(Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
Sam Decker was a 7 year pillar of ecommerce leadership at Dell during its ecom heyday. The team Sam was on was one of the most talented the online retail industry has ever seen. That’s not mindless PR drivel. That’s the voice of a recruiter who made north of $150K poaching Dell execs during those years.
After Dell, Sam became CMO of Bazaarvoice, the now-publicly traded ecommerce vendor. Next Sam founded and led Mass Relevance, and today he is Executive Chairman of Clearhead — the cutting edge Austin, Texas based agency that helps brands use data to make smarter business decisions.
Singer Lou Reed was famous for once telling a rock journalist that “my week is your year.” That’s Sam: Completeness of Vision. Ability to Execute. He’s had one of the richest marketing careers I’ve seen. I’m honored to be Sam’s friend — and I was thrilled that he wanted to interview me for Clearhead’s blog.
What are the CEOs at top retailers looking for in their next ecommerce or digital marketing executive?
“Consumers want the unusual,” said Harry Joiner. “They buy stories, and they want to feel better about themselves because of their relationship with a brand. In that sense, brands are in the emotional bond business. CEOs want marketing leaders who can deliver that. I’m a firm believer that VPs of Ecommerce are perfectly positioned to be the next generation of CMOs — and I have made some big bets around that hypothesis.”
Harry has become THE go-to guy for ecommerce recruiting. He even owns EcommerceJobs.com. Regarding his target client, Harry explains, “If your website has a shopping cart (or you want one) or you sell on third party marketplace (or want to), then we’re your resource. And we recruit on a contingency basis.”
I’ve known Harry since he started recruiting in 2004. I was one of his earliest candidates at the time when I was running Dell.com. Today, Harry’s team receives over 350 inbound calls from hiring managers and handles about 200 searches each year from companies looking to hire their next CMO, digital and ecommerce leaders. If you want to know what digital executives need on their resume to land their next job, there’s no better man to ask.
“Based on more than 12,000 hours worth of phone calls since 2004 (5 hours/day … 5 days/week … 50 weeks/year … 10 years …), I have developed a series of posters that map out seven or eight models that both companies and candidates can use to determine quickly how to best drive value in the ecommerce function,” Harry explained. “My office walls are covered with these homemade posters. In some cases, my tools are mashups of tried and true strategic planning models. In other cases, I put some structure around a small personal POV because it worked and seemed to withstand the scrutiny of some of the industry’s best and brightest thinkers.”
Setting the Baseline
First things first, Harry looks for key technical capabilities in candidates. “It’s like Boy Scouts: As one progresses on their journey, they earn badges. On the way up the ladder to VP of Ecommerce, there are 12 functional badges one must earn. P&L experience is usually derivative of these 12 things,” he explains. Harry’s “badges” include …
- Demand Generation – know how to drive traffic via email, SEM, SEO, affiliate, display ads, retargeting, content marketing, etc.
- Basket size – know how to drive average order value
- Conversion – know the strategy and process to improve conversion
- Third Party Markets – integrate with shopping sites and marketplaces
- B2B / Wholesale – experience with business development and partnerships. This might include helping wholesale partners drive revenue through their stores, mobile site / app, print catalog, online, private label, value / outlet channels, etc.
- Social Commerce – experience with user generated content and networks. “We’re only in the second inning on this one …”
- Mobile – “This one is huge, and it’s changing all the time.”
- Flash Sale Sites – “Less important than it was, but still very important in some categories.”
- International – “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, especially in the BRIC markets.”
- Operations – “Making the trains run on time.”
- Technology – “The tools that lubricate customer intimacy by helping customers become better versions of themselves. People will always return to the place where they have been proactively made to feel special. This is where Amazon is vulnerable. It’s like a giant vending machine: You can have anything you want if you have enough money. Just don’t ask for ice.””
- People – Recruiting, Hiring, Organizing, Mentoring, Measuring, Culling, etc. People always ask Harry why he doesn’t list ‘Managing,’ and he says “I once heard a CEO say ‘If you hire someone who needs to be managed, then YOU yourself were a bad hire.'”
Harry notes that until 2007/8, an etailer could get into the IR500 by simply multiplying the first three items: Traffic x AOV x Conversion Rate = Revenue. But since 2009, the ecommerce function has grown like kudzu to include third-party markets, social commerce, mobile and wholesale channels. It’s up to the VP of Ecommerce to match these opportunities with their resources to drive value in ways that are, according to Harry, “pie enlarging, not pie rearranging.”
The Top 4 Priorities
When it comes to hiring, I was curious what skills and attributes the C-Suite was prioritizing these days. Harry explained that CEOs and CMOs are increasingly looking for four things in their next hire:
1. Understanding the P&L and how to balance cash flow and return on equity
A CEO has to understand their top objective, which Harry often helps flesh out before a job search is even posted. “The issue is usually assessed in one of three ways: Growth, Efficiency and Capital Optimization,” said Harry. “The right focus really depends on the industry and margin, and where there is white space. Then the CEO hires around those needs.”
There’s an increase in retailers looking at M&A for growth, as well as an influx in private equity to achieve consolidation. At the same time, business performance is not solely based on growth.
“Companies care about cash flow, return on equity and exit ability—I’m a big believer in the idea that your business strategy should be your exit strategy,” said Harry. “Mathematically, ROE is function of three things: Growth, Efficiency and Capital Optimization. I like candidates who understand that and can explain, ‘Here are the 10 ways I drove results in those three areas…’
“Candidates should understand the mechanics of ecommerce P&L: gross margin; shipping costs; variable profit contribution; allocated fixed costs and so forth,” he added. “And of course, they need to be masters of traffic, conversion and average order value.”
According to Harry, ecommerce is all about the math. “The best candidates are the ones who can tease out where my client is today, in terms of costs and revenues, along with where the client should be in 3-5 years in terms of sales. Then, on the fly, they should be able to paint a credible picture to the hiring committee about how they’ll close that gap in resource friendly and brand accretive ways.”
2. Understanding the Marketing Stack
“A VP of Ecommerce needs to understand the entire marketing stack,” noted Harry. “They should know marketing strategy, how to choose the right technologies, and get more out of them with the right talent.”
According to Harry, there are four types of candidates. On the far left of the continuum, there are the Technologists, the Mark Zuckerberg hacker types. These are the folks for whom the technology is an end unto itself. On the far right are the pure marketers, the Don Drapers of the world who don’t care about technology at all.
Over near the left, there are the marketing-oriented technologists, the people who leverage technology in customer relationships yet still see customers as a source of headaches. But move towards the right and you’ll find the technology-oriented marketers. Harry does 95% of his business with this type of candidate. These are the folks who see technology as a means to an end: greater customer intimacy. The technology exists to help customers self-actualize through the brand.
Harry believes that candidates that fall too far to one side or the other are less sought after. CEOs want balanced marketing leaders who are also technology leaders. Which side they came from matters less than whether they fit inside the space between marketing and technology.
“The A-players that are mission driven, have a teachable POV and understand the full marketing stack will be the CMOs of tomorrow,” explains Harry. “Mastering the marketing stack means putting the right people against the right marketing strategy with technical capabilities. “
3. Creating a differentiated brand (experience)
“Being a slave to the P&L will only get you so far,” said Harry. “There’s a sort of tyranny of incrementalism that accompanies being solely numbers driven. It’s this mentality that gives consumers movies like Die Hard 4. We need more chancy movies like Pulp Fiction.”
Competing against Amazon by “me too-ing” price or convenience is not a winning strategy for retailers. So CEOs are looking for marketing and ecommerce leaders who know how to create and amplify unique experiences.
If you are a candidate, Harry suggests highlighting examples of how you used digital to bring your company’s brand promise to life across every customer touch point.
He poses this thought experiment for marketing candidates:
As you interview with a given company, ask yourself, “Who is this company’s slam dunk customer?” If you shadowed this person for 30 days, what would you see, morning, noon and night? How do they feel about themselves because of their relationship with the company? Smarter? Prettier? Morally superior? Ask yourself, “What would this slam dunk customer demand of me if they were on the hiring committee?” Be prepared to discuss examples of how you’ve done that during your interviews.
Clearly, Harry looks for candidates who know how to create experiences that fit to how a customer buys. “Candidates need to reverse engineer all that. They have to understand the leading and lagging indicators of the customer flow.”
4. Demonstrated change leadership
“You have to understand the math AND be future oriented,” says Harry. Candidates who demonstrate a bias towards incremental growth will struggle. He reports that CEOs are looking for people with operational experience as well as the ability to make big moves for the long term. These may be the “Important but Not Urgent” initiatives, which involve multiple functions.
Harry suggests putting bullet points in your resume showing how you helped companies go after new customers or develop new products. The framework he uses is the Ansoff Opportunity 2×2 model, which shows old product/new product initiatives on one axis and existing markets/new markets on the other.
Harry coaches candidates to map all the projects they’ve worked on in each quadrant and develop a list of ways they’ve helped the company fill those spots. If you’re short in one box, then get involved in projects in your current role to gain that experience.
Some Final Advice
“The best resumes are mapped to a job posting,” Harry said. “The job of resume is not to get the job, but rather NOT to be knocked out. An HR manager looks at your resume and thinks: ‘REJECT? -or- FAIL TO REJECT?’ Best case, she fails to reject.”
Harry also believes your resume can’t be too long; it can only be too boring. “It’s got to shock and awe the CEO on ways you drove revenue, improved efficiencies, and generated cash flow in ways that provided lift to the brand.”
CEOs want a unique candidate, just as they want that candidate to create uniqueness for the brand. That’s why they call Harry.