Laura Ashton
Jan 28, 2021

'Open talent' resourcing creates growth opportunities for brands, CMOs

More in-house teams are making use of marketing experts whose experience is available on demand. The approach offers brands fluid access to seasoned professionals who can contribute quickly and significantly, while providing senior talent with non-linear career options.

'Open talent' resourcing creates growth opportunities for brands, CMOs

This article stems from of a mid-January webinar on the topic of open talent, hosted by The Marketing Society, in which “demand side” CMOs from retail and financial sectors and “supply side” open talent firms and individuals discussed this new resourcing approach. The author, Laura Ashton, moderated the discussion. The webinar took place under Chatham House rules, so some comments are unattributed. 

A silver lining of the global pandemic has been the normalisation of virtual working. San Francisco is experiencing a hollowing out as Silicon Valley’s worker bees are proving that work can be done permanently from less expensive, more dog-friendly states. Australian marketers, unable to travel, can add value to Singapore companies without local incorporation and work permits. Businesses globally are waking up to having curated specialist teams available to deliver strategically robust outcomes, often many time-zones away, as little or as much as needed, without impacting headcount. This has certainly accelerated the rise of open talent.

Open talent (OT) complements permanent resources with agile talent-on-demand. Frequently organized as collectives of senior experts, OT firms provide individuals and teams, curated for the client’s specific and evolving needs, sometimes cycling in and out hard-to-find skills and experience. While there may be a project leader, the resources of the entire OT team are available to them. They focus on outcomes, ROI and upskilling core team members to carry on afterwards.

"I hire open talent for skills and speed, not for vacancies."
Hong Kong-based CMO

To some extent, OT is defined by what it is not. Not a body shop filling temporary gaps. Not an agency with office-space overheads. Not a supervision-hungry online platform with each gig disjointed from the last. Not hipster, early-career gig-workers.

It’s also not cheap; but, engagements are all about outcomes rather than process, and the teams bring valuable gravitas and the ability to hit the ground running.

There is a control-oriented mindset shift happening among forward-thinking CMOs in Asia, that reminds us of what we have learned from the tech revolution and applies directly to OT. Sushmita Munshi, head of ManulifeMove, points to the value in being part of an ecosystem of partners, instead of being the operator of the ecosystem. In shifting from building and owning talent to renting and borrowing. In having small, curated teams working in agile sprints to drive strategy implementation, digital transformation, new capability and other tangible outcomes and not just Powerpoints and high-level process guidance. This adaptive, learning mindset among clients matches the ethos of OT.

“It’s lean—heads without the overheads and an investment rather than an expense item.”
Jennifer Woollford, Neon Leaders

The best OTers start fast with their clients, help shape thinking and define the problem, co-create the solution, develop staff and are incentivised to drive results. “But, it’s tough for an OTer to be a lone soldier and drive change”, another CMO says.  Seen as temporary, full team members, OTers can be paired with insiders to ensure team success.  When supported in this manner, senior OTers possess the outside-in perspective, technical smarts and political instincts to drive change that insiders often cannot.

According to one Hong Kong-based leader, OT is an ideal way to rapidly and temporarily acquire rare skills and to test and learn prior to making major investments. Since teams work virtually, the talent pool is potentially global and not restricted to the client’s geography.

“In driving a transformation, specific skills may be needed but just for a short, intense period. Open talent is ideal for this. Besides, a company may not have the career framework or long-term career roadmap for someone with this skill set, thus making attracting and retaining permanent candidates difficult.”
—Hong Kong-based CMO

And while hiring full-timers is often derisked by recruiting from within an industry, OT offers exceptional diversity of experience and sectoral background that can be used for fresh insights. HR and procurement business partners who understand the case for change can be vital enablers of OT.

Compensation models vary, but most are project-based rather than subject to hourly rates. A global CMO based in Singapore mentioned that success fees for some OT projects, similar to those increasingly seen in the legal sector, are helping spread risk and increase reward for successful collectives. Carefully constructed contracts are important for both parties.

OT specialists Jennifer Woollford of Neon Leaders and Tash Menon of Mash Brands point out that OTers in this region often have 15 to 20 years or more of big-name brand and agency experience.  They have stepped away from the linear corporate career track into OT for a variety of reasons. To pursue different life goals while remaining professionally sharp. To shift away from solo consulting (aka 'chief everything officer') due to a lack of camaraderie and/or admin fatigue. To pick up new industry skills while shadowing a lead OTer. As part of a planned portfolio career. Or, as is increasingly the case in Asia, to take career stock when high-profile regional roles are absorbed by faraway head offices.

"My advice to OTers is to be clear on your value proposition. Once you jump into the pond, titles like CMO or strategist or creative director are a dime a dozen.”
Tash Menon, Mash Brands

One regional marketer tells the story of agreeing with her husband to a fluid definition of career and family roles in order to live in locations around the world. The two of them shifted between corporate, open talent, startup advisory and NGO roles while both playing an active part in raising their son. The challenge of corporate reentry was most acute with headhunters and square-hole-square-peg HR staff, who struggled to assign a value to their exceptionally rich but nonlinear career paths and the perceived stigma of their discontinuous CVs. Over this period and today, both members of this couple have achieved degrees of personal and professional contentment that many would envy.

For transformation-minded CMOs, smart enough to know they don’t have all the answers, open talent is a strong resourcing option for growth. For non-linear marketing careerists, OT offers flexibility, challenge and collegiality.


Laura Ashton is managing director of Xunama.com, which specialises in marketing for lawyers and professional services firms, She has worked in APAC since 1990 on both the agency and client sides, including high-level positions with Saatchi & Saatchi, Shell, Electrolux, Philips, AT Kearney and Baker McKenzie. 

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