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Recruiting for unicorns gets you donkeys in dress-ups (p1)

Updated: Mar 26


When I first started in marketing more than two decades ago, it was a completely different — and, dare I say it – much easier job than it is now.

With websites still very early and crude, socials barely a thought for individuals let alone businesses, and real data only a dream, we did a lot of above the line — print ads, billboards, mailers — and used antiquated formulas to work out how many people we were reaching.

Skip forward a couple of decades and things have definitely changed!

Now, we're swimming in more data than any small or medium business can process, we have the ability to almost exactly pinpoint the performance of our efforts, and marketing teams have expanded beyond a couple of generalists, to over 10 or even 20+ specialist roles.

Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot in that time, both doing the job, and working with different clients and mentors. And while some of those lessons have been technical changes to marketing approaches, many have been more practical — things any small, medium and even large business can learn from and implement in your own organisation to improve marketing outcomes.

I’ve included both the obvious and not-so-obvious below, because what’s clear to you or me, may be a complete revelation for someone else, but just as necessary if they want to get the most out of marketing.

I’ve also broken this article up into two parts, because when I got down to writing, it really started to become a bit of a beast. But that’s a good thing. It’s nice to know I’ve learned so much (way more than I could ever jot down here), and now, I just hope sharing it can be useful. With that in mind, here are the first five lessons.

Stick to the plan

I recently worked with a client that has a great digital product; technology that will genuinely be a game-changer… and yet, they also have a very large obstacle sitting between them and achieving success -- their willingness to stick to a plan.

With a leadership group that just weren’t seeing the same vision, no sooner had we rolled out a campaign for them, they would change their mind and decide to now reposition as an ‘X’ company, instead of the ‘Y’ company previously agreed.

They chopped and changed their business strategy almost monthly, and as such, campaigns were created and pulled, initiatives formulated and disregarded, excellent c-suite staff hired and lost. There were great plans, but none of them had the opportunity to work.

Here’s the heads up, most big businesses have a strategic marketing plan, most small and medium-sized businesses don’t. But even of those that do — any size — there is this temptation to jump around, to change, to stray from the plan, before giving it time to work.

When you do that, you waste and you lose money.

Start with a clear business plan – think it through, get it right, agree to it. Derive a strategic marketing plan. Have in-depth insights into who you are talking to, what they need and will best respond to, know what your competition is promising and how they are promising it, and examine how they are performing. Identify real gaps and opportunities and be acutely aware of your weaknesses.

Use this information to select the right marketing channels for your business, to inform the right messaging, to drive the right creative.

And once you have those plans, stick to them — at least for a while (within reason, learning and optimising should always be occurring). Give them time to have an impact and then… and only then… use data and what you’ve learned to inform any change to direction. 

I can’t tell you how many times I've analysed what is ‘going wrong’ for a new client, and had to report back that the lack of direction, consistency, clarity is what is costing them the most.

A good plan is a game-changer.

Data is not just for the big guys

Which brings me to the data you use to evolve that plan. Data used to be the playground of the giants because it came through expensive market research and required experts to interpret and act on it.

Not anymore.

Now, even if you don’t have a performance analysts skillset, at the very least, everyone has access to simple and easy-to-read data from their main channels, that can help you make better decisions.

Sales data can help you determine when particular items are most in demand and not, so you can plan better seasonal campaigns.

Consumer data can tell you exactly who is making the purchase so you can talk to them in a more relevant and meaningful way.

Social channels have data that tell you everything from which artwork is most effective, to which demographic is most responsive, to what time of day works best.

Your website analytics are a treasure trove, and when combined even with free tools, can tell you how users behave when they visit your pages — where their mouse and eyes move, what they read and click.

For my small and medium clients, I have introduced some really simple data recording and analysis practices that are quick and easy, but have made so much difference!

You can take a giant leap into it, or you can just pick out some beginner metrics and understand the role they play in the bigger story.

Use data to make decisions in marketing (and elsewhere in the business); it will save you money!

Advertise for unicorns, get donkeys in disguise

Part of the work I do with clients is helping them build out their internal marketing team when they’re ready, so they get the right skills and positions in, when they really need them.

For so many businesses that don’t have a strong grasp on the complexity and diversity of the broader marketing field, I see them advertising essentially for unicorns… ‘We want someone who can:

  • write like a poet

  • design like an artist

  • understand and use data like an analyst

  • create and optimise high-performing paid media campaigns

  • build a technically-perfect website with all the bells and whistles

  • employ ux best practice to drive app improvements

  • manage all socials and content

  • manage other people

  • run events meticulously

… and the list goes on.

Every now and then you find one of these people, who dabbles in all of these areas and more, but are specialists in none (we used to call them generalists).

In reality, usually what you end up with is a lot of useless resumes or confused candidates, or worse, you employ a fast-talker covered in glitter, with a clip on rainbow mane and a horn headband, who only reveals themselves as incapable a month or two down the track.

And the search begins again.

Likewise, in start-up and scale up world, I’ve seen so many businesses immediately go out for those top-level positions — Chiefs, Heads of, Directors  — spending hundreds of thousands they don’t have on people who are leaders… yet have no one to lead. They’ve invested in people who are not implementers, who don’t know how or aren’t prepared to get back on the tools.

What do they get?

A company full of thinkers and talkers, and no doers.

Hire your doers early!

When building your team, when recruiting, be realistic, know the profession, and understand what you really need at each stage of your business lifecycle. 

You get what you pay for

I’m not going to lie, strategy is my main passion, but I also love writing and PM, and throughout my career I have refined and offered each of these services, as well as some implementation.

Early on, when starting out as a consultant, I realised selling strategy into a business is a challenge, because people are busy and understandably, they don’t have time to hear how planning and strategising before acting can save money and effort.

Writing was where I did most of my work for a few of those early years.

And specifically, what was most of that work? Fixing things for clients who had done them on the cheap.

I can’t even count how many articles, white papers and other documents I re-wrote, last-minute, when a panicked client who had knocked back local quotes in favour of an off-shore, low-cost writer, came to me with an absolute mess in a Microsoft Word doc.


In the end, of course they got what they needed, but they ended up paying for it twice, when initially they’d set out to save money.

There is a time and a place for cheap (though fairly-paid) labour.

You wouldn’t hire any old cheap spruiker on the street to build your house, so why do so many do it when building their businesses?

You don’t need to do everything

Just because there are x number of social media channels, doesn’t mean you should be using all of them, even if your competitors are.

Marketing is a busy job, and for a lot of small and medium businesses, you might only have one or two people in the role. Or even more fun, you or your office manager might be trying to do it as an add-on to your own role. Sound familiar?

So many businesses bite off more than they can chew with marketing; they roll out more channels than they really have time for, those channels fall behind, and then they are left wondering why nothing has come from their efforts.

Every channel you use takes time, effort, energy and money. If you spread yourself too thin across those, there is not enough for any channel to be done in a way that really has impact.

When selecting channels, start by shortlisting those that are most relevant to your customer personas and will have the most impact with them. With that shortlist, select a combination of only as many channels as you can afford to do properly — that you have the time to invest in, the money to invest in, and energy to really do well.


And that’s it, that’s part one of the things I've learned.

As said, some of these may be obvious to you, but may not be to others. I think the fact they are pretty simple, yet overlooked by so many, says a lot about how demanding marketing and business is, and how often that causes us to look for ways to cut corners and ‘just get it done’, without really knowing the consequence – the improved results we're missing out on.

Stay tuned for part two of this article, and the next five points + one bonus – an action that, ever-surprising to me, has a massive negative effect on almost every business I’ve encountered or even analysed from afar.


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