Stop Shopping For Skills And Start Looking For Grit.

How The Marketing Industry Can Fill The Digital Talent Gap

Advertising guru Rishad Tobaccowala, my friend and mentor, is well known for saying, “The future cannot fit into the containers of the past.” So when it comes to filling the digital marketing talent gap, he’s even more right (if that’s possible.)

The truth is, when it comes to the future of marketing, peoples’ existing skills aren’t going to cut it. We’re constantly looking for a unicorn when it comes to digital talent — people who can do it all. But what we actually have is a lot of specialists — digital media, traditional media, media strategy, creative strategy, art direction, copywriting, development, analytics, and the list goes on.

But it’s not about finding the smartest analyst or the most talented art director. It’s about finding people with a special characteristic that cannot be taught: grit.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” — Angela Lee Duckworth

It’s up to leaders to seek out people with grit — the ones who are brave, adaptive, flexible and have a willingness to learn — and train them to do the job. And I’m not talking just one job; I’m talking about some of each of the jobs I listed earlier.

Specialists can no longer meet clients’ needs. Everyone has to adapt — myself included — and mature into responsive, adaptive marketers. It’s also a good leader’s responsibility to coach, develop and nurture these people — truly dedicating time to their career growth.

One of my team members began her career as a pharmacist, then she taught herself how to code and became a developer, then she discovered that she loved project management. She’s one of the most passionate, effective PMs I’ve ever worked with. Who knows what she’ll do next!

My partner, Charlie Stone, started his career as an attorney. He even worked in the State’s Attorney office until one day he decided to start his own firm. After growing a successful practice, he decided to pursue his passion of video production, which eventually led to us forming FQ540.

Both of these amazing people have the bravery to take big leaps of faith and the stamina to do whatever it takes to succeed. This is grit.

As an industry, we have to create the unicorn by giving people new skills and by empowering them to chart their own course in an agency. Peoples’ existing skills aren’t going to enable them to meet the future — we have to prepare people to be able to create the future, not just respond to it.

When I’m looking for team members, here’s what stands out to me:

1. Passion: They stand by their convictions and truly care about making a difference.

2. Compassion: They demonstrate kindness and empathy toward others.

3. Curiosity: They always want to learn more; they want to know how things work and work to figure out how to make things better.

4. Inventive: They operate under the notion that a way can always be found. It’s a mix of positivity and pragmatism, and it goes a long way.

So when marketers throw their hands in the air and wonder, “where are all the wicked smart analysts?” perhaps they should find someone who is “wicked smart” and give them the skills to analyze data or build a website. And by the way, the smart people are going to be appreciative of someone who invests in their skills. It does a wonder for employee happiness and retention.

Being successful in marketing, even as it evolves at breakneck speed, isn’t about finding people with specialized knowledge in The Next Big Thing it’s about recognizing and, investing in, people with character, perseverance and good, old-fashioned grit.

Andrew Swinand is co-founder and managing director of Chicago-based Frequency540 and a co-founder of Abundant Venture Partners, an early stage business accelerator focused on service-based companies. Follow him on Twitter: @swinand

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