MTM Ep#24: How to hire sizzling digital marketing talent without getting burned with Luke Gracie

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Welcome to another episode of the More Than Marketing podcast. If you want to hire marketers who know their stuff and aren’t going to give you the run-around, this episode is a must-listen. If you’re a CMO or VP of Marketing with a lot of experience in traditional marketing but not much experience in digital marketing, you’ll learn the right questions to ask a candidate to figure out if they know their stuff. That’s very important because it’s easy to pull the wool over a hiring manager’s eyes by throwing out the alphabet soup of digital marketing (“I know PPC, SEO, CRO, and UX.”).

Today’s guest is Luke Gracie. Luke is our Director of marketing services, and one of our most tenured folks (7+ years). We’ll be chatting about tips for recruiting fantastic digital marketing talent. He’s helped make many hiring decisions. He’s helped other companies hire talent. And he’s seen companies get burned numerous times for hiring the wrong person. You’ll learn how to avoid those mistakes.

Want more than this podcast episode? Scroll down to see Luke’s blog post about these topics.

It isn’t easy to hire a digital marketer, even for those of us that live and breathe it. If you’re a seasoned CMO or VP of Marketing who hasn’t worked hands-on in the digital space, it can be even tougher.

What questions do you ask? How do you know if the answers are honest? Do the candidates actually practice this stuff and do it well, or did they just read a blog post? And why does every resume look like candidates are on a pogo stick hopping from company to company?

And then there are even more common reasons why hiring a marketing team focused on digital can be tough:

  • It’s easy for a candidate to talk the talk and confuse the interviewer with buzzwords and acronyms like SEO, PPC, CRO, GA, CTR, and GTM—it’s an alphabet soup.
  • There’s a stereotype that younger is better because they’re on social media more often, so surely they get it—but that’s not always true.
  • Most (not all) recruiters want to put butts in seats, and even they don’t know how to interview on actual skills. (If you’re looking for a good marketing-themed recruiter, check out
  • Even when interviewers ask for win stories, it’s easy for anyone to make tiny results look impressive by using percentages instead of absolute numbers and other tricks. Someone can easily cook up a “500% conversion lift” or an “80% reduction in CPA” tale. It’s all relative.

I’ve interviewed probably 100 people over the years at WebMechanix and have maybe only recommended 10–15% for hire—and these were screened candidates!

That’s how deceptive the talent pool can be. So what do you do?

Fear not… Here are six proven tips for hiring internet marketers without getting burned:

  1. If you don’t have the skills to screen for the right digital marketing talent yourself, find a partner you trust that knows more about digital. They’ll help you wade through that alphabet soup to find the perfect match. Certifications from Google Analytics, Google Ads, or HubSpot are meaningless. You don’t need to even have any experience at all on these platforms to earn them (and the exams are easy to cheat on—the answers are available online.)
  2. Use action commitments and sample assignments to gauge subject matter expertise, and have your trusted partner review each candidate’s submission. If a free trial run is a point of contention, simply pay them for the work. That small upfront expense can save you from a big, costly hiring mistake down the road. Plus, you can potentially get some good help with some marketing work. For example, we like to present a bunch of metrics from an audit to PPC candidates and ask them to analyze and recommend possible next steps. We can weed out 70–80% of applicants based on this assignment alone.
  3. Ask specific questions that bait out whether someone knows what they’re talking about or is just pulling the wool over your eyes with terminology. If you hear those terms and acronyms getting thrown around, even if you know what they mean, just play dumb. You can say, “What’s SEM again? That’s when you show up high on the free Google rankings, right?”If they can’t explain what they do in layman’s terms when asked, or if they answer incorrectly, then they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.
  4. Check references—but not for verification of title and period of work. Ask past bosses, subordinates, and peers to find out about someone’s actual impact, knowledge, and accomplishments. Check for documented evidence and past reviews since applicants can embellish their track record and take credit for others’ work on their resume. This type of due diligence almost never happens. I know because I’ve gotten the reference call before. It’s usually from someone in HR and not from the actual manager looking to hire. (A don’t-sue-me disclaimer: Make sure your HR and legal department approve of your process if you’re looking to change the style.) Look for folks with experience from the digital agency world. They’re typically more trained and have exposure to a greater breadth of channels, platforms, and situations.
  5. “Digital marketer” is too broad a title. Carefully consider what you want from your new hire. Is it to own SEO or Google Ads internally? Is it to engage a variety of effective agencies and partners and manage those relationships? Is it to act as an operations person and get tracking and systems in place? Is it someone to post blog posts and edit web pages? If you don’t get specific and screen attentively when you hire digital marketing experts, you may end up with a developer when you needed a PPC manager, or a creative when you needed a marketing ops person, and so forth. And unfortunately, it’s rare to find that expert who happens to be a jack of all trades—the SEO, content writer, or Ads manager who is also a developer. Come to grips with that, and look for the T-shaped marketer that fills your immediate need and knows how to get other things done. Again, agency veterans typically fit this mold.
  6. Trust your gut. If you don’t feel right about something during the interview, you’re likely not going to feel good about it after the hire. The old saying of “hire slow, fire fast” applies here. But I’d argue that if you hire a marketer slowly, you don’t have to fire at all.

If you follow these tips, you’ll find that hiring a digital marketer isn’t so scary after all 🙂

Test it out and let us know in the comments how it worked for you. Or better yet, share some of your favorite tips. And if you’re a current WebMechanix client and looking to make a hire, don’t be shy to ask us to partner with you on the interview process!

Are you looking to apply to WebMechanix? Check out our Careers page.


– [Luke] How do I make sure that I have a successful interview? How do I make sure that I know whether the candidate’s qualified or not? How do I make sure that I feel good about this hire that I’m making?

– Hey, hey, welcome back. Another episode of More than Marketing here. Today’s awesome ’cause I get to talk to Luke Gracie. My man, what’s up?

– Happy to be here.

– Yes, awesome. Luke is our director of marketing services, he’s one of our most tenured folks and today, we’re talking about recruiting, recruiting for digital marketing talent. Is that right?

– Right.

– Right, and so I know Luke, you’ve been here for I don’t even know, what, eight years now. Seven, eight years, it doesn’t matter like you’ve seen a lot of digital marketing talent through our academy and through hiring. You’ve also helped clients hire digital marketing, is that right?

– Yeah, that’s one of the biggest things that I feel like is a good value add from us is we’ll help you interview for any sort of digital marketing hires that you’re trying to make and that kind of leads nicely into what I wanna talk about is, how to hire digital marketers without getting burned.

– Yes.

– And the reason we offer clients that assistance is because it can be easy to get burned.

– Yeah, we’ve seen it happen, we’ve seen it happen. There’s horror stories, and you’ve seen it happen, and if you’re gonna be working with that client, you’re gonna want someone on the other end who, you know, knows their stuff and is not just gonna give you the run around, and also, it’s for the client, the client wants to make the best hire.

– Right, exactly. And a lot of times, CMOs, VPs of Marketing, people that have good experience with marketing, have been doing it for a long time, but haven’t necessarily sat in the digital marketing scene have a little bit of trouble figuring out the right questions to ask and it’s very easy to kinda pull the wool over their eyes by throwing out what I call the alphabet soup of digital marketing.

– Alphabet soup, I love it.

– Oh yeah, you know, I do SEO and CRO, and I have all these PPC wins and I’m in GA all the time finding data. And you hear stuff like that and you think, okay this person knows what they’re talking about, they know their stuff. But really, you just need to read a couple blog posts to be able to go into a interview and say that. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done it or that you’ve posted wins or that you have experience there. There’s all these certifications that people ask for. Oh, are you Google Ad certified, are you Google Analytics certified? You can get those certifications without working in any of those platforms at all. In fact, you can just sit there and Google the answers and get 100% on all the exams.

– Google the answers. Right, yeah, exactly, and that’s very unfortunate because I do like those exams, for instance, because they are actually pretty tough if you don’t do the Googling of the answers, right. So, and yeah, you’re right, I see these on resumes. I don’t know if you guys have seen this where on the resume, it’s like the alphabet soup, right, SEO, PPC, increased, oh, here’s a good one, increased whatever, traffic, by 500%, or decreased CPA or CPL by whatever percent, you know. And first off, if you ever see CPA or CPL decrease by more than 100%–

– Not possible.

– It’s not possible, what, you got leads for negative? We’re getting leads for a dollar and we decreased it by 120%, so you’re getting paid for leads now. So there’s flag number one. But, like, so the resume, talk to me about the resume, you’ve seen this in the resume, right?

– So a lot of things on a resume can be all relative, too.

– And therefore misleading.

– If you’re increasing or decreasing things by percents, but you’re not giving the absolute values, then that may throw up some flags and that might be something you wanna poke into a little bit more. Okay, you decreased the CPA by 50%, what did it start at? How much were you paying for clicks? And you know, those can be questions that maybe you’re not, maybe you don’t know to ask.

– That’s okay.

– And that’s okay, but there’s ways to figure out what to ask and that’s what we wanna go through today. We’ve got six quick tips that will help you figure out, hey, what, how do I make sure that I have a successful interview, how do I make sure that I know whether the candidate’s qualified or not, how do I make sure that I feel good about this hire that I’m making and I’m not just getting confused or false confidence in a bunch of technical terms getting thrown at me?

– Yup, yeah, so let’s jump into that. Before we do, real quick, I wanna talk about sourcing candidates a little bit. There are headhunters out there, so look, if you wanna work with a headhunter, there are headhunters out there. Profiles,, they specialize in digital marketers and creative talent. There are other ones out there as well, but is a good one. And a recruiter is gonna help you, a headhunter is gonna help you, do some of the screening and up front work and even help you with some questions to ask. If you don’t wanna use one, we’ve found success with all the major job boards. Indeed you’re gonna get more volume, but you may not get as good of quality, believe it or not, Glassdoor is providing some volume and some good candidates, and then LinkedIn, the same. So less volume from LinkedIn, but generally, a better candidate, generally speaking. Just wanna throw that out there to kinda touch on that sourcing piece, but now, let’s hit those tips that you put together ’cause they’re really good and this is now when you have the candidate, how to interview them. Or what to do in the interview.

– So my number one tip, and this is one that I like to offer different clients this service, too, is if you don’t feel comfortable interviewing yourself for a digital marketing position, find yourself a partner that does because they’re the ones that are going to know what questions to ask, to be able to say, hey, you know, they’re using all these terms, but they’re using them wrong, which indicates that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or they’re touting wins that are relative values, but you don’t know actually what they are or not and they’re not giving any justification. So find yourself a partner, that can be someone else that you know in the space, that can be your agency.

– It could be a coworker.

– It could be somebody, a coworker.

– It could be a coworker, just, you know, if you don’t feel comfortable, and I say either way, I mean, you’re never, I mean hopefully you’re not interviewing and just having one person interview, you’re gonna want a second opinion one way or another. And what I think, Luke you’re saying here is find someone who either has a deeper digital experience than you do or find someone who’s got like, maybe a different perspective on digital than you do.

– Right.

– One way or another, you want kind of a different perspective to help you, to help you in the interview, basically, they may see things you don’t, they may ask questions you may not think to ask for one reason or another.

– Exactly.

– So, tip number one, find a partner to help you out.

– Yup, tip number two, use sample assignments and sample assignments are good because they allow you to actually see how somebody thinks and the work that they do. And pay the person for it if you feel like they’re, you wanna keep moving in that interview stage, it’s okay to compensate them for it, couple hundred dollars you give them for that sample assignment is going to maybe get some of your work accomplished and also, it’s gonna make sure that you’re not making a more costly hiring mistake down the road. If you don’t know how to come up with those assignments, you can actually Google it and there’s a lot of good sample assignments to give to digital marketing prospects that you’re trying to hire. And also, if you don’t wanna do that, lean on that partner that you have and say hey, what kind of things would you put into an assignment? We use these all the time at WebMechanix and we use ’em especially when hiring new Google Ads professionals and it shows us how they think and how they analyze data and it takes them not too long to fill out and takes us 13 seconds to read and say, this person knows what they’re talking about or no, they don’t.

– And then it’s great for relativity. Say we’re looking at five different people and they all do the same exact sample assignment, it gives us that apples to apples comparison. They all have the same exact data, the same amount of time, right, and so we can look at those sample assignments and get a pretty good read on what we’re, what their skills portion is.

– Another factor is, too, like how much effort they put into it.

– Oh, that’s a good point.

– Are there blatant grammar and spelling mistakes?

– That’s a great point.

– Is it formatted nicely, it’ll be an indicator of the type of person that you’re hiring.

– That’s a great point, I didn’t even think about that. I like that a lot. Yeah, so you’ll get the skills and you’ll get the how much effort do they put in. Which is kinda similar to like, if you come to an interview, you were saying this before we started, if you come to an interview dressed like a schlub, that’s different than if you come professionally dressed.

– Yeah, that’s first impression.

– First impression.

– That saying comes from somewhere.

– Same, exactly, it’s the same idea with the sample assignment. And on the sample assignment, before we go to tip number three, I look, consider your own company as a use case, right? Hey, what would you do for us? Or here’s this specific thing, challenge we’re having, how would you solve it? So that’s the easy way to jump in, or to create a sample assignment.

– Yeah, exactly.

– Give me number three.

– Tip number three ask specific questions and don’t be afraid to play dumb. So I’ll do this during interviews sometimes, someone’ll say, oh, yeah, I’m a master in SEM. And I go, SEM, that’s when you try and rank number one on the free listings on Google, right? And they’ll say, yes, yes, that’s exactly it. And I’ll say, okay, that’s SEO, I’m gonna put a little mark that they’re tryin’ to pull the wool over my eyes on that.

– And that’s a confusing one, by the way, SEM, stands for Search Engine Marketing. I am mad at that one because it’s like, I mean, you know this–

– Being in the industry you know which one–

– If you’re in the industry, exactly, if you’re in the industry, you know that SEM is Search Engine Marketing, sure, it’s what it stands for, but it’s specifically advertising on search networks like Google, Yahoo!, Bing. SEO is ranking for the organic listings, so that’s a good example.

– And if you don’t know, it doesn’t have to be a bait and trap thing. Another thing I like to do is just say, hey, can you explain that to me in layman’s terms, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about there. And if they can’t do that, then that typically means they don’t know what they’re talking about either, but a good digital marketer will be able to explain. They’ll be able to use the terminology, but they’ll be able to explain it to you in a way that anyone can understand when asked to.

– Yeah, like a more simple, they’ll be able to simplify it, they’ll be able to simplify the concept or they’ll be able to make an analogy or a metaphor that should help. I think something you might be able to ask in your next interview is, explain it to me like I’m a client who doesn’t know the details. Not to say all the clients don’t know the details, many of ’em do, but if they don’t, explain it to me like that. And hopefully they’re using analogies or they’re simplifying and they’re, you know–

– Yeah, and that’s highly relevant for agencies if you’re doing a in-house hire, then explain it to me in a way that I can take this up and show it to my CEO.

– Explain it like the CEO’s sitting here, or the board of directors is sitting here, they don’t know the details of digital marketing, explain it to me, pretend I’m them. That’s good, I like that. Number four?

– Number four, check references, so this can be, there can be layers to this, especially depending on how big your HR department is and everything. I know there’s the, hey, we need to make sure that person worked at the places during the time frames that they said they did–

– Employment verification.

– You know, that employment verification thing, but I think if you are going to ultimately be the manager of somebody, you owe it to yourself to call those organizations, too, and see if they would hire that person back again. Or see if there was anything that they, that really stood out to them about that candidate, or that was a problem with that candidate, and I don’t think that really happens enough. And there’s always two sides to every story, so you have to take some of it with a grain of salt, but if you call three previous employers and they all have the same complaints, then it’s likely not always the employers’ fault.

– Yeah, that’s a good one. Obviously there are some HR lines that we can’t step on here, but I mean, I get asked, hey, are they eligible for re-employment and then also, if not, why not? So I don’t wanna–

– You have to be careful what you ask.

– Yeah.

– But–

– Go to your HR–

– Oftentimes people will tell you–

– Go to your HR department for this one, but definitely just calling them and is the person exuberant about giving a reference for this person, or are they just kinda like, yeah, yeah, whatever, you know, there’s a lot you can glean if you actually make those reference check calls. And you can learn stuff about the candidate that they don’t know, ’cause it’s a different perspective, that they don’t know about themselves. We just did this with one of our hires and we learned something from the reference check and then we asked her about it and she went into this, into more detail, and it was something, we didn’t know that about you and that makes us want you even more and now the opportunity’s even stronger, so yeah, can go both ways. All right, so we’ve, just to kinda recap real quick, we’ve found a partner, we know someone who’s going, someone who’s gonna help us get a different perspective, we’re gonna give ’em a sample assignment, so we’re comparing candidates apples to apples, we have comps, comparatives, we are asking specific questions, but we’re also playing dumb here or there and asking them to give us, explain it–

– Simple terms.

– Yeah, how ’bout, explain it to me like I’m five. There’s a Reddit thing for that. ELI5, explain it like a five, whatever, whatever it is, y’all know what it is, or you don’t, I don’t know. And four, we’re checking the references, and then, what’s number five?

– Number five is and maybe this should really be number one, is know what you’re hiring for. So there’s kinda this impression out there that, hey, this person is maybe young, comin’ out of college, they’re on social media, so that means that that person can then in turn, do all my web development, write all of our content, and come up with a strategy there, do SEO, also plan some conversion rate optimization test over the site, run our Google ads, run our display ads, come up with our branding, and that and all. And that’s a big ask, that’s the purple squirrel in the recruiting–

– Yeah, the unicorn, the purple squirrel, right.

– And so, you should be, you should have an idea of who you really want to hire and what role they should play before you start interviewing. Because if you need a content strategy, then that plays very well with SEO. If you’re looking to spread awareness, then that can play very well with display advertising. So there’s different things that you’re trying to accomplish and different people can help to accomplish them. And the very best hires you can make are people that know how to sit in their zone, but they also know how to leverage resources in other zones. So the content strategist, SEO, who has some good agency connections to help get your development done, or to get your ad campaigns launched. Those people can be very valuable.

– Yeah, yeah, ’cause they come with references or they know what they’re good at and what they’re also not good and then, yeah, so be specific. You are, I see why you’re saying number one, because this is the first thing you need to do is understand who it is you’re looking for, what are their skills, and why is that applicable to your situation now? And I wanna touch on this, back to the resumes, people were like, yeah, I have HTML and CSS experience. It’s like okay, you might, maybe you did some MySpace stuff, but web technology’s come a long way since then, right? And now there’s, in CSS there’s Saas, S-A-S-S, and it’s like, HTML there is always, or typically now with a content management system, there’s like template files, so you gotta be really careful with someone who’s like, yeah, I know some HTML, like I can, gonna–

– I know HTML and I will never build a website, you wouldn’t want me to do that.

– Yeah, exactly, yeah, I know some HTML, like if I really had to, but that’s not my strong suit, you want someone who knows what they’re really good at and that’s a line to what you’re looking for.

– Exactly. That can be really hard, too, in the marketing, if you’re looking for like marketing, MarTech ops, or you know, that kind of, hiring that kind of person can be even more challenging ’cause that introduces a whole new set of buzzwords. So going back to the partners, you should think about who can help out with that. That might be, hey, let’s bring one of our developer contacts on to a call with us to figure that out.

– Yeah and like, right–

– SalesForce Admin, that’s one that can be a challenge, too.

– Yeah, it’s a fun one, right, any barking offs, and then it’s like, oh yeah, I have ten years of hostspot experience, well, hostspot’s been around for 13 years and it’s changed a lot since then, so when’s the last time you used it, when’s the last time you were in the platform. If it was seven years ago, it doesn’t look the same. So that’s like little details like that that you wanna be careful not to get burned on that. And the purple unicorns, or the purple squirrels, I dunno, do you think a purple squirrel exists? Like they’re rare.

– They’re rare.

– If they exist, they’re very rare and they probably cost a lot.

– Yeah, I mean that’s what it is, and do you want one person wearing that many hats?

– Probably not.

– Is the other question. Because they’re not gonna be able to do any of it well even if they are capable of doing all of it.

– That’s exactly right, yeah, so you want someone who knows what they know, knows what they’re great at, and can work with other people. That’s the other piece to that is they can, we’re kinda going on a tangent, but, skills is one thing, but also, communication is another thing. I think no matter what you do in any job really, but in digital marketing, you’re working with other skill sets, you’re working with an agency, or a vendor, or partner, or you’re working with your boss, or you’re working with people under you, or next to you, your colleagues. And so you have to able to communicate, you have to be empathetic to the other person’s role, what they need to accomplish their job and do it well, and so that’s like the soft skills that we didn’t even talk about, but that’s the other thing with soft skills. I think that leads in to number six pretty well.

– Yeah, but it’s a more wishy washy way of saying it, but trust your gut, so you may get, you may have a very good feeling about a candidate and then that can lead you down one direction, but if you have a bad feeling, then to me, it makes sense to just kinda sever that tie. Because if you have a bad feeling during the interview, but you make the hire anyway, that’s going to bleed into the working relationship. You’re always going to question whether or not you made the right hire or not. So you should only hire people that you have a good feeling about. If there’s anything uncertain, it’s, you know, it’s fair to bring it up to the candidate, and maybe they can change your impression, but if that’s still lingering, bad feeling is there, don’t move forward. ‘Cause it’s not really fair to either party either, when it comes down to it

– That’s right. That’s right and so that goes for the skills piece, or, the hard skills or the soft skills, if you don’t, you know, if maybe culturally you don’t know if they’ll fit or you don’t think that they’ll fit, that’s probably a very good reason to, something to bring up or otherwise disqualify on. It’s fair.

– And as far as the soft skills go, I read a good LinkedIn article, a Gary V. article, which, some of his stuff’s really good, some of it’s kinda out there–

– Take what’s good and leave the rest.

– But he made a good point, he said emotional intelligence is going to be one of the most important hiring factors in the coming years because as software and machine learning takes over more and more aspects of different careers then when it comes down to it, it’s who are the people that can communicate effectively, who are the people that can put themselves in other people’s shoes in order to get them to take action on things, who are the ones that are gonna provide that dependability and make your company a joy for other people to work at. So that emotional intelligence thing, that is important and that’s something else you can see in the digital marketing world sometimes, too, which is the very skilled, been in it for a long time, kinda cocky digital marketer that isn’t willing to step on to the front lines and roll up their sleeves and get the work done, so keep an eye out for that.

– Yeah, gotta be careful for that, that’s exactly right. We’ve seen it, unfortunately, time and time again, it exists, so the whole point of this podcast is to help you in recruiting digital marketing talent so kinda showing, telling what we’ve seen, and what we’ve learned, right?

– Yeah.

– So cool, so I’m good if you’re good.

– I’m good, I hope this is helpful for everyone.

– I think it’ll be very helpful. We’ll pare down and make it a blog post. Actually, I’ll say this, too, if anyone wants our sample assignment, we’ll give it to you, just ask, just reach out and ask. It covers writing a headline for a landing page, it covers email subject lines, analyzing page media, data, what else, not, doesn’t cover SEO, does cover, but it covers a good, broad spectrum of digital marketing. And again, it’s that, it’s a great way to get comps, apples to apple comps. So if you know anyone, if you’re hiring, hopefully this helps you, if you know anyone who’s hiring digital marketing talent, share this podcast with them. And otherwise, like, share, and say hi to Luke in the comments. Cool? Thanks y’all, see ya next time.

– Thanks.

Luke Gracie

Luke GracieHead of Client Services

Arsham Mirshah

Arsham MirshahCEO & Co-Founder

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