferreira referenced a recent post from a marketing director and Mums in Marketing member. The marketer in question reported finding it hard to move her career forward because she cannot demonstrate highly specific digital skills, having been focused on strategic delivery.

Job specifications, she explained, ask for direct experience in all areas of digital from SEO to paid social.

By focusing solely on digital skills, Ferreira is concerned brands are walking away from an experienced, loyal and passionate talent pool. Are companies, in fact, blinded by a desire to find every skill in a single candidate?

“To lean on a metaphor, just because you can have your lunch and your dessert all on one plate to save on the washing up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do it,” Ferreira says.

The senior female marketer speaking to Marketing Week anonymously, agrees there is a “huge disparity” between understanding digital marketing and the need to be able to do everything yourself.

There’s all kinds of connotations around upskilling and catching up. I’d been raising humans. I contribute.

Claire Ferreira, Mums in Marketing

“The expectation that you can do it, but also that you’re going to work at a strategic level and look at the bigger picture, are conflicting needs,” she notes.

This marketer believes brands are often looking for one person to do everything in order to only pay one wage.

“What they’re asking for is realistically two to three people’s worth of jobs. But rather than cost the business that kind of money, they would prefer to try and find [one person] – and it’s almost becoming a bit of a unicorn,” she explains.

The marketer in question believes employers rely on a desire among marketing talent to stay abreast of the latest trends and therefore abdicate responsibility for training, believing staff should upskill in their own time. She worries this attitude stems from marketing’s own need to prove its value, something not required in the same way of other functions.

“You’re constantly striving to prove your worth and value to a business, because what gets cut first when businesses are struggling? Marketing budgets,” she notes.

Throw into the mix the fact women returning from maternity leave are often extremely hard on themselves and feel a sense of gratitude at having a job at all, the marketer adds, which adds pressure to prove themselves.

“We’re just grateful to have a wage coming in. We automatically push ourselves too hard, because we constantly feel the need to show that we offer value, reinforce why we’re there and why we deserve the job,” she explains.

“When in reality, we’re probably delivering over and above within the scope and then we’re pushing even harder to deliver that.”

Take a step back

It has been floated that a ‘digital tick box mentality’ from hiring managers could be being driven by their own ignorance of the latest trends. The senior marketer speaking to Marketing Week urges employers to keep an open mind and consider the aspects of their own role they may not always understand.

“It’s like when you have an ops director who looks after the IT department. They don’t know the inner workings of a computer, but that does not mean they cannot manage an IT team. It’s the same principles,” she points out.

“Take yourself out of the day to day. You wouldn’t do that within your role, so why is that your expectation of someone you’re looking to hire?”

Jennie Green, head of marketing at Right Fuel Card, a B2B business within the vehicle fuel card sector, believes the speed of change within marketing is almost unique. Yet, behind the emergence of new channels and algorithm changes, the principles never change.

“It’s these skills which I worry more about being lost, because people get so wrapped up in knowing the latest fad that it’s like: ‘Yeah, but can you read a report on it?’ And people go: ‘Well no, actually,’” she says.

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When it comes to hiring, Green is keen to avoid obsessing over digital skills. While she accepts some roles may require specialist skills, such as SEO or PPC (pay-per-click), she is looking for talent who are comfortable with analysis given “digital is just another channel”.

“If you can look at results and be able to pinpoint trends, pinpoint issues, it almost doesn’t matter what the channel is. It’s that analytical ability that we’re looking for,” she explains.

“It’s that soft skill to be able to organise yourself and go: ‘What do I need to be able to run this channel? Is it creative? Do I need a report for it? What kind of metrics am I looking for? And that is very channel agnostic. That is where generalists really come into their own, because they don’t see the channel, they see the needs behind it.”

Green believes in building an age diverse team. Last year she hired a female marketer with analytical and strategic experience who could take control of a key digital channel, rather than obsessing over finding a specialist.

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“It was great because she could come in, take the channel by the reins and get on with it,” Green explains. “Yes, she’d done a bit of email in the past, she wasn’t a specialist at it, but because she understood all the other aspects she could just crack on.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Green has a marketing executive on her team interested in social media who she’s been helping develop skills in analytics, planning and understanding audiences.

People get so wrapped up in knowing the latest fad that it’s like: ‘Yeah, but can you read a report on it?’

Jennie Green, Right Fuel Card

For those marketers looking to grow their skillset, Green rates the insights gained by following marketing leaders on LinkedIn, as well as free online learning sites such as Google Digital Garage and the HubSpot academy.

Even if these learnings are not being used in your day-to-day job, Green advises putting the skills on your CV and discussing in job interviews who you follow in the industry, from agencies and Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, to engaging with communities like the Marketing Meetup.

Green urges female marketers to put themselves forward for roles even if they don’t feel fully prepared, because they never know what a hiring manager might be looking for. She also sees the importance of bouncing ideas off your peers, noting the invaluable support provided by communities such as Mums in Marketing.

The anonymous senior marketer agrees women in general undervalue their abilities, only applying for roles where they can check off 100% of the skills required. She believes brands should hire talent based on attitude and potential, as skills can be taught.

“When you apply for a job, you shouldn’t be able to tick all those boxes, because otherwise what’s the point? If you’re not going to stretch yourself and challenge yourself in terms of your own development, you may as well just stay in the role that you’re in,” she argues.

“If you could do all the things that you’re applying for, I’m not really sure why you’re there. But again, we’re all guilty of not feeling like we’re good enough, because we can’t tick all those boxes. And there needs to be a mental shift.”

Resisting digital obsession

Expressing her wider concern about the “boardroom obsession with digital marketing”, a second senior female marketer tells Marketing Week she walked away from her role after reasoned arguments based on marketing fundamentals, data and research were ignored.

The marketer in question had worked at her company for many years, promoting a balanced use of the entire marketing mix, blending long-term brand building with short-term tactical execution.

When the pandemic struck, she campaigned hard not to eliminate brand spend, while continuing to maintain channels like content and SEO. She also embarked on a brand positioning exercise to make the company accessible to more customers.

Having left for maternity leave in August 2020, she returned in September 2021 to find the business had dialled down its marketing spend, while its competitors had ramped up their SEO efforts, rebuilt websites and developed content strategies. She left a team of 30, arriving back to a team of five.

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Recognising there was work to be done to bounce back, the marketer in question developed a strategy for each aspect of the marketing mix, getting the team excited for the challenge ahead.

Yet, despite the rationale behind the strategy, all the wider business wanted was direct response advertising and to “spend on Google”.

“They were like: ‘We need to show that when we spend marketing money, we get a response.’ I was like: ‘We’re going to spend too much with Google and we’re adding to the erosion of our brand.’ They said: ‘No, but we need to show that we have a direct response,’” the marketer recalls.

“It didn’t matter that everything we’d built was on data, both qual and quant. It was built on sound marketing practices. It was built on the fundamental building blocks.”

She explains it felt like the management had read a book which said only digital marketing exists and were telling her which part of the funnel to play in. Knowing she could not deliver a workable strategy under these conditions, and feeling her own values were being eroded, the marketer decided to walk away.

Especially in challenging times, brands need to resist the urge to obsess over digital metrics and ROI at any costs, she argues, noting that from hiring priorities to decisions made around the boardroom table, strategic marketing nous is being lost.



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