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Insider Interview: Executive Search Guru on Digital Marketing Jobs

This column is about optimizing your career in Digital Marketing. My probing interview with Christopher C. Nadherny, partner with Spencer Stuart, the prestigious executive search firm with offices in 27 countries, is a must-read.

Recruiting in the Major Leagues of Digital Marketing

Can you get to the C-suite having spent all of your career in Digital Marketing with no traditional experience? Is it now necessary for top people to be SocMed savvy? Should you jump around or stay put?

You'll find fascinating answers to these questions and much more in my interview with Chris Nadherny. Chris played a central role in building the Digital and Direct Marketing practice for Spencer Stuart, where his specialties include digital/ecommerce, multichannel and traditional direct-to-consumer businesses, and branded consumer product organizations.

For 13 out of his 15+ years with Spencer Stuart, Chris has been very focused on the Digital Marketing industry. Like yours truly, he saw this business grow up from its beginnings. His observations of how it has matured and of the supply and demand for Digital Marketing talent are those of an analyst.

Please pass this interview along to other colleagues who you think will find it helpful in optimizing their career paths in Digital Marketing.

Sr. Editor Janet Roberts artfully edited this extended interview and identified Chris Nadherny as a good "get" for this issue.

Recent Placements in Top Marketing Jobs

Larry Chase: You recruit for Fortune 500 companies. What kind of placements have you made recently?

Chris Nadherny: We worked closely with JCPenney to identify, assess and recruit a head of Digital Marketing. It's a part of the ecommerce program but specifically responsible for all search engine optimization, search engine marketing, mobile, affiliate, banners and the like.

The candidate we placed had been with [multichannel retailer] Coldwater Creek in its ecommerce business. She was responsible for all Digital Marketing, segmentation, positioning and various digital channels.

LC: Do most companies put ecommerce under Digital Marketing or do they break it out?

CN: It depends on the organization. Most retailers will include Digital Marketing under ecommerce.

LC: So, marketing serves ecommerce, not the other way around?

CN: Ecommerce is the broader umbrella for activities that occur within the business. It includes fulfillment, shipping, multichannel marketing, buying online/pick-up in stores and financial functions.

An ecommerce general manager is a senior role to the digital marketer. Someone might come through Digital Marketing and ultimately become a manager of ecommerce.

LC: Do you see a lot of people with a traditional Direct Marketing background making a smooth transition to Digital Marketing?

CN: The catalog companies were some of the first people to grab onto the Internet and Digital Marketing.

As the funding that's going into Digital Marketing has increased, the Digital Marketing role has become prominent across the organization. We have seen a move to upgrade the talent as a result.

At one time, a company might have started with someone who was an Internet Marketing specialist. As the business has grown and succeeded, they're finding at the next stage that they need someone who brings more maturity in management leadership and financial acumen.

Are Internet Marketers Too Specialized to be CMO?

LC: We at Web Digest For Marketers also look at specific disciplines such as SEO and Social Media. Do you find a lot of people come up the chain through those disciplines?

CN: Yes, but the danger of someone being in a specialist role and focusing solely on mobile, social or SEO is that he/she has has a view of part of the equation but not the entire equation. We recruit at the more senior level, and our clients are looking for people who can lead and manage the entire equation.

We also placed the head of global online services for Hilton Hotels in a role that is responsible for all the Websites, content, marketing on the sites, analytics, creative and so on. The client wanted someone from the travel and hospitality industry, and we came across some good people but not with experience as broad as our client wanted.

We convinced them to look at an individual who had been with Chrysler and was directly responsible for its Digital Marketing strategy, Websites, search, analytics, lead generation for Chrysler and had previously been with (the agency) Organic.

What convinced this client at Hilton to look at someone from automotive was the parallel between providing services to dealers across the country and providing hotel services across the country. In the end, the client did choose the person from Chrysler.

Demand for Talent Outstrips Supply

LC: Do your clients prefer to hire within their categories, or do they want someone from outside their business?

CN: Generally, they prefer to hire from within their category, but it's really on a case-by-case basis. Although 1998 was really the first "e-Christmas," we still have not had enough time to fill the talent void.

LC: So, the supply has not really caught up with the demand. Will it?

CN: It will take a while. Things continue to develop at a rapid pace. A lot of our clients feel that as soon as you get your head above water, and you think you understand what's going on, something else happens that you need to test and develop.

LC: How does the "new shiny object" affect your situation with hiring, such as mobile and Social Media?

CN: Right now, everybody wants a head of Digital Marketing or head of ecommerce who understands Social Media, but Social Media is not that old. A number of companies are getting traction now in how to use social, so [Social Media acumen] has been elevated within their requirements.

Impact of the Great Recession on Digital Marketing Jobs

LC: How did the recession affect the kind of searches you do for your clients?

CN: As our clients on the marketing side of the equation were harder pressed to show return on the marketing investment, we started to see dollars move at an accelerated pace from less effective media or campaigns into digital.

The growth of digital media -- online advertising, SEO and SEM -- has been absolutely tremendous.

LC: Because marketing is more ROI-focused, do you see more people as a result coming from sales and moving into marketing because their focus is always on the bottom line?

CN: I haven't seen people coming in necessarily from sales, but marketing has become much more analytical and real-time in nature. People who bring the discipline of analytical skills, an understanding of the technology and a strategic framework are the ones moving into these positions.

Analogously with consumer packaged goods, we saw a number of marketers coming in from market research where they understood the consumer and market trends and could develop appropriate marketing programs.

Can You Get to the Top with Only Digital Marketing Experience?

LC: Are there people at the top of Fortune 500 or major marketing companies who have spent their entire careers only on the digital side, or do they have traditional experience?

CN: Digital-only experience is less common because in those roles, you also have multiple marketing-channel environments.

Someone who understands just digital is often viewed as too narrow in perspective. If they have always been in digital and are younger, then they have probably been in more entrepreneurial organizations and didn't always gain management training and discipline along the way.

For someone who's coming up directly through Digital Marketing right now, it's very easy to be passionate about the space, and there are a lot of reasons to want to be there. But, at some point, they're going to run the risk of being compartmentalized or curtailing their advancement because they haven't broadened their skill sets.

LC: That's fascinating. If you've got a purely digital background, should you consider making a career move to a place where you can get some traditional marketing experience?

CN: Yes, so that you can understand how Digital Marketing should integrate with television advertising, for example, or other marketing campaigns.

LC: Will those at the CMO level be mostly traditional people with an innate understanding of digital or the other way around?

CN: I can only go by my experience, but here are another couple of casepoints:

We recruited the president of direct at [women's clothing retailer] Charming Shoppes for all their ecommerce. He had come from Sears, where he was responsible for the Website, ecommerce and the catalog. Before that, he was in management positions with Forrester [Research] so he had gained management leadership all the way.

LC: So, you really need a balance.

CN: Another great example, and a rare profile, is the person who was heading up Digital Marketing and ecommerce for QVC. Before that, he had spent a number of years with JCPenney in the stores environment, where he had hands-on retail experience, worked on the catalog and then migrated to Internet merchandising and marketing.

Moving to a pure [Web environment] and leading that effort makes him very unique, having tried-and-true tri-channel experience.

Job-Hopping Versus Climbing the Ladder

LC: Do your candidates always come from other larger companies, or do you ever hire an entrepreneur or someone from a smaller organization?

CN: We do. We don't judge on whether they've been with smaller or larger organizations. We judge based on what they bring in terms of the skills they've developed, their leadership and managerial ability, ability to produce results and their passion and energy.

LC: What do you look for in your candidates?

CN: We want to see a passionate customer focus, intellectual curiosity and strategic vision, cross-functional influence, ability to work in a matrix environment, analytical rigor and general business intellect.

LC: Which attribute is hardest to find?

CN: A progressive career track within a limited number of companies. In other words, some career stability and not a series of job hops. We always like to see someone promoted within a current employer and not always having to switch companies for the next title. We also look for business and management maturity.

Skill Sets You Need for the Big Leagues

LC: How does company size affect what you look for in a candidate?

CN: It depends on the size of the company. The types of skill sets and qualities or traits you seek in candidates for a company that does less than $50 million a year in ecommerce are very different from those for a company doing more than $1 billion.

For a smaller company, you're looking for someone with more hands-on experience and an entrepreneurial outlook, with a distinct building mentality, an ability to influence resources within a matrix environment, and a certain resourcefulness and ability to impart a sense of excitement throughout the organization.

Contrast that with a larger ecommerce effort, where you're looking more for broad-based business leadership and top-level credibility with the senior executive team. It takes a greater level of complexity in scope and scale. You're also looking at more international experience and exposure and increased financial acumen.

About Chris Nadherny

Mr. Nadherny is a senior director of the executive search consulting firm Spencer Stuart, where he is a partner and has led the Digital and Direct Marketing practice since 1997. He is the author of the downloadable white paper "The Multichannel Leadership Challenge: Identifying the right talent for a company's e-evolution."