How To Address the Marketing Skills and Capabilities Shortage

Three toy business people on top of a jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece.


The more things change, the more they stay the same, said French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, over a century ago.

Even though every element of the brand experience — from design to delivery — has transformed, the fundamental marketing challenge of hitting the sweet spot between customer needs and wants remains the same as ever. The science is a lot more scientific, and even the art gets help from AI, but acquiring the level of skills and capabilities needed to accomplish both are still a challenge. And they are not helped by the breakneck speed at which things are evolving.

Essential Skills for Modern Marketing Teams

Spending on martech tools — as part of the larger digital transformation investment — is set to go up across markets and industries. Do marketing teams have all the skills to manage the growing complexity of the stack? Perhaps not. In fact, this article cites a report that pegs companies with structured upskilling programs at only 35%.

But skills can be learned. With a layered approach to constant upskilling, it is possible to keep pace with the changes in a specific area. For example, despite the pace at which social media marketing is evolving, a specialist will get better at it over time. As marketer and author Neil Tambe puts it, a skill is “something you learn to do and go do it. You repeat it over and over and get better at it.”

It’s no surprise that most of the skills that modern marketing teams need to keep up with are related to data and analytics in some way. At the forefront are quantitative and qualitative data analytics; data-driven CX design; and data privacy and governance. Susan Ferrari, senior industry principal at CXM platform Alida, includes the ability to leverage AI, data automation and Voice of Customer (VoC) optimization across channels and platforms to deliver ‘custom’ experiences.

But closer-to-the-ground skills are in short supply too. Darrell Alfonso, global marketing ops manager at AWS, instructs an intensive 8-week course on marketing operations, a skill experiencing a surge of interest. “Many leaders are realizing how important repeatable, scalable operations are to long term business success. So we see directors and VPs of marketing operations, but also specialized titles like marketing operations analyst and marketing operations strategist,” he says.

Albet Buddahim, founder and CEO of Katapult Digital — an end-to-end digital agency based in Asia, says that technology, which is a strong enabler, demands performance-led skills such as UI/UX, precision advertising; attribution modelling; data studio management; and campaign performance monitoring. SaaS talent whisperer Erica Seidel, who runs The Connective Good is seeing interest in ‘solutions marketers’, which is reflective of marketing leaders becoming very much like general managers. Alfonso backs that up “T-shaped marketers (deep technical knowledge in one area but broad knowledge in most marketing areas) are filling junior roles, and senior marketers that have delivered significant results (such as growing a business to IPO or building large audiences) are filling the leadership positions.”

The key to having a skilled marketing team is to invest in personalized learning experience journeys for team members to not just learn what’s current, but to learn and apply what’s new as it comes, assuming they can be retained for long enough for the investment to pay off.

Essential Capabilities for Marketing Leadership

Capabilities is the bigger challenge for marketing leaders today. “A capability isn’t a specific skill that fits in a given situation. It’s a deep-rooted ability which can be applied in many contexts.” says Tambe, in his blog. It’s honing the ability to generate a desirable outcome in any given situation. It assumes that no matter what challenges they are faced with, marketers who have certain capabilities would manage and even possibly thrive.

With the pace of change in marketing being what it is, marketing leaders need to focus on honing capabilities such as:

  • Streamlining operations, removing silos, and collaborating with multiple stakeholders towards business goals.
  • Accurately identifying the problems that need solving, giving direction to analytics teams that trawl the data for insights, and applying insights for creative problem solving.
  • Knowing how best to apply technology for optimal outcomes. While marketing leaders are not expected to have the skills of a data analyst or scientist, the capability to understand how the data flows and why is crucial. Ferrari calls it “the ability to understand and embrace the integration of multiple sources of customer data throughout an organization.”
  • Creating new business and operating models amidst resource constraints and disruptions such as rise of the subscription economy and D2C commerce.
  • Cracking the privacy-vs-reach conundrum while ensuring compliance and brand safety.
  • Post-pandemic, the ability to manage a dispersed workforce and cross-functional collaboration more effectively than ever.
  • Finding and keeping the best talent by creating a continuous learning experience infrastructure.

Buddahim adds that “digital transformation leadership” capabilities are of prime importance across all functions, and the CMO is no exception. In that context, marketing leaders must be able to enable processes that transmit digital knowledge multi-directionally.

Carlos Doughty, founder and CEO of Martech Alliance which offers events and learning solutions, sums up the top three capabilities for marketers today as the ability to embrace change and learn at speed; balance data-driven marketing with the art of branding; and operate both strategically and operationally — connecting the pillars of planning, people, platforms and process.

No Easy Way Through the Gap

When multiple global enterprises do away with the CMOs role, we know it’s time to rethink the entire marketing organization. “Everything changes so fast in marketing — we’re not like doctors or lawyers where years of experience automatically equals higher performance,” says John Wall, partner at AI led analytics firm Trust Insights.

The only sustainable approach lies in investing in a strategy and culture that nurtures both — skill development and leadership capabilities — in an institutionalized environment of continuous learning. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. Alfonso adds “Leading marketing organizations are making sure the talent they are bringing in surpasses the talent of the current bench — it’s the only way to make sure the caliber of talent continues to improve. Formal learning opportunities are great — but we often forget that team members learn from each other.”

Teams missing this, despite a plethora of tools and tech, will remain grossly underprepared for what the future may bring. Those who get it will be in a position to demonstrate the real value of marketing — transforming the function from cost center to revenue generator.

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