Monday, November 22, 2010

You're Not Hired - Untangling the Myth of Market Expertise

Browse through any marketing job board, open up a listing and one of the first things that you'll find is a requirement for experience in a specific market or segment -- do you have experience in enterprise marketing, consumer marketing, in the storage industry, software, or retail industry. You name a market there are companies that will judge your ability to do the job based on whether you have worked within it in the past. Ultimately, the dialog goes something like this:
Have you sold blue pencils?
You have? Great.
Yellow pencils?
Oh, I'm sorry, you don't have the background needed for the blue pencil market.
Note » Just follow this is a simple recipe for uninspired marketing.
If this seems like a frustrating over-simplification to you, then please join me as we explore the logic and the quackery behind marketing segment expertise.

First, let's consider what a business is looking for when they are looking for expertise within an existing market. What they are really saying that they want is somebody who knows the vocabulary, understands the market's unique processes, and has spent time thinking about and analyzing the market segment. What they don't want is somebody who thinks that the secret recipe for success is a formula from an industry or a business that doesn't fit theirs. The theory is that if you're specialization is leveraging social networks for viral promotions, you're specialized knowledge won't be very useful in marketing to industrial equipment manufacturers. If all you've got in your toolbox is a Facebook page, hiring you would be like buying a dragster for a mountain bike race. 

But here's the problem with this approach. As a marketing pro, most of us are less like a recipe and more like a chef -- you don't just bang out the same dish over and over again. Regardless of the ingredients you have, you take the situations and the environments and you craft exceptional food. When you are faced with new ingredients or a different menu, you use your cooking abilities to craft new dishes or prepare things differently. When you serve vegetarians, you make dishes without using meat. Knowing how to cook doesn't mean you simply repeat the steps of a recipe. In that same way, great marketing for a product or an industry isn't a simple recipe, it's taking the ingredients like product, the customer and the environment, then crafting the magic.

Of course, not everyone who prepares food knows how to cook, and not everyone working in marketing knows how to do their job. As with many other activities in life, you can often find people who do without understanding why. This is compounded by some of the related factors that I went into detail on in a previous post -- everyone thinks that marketing is easy. In this case, it's not so much that everyone thinks that marketing is easy; instead, it's that it's difficult for most people to measure quality. My point is that, within your hiring pool, you have the potential to catch good candidates and sucky ones. The question really revolves around whether you fare better fishing in the pool of market expertise. Here's how I see this decision forking:
  • If you hire from the marketing expertise pool, you are more likely to hire someone who is familiar with the recipe, but that may mean that they are less likely to think, analyze and create -- to cook
  • If you hire outside of that pool, you are more likely to focus on hiring somebody who can cook, but they may not understand the vocabulary and specialized processes.
Sometimes You Need to Hire From Within the Pool of Market Expertise
Don't get me wrong, market expertise can be the valuable commodity that you are looking for. When you're need PR or trying to connect with an analyst network, you can't beat an existing library of contacts. In one of the industries that I worked in, it took me nearly a year of working with industry groups to build the relationships that I needed to influence our programs in that industry. The impact of these existing relationships can be amplified when you're working with tight time frames like product launches.

Marketing vocabulary and expertise also shapes cross-cultural processes. In the same way that non-native speakers often fail to understand humor, there are subtleties of language, imagery and idioms that are difficult to grasp without years of experience. Just because I speak English and I've worked in high tech, it doesn't mean that I would be able to move to Australia and successfully promote technology products. Again, with time, I could probably become an Australia-marketing pro, but the underlying question is how much time and to what threshold of expertise.

Another easy application of the vocabulary and expertise test would revolve around technical proficiency and specialized tasks. If you are looking for a product marketer to collect customer requirements for an analog chip design and differentiate the product, you would probably expect them to understand some fundamental aspects of electrical circuits and analog circuits. While it might be possible to build this type of expertise or to basically function as an engineering translation service, it's really unlikely that someone would be successful without some basic technical level of expertise. It's also unlikely that someone has done product marketing for a social networking company will be able to do this job simply because they understand how to put together an MRD.

The Juxtaposition of the MBA and Market Expertise
Perhaps the greatest irony of the marketing expertise listing is the companion MBA request. While there are probably some exceptions, most MBA programs are designed to provide you with a broad understanding of business and the principles and strategies that you might use to successfully manage a business, regardless of what that business might be. Theoretically, your MBA would say, I can be successful, regardless of the market that you are in.

Paired with market expertise, you might think that this would equate to a candidate that understands the vocabulary and understands the process, but that isn't necessarily true. Put in the context of food, you may wind up with a chef that is familiar with cooking steak, who conceptually understands Maillard reactions and the importance of salt, and yet still doesn't understand what tastes good. As well, this expertise may not translate well when you wind up with vegetarians.

Finding The Market Expertise Balance
In the Steve Jobs book, there's an interesting story about the process of creating the Apple stores. Think about the differences between Apple's retail stores with other brand stores like Sony Style or the failed Gateway stores. When they started their retail store project, the guy that they brought in to lead their efforts worked with Target. Perhaps, if they were totally interested in mining from a line of expertise, they might have considered someone who had been involved in another brand store or someone from the Gateway project. But just as Apple does, they essentially redesigned the retail experience to fit their concept. While they drew upon some foundational retail expertise, the expertise that they drew from was more functionally specific than market specific.

What's important to underscore with the Apple retail store example is all of the ways that they are creatively different from other retail stores. With Apple's stores, they didn't simple repeat the process of creating a brand store, they redefined everything following rules that made sense for Apple. Creativity comes from an ability to understand the form and structure, to understand the recipe and the vocabulary, and then infuse it with something new. Seeing things in a different way requires a vision that extends beyond a recipe.

That Sound's Great. What Can I Do About It?
If you're a job candidate, there's not really anything that you can do about this. When you send your resume to these expertise-focused openings, all that they are seeing is people that don't fit or spam. Of course, you can never really tell for sure just how critical of a factor it is, so it never hurts to try.

The real area of influence is if you are in a hiring role. As a hiring manager, you have an ability to see the difference between recipe and craft. And if you really want creativity, innovation, and excitement you need to look beyond a simple view of expertise.

No comments: