The age of the interim marketer

Matt Jones: former BlackBerry interim marketer
Matt Jones: former BlackBerry interim marketer

At a time of unprecedented technological change, traditional corporate hierarchies are under pressure and many smart marketers are choosing a highly flexible career path, writes David Benady.

Over the past decade there has been a rise in temporary contracts for marketers.

This has come amid soaring demand for interim marketing managers, directors and consultants. Typically brought in for six to 12 months to oversee specific projects or to cover maternity leave or the departure of an executive, the 'interims' are having a major effect on the way many brand owners function.

These freelancers are oiling the wheels of the digital revolution, as marketing departments struggle to find permanent staff versed in content marketing, search marketing, social media and ecommerce.

For many marketers, the increase in interim opportunities offers an alternative to the grind of the nine to five. It appeals to those who jump at the chance of 'going plural'. A strong dose of job satisfaction is, after all, why many choose a career in marketing. The diversity of life as an interim appeals to some, while the freedom from corporate constraints has lured others out of permanent jobs.

Interims as guides

So why are many companies so keen to use freelancers, rather than hiring permanent staff? According to Peter Geary, UK managing director of recruitment agency Aquent, many businesses are feeling their way in digital marketing, and use interims to guide them.

'A lot of marketing departments are looking at a more flexible workforce as teams struggle to cope with digital changes,' he adds. 'They can outsource digital to an agency or take on a freelance specialist, look at their skills, and learn from them. Then they can promote that person to a permanent job, or use (what they have learned) to change their own roles.'

Despite this digital focus, there are still healthy careers to be built in more traditional areas of the profession. Senior marketers might move to an interim role after being made redundant, or when they hit a ceiling in their careers. They can charge a healthy day rate (though usually without the benefits of pensions or sick pay) by hiring out their skills and experience to the highest bidder.

However, the downturn has reduced the number of temporary senior positions available recently, according to Richard Tolley, a leading interim marketer (right).

'At a very senior level, there aren't that many roles compared with previous times; some interims were getting two big roles a year. People aren't moving around so much, and those with jobs are holding on to them,' he says.

Tolley began his interim marketer and consulting career after his role as group marketing director of Dairy Crest was scrapped. Most recently he's been working as a segment director at Mars Confectionery.

'The team at Mars are excellent and there are real stars of the future there. The bite-sized segment is mission-critical for them, and they wanted a high-spec person. It wasn't appropriate to burden the people there with extra work,' he explains.

'These companies need you to make an impact in 90 hours rather than in 90 days. You have to have flexibility and be able to adapt to different styles and people. You need to be able to win people's confidence quickly.'

Getting 'stuck'

There are benefits and drawbacks to pursuing a career as an interim. One plus point is that it gives marketers an alternative to being hurried into - and getting stuck in - jobs that are badly paid, beneath their scale or lacking in interest.

That's a view shared by David Grint, formerly group brand director at Bupa and vice-president of consumer marketing at T-Mobile. He has worked as an interim since 2009. 'Rather than do something I don't want to do or that isn't right, I'm happy to do interim work,' he says.

Another advantage is being able to avoid the office politics that come with many permanent jobs. 'If people know you are an interim, they treat you differently and ask different things of you than if you are a new employee. You don't have to play the corporate politics,' adds Grint.

The dip in demand for traditional marketing freelancers is highlighted by Claire Owen, founder of temporary recruitment agency Stopgap, which specialises in middle-management interim positions.

Owen says that demand for interim marketing managers and brand managers is down by about 8% over the past year.

'There isn't a great deal of axing of jobs in the marketing world; companies want to recruit people permanently for their businesses. There isn't the supply of jobs necessary to keep (marketing freelancers) in full-time work,' she adds.

However, other experts point out that interims are often hired via personal contacts built up through working at top brand-owning companies, rather than through recruitment consultants.

Lisa McCormack, who describes herself as a 'serial interim marketer', advises anyone hoping to work as an interim to be constantly on the look-out for their next contract.

'If you get to the end of one contract and the next day start looking for another, you are not in a great place. It is important to keep in touch and stay on people's radars,' she says.

Building up contacts with top marketers everywhere you work is crucial to accruing a good network who may ask you to come in and work in the future, according to McCormack.

One of her recent roles was at travel brand Secret Escapes, where she spent five months. 'They have concentrated on digital marketing but wanted to go above the line, and didn't want a permanent marketing director, so I was brought in to organise that,' she explains.

Rachel Bowman, associate director at recruiter EMR, says that her consultancy's placement of freelancers grew 40% in 2010 and 43% in 2011, though she concedes that some of this may be down to the agency's expansion in this area. She claims demand for interims is soaring in the areas of direct marketing, CRM and ecommerce and identifies two types of interims.

'There are those who are consultants that want to build and focus on strategy, who aren't so interested in the delivery side. Or, there are interims coming from an opportunist perspective, who are around when a contract comes up and they take it,' she says, adding that about one third of interims have actively pursued the latter.

Owen sounds a word of warning about long-term interim working, however. 'If somebody has 10 years' interim experience on their CV, they may struggle to be taken seriously when it comes to getting a permanent job,' she points out.

However, as digital media transforms the nature of marketing in years to come, it seems likely that more people will gravitate toward the flexibility such a way of working offers.

WHY AND HOW TO HIRE AN INTERIM

Helen Edwards, Marketing columnist and founder of marketing consultancy Passionbrand, makes the case for interims

  • Interims act as a 'low-risk, fast-acting, change agent' for brands.
  • They bring a different perspective based on wider experience, and don't have the history or 'mental models' of existing staff or someone who has made their career in the category - the 'we tried that and it doesn't work' syndrome.
  • The best interims have multi-sector experience - and are without the baggage of having worked in only a single category.
  • Good interims are self-contained, self-assured and not rocked by criticism. They should be able to take the flak for any changes they introduce.
  • Brands can bring in a marketer at a senior level without a lengthy HR process and without ruffling too many internal feathers. It's only interim, after all.
  • The interim model is cost-effective. Smaller brands can bring in senior talent for a fixed period - for example, to set up marketing and then leave it running with a slightly less-experienced team.
  • Interims can be used to test whether there is actually a viable role and how it could work. A global company with local marketing, for instance, might bring in an interim as global chief marketing officer to see whether the role has benefits.
  • Interims can be asked to take on difficult tasks such as changing the operations of marketing or creating a more brand-led strategy. If it gets sticky along the way, they can either stop the work or see it through, and then management can hire a permanent marketer who won't carry the baggage and strife of the change period.
  • The standard period for interims is 12 to 18 months.
  • Absorbing an interim is easiest where there is no existing marketing function, and harder when there is.

TOP FIVE PITFALLS OF INTERIM POSITIONS, FROM BRAND OWNERS' POINT OF VIEW

  1. Great brands need commitment and passion. Interims and freelancers lack the involvement and dedication to brand values which are essential in the modern environment.
  2. By opening up their secrets to freelancers, brands might be putting some confidential data at risk.
  3. Consultants may have a partial or skewed view of the brand, without clearly understanding its essence.
  4. Freelancers may be tempted to prefer short-term levers of success, rather than thinking about the long-term health of the brand.
  5. Interims are not accountable as they might have left the company before feedback comes in.

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