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Hiring a Digital Unicorn

  |  July 5, 2012   |  Comments   |  

Companies often have unrealistic expectations of what one person can achieve, particularly in newer areas of digital marketing, such as social media. Consider this example.

When it comes to digital marketing, companies frequently make expensive hiring mistakes, because they're not clear on what they need. To quote a recent example, a friend was offered a US$170k package for an in-house digital marketing role.

He was excited - the company was interesting, and it had a promising growth path ahead of it, and he felt an excellent rapport with the management.

But he eventually declined the offer. Why?

He counted 14 different professional specializations on the job description, and although the company liked his thinking and he liked the company, he felt they were just not realistic about resourcing digital marketing.

"They're looking for a digital unicorn," he said.

Companies often have unrealistic expectations of what one person can achieve in-house. Although companies with an established team of digital marketers appreciate the range of specializations required, companies still in the startup phase of digital marketing or social media may assume that one good hire can accomplish everything.

In the construction industry, no one would expect a handyman to be an architect, or an architect to do the plastering. But sometimes, in-house digital marketers are expected to be everything at once. They are expected to operate the factory while designing and building it.

Some companies prefer to keep chasing the digital unicorn - the idea that one good hire can achieve everything - rather than invest in thinking through what they need.

In newer areas of digital marketing, such as social media, the waters are murkier. You can see many job ads for "social media strategists" with a job description that is basically a non-prioritized wish list. There are a number of variations, but here is what many of them seem to be saying if you strip out the minutae and summarize the main elements into three categories:

1. Strategy, prioritization, and planning (define the path to success):

Important, but not urgent - success starts here, but you can't plan and hit the ground running at the same time. Many companies will not have done this thoroughly.

  • Educate the company decision makers about what social media can do and seek their input on what priorities should be [pitfall: the wish list gets longer]
  • Provide expertise and advice on social media trends and new channels [pitfall: shiny tools syndrome - just because it's new doesn't mean we need it yet]
  • Develop a social media strategy covering external and internal facing social media, in alignment with business unit strategy and corporate objectives [pitfall: this isn't something you do in an afternoon, and it requires much more than just knowledge of social media]

2. Day-to-day operations (implement and improve our programs and campaigns):

Urgent - so chances are, you are fated to spend all your time here...

  • Add social media to all existing programs, events, and campaigns both internal and external [until you're spread thin]
  • Manage [read: operate] and improve our 28 social media channels, keeping them supplied with interesting content [now you're spread really thin]
  • Upskill campaign teams on best practice social media marketing [sometimes this means "turn our people into experts overnight"]

3. Periodic measurement, analytics, and actionable insights:

Important, but quite meaningless without getting 1. right, and resourcing 2. properly.

  • Measure effectiveness of social media programs [but what are we actually measuring - does it have a business impact?]
  • Leveraging online monitoring and reporting tools
  • Analyze results and deliver actionable insights to the business [How can insights have an impact? Can the candidate drive change?]

What's often not understood is that the personal qualities and professional skills required to do all of these things aren't often found in the same person. To architect a successful marketing program from scratch, a candidate must understand the business, achieve buy-in at all levels, and drive change. But the kind of person who is good at doing this isn't necessarily good at creating content, for example.

Sometimes, a company is lucky enough to find a true all-rounder, such as the friend I mentioned, but that caliber of candidate is choosy and comes with a big price tag - he decided he didn't want a role where he was expected to architect strategy, campaigns, and programs at the strategic end, while using Photoshop and doing HTML coding at the implementation end.

In the end, he declined the offer and suggested that the company hire a project manager and implementer at a more junior level, with the caveat that the company cannot expect them to drive strategy or achieve game-changing results.

This kind of candid advice is rare: the company said they'd reconsider how they structure the role, and a day later, the job advertisement was taken down.

Home page photo from Shutterstock.


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Jon  Hoel

Jon leads planning and strategy for TheFARM Singapore, one of the fastest-growing digital agencies in the region.

Current clients include SPRING Singapore, the National Climate Change Secretariat, Marks & Spencer , Costa Coffee, Clarke Quay, and Mount Novena Hospital.

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