Industry talent rebounds

Hard economic times have led seasoned and new marketers to explore their options. What skills will help them find a footing in today's crisis and beyond?

This article is part two of a C-Suite mini-series focused on talent and skills development within marketing departments. Last week, strategy explored how internships and MBA programs have fared in an unstable job market. 

It appears that the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet reached the (virtual) cubicles of interns working at some of the country’s largest marketing employers. Here in Canada, P&G, Unilever and PepsiCo have all recently recruited students – viewing them as a vital source of future talent – despite the challenges they face when it comes to training and delivering meaningful career experiences while working remotely.

But for every new intern at these firms, there are several part- and full-time employees across the industry who have recently been furloughed or permanently lost their jobs. Others are likely bracing for worst-case scenarios that may have not yet fully revealed themselves. In such a climate, many are looking to advance their skills and explore new career opportunities.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) extended its NXT platform to support not only university students and graduates, but also professionals in the early stages of their careers. The idea, according to CMA president John Wiltshire, is that it will also “benefit experienced marketers who are looking to recharge their careers because of the pandemic.”

The CMA is among a number of organizations that have stepped up to help advance the industry and its future leaders at a challenging time. On the agency side, StrawberryFrog will host a virtual Intern Masterclass in July for students interested in purpose-led marketing strategies. Leaders from DentsuMcgarryBowen, Target, DDB, Huge and Doug&Partners have been providing advertising students with portfolio reviews and advice. And No Fixed Address has launched No Fixed Agency, a mentorship program offering students and freelancers virtual office hours with leaders across the industry. Since soft-launching in May, more than 75 students, juniors, freelancers and managers have expressed an interest in the program.

When it launched in partnership with RBC last May, CMA NXT gave students and recent grads free access to information on various marketing roles, tips on how to prepare for a career in a fast-changing industry, and access to marketers within the CMA network.

The association planned to expand the offering to a wider audience, including professionals in other fields, around 2021 or 2022, says Sheldon Rodrigues, AVP of initiatives and strategy at the CMA. “But, when the pandemic hit, we sat down and evaluated the needs of the community at the present moment and decided that we needed to prioritize catering to a larger audience now instead of waiting another year.”

Since the outbreak began, Rodrigues says demand for CMA NXT has grown among students and graduates whose job prospects have declined significantly since the beginning of the year. Many are using the time for self-improvement: research by Amplify found that 76% of Gen Z are using this time for upskilling and professional development.

But the CMA has observed a similar need among both young and more established professionals. “People are out of work and looking for ways to prepare themselves for when work becomes available again, or just looking for ways to keep busy while also investing in themselves and in their future,” says Rodrigues. “We have definitely noticed a spike in the number of professionals who are now actively using CMA NXT.”

Among the content most in demand is a series on “marketing yourself,” as well as videos on mindset and mental resilience, says Rodrigues. “That is exactly what professionals are searching for right now to help them through this difficult time.”

Strategy spoke to recruiters at major firms, as well as leaders at some of the country’s top business schools. Those discussions illuminate the scope of the skills needed to succeed as an up-and-coming business leader.

On the one hand, Karen Jackson-Cox, executive director of the career advancement centre at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, says employers are looking for candidates with specialized skills in areas like digital transformation, design thinking, data analytics, organizational restructuring and ecommerce – adding that many opportunities are now found at companies like UberEats, Instacart, Shopify, Zoom, Slack and Twitch.

“Students are being encouraged to have a proactive, agile approach in leveraging their transferable skills [and] expanding their search more broadly to growth industries and functions,” she said, while discussing how interns are faring in this climate. “We are asking them to think beyond plans A and B.”

On the other hand, many employers report looking for young talent with soft skills, such as creative problem solving and leadership, which are sometimes more easily acquired outside of the classroom.

When hiring for its internship program, Kristen Hunt, talent advisor lead, says Unilever Canada looks for qualified students from diverse backgrounds who “demonstrate leadership and initiative, are able to work well in teams, have sharp analytical skills and are looking to create change and think outside the box.”

That sentiment is echoed by Logan Chambers, co-leader of PepsiCo Canada’s marketing campus recruitment team. If anything, Chambers says the pandemic has helped reinforce the need for “some of the classic attributes”: leadership, collaboration, a drive for results, as well as a passion for marketing and the consumer.

It’s for those reasons that CMA NXT has prioritized soft skills since launch. Not only do they last a lifetime, but they’re also more likely to help professionals find their footing at a time of upheaval, argues Rodrigues.

“With technical skills going out of date due to technological advancements, soft skills have become more important than ever. They are what really set you apart from other candidates and other professionals in your field.”