3 Interview Questions to Ask Every Marketing Job Candidate

September 15, 2014

interview questions for marketers

Hiring a great marketer is more difficult than hiring a great engineer or a great salesperson.

When hiring engineers, the college and work experience of the candidate usually applies directly to the job at hand. For example, if a candidate has a 3.9 GPA, an EE degree from Stanford, and has worked for 3 years at Microsoft, you pretty much know exactly who you're hiring and why.

Hiring salespeople is more difficult, as I pointed out in my previous post, "How to Hire a Great Salesperson." However, while there are different types of selling, there's general agreement on the definition of "selling." Nobody would confuse "selling," for example, with "accounting" or "manufacturing."

When hiring marketers, things are not always so clear. Because marketing, as a concept, tends to be amorphous. For example, the American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

"The activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large."

That definition is so broad that it essentially folds everything that goes on within a company under the marketing rubric. More importantly, such an all-encompassing definition makes it hard to pinpoint where a marketing group adds value and how to measure it.

Because the concept of marketing is vague, recruiters and managers must ask questions that reveal how a candidate perceives the role of marketing in a company and how the candidate might approach specific marketing challenges. To do this, I recommend asking the following three questions:

1. What is the difference between marketing and selling?

Both large and small companies experience internal conflicts between the sales group and marketing group stemming from differing opinions about the role of marketing vs. the role of sales. Marketing groups tend to see sales groups as a delivery mechanism at the end of a marketing process. Sales groups tend to see marketing groups as providing a service that helps sales groups to sell more easily.

Both viewpoints depend upon perspective. If you're in marketing, it may be difficult to perceive the complexity and multiple steps involved in selling. Similarly, those in sales are so focused on "making the numbers" that it's difficult to appreciate the way that marketing has laid groundwork.

Regardless of which viewpoint is "correct," the conflicts between marketing and sales groups can reduce a company's productivity.

Take, for example, the generation of sales leads, a common marketing function. According to a recent study of 600 sales and marketing groups conducted by the research firm CSO Insights, less than a quarter of sales professionals believe that they're getting fully qualified leads from their marketing group.

As with most organizational conflicts, a sense of mutual respect is the key to building better working relationships.

One of the benefits of this question is that it helps to assess whether the candidate possesses that fundamental sense of respect and will therefore be able to work well with your sales team. If the candidate is dismissive of the sales group (e.g., says something like "marketing drives sales"), he or she will probably increase rather than dampen any conflicts that exist between your sales and marketing groups. Ideally, you want a candidate who understands the contributions of both groups to the overall success of your company.

2. How would you contribute if you were temporarily assigned to our sales group?

Many companies do this type of cross-assignment as a way to build bonds between their sales and marketing groups. However, even if you're not planning such an assignment, you should still ask this question because it takes the theoretical situation in the first question into the practical realm of the candidate's career.

The worst possible answer is something like, "I'm sure I'd be good at selling, but such an assignment would not be the best use of my talents." A response like this suggests that the candidate, if hired, will have difficulty creating marketing programs and deliverables that are useful to the sales team.

This is a huge problem, according to the book The Profit Maximization Paradox, which quotes surveys showing that salespeople spend a whopping 40 percent of their time preparing "customer-facing deliverables" while using less than 50 percent of marketing-created sales materials.

A less-than-ideal but still acceptable answer is something like "I don't know if I'd be very good at selling." Such a response suggests that the candidate understands that selling is difficult and has the self-awareness to realize that he or she might not have the right characteristics to be successful at the job.

The ideal answer is something like "I'd learn everything I could and then bring that knowledge back into the marketing group to help make it more effective."

3. Tell me about your personal brand.

This is a bit of a trick question. On the surface, it provides an opening for the candidate to talk about his or her experience and identity and how they appear to the outside world.

However, you're actually probing for something deeper: whether this candidate's priority is 1) helping your marketing team build a stronger corporate brand or 2) building a personal brand to advance the candidate's own career.

Ideally, you want a candidate who defines his or her personal brand in terms of service, working with a team, and helping a company be successful. A candidate who articulates a personal brand that's independent of any corporate brand is problematic.

Building and enhancing a corporate brand is difficult in a business world that's already saturated with brands, and corporate aims to get everybody in the company to be "on the same page" rather than creating cross-currents that might confuse the corporate message.

If the candidate is being hired specifically as a "celebrity" whose prior experience adds to your corporate credibility, then a strong personal brand is an asset. Indeed, it's the reason that you're hiring that candidate.

However, if a candidate is being hired for a less lofty job, a strong personal brand—or the desire to build one—may make that candidate less effective when working with a team and more likely to grandstand and steal credit.

That's important because, however you define marketing, getting good results requires people who work well with teams.

* Image by Dilbert

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