…And Why It’s So Hard to Do It Right

The need for growth marketers has exploded over the past several years…

Born out of the concepts around Growth Hacking popularized by Sean Ellis and others, Growth Marketing has emerged as the biggest trend for startups trying to ramp up their revenue quickly.

The new wave of marketing talent has to be analytically focused, be able to iterate and quickly improve what they are doing, and master an array of technologies to get their jobs done.

Many others have written about the difference between marketing and growth hacking, and more recently, the difference between Growth Marketing and Growth Hacking.

My personal take is that Growth Marketing is a better term for the mix of skills that companies need to scale up and out (and happens to be my title at New Relic).

I feel that using the term ‘Hacking’ is limiting in a way – almost as if growth is something to magically unlock via tactical tweaks and tests rather than through a programmatic, highly scalable growth strategy.

Understanding growth strategy and demand generation tactics aren’t enough, either. A hugely important part of being a successful Growth Marketer is understanding how to use and manage a huge array of technologies.

Hockey stick growth in Marketo jobs, courtesy of indeed.com job trends
Hockey stick growth in Marketo jobs, courtesy of indeed.com job trends

The importance of this will continue to increase dramatically and there’s no reason to think marketers who can marry the creative and technical won’t also continue to be highly sought after.

Because of the need for this unique skill set that isn’t a part of academic marketing degrees, supply isn’t matching demand when it comes to hiring growth marketers. Thus it’s increasingly difficult to fill these roles.

As a direct result of the difficulty I’ve found in hiring the right set of talent to drive growth, I’ve evolved my personal philosophy in hiring. I’ve found success in focusing on looking for certain traits that can result in quality hires rather than focus primarily on experience.

I’ve created a framework that originally was targeted at hiring technical roles within marketing, but as I’ve employed it (and gotten feedback from other marketing leaders) I’ve found it’s an effective construct for hiring roles of all types to support highly successful growth marketing teams.

Hiring Growth Marketers

I first shared this framework at the Sirius Decisions Technology Exchange in San Francisco, and the response so far has been very positive.

Hiring Growth Marketers
PHACE Talent Framework

One of big questions I’ve gotten when using a Framework like this is, “How does it actually help with hiring challenges?”

The core difference of this idea is to move away from making hiring decisions primarily based on experiences and qualifications. Any organization or hiring manager can use the framework (or even a customized version) to identify qualified candidates that you might not have otherwise considered if you were only looking for people who met a specific profile or worked for certain companies.

Sometimes folks with an unexpected path have a great combination of skills and experience to fill those roles you need in a modern marketing organization.

In other words, you build your own unicorns.

For example, for marketing analyst positions, people who have been performing roles outside marketing can be great potential fits.

I’ve found a lot of value in hiring people from different backgrounds like consulting, business operations, financial services or even actuarial jobs. You want to look for areas where people have been applying similiar skills – just to different problems. It gives you a whole new pool to swim in to get the right talent for your team.

This is similar to the ‘Moneyball’ concept pioneered by the Oakland Athletics and Billy Beane.

Michael Lewis has a great line in that book: “when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.”

Well, I think many recruiters, executives, and hiring managers are consistently ruling out entire classes of people by their ‘appearance’ – aka where have they worked, and for how long?

The Oakland A’s in the early 2000’s famously found that On-Base Percentage (OBP) was a better predictor of scoring than more traditional metrics like batting average, and thus players that had this particular skill of getting on base were undervalued relative to their peers. If you can look for the right set of talent characteristics, you are able to play moneyball in your own recruitment efforts.

I also get asked consistently about those particular set of characteristics: how I chose them, and why they are the most impactful? Well besides forming an easy to remember acronym (PHACE), they each have a particular value in Marketing:

1. Proactive

I love people who are proactive!

Of all things, a moment from Curb Your Enthusiasm best demonstrates the kinds of folks you want to avoid, who are passive and not proactive.

In this dinner scene, the elderly survivor becomes so agitated that he knocks his glass of wine all over Larry David. A dinner companion says, “Somebody get a sponge.” Larry, ever the pragmatist, blurts back, “I don’t understand. Why don’t you get a sponge?”

Missed Opportunity to Be Proactive

You want to find and support the kinds of folks who would immediately jump up and get the sponge, and not sit there wondering why others aren’t doing anything. You want to find people that don’t start sentences with “We should…” but with “I’m going to…”

2. Hacky

As I mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of the “Growth Hacking” term, as I think it belittles the role that marketing (and marketers) play in driving Growth.

But I do like the concept of having folks who think in “Hacky” ways.

What I mean by this is folks that are always willing to try new things, to experiment, to think differently and aren’t afraid to break things as a result.

While it’s cliche now, the concept of encouraging thinking outside the box and constant testing and experimentation against a set of hypotheses is crucially important for growth marketers.

Much as many of the most important inventions in history came unexpectedly, you never know where you will uncover some untapped potential for growth within your own organization. The best marketing leaders know this and actively encourage it for everyone on their team.

3. Analytical

Out of all the talent characteristics in the PHACE framework, this is probably the most obvious.

Simply put, in our current data-dense state as marketers, it’s table stakes to have folks that have an analytical mindset. This is one area where you really cannot have enough brainpower devoted – with the amount of data we have to work with and building value for customers and potential customers, the real key is figuring out how to make the most of it.

And it’s not just about pivot tables in Excel or creating reports in Salesforce – it’s about knowing what kind of data you need, where to get it, and how to present it to enable effective decision making.

4. Connected

Being connected in marketing is hugely important. People often confuse this concept with being extroverted.

There are introverts who are connected, and extroverts who aren’t. I look for a willingness and desire to connect with others; certainly folks need to connect with colleagues within your marketing team, and also elsewhere within your organization (Sales, Finance, IT, etc).

The value in connectedness is just social. Being connected provides an amplifying effect for your employees and by extension the entire marketing team. I’ve found that the Metcalfe’s Law, originally developed to describe telecom networks, applies to personal networks as well. By being able to establish and maintain connections and build deep, mutually beneficial relationships, each employee is adding significant horsepower to their own abilities.

5. Empathetic

I strongly believe every modern marketer has to get closer to the business side of things to be successful – at a minimum they have to know how their work drives Sales, and strive to make as big an impact as possible in revenue.

But as Marketers we’re also working with Product teams, and are probably working with some combination of Legal, Finance, and IT as well.

That’s why I believe empathy in marketing is so important. But far too often I see Marketing teams that aren’t adding as much value as they could be to the business, because of strained working relationships they have not only with folks outside their department, but even the colleagues they sit next to and work with every day in Marketing.

You really need to look for folks who are willing to put themselves in others’ shoes, and use that empathy to improve the overall state of your business and drive growth.

Evaluating Marketing Talent

If you’ve bought into the PHACE framework (or something similar), you’ll need to be able to evaluate talent as you source and recruit growth marketers. I’m not a fan of the ‘standard’ set of interview questions in general, and they’re especially poor at evaluating growth talent.

If you are asking ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ or ‘what are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?’ you’re doing it wrong. Because we’re looking for specific talent characteristics, we don’t need to drill-in as much on work experience.

One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What metric do you wish you could track (and how would you do it)?” It’s very interesting to see how candidates take this one – they could talk about work, or personal metrics, but this allows you to see how analytical they are as well as proactive.

Bad interview questions
Bad interview questions

After a virtual or in-person interview session, best practice is to do a follow-up exercise (I call them homework assignments). After all, very little work consists of answering questions 1 on 1 in a small office.

Depending on the position, you’ll want to customize the homework assignment. For instance if it’s an analyst position, you’ll want to focus the exercise on using data to provide some sort of insight and present the findings.

If it’s a digital demand position, you might have them make recommendations on improving your landing pages and website. Regardless of how you choose to do it, it’s important to use this as a primary method of evaluating potential talent against the characteristics you are looking for.

In order to evaluate candidates against each other, I like to use a simple visualization.

After gathering feedback from the other folks on your interviewing committee, you can map out how they rank on each of the talent characteristics in PHACE. Creating a radar diagram for each candidate is helpful and can take a little bit of the emotion out of hiring.

If you don’t take the time to evaluate folks quantitatively you often end up relying on your gut, which may or may not work out. Now you aren’t trying to be an android ——. This is also helpful if your first choice doesn’t work out for whatever reason – you can head back to your evaluations of the candidate pool and decide if you want to pursue other candidates or keep looking.

Radar diagram for evaluating talent
Radar diagram for evaluating talent

Final Thoughts

When it comes to applying this framework within your own organization, you don’t have to use this exact set of talent characteristics, rather the key is to look for strengths outside of experience alone in order to broaden the base of possible candidates for your team.

What happens in most organizations is hiring managers put really high requirements in their job descriptions, and they don’t realize that by doing that, they’re excluding a large group of potentially valuable candidates. Everyone is looking for the same ultra-rare “unicorns” with very specific skill sets, thus everyone winds up fighting over the same people, which drives up the price for talent. Which in turn leads to an arms race that I don’t want to engage in.

Bottom line: experience is a lagging indicator, and a winning philosophy is hiring for the upside and potential rather than focus on deep experience (not that that’s a bad thing of course!).