Where is performance marketing falling through the skills – and experience – gap?

The skills shortage in the industry – exacerbated by the level of digital and data expertise the world needs now – has been long recognised. But which disciplines are proving the most difficult to source talent for?

The skills shortage is regularly raised as one of the performance marketing industry’s major concerns. The demand for skills in certain platforms, technologies, not forgetting of course data and analytics expertise, has exploded.

This is a particular challenge for organisations looking to strengthen their performance marketing teams. The skills required for a number of roles are easily transferred to more established career paths, given that performance marketing remains a young ‘discipline’.

But on the flipside performance marketing is “one of the hottest jobs in the world right now”, according to Greg Levine, Managing Director, Sales, Retention and Advisor Support at health and life insurance giant Vitality, “because acquiring customers and returning and monetising online is the key of the future”. 

So there are plenty of factors driving demand in the industry, but with that comes demand for more skillsets, and increased competition for talent.

PMW looks at where the gaps are, even beyond the technical requirements for a performance marketer, and potential ideas to plug them.

The pockets of skills deficit

Certain disciplines within performance marketing are perhaps more mature, despite the industry still being seen as relatively ‘young’. But even within these, advancements in technology, new platforms, data handling changes and  evolving legislation means innovation in how to deliver – which will translate into new skills requirements.  

We asked our team of industry experts to name the areas where the skills shortage is being particularly felt. One thing that virtually all agree on is the shortage of ‘data’ talent.  

“I’m increasingly seeing a rise in demand for data-led performance marketers, who have specific experience with systems like Adobe Experience Cloud, Power BI, CDPs, even GTM,” says Farhad Divecha, Managing Director, Accuracast. 

“There’s a real skills deficit around data,” warns Martin Kelly, CEO UK and APAC at Kepler. While acknowledging that this is not new, he points out that certain data-led performance marketers, and data engineers or scientists can have a “generic pool of skills that are applicable elsewhere”. 

Examples include the finance sector, e-commerce businesses and consultancies – widening the competition beyond rival agencies or even in-house performance marketing teams at brands.

Where else is the industry seeing a talent shortage?

SOCIAL: “There's a skill shortage and it’s grown so quickly. Social is still in the scheme of things relatively new. There is talent around so they’re in high demand. Programmatic skills as well – it’s probably the last area [advertisers] want to in-house.” – Martin Kelly, CEO UK and APAC, Kepler

E-COMMERCE: “Experienced performance marketers that have a good understanding of multiple platforms are still very rare to find. Agency side, demand for ecommerce and SaaS marketing expertise outstrips supply.” – Farhad Divecha, Managing Director, Accuracast

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES: “PPC in particular was a very volatile market, and some of the high demand tech skills where you've got very fast growing emerging technologies and there's not a legacy wealth of experience. So we invest a lot in building and growing our own talents.” – Anne Stagg, UK CEO, Merkle

The pockets of experience deficit 

One of the harder levels of team member to "source" are managers, says Matt Dailey, Chief Performance Officer at Havas Media Group

“I don’t know where everyone went,” he says, adding that in some cases this has fast-tracked promotions of some of the group's executives to middle manager positions.

“The people that we are being sent by recruiters are almost exactly the same. At least we know [our staff]. We know what they're like, we've got a bit of history with them.” 

But with these step-ups comes less experience facing clients, managing relationships with client teams and internal teams such as planning teams as some examples Dailey cites. 

Development of what are termed ‘softer skills’ – communication, negotiation, management and leadership to name a few – has become trickier in a completely remote environment seen over the COVID-19 lockdowns, as has 'on the job' learning which arguably has lost the spontaneity that comes from being together.

Dailey says: “That's the bit that's really exacerbated by working from home. I think the thing that is hardest to replicate is just on the job learning, just being sat in and around other people who have been doing what you do for longer than you've been doing it. Overhearing conversations, being able to look across at their screen. You just can't do it.”

Agencies are not the only hirers feeling this mid-level pinch. Adam Walker, Head of Performance Marketing at Feel Unique, told PMW’s audience at our Performance Marketing UK event that he has had to “hire people who were more junior than I would have liked”-- though he was quick to highlight that it paid off with his team incentivised to push themselves.

“The market is in high demand and relatively low supply still. We didn’t have that influx of graduates and people who were one to two years in industry. Now we have this mid-section of expertise that is missing that should be here after those two years past.”

But brands also have trouble recruiting at the entry level, says Dale Fisher, Head of Paid Social and Display at Superbet. 

“You need people that are happy to build out campaigns on a daily basis. You don't get someone that's just come out of uni that can do that. They go to an agency. And then they've spent two or three years there doing that, but by the time they're ready to move away from that, they’re looking to take the next step. They want to do strategy and planning.” 

The rise in demand for performance marketing roles

Analysis of our Haymarket’s Madgex Insights data, covering more than 2,800 job adverts placed on PMW’s sister titles Campaign and PRWeek between April 2020 and March 2022, reveals that unsurprisingly, all categories have seen job volumes increase in the year to March 2022 compared to the year before. 

Those that saw proportional decreases in significance were e-commerce, Paid Social, PPC  and Influencer Marketing. E-commerce, with a share of 17.9% of jobs in 2020/2021, dropped to 9% of jobs advertised in 2021/2022, perhaps reflective of the soaring demand in online shopping’s business importance – and the associated skills needs – at the start of the pandemic, which fell away once lockdown eased. 

However, it was in the areas of CRM, Email and Database Marketing, and SEO that we saw greater demand proportionately in the industry. CRM jobs as a proportion of all those advertised were at 10.8% in 2020/2021 versus 13.2% a year later - possibly signalling a shift back towards what might be called ‘classic’ performance marketing skills. 

In-housing – increasing demand means more talent required

Kelly notes the “aggressive” trend for in-housing performance marketing disciplines as an area opening up the skills gap even further. 

Walker pointed out that the enormous move to e-commerce for many businesses has ensured that the skills so sought after in the performance marketing industry are now in huge demand 

But in-housing is not the only cause of the widening skills gap, says Wavemaker’s EMEA Head of Precision, Andrew Spurrier-Dawes. “People are now specialising more. There's fewer generalists. It was a lot easier because I started when there was display, search and affiliates, no mobile, no video, no tablet, no social. I totally understand where you have to specialise, but that means that people are moving into specific skill sets. 

“And really specifically, they go into Google and Facebook and we're starting to see more Amazon now, which means all the stuff around the edges is being left alone. So there's a massive skills gap.”

The next skills gaps?

We asked respondents to our Workforce survey where they thought they or their teams would see the biggest growth in skills development. 

Alongside more technical concerns, like “getting to grips” with Google Analytics 4 and handling the phase-out of third-party cookies, there were common themes around specific disciplines, data and platforms, generalist skills and those softer skills that can often be overlooked. 

Meanwhile, in a bid to plug any future skills gaps, former HSBC Asia CMO Suresh Balaji recently told PMW of his plans to hire the finance giant’s first Metaverse Marketing Manager.

He said: “We are looking for people who understand blockchains, NFTs, VR and AR, gaming technology, data analytics, marketing effectiveness and brand tracking. We get loads of CVs, but not many of them are really fit for purpose because there have been very few industries where the blockchain has had a deep impact."

"I don't want to fall behind!"

It's clear that when we talk about a lack of experience in certain skills, we are not just talking the younger generations of the performance marketing workforce.

Alongside the more specific applied skills concerning our survey respondents, a small number of our older respondents highlighted that their age may affect their development in the industry, a real concern with the speed at which performance marketing is moving. 

One pointed to "getting old and out of touch" as a concern, while another was convinced their age (early 50s) was a factor in the time it took them to find a new role, despite being willing to take on "more junior roles so I could move to a different industry".

The leaps in development of the technology, channels and platforms can mean that some older professionals in the industry may feel that there is less opportunity for them to develop skills that can future-proof their advancement later on. "I would love to develop coding skills, this feels like a huge area of growth that the younger generation are being encouraged to focus on," one respondent said, adding: "I don't want to fall behind!"

Age must be no barrier

The recent All In Census revealed that the UK advertising industry skews significantly younger than the general population with just 5% aged over 55. As an industry that thrives on diversity of thought and experience, it’s critical to look at ways in which we can hold on to this community’s vast talent and knowledge. To help tackle this issue in dentsu, we have recently become accredited as an age-aware employer and partnered with 55/Redefined to tackle ageism and improve representation of over 50-year-olds in the industry. As part of this partnership, we have committed to investing in technical training and re-skilling for this group of people, including a new apprenticeship programme aimed at re-training this age group across dentsu.