How much should you value industry experience when hiring a marketer? Of course, it depends on the role and the situation, but you’d be surprised how little deep industry experience matters in many cases. No, really. Technical knowledge or existing contacts can help your new hire hit the ground running, but it’s also unlikely to expose you to new thinking from outside your industry.
I’m asked this question all the time because I help service firms build effective strategies to guide their marketing activities. I also get challenged as I frequently consult in industries where I lack years of direct experience. I don’t think I’m the exception that proves the rule.
A lot depends on what you are hiring for
Regardless of the role, you want big thinkers who think not just about what is, but about what could be. Most importantly you want someone who will push your firm to become fundamentally better marketers. Done well, marketing is a strategic function that instills clarity to every corner of your organization so that *everything* works better. The more people in your organization who recognize strategic business (business worth much more than the immediate fees), the stronger your business becomes. Marketing needs to lead the way. Really successful professional services firms take this holestic concept of marketing seriously, recognizing that when there are other quality firms great delivery is no longer a differentiator.
If you’re content to be like everyone else, hire the same old, same old. You’ll rarely be surprised, but that kind of stability brings few benefits. While conventional wisdom says you are safe sticking with industry experts, in my experience working with a someone who professes to be an industry guru creates a false sense of security, whether you are hiring them full-time, as a contractor or a consultant. The industry expert often expounds on the same things you’re accustomed to see, so you’ve added less to your capability than you think. The initial comfort from this approach often departs in a hurry when “sudden” change blindsides you. As with most change, “sudden” change proceeds very slowly, until it moves quickly.
When hiring, a colleague looks for someone “a little bit weird” as a way of moving away from the pack. Not every hire ends up as a perfect fit, but he’s landed some superstars this way.
Dominate market leaders cruising along may weigh factors differently, but my clients are generally “stuck” in that what worked in the past is no longer working. Consequently, they tend to be more open to new approaches.
Know what you are buying
What my clients buy is a strategic marketing plan. The enduring deliverable is not the plan, but rather teaching the leadership the value (and how to build) a marketing culture that understands marketing’s strategic role across the business. To do this firms need a strategy that is beyond industry-specific to be firm-specific. Because my client knows their industry and I work collaboratively, I contribute more value by understanding my client than deep knowledge of the industry. A strategic marketing plan leads them to a better idea of who they want to hire for on-going execution. Depending on the situation and their complete resource set, the desired depth of industry experience can be set appropriately.
What makes sense for a creating a strategic marketing plan makes less sense when hiring an agency. In that case, I’d generally look for industry knowledge and steer clear of anyone advocating the latest fad from a very different industry. The difference between a good consulting approach and a typical agency approach and why it matters? That’ll be a future article.