Jun 27, 2018

Critical Skills for Senior Digital Marketing Leaders

Written by Ekaterina Walter

In my earlier post titled ‘8 Digital Skills That Will Increase Your Salary’  I looked at the variety of skill sets required to accelerate your career in the digital space and, with it, hopefully raise your pay. But what if you are looking to make the shift to a much more senior role? What skills will the executives be looking for then? 

Let’s look at some of the most critical ones.

Thinking Strategically

When stepping into a leadership role, you will be required to look at a much bigger picture than that of an individual contributor or a digital strategist. If you are a strategist or contributor, you usually have a narrower focus: you are given a list of responsibilities and you execute them. In a leadership role you have to consider so much more than that: leading a team, owning a budget, creating a global strategy that can be adopted across the organization, aligning with broader business objectives, and much more.

Your ability to think strategically and consider where you have been, where you are now, and subsequently what you must do to move your team forward will play a huge role in your success. You also will have to understand how your business or team helps the broader company’s objectives and how you could potentially grow your function for a deeper impact on business bottom line.

There are many ways to set yourself up for success here:

  • Study your company and how it operates
  • Know the global executive objectives for the year
  • Understand how you can support the business (or different units within the company)
  • Network with your peers internally (I cannot stress this enough!)
  • Gain deeper understanding of the industry, the market, and technological ecosystem
  • Study the trends so that you can look ahead

Creating a Role

Building on my previous point, if you follow my suggestions closely you might find that there is a gap in the knowledge base within the company. This is your opportunity to pitch a new type of role to your executives, a role that never existed before. Create a plan, outline benefits and proof points, suggest a simple execution roadmap, and ask for a small team (or suggest you start as a team of one to begin with).

Then go to work! Don’t be afraid to be a change agent. And don’t worry when (not if, but when) you encounter initial pushback.

As with anything new, people will resist. But with your well-thought-out plan and constant education and influence, you’ll be able to move the needle. And once it moves, it’ll create a landslide. That’s when the fun will begin!

To do this effectively, take a look at how your other peers within and outside the industry have approached the suggested role (if any exist), and how they’ve structured their strategy and their teams. Then collect data points and examples to support your plan. Go out and talk to people; don’t be afraid to reach out and connect (see the Networking point below). When putting a plan together, consider the nuances of your current organizational culture and anticipate the questions and the pushback from your leadership, and be ready to address these with your proof points.


Here’s probably one of the most important skills anyone can possess in any role to be successful: networking skills. To be able to truly innovate internally, you need to know people! Period. End of story.

Make allies not only within your team (the marketing organization, for example) but also across the company (for example, legal, HR, finance, IT, security, PR, sales, customer care, and so on). As challenges and pushback arise – and they will – you will be able to call upon the social capital you have built within the organization.

Moreover, network outside of your organization. Go to conferences and find people who do similar roles across other industries and brands. Seek people out and invite them for coffee, ask them questions, and share your own experiences.

I’ve connected with plenty of people cold via LinkedIn without any introduction. And guess what? Almost everyone replied and was happy to connect. Don’t be afraid of rejections. What’s the worst that could happen? They won’t reply to your message?

This approach applies to tech companies, vendors, and agencies in your space. Get to know brand peers, software founders, and market experts. This network will prove invaluable when the time comes. 

Measuring Business Impact

Among everything a leader does, there are two things they’ll be measured on: impact of their team on the business and how good a people leader they are.

Let’s talk about the first one. Whatever you do, every single program and project will need to be measured. If you don’t show the return on investment (ROI), you will never succeed long-term.

To do this properly, you need to first put the right objectives in place (make sure they align with short-term and long-term company goals) and then put people, processes, and infrastructure in place to ensure that the success of your programs is measured and reported consistency and in a clear manner.

Telling the Story and Presenting Effectively

A great leader is comfortable in front of people. Speaking to your teams – and inspiring them to be the best version of themselves in everything they do for the company – is one of the most critical skills a leader can possess.

If you want to “sell” the program to executives or get funding for a test pilot, you need to not only be able to present a clear and concise plan, but also to tell a story. The Native American proverb states: "Those who tell the stories rule the world." So true!

Even though you are a [insert your title here], you are first and foremost a leader. This means that you “sell” every day. You convince executives to approve your budget, your hiring, the new technology, the list goes on. And that requires great presentation skills. Being a great storyteller, however, will absolutely differentiate you amongst your peers.

Think about joining Toastmasters or speaking associations. Read books on the topic. Record yourself speaking and then watch the tape to see what you can improve. Hire a coach. Build a library of universal stories that could help support your key points in your presentations.

Interestingly enough, leaders almost never think about developing this skill set. It never gets “love” when they are building their leadership toolkit.  But this is one skill (besides networking) that is arguably the most impactful of them all.

Knowing Your Competition

Here’s a not so well-kept secret: the best leaders don’t benchmark themselves against the obvious competitors (peers in the industry). Instead, they benchmark themselves against other innovators and disruptors. Why? Those disruptors are the ones who define and redefine what great branding, marketing, or storytelling is and should be.

Don’t look at your direct competitors for inspiration. Just like great designers and engineers look at brands such as Apple for inspiration, so should you look at the companies around the globe that do amazing things in your area of expertise. Look at what Airbnb, REI, Coke, Visa, Burberry, McDonalds, Wendy’s and many others do in the digital space that is inspiring and original.

Don’t be afraid to steal and borrow! However, if you want to become one of those disruptors yourself, think outside the box and come up with something fresh and new. Hire the best partners (agencies and tech) to create something that will put you on the map as a clear innovator.

Being a Futurist

In my previous post I touched on the importance of understanding the trends if you want to stay ahead of the curve in your career. When you are a digital leader, however, you need to go one step further.  You have to be able to “translate” the implications of what these trends mean to your organization. Look at the bigger picture and figure out creative ways to use those trends to continue to innovate.

There is a number of ways to do that

  • Writing regular point of view (POV) essays on the latest and greatest in the market and sharing these with the executives
  • Implementing the latest social platforms’ features in your digital strategy
  • Piloting new visual formats

A word of caution, though! To try out new things and test out innovative tactics or creative ideas, you need to have an always-on budget and a team that is ready to execute new ideas on the fly. Make sure a portion of your budget is saved for such occasions. And give your team the freedom to innovate across social networks, content formats, and digital tactics.


Being a digital leader requires a combination of strategic thinking, storytelling, people management, ability to pivot and adapt, courage to try out innovative strategies, determination for those uphill battles, and a mind of a futurist. Every single one of these skill sets can be acquired.

As a leader, if you work hard, stay open to feedback, have an inquisitive mind for continued self-learning, and are fair to people you lead, you will never have to worry about continued career advancement.

Ekaterina Walter
Ekaterina Walter

Ekaterina has led strategic and marketing innovation for Fortune 500 brands such as Intel and Accenture. She is an international speaker and author of Wall Street Journal bestseller 'Think Like Zuck: The Five Business Secrets of Facebook’s Improbably Brilliant CEO Mark Zuckerberg'. Find out more about her profile here

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