The Juniorisation of marketing…

Thank you for your positive feedback on last Friday’s article. It has been suggested I do a headline test, so to those who have already read this blog over the last couple days, please excuse the repeat performance – I’ll let you know results if I learn anything. There will be a new post tomorrow.

As part of the research for updating one of my marketing books, I have been meeting and talking with senior people in the marketing industry – in marketing departments, agencies and recruitment companies.

A recurring theme in the conversations is the decline in senior direct marketing experience in agencies and marketing departments. The recent love affair with digital technology and digital channels means many have lost focus on the ­way of marketing that is essential in a digital world – direct marketing.

The last decade has been the easiest period in history to run DM agencies, data consultancies and digital agencies. Marketers poured buckets of money into them to build websites, create online videos, attempt viral campaigns, build social media sites, design Apps, manage SEM/SEO, produce content, set-up data analytics and more. Agencies didn’t have to try to grow their businesses – their clients did it for them.

Spend our money and make yourself rich...
Spend our money and make yourself rich…

As the saying goes; ‘good times breed bad habits’. And now we’re seeing the outcome of the lack of investment in professional development in these good times. Metaphorical muffin-tops sit astride senior roles, all because they know something about binary code, rather than marketing or management. And now they are struggling to grow their businesses because they don’t have the management expertise. So it’s not really their fault.

Yet companies keep hiring people based on their technical skills, not their business skills. As one recruiter said when referring to the digital blindness occurring with hiring for senior roles:

It’s become the equivalent of choosing the bloke who made the cricket bats instead of Steve Waugh, to be the captain of the Aussie cricket team. He makes the tools for the players, he’s not a team leader.”

Nice bat, we'll make you team captain...
Nice bat, we’ll make you team captain…

He’s right. I don’t recall prior to the interweb, any advertising agency appointing finished artists or film editors to the role of MD or CEO.

So why appoint someone with a limited technical platform experience – digital – to run an agency, marketing department or online business? Let them put their skills to use where they are best suited. It’s why promoting sales people to be sales managers is often a mistake – they are hunters not farmers and the skills to do both jobs are vastly different.

And it’s one reason so much money has been wasted online – technology not marketing has become the focus. Instead of marketers reducing their budgets thanks to the analytics provided by the interweb, they continued to spend shareholder’s funds like there was no tomorrow.

Although according to the head of a leading industry association the number of major brands now reducing their social media spend is growing. But that’s not really surprising. There has also been an increase in the number of digital agencies closing.

The big issue facing agency CEOs is finding experienced leaders who really know how to grow businesses and staff, now that digital budgets are stagnating. There is an abundance of binary code skills and digital production people. But there are less of the skills required to lead a business.

I’ve been been developing digital marketing stuff since 1994, so have been hiring in the category for 20 years.  I’ve run 8 different digital agencies and online businesses of various sizes, as well as 2 data businesses, but couldn’t cut code to feed myself – I don’t need to know the technical specifics of the interweb to run the business.

I own an email marketing business, but have no idea how to write HTML.  And I’ve hired loads of people with technical and computer skills, but never for management roles – most don’t want them anyway. They aren’t qualified in people management, new business development, finance or business strategy. These aren’t their fields of expertise.

The Juniorisation of marketing

Adrianne Nixon, a marketing consultant, runs a business specifically designed to educate senior marketing and agency executives on how to work more successfully in the digital world. She has invited me to join her panel of experts. She calls the problem the “juniorisation” of marketing. As budgets get tighter and demands get greater, both agencies and marketing departments are giving more responsibility to junior staff – most of whom have no experience to do the job.

And because someone can use digi-speak, the senior people who don’t have technical skills, promote these alleged digi-experts to senior roles for which they are ill-equipped. It’s a vicious cycle that will have damaging ramifications sooner rather than later. I know one ‘head of digital’ for a DM agency, whose own ‘digital agency’ went broke leaving creditors everywhere. He fled the country before returning triumphant to convince the multi-national to hire him.

Google isn’t our demographic

Here’s an example from a meeting I was in with one of our largest car insurers. The brand agency was there, nervous because the client had pulled our agency in to fix the problem. The brand agency digi-bloke was very cool – he went by a single name (no surname).

We had created a promotion to capture renewal dates from young male drivers (the target market) and recommended the promotion name be the search term and URL, as nobody owned it.

Brand digi-bloke spoke as he flicked his luscious locks from his face “Google isn’t our demographic”. The marketing manager nearly blew coffee out her nostrils. She asked him to explain and he reclined in his chair and repeated “Google isn’t the right demographic for this promotion“. The marketer politely disagreed and the brand digi-bloke sat there brooding.

The new language of marketing management

Today’s CMO (and agency bosses) need to know far more about marketing than ever before. Most are skilled for running last century’s business models that focused on marketing communications ie mass media advertising. The world of direct marketing, using data, technology, the interweb and analytics to grow their business is new to them. Now they have to understand 3 languages and know how to communicate and engage with the various departments/suppliers:

  1. The language of marketing communications across all channels
  2. The language of data, databases, analytics and modelling to know how to use data and more importantly, what to ignore
  3. The language of IT, because with secure websites and data privacy, the IT department are essential to marketing

The only marketers with this expertise are those who have worked in direct marketing – they were the pioneers of online retailing. Traditional brand marketers are just learning these skills as they haven’t needed them before. But in most marketing departments and at most agencies it’s the traditionalists who are running the show. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

Hire people better than yourself

David Ogilvy once told me over dinner (and he published the statement often) that he always tried to hire people better than himself and let them do their job. He humbly claimed it to be one of the reasons he was successful, though I did suspect he was being charming – which is what he said all great ads contained, charm.

Always hire people who are better than you
Always hire people who are better than you

That’s one of a number of soft skills missing from business now – charm. Along with manners, they appear to have taken a back seat to technology fashion.

Which reminds me of an interview panel on which I sat for a client a few years ago. The young bloke we were interviewing for the e-marketing role put his mobile on the table, but didn’t switch it off. It sat there like a live grenade, waiting to explode.

And sure enough it did. Not only did it ring, causing all to jump in shock – but the fool answered it in the middle of being asked a question.

so your best skill is using a digital phone?
so your best skill is using a digital phone?

It exploded (sorry) any chance he had of getting the job, despite his attempt at a charming apology.

Am not sure where he is now – probably running a digital agency.


  1. Hi Mal

    Some interesting reflections and I must admit it rung a few bells for me. Digital earning features strongly in the education industry and some great innovations have been developed that can make personalised self paced learning far more effective than anything you and I experienced in the classroom.

    Too often, however technology is achieving engagement but not producing deep learning and understanding.We too are getting so called leaders in digital education who focus more on the fancy things that technology can do and forget the value of deep well considered learning.

    One of the many examples I can think of are some of our leading users of interactive whiteboards who use them to show off the bells and whistles but forget what they are best for – interactivity not teacher-centred showing off.

    Now the developers who have turned the interactive whiteboard into an interactive table where groups sit and interact, collaborate and learn, they get it.

    Yes the technology is helping us all learn and giving us access to more information but educational leaders need to understand learning far more than technology. It is but a tool.


    • Thanks Al

      Yes,people are fascinated with digital fashion, rather than its function. Interesting the education department is experiencing similar, which is a worry given I have young kids. Thanks for reading:)


  2. Would you call it the “Youth-anisation of marketing”?

    No, too kind, euthanasia is a mercy killing but this Juniorisation trend seems to be without any mercy.

  3. As an old friend (ex MD of Reader’s Digest) said to me “…there are a whole bunch of young people trying to figure out how to sell stuff by trial & error… when we learned from those errors 30 years ago and know how to sell stuff…”

  4. Yeah… interesting stuff, Malcolm. 🙂

    Reminds me of a favourite quote from David Packard, co-founder of tech giant Hewlett-Packard: “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing people.”

    For a long time now I’ve used the old saw “age and cunning will always triumph over youth and passion” to sum up my own pitch. My varied career over the past 50 years actually began with a project that researched and tested “programmed learning” — without the aid of computers, which were all punch-card driven then — combined with a new approach to teacher training pioneered by the Education School at Stanford University. Fascinating stuff that stood me in very good stead in future professional roles as an educator, marketer, speaker, trainer, copywriter, art director and more.

    I have to say that today’s technology would have made it infinitely easier and faster to deliver such learning, but I’d spent three years training to be a teacher first — and that gave me a serious competitive edge in my post-teaching career.

    By coincidence, I recently did two things that relate directly to all this:

    1. I began transferring a simple, programmed-learning online quiz for small business owners to my “new” site (from my old legacy site) at

    2. I revisited Bob Hoffman’s excellent talk to the Advertising Week Europe conference in March 2014. While I thoroughly enjoyed (and concurred with) his views on social media marketing and brands, I was particularly taken with his thoughts on over-50s advertising. This video link starts at this topic:

    My only query is: which definition of “Baby Boomers” does he use? Here in Australia we seem to have entirely missed the “Generation Jones” debate, which has given us such anomalies as Amanda Keller representing Baby Boomers on “My Generation” (TV game show) and a bunch of pollies and bureaucrats who inaccurately categorise themselves as Baby Boomers and make policies accordingly:


    • Thanks John – Love the quiz, but I haven’t seen the video, so will make it compulsory viewing over the festive season. FYI I went to school with Amanda and I can assure you she’s no BB. Personally I’ve never thought classification by a decade is very accurate. My primary school age kids came to The Rolling Stones with me last month, so what does it make them?

      • The proponents of Generation Jones (and I’m now one of them, for full disclosure) argue that the generational divide is a cultural one rather than a chronological one. That said, it currently seems to work out to be around 11 years, from the advent of the Baby Boomers in 1942-3. Politically, the baton passed to Generation Jones, world wide, in 2007-8. Gen Jones holds the political numbers. Hillary Clinton for President in 2016? Highly unlikely. A Boomer replacing a Gen Joneser would take a miracle.

        And going to a Rolling Stones gig makes your kids Rolling Stones fans — a category that now spans 4 generations. 🙂

        All Boomers are now over retirement age. But I agree wholeheartedly with Bob Hoffman that over-50s still have the clout economically. In fact, I was so convinced of this in 2009 that I registered the domain name with a view to pulling together a coterie of marketing and advertising “elders” to lift the advertising game standard for the over-50s market beyond the current scope of funeral insurance, incontinence products and retirement villages. Not an ad agency per se, but a SWAT team with walking frames to help Gen Xers Yers get a clue about what is still the largest, wealthiest and most health-conscious market in Australia. 🙂

  5. Hmm… the time stamp doesn’t appear to be working on the video link. The relevant topic starts at 27:24 minutes.

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