The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
Jerry Bernhart, the Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, is our latest guest on The Kula Ring Podcast. Jerry started recruiting in the marketing space in the late ’80s, but when the internet interrupted and changed the world, Jerry knew there would be a huge need for marketers so he jumped all-in and focused more on recruiting, working with organizations like HotJobs, and Monster.
Listen in to our conversation with Jerry, as he shares this 30+ years of knowledge and advice on the best recruiting practices for attracting and retaining top talent, his opinions on remote/hybrid work, and his point of view on the future evolution of the marketing industry.
The Dynamics of Recruiting in an Evolving Marketing Industry Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: I’m delightful as always, Jeff. You?
Jeff White: I’ve said this before, but it’s not up to you to claim you’re delightful. I think you are, but…
Carman Pirie: Well, I’m a delight to myself. I can’t speak for anyone else, you know?
Jeff White: Well, I-
Carman Pirie: It’s none of my business what people think about me.
Jeff White: Yeah. Exactly. I’m delighted to be here too, so today we’re gonna be digging into a pretty interesting topic, one that’s near and dear to almost everybody’s heart.
Carman Pirie: Man. I guess, yeah.
Jeff White: Anybody in business is trying to recruit.
Carman Pirie: I mean, yeah. We know, I think, whether business owner, or manager, or frankly employee, everybody these days knows that there’s a war for talent out there that has been projected for a while, like I feel like I’ve been hearing about this since I was a kid, that it was coming. And I feel like it just happened, like it-
Jeff White: Or it certainly increased.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. There’s a light switch moment with the pandemic. I’m really looking forward to diving into this topic with today’s guest.
Jeff White: Yeah. Absolutely. So, joining us today is Jerry Bernhart. Jerry is the Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Jerry.
Jerry Bernhart: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
Carman Pirie: It’s a pleasure to have you on the show, Jerry. Look, I don’t want to say you’ve been in this business forever, but you’ve been in it a while, so why don’t you maybe give our listeners a bit of background, the who’s Jerry elevator pitch, if you will.
Jerry Bernhart: Happy to. So, I started recruiting in the marketing space, which is what I do, back in the late ‘80s, when direct marketers ruled the earth. Direct mail, catalog, and the like, right? And started off working with a lot of direct mail service companies, your data providers, things of that nature, technology companies, and then started moving onto the client side, which would… mailers, large financial services firms, like Mastercard, and MBNA, American Express, all those. And catalog companies. And then the dawn of the internet came along, and I pretty much jumped on that train because I saw the future. I really did. I just felt the internet was gonna just take over the world. And there was going to be a huge need for marketers who understood that channel.
So, I started getting heavy into that, golly, the late ‘90s. I even had my own website. I had a website called DirectMarketingCareers.com, which I launched in ’97? It was one of the first few specialized job posting sites and it may have been the only one in marketing at the time, although that was… ended up doing it as more than just marketing. I had clients posting for all kinds of things. Operations, and analytics, and whatnot, but the title was DirectMarketingCareers.com, so it was supposed to be mostly marketing. And for the most part, it was.
And during its heyday, I think I had 600 companies posting on this thing. It was amazing. And that was back when the commercial internet was really in its infancy. I ran that for about five, six years, and at the same time was going 90 miles an hour doing my recruiting business, so really I wore both hats for a number of years and decided to kind of focus more on the recruiting side, which I don’t regret, because companies like HotJobs, and Monster, they were big in those days, and they were pretty much just handing me my lunch. I mean, running a website like that involves a tremendous amount of investment, time, dedication, while my search business was really starting to take off, so I thought, “I’m gonna just focus on one or the other.” And so, that’s what I did.
I kind of let that go away, but it was fun. I’m probably the only recruiter in the marketing space that I’ve ever run into that actually ran his own website for that many years. Launched it, ran it, it was such a good experience, even though it was a long time ago. In the early 2000s, things began to really pick up obviously with eCommerce and the online world. I wrote a book about… How long has it been now? I guess six, seven years ago, I started my career in eCommerce and digital marketing. And at its peak, it was selling pretty well. It was the first book of its kind. It was kind of meant to… It was designed for marketers earlier in their career trying to figure out, “All right, well, what’s all this talk about eCommerce?” And trying to give them a sense of the opportunities that existed and that lay ahead.
And these days, eCommerce of course being such an important part of everything we do in business, but at the end of the day, I’m really a marketing guy. I mean, I was placing CMOs and heads of marketing, and that’s always kind of been my bread and butter, although lately, in recent years, most of the calls have been coming in for eCommerce, which has been the main focus of what I do. I work with agencies. I work with brands. I work with startups. I work with Fortune 50s. I work with every kind of company you can imagine.
I prefer working with smaller firms, though, because I have direct access to the C-suite, which is great. I can talk to the founders, and the owners, and in many cases, and I don’t do this at the moment. I hope to resume. But I’d go out and meet them, and sit down, and we’d work up organizational charts, and job descriptions, and you can’t do that with the CEO of Dow Chemical, you know? So…
Carman Pirie: Well, you’ve got me convinced on both your credentials and the longevity in the space. I mean, you’ve seen a massive evolution in the dynamic for competition for marketing talent.
Jerry Bernhart: Oh, yeah.
Carman Pirie: And am I right in saying that it seems like everything changed again with COVID?
Jerry Bernhart: Well, you know, what it did was accelerate things. I mean, it just brought forward, look what’s been going on with… I mean, most of my eCommerce clients had record years in 2020 and they’re having great years this year, so it just kind of brought everything forward is what it did. It also brought forward this whole work-from-home thing, which is becoming enormous, and if there’s any one major sea change, that’s it. I mean, I was placing people to work from home 20 years ago. I was placing analysts, statisticians, and modelers, which were very hard to find back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when everything was becoming so data driven and all the marketers I was working with, most of them it seemed, were trying to build up their analytic capabilities. If they weren’t outsourcing it, then they were trying to hire someone internally.
And back then, I remember placing a few people that were remote, because there were individual contributors. You know, kind of the green shade guys, just crunching the numbers, doing their work. They didn’t have to manage anyone. They didn’t have to worry about being polished presenters. They were just crunching the analytics and presenting the results. But these days, that’s really starting to change, as we all know. In fact, I did a survey on LinkedIn about… When was it? A couple of months ago? And I asked in my poll. I said, “Would you even consider a role if it didn’t have work from home or some kind of a hybrid arrangement?” Fully half of them said they probably wouldn’t look at it. And that’s huge. I mean, that’s just enormous.
And I’ve seen other surveys, and polls, and reports that pretty much say the same thing. Anywhere from like 40% plus won’t even look at a role unless it is off-site to some extent, whether it’s hybrid or remote full time.
Carman Pirie: Interesting dynamic around remote work from home in terms of its impact on salaries. I’ve seen some interesting studies suggesting that basically there’s an expectation that there may be downward pressure on salaries in urban centers and upward elsewhere, kind of an equalizing, if you will, of salary expectation, because the location isn’t as important anymore. I guess are you seeing indications of that?
Jerry Bernhart: Not really. I mean, it doesn’t really matter where they are. Talent is talent. And a lot of these people are very hard to find, and you have an experience, like B2B for example. Get an experienced B2B eCommerce leader who has all the components you’re looking for; a lot of those roles are very transformational. They involve change. They involve the requirement to be an influencer. And I could go on. I can give you a list a mile long of all the things that these candidates need to have. So, whether they’re in a city or in some small country town, they’re gonna get paid what the market will bear, and most of the placements I’ve made in the last couple of years, I’m seeing no significant decrease in compensation. If anything, I’m seeing them go up. I mean, they’ve always slightly gone up over the years, obviously.
Carman Pirie: Of course. Yeah.
Jerry Bernhart: But yeah, people just aren’t… Most people just aren’t gonna settle for a lateral move. They’re looking for a move up. And the ones that are good, now, we’re talking about the cream of the cream, right? They’re the ones, and those are the ones I’m after, those are the ones I try to recruit and place, they can command a very competitive salary as well as a bonus, so I’m not seeing any trend toward their willingness to step back depending on where they happen to live.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think the suggestion there, I may have phrased it wrong. It’s not so much a salary decrease as much as it would be… This notion that some roles when they’re in Downtown New York City command $300,000 and when they’re in State College, Pennsylvania, it’s $150,000, you know?
Jerry Bernhart: Cost of living and things of that nature.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. And the projection was that there’s gonna be a bit of an equalization out of that over time because remote work scenarios kind of change that dynamic, I guess.
Jerry Bernhart: Well, yeah. I guess if I were gonna place somebody who lives in Omaha versus somebody who lives in New York City, chances are the one in New York City is gonna command a higher wage just because of cost of living. But if you iron all that out, if you take that out of the equation I guess is kind of the best way to look at it, all things being equal, they’re still gonna get market-level comp wherever they may be. But yeah, you make a point. If you’re in a very high cost of living location like San Francisco, yeah, there’s no question that you’re gonna get a higher salary, because the cost of housing is just… It’s incredible versus someplace in the middle of the Midwest.
Carman Pirie: One other thing I’d like to kind of dive a bit into here is this notion of I think a lot of manufacturers that we speak to, some of the marketers will say you know, maybe it’s not the sexiest category in some instances for marketers. There’s sometimes a sense that marketers prefer B2C over B2B. We’ve all heard that kind of narrative.
Jerry Bernhart: Right.
Carman Pirie: And then, of course, when they look at the manufacturing side of B2B, or industrial marketing sometimes can decode as a bit less sexy to some, as well. I guess I’d be curious, as these manufacturers, they’re in this war for talent like everyone else, I guess.
Jerry Bernhart: They are. Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I want to get your advice for them specifically like they’re not in a… If they don’t think they’re in a sexy industry or a sexy category, how do they compete for the sexy talent, if you will?
Jerry Bernhart: Well, I mean, when I’m engaged in a B2B search, and I do a lot of B2B, I’m looking for candidates who already have that background, so to them, it’s sexy. They’ve been in it. Been there, done that. Been around the block. Many of them have stood up eCommerce businesses, digital marketing businesses with B2B companies. That’s what they enjoy. They’re good at it. I have no trouble attracting them to another B2B opportunity as long as it fits in with whatever their career goals may be and provided the company, of course, is presenting a compelling opportunity for someone.
Now, maybe getting someone who’s a B2C candidate, let’s say, who’s been selling consumer products their whole life, they may not view a B2B opportunity as being “sexy enough.” But then I’m not really looking for those candidates, because B2B, as we all know, that’s kind of a special breed. And those that do it and those that do it well and have experience with it, what’s interesting is I think about this. Most of the B2B people that I know don’t really have a great desire to go back to B2C if that’s where they came from, you know?
Carman Pirie: Oh, I’d agree with that. Yeah.
Jerry Bernhart: Yeah. I see that all the time. Right.
Carman Pirie: So, your advice to manufacturers is basically to get comfortable in your own skin. There’s people that think you’re just fine.
Jerry Bernhart: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: It’s not about it… Yeah. Yeah.
Jerry Bernhart: Right, right. Yeah. You don’t need to go find somebody from Zappos. It’s not who you want anyway.
Jeff White: Yeah. That experience is certainly… It’s very specific, you know? I want to go back to something we were talking about just a moment ago about people wanting to have that hybrid option, or full work from home, or remote capability. Are you finding that to be a tough sell at all with the C-suite that you’re working with in order to convince them that they have to do that? Or are they… They’ve got it. They understand?
Jerry Bernhart: I’m not trying to convince them that they have to do that. As a matter of fact, I just had a conversation with someone, when was it? Friday. They’re looking for a VP. First-ever VP hire. This is not a really big company, either. It’s, I don’t know, 50, 60, $70 million. And they want to take it well over 100 and they have a roadmap, they have their growth plans laid out, and they need a pretty senior person to help them get there, and we talked about this, and I said, “You know what? I’m really not a big fan of having people at that level who need to grow these companies and manage large staffs do all the things they have to do on a remote basis.” Now, I’m probably gonna get a little pushback on that, because there are people out there at this level who are doing it, and doing it well, and they go back and forth to wherever they’re going.
But I’m a little… I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little old-school in that regard. I think at certain levels, particularly at the VP level and up, I think you’re just… There’s an on-site dynamic. Just remember, these roles, high-level marketing, particularly eCommerce, digital marketing, are highly collaborative by definition, right? So, you’re not just working with the staff that’s reporting up to you and managing, and then working with the C-suite, but you’re dealing all across the organization, you know? With finance, and product, and human resources, and operations, and you think about the high level of collaboration involved… As someone who’s kind of observing this from the outside looking in, I just question, there are some who can do it, but I just think you’d be a whole lot more effective being on-site working with people. And not only that, in many cases these are, as I mentioned before, transformational roles. By definition, these people are coming in and they’re changing the direction of how a company goes to market. I don’t know. To me, I just think it’s a much more challenging job to do that remotely. And again, there’s some that are doing it well.
So, no, I don’t… To answer your question, I don’t convince companies to do that at all. I give them my suggestion. I give them my advice. In this case, that was my advice. They happened to agree with me.
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Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s a really interesting, challenging question to answer, because inevitably if you’ve managed a team before, or have been in business a while, you have a bit of a… You have some self-reference criteria you’re bringing to this conversation.
Jerry Bernhart: And not only that. You bring up a good point. If someone has not done this on a remote basis before, it’s problematic. It just takes a special individual to be able to do that. In my opinion, anyway. I’ve been working remotely for 30 years. I’ve had my own thing. I’ve been doing my own schtick. But I’m used to it. I’m disciplined. I know how to do it. I know what it takes. But if you haven’t done that before, and all of a sudden you’re kind of thrust in that environment, sometimes that can be a challenge. And at the higher levels, you can’t afford to stumble. You just can’t.
Jeff White: Yeah. There needs to be at the very least the optics that you know what you’re doing.
Jerry Bernhart: Right. Right.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: So, you kind of indicated at the start of the conversation that it was really you kind of viewed the internet and eCommerce specifically as driving a requirement for marketing talent that understood the channel. Overall, there’s been an interesting shift in the world of marketing. Agency life is very different now. The notion of the idea of agency life being radio, print, TV, that’s gone. I guess just overall, from a demand for marketing talent, I guess it may be higher now than it was a few years ago? And where do you see it going in the next two to three years? Are we at peak demand for marketing talent or have we ain’t seen nothing yet?
Jerry Bernhart: We ain’t seen nothing yet. That’s my opinion. Marketing is the rocket fuel that drives business. Kind of always has been, but now, think about it. There’s just a jillion more channels and platforms than we had 20 years ago. Does marketing make a bigger difference? Absolutely. There are gonna be channels and platforms that we haven’t even thought of yet. The Metaverse and all this stuff we’re hearing about, that’ll be probably a whole new opportunity for advertisers. I mean, there’s things to come we can’t even comprehend. Technology has turned marketing on its head. It really has.
And perhaps thinking back 20 years ago, looking at the skills marketers needed to have back then, well, now we have so much more that’s… I mean, just look at the world of marketing automation. All these different specialized applications, marketing, this is a golden era for marketers. And I was probably saying that 20 years ago, but it certainly is the case now. No question about it.
I don’t know where it’s going. I think if I knew where it was going, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I’d be touring the world, lecturing corporations on how to staff their marketing departments for the future, because there’s so many things that we can’t even imagine. I mean, who would have thunk the internet 30 years ago, right? Yeah.
Jeff White: We truly hope that this episode of The Kula Ring is your jumping-off point to vast-
Jerry Bernhart: To become this world authority? Yeah. Right.
Jeff White: Yeah, vast success.
Jerry Bernhart: Exactly.
Jeff White: I can’t see how it could go any different, honestly.
Jerry Bernhart: Right, right, right.
Jeff White: That is pretty interesting, though, because you have seen… I think when we spoke before, you said you’ve seen four recessions. You’ve seen a plethora of changes in the types of work that marketers do. I mean, good luck finding a direct mail executive in this day and age, although I’m sure there are some.
Jerry Bernhart: They’re in huge demand.
Jeff White: Really?
Jerry Bernhart: That’s a channel companies are starting to… Don’t even get me started on that yet, but I don’t know about you, but I’m getting more mail in my mailbox, and it’s because it’s targeted, it’s personalized more than ever before, and it’s a channel that unlike email, you’re not getting a thousand of them a day. I mean, direct mail is kind of… It’s really enjoying something of a rebirth. And I’m glad to see it, because I was a big part of that for a long, long time, and so… But that’s a whole other discussion. But that’s another channel again. Again, digital natives don’t have a lot of exposure to that, you know? They just don’t. They’ve grown up with the internet. I’m hoping more and more to discover it and realize that here’s just another channel.
So, again, you talk about the scope of what marketers have to do these days. We’ve been talking about the internet and eCommerce. Well, there’s still direct mail, direct response advertising, there’s events, there’s PR. It’s multidimensional, you know? You’ve got… I will tell you something. I have so much respect for today’s marketers because of so much that they’re responsible for, and the ones who do it well, to me they’re magicians. They really are. And just look at some of the work they do and some of the companies we know and respect, and how these brands have taken over the world. I don’t know. It’s exciting to be a part of it.
Carman Pirie: I really like your notion that marketing has never been more important and in some ways never been able to drive more impact to organizations. I think that’s a message that a lot of marketers listening to this will… I guess they maybe are due to hear it a little bit. Because we live in a world where it’s funny, we talk about this war for marketing talent, which is fine to talk about, and then we also talk about the fact that the average tenure of a CMO is like what? Is it less than a year now or something? I mean, my goodness.
Jerry Bernhart: Well, not quite that much. No. And I actually… I’ve done some research on this myself. Not recently. I remember doing a study, about 10 years ago, for the Direct Marketing Association, to find out how long direct marketers stay on their jobs, and I think back then it was something like around… I don’t know. Two and a half, three years. That certainly has been compressed. I would say CMOs, I mean they have a lifespan of probably something on the order of three-plus years, three-four years. But at the lower levels, I look at resumes and they look like an Aerosmith rock tour. And I mean, that’s becoming very common among lower-level talent, and it’s not gonna change, and there are two reasons for that. Number one, the business is moving so fast, business is moving so quickly, things change, that if companies don’t keep up for whatever reason, and there are a lot of reasons for that, these candidates are gonna look around and go, “Well, I don’t want to sit here and stagnate. I need to find someplace where I can learn and grow and expand my knowledge, and my know-how, and my impact.”
The other reason is money. Companies are throwing a lot of money at these young people, and you know, you’re gonna make a lot more money jumping from company A to B, to C, to D, than staying with the company you’re at for the next five years, you know? It’s simple economics, supply and demand.
So, I’d say at the higher levels, they tend to stick around a little longer.
Carman Pirie: I think they tend to stick around if they have the choice. I mean, the narrative that I hear is that just the performance pressure on CMOs is greater than ever.
Jerry Bernhart: Oh, absolutely.
Carman Pirie: Being treated as if they’re expendable.
Jerry Bernhart: Yeah. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: The first one to be fired kind-of-thing, which is an interesting way to treat talent that’s hard to find.
Jerry Bernhart: Oh, you mean at that level?
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Jerry Bernhart: Yeah. You know, yeah. Don’t get me started on that. That often has to do with private equity, the owners, and where they want to take the business, and you know, it’s again, things change and move so quickly. A C-level marketer, or a high-level marketer joining a business today, that business could be vastly different two years from now and they never would have known it was going in. There’s a lot of things that are just out of their control, so no fault of theirs. And the good news for them is plenty of opportunity out there. They’re all… Everyone I know, they’re interviewing, they’re landing opportunities, plenty of jobs, but things just move so quickly. Things change so much.
When I first started, I think the CMO lifespan was probably more like, I don’t know, five, six years. I’m talking back in like the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, right? So, yeah, from that perspective we live in a much different world.
Jeff White: Do you think that there’s anything that… I mean, obviously, for us, our core audience here is manufacturers, but do you think that there’s anything that manufacturers and other organizations can do to set themselves up for success to hang onto this talent a little longer?
Jerry Bernhart: You know, yeah. Think about that for a moment. I mean, it’s really all… I tell you, it’s all about cultural fit. It’s all about the cultural fit. And I’d say the best way to hold on to talent longer is to hire the right talent, to begin with. That’s what I really tell everybody. And again, it’s not about the tools or software they happen to know, because that’s gonna change from company to company, and smart people can learn that stuff. Where hires fall apart, it has to do with the culture, and for example, I just placed a head of eCommerce with a concrete company of all things, a construction firm that makes concrete. And so, my biggest concern was that she’s going into a company where I’m sure a lot of the senior people, they’ve been there forever, they were probably high school buddies, and here comes this outside lady who’s gonna shake up marketing. Well, who does she think she is, you know? We’ve been doing the same thing for the last 40, 50 years.
So, they have to have open minds. They have to understand that she’s there to help move the business forward just like they are. And they have to understand that in order for her to be successful, they have to welcome her into their culture. And the candidate, by the same token, needs to look at this environment and say, “Can I work with these people and is this the kind of culture that I’m gonna be comfortable with?” I spend half the time when I qualify candidates strictly on culture because that’s gonna make the hire. Right. And usually, that’s where these things… and when companies, or excuse me, when candidates call me when they’re looking, they’re unhappy in their role and they want to start exploring other opportunities, most always it has to do with the environment of the company. The way I’m managed. The direction it’s going in. The way they treat people. Their philosophy. Their management style. Things of that nature.
So, all I can say is that. Spend a lot of time probing cultural fit when you’re hiring a candidate and I think on the back end you’ll find that your hires will be… They’ll have a much higher stick rate.
Carman Pirie: I think that’s fantastic parting advice. I mean, I feel we could talk about the dynamics of recruiting for the next hour and we would still not be even halfway through the discussion, but it’s been a fascinating conversation, Jerry. Thank you for sharing it with us today.
Jerry Bernhart: Yeah, and if anybody has any questions, I have a whole line of questions that I ask candidates and employers when I’m probing for this kind of thing. Anyone can… They’re more than welcome to reach out and I’m happy to share my experiences with them with anyone that I can help. I’m kind of at the point in my career where it’s kind of give back time, you know what I mean? I want to help as many people as I can, particularly companies like manufacturers, construction companies, and these “older school” organizations that need… Digital transformation is something they really need to get on board with. Not easy to do. It’s a real challenge, especially when it comes to technology, and the way they’ve been doing business with their customers for so many years.
There are a lot of things they need to be thinking about when they’re interviewing candidates that can come in and really make a difference in the business. And a lot of them don’t have that experience. They haven’t hired these people, you know what I mean? This is all kind of new to many of them. There are some things… You don’t know what you don’t know, so in any way, I can help, I love doing it.
Jeff White: That’s fantastic. We’ll link up your LinkedIn profile on the podcast page, as well, and people can feel free to reach out to you if they have questions, but I really want to thank you for sharing your advice today, Jerry. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Jerry Bernhart: Thanks very much for letting me talk about it. It’s something I really love and hope to continue doing it for a long time to come.
Jeff White: Wonderful.
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