April 17, 2023

5 Truths About Why a Career in Talent Branding is SO HARD

I’ve lived it for over 15 years and heard hundreds of stories from other like-minded pros throughout those years…the illogical, seemingly impossible-to-win paradoxes that exist in the world of Employer Branding & Recruitment Marketing.

WARNING: This is not the typical, “politically correct” article; it is one based on candor and truth. I believe that any meaningful solution or change starts from a place of truth and honest awareness. As such, it is my hope that by courageously bringing hard truths to this industry – one that is human-oriented, currently treating gushing wounds with Band-Aids and pleading for transformation, it just might be the spark needed to ignite effective change.

In this article, I’ve outlined 5 of the most obvious and recurring Employer Brand & Recruitment Marketing conundrums voiced by my network of clients, peers and mentees today. Please feel free to add others in the Comments section so we can learn from each other. We may also use common feedback themes as inspiration for problem-solving topics and collaborative learning in Truist’s Fall 2021 Talent Brand Coaching Program.

1. Employer brand teams are often asked to “sell” a completely underwhelming product.

I think the Employer Branding industry is one of the only ones which continues to operate on the outdated principle of “build it and they will come”. The average employer brand manager will spend countless hours in a given week pursuing the sycophant directive of selling mediocre employee experiences (or elements of said experience) as “amazing”, “best-in-class” or “meaningful” when they are really average at best, or not true in all cases. The reality is, there is only so many ways to put lipstick on a pig, and none of them are particularly effective. At the end of the day, it is just a pig and any attuned human being will barely even notice the lipstick.

On the commercial side of any successful business, there are large teams entirely dedicated to listening to target audience needs and then actually creating products / services/ solutions/experiences in direct response to what they’ve heard. In today’s modern times, they very rarely given a product idea from management and told to go promote it if market data suggests that the people it’s built for mostly likely won’t find it useful, beneficial or attractive enough to buy.

Unlike Recruitment Marketing teams, the typical Product Marketing team is never tasked with the goal of selling or winning awards for something that doesn’t even exist. A brand simply can’t top the World’s Best Employers charts when employee policies are penny wise and pound foolish. They will never be recognized as a Top Diversity Employer if their employee base is not actually diverse, especially at the leadership level. They might sound like great goals to work towards, but there is a longer term, intentional journey required to get there; it’s not a drive through, pick-up and go stop tomorrow.

I get it… Commercial Marketing teams produce immediate revenue while Recruitment Marketing teams are a second or third layer away from said revenue. But if you peel back the onion just a bit, we actually are the mortar which holds the revenue generating foundation together. Our work brings in (and if done well, keeps) the people who will generate the revenue. Furthermore, the delta that exists between poor performing revenue generators and top performing revenue generators is substantial.

The best performing Employer Brand Teams today aren’t just focusing their total efforts on downstream Marketing Campaigns to promote “what is”. They are bringing insights and market data to the leadership table that inform upstream changes to their company’s talent “product”– their Employer Value Proposition or “People Deal”. (And the best leaders of those companies are listening to them, allowing themselves to be influenced, and creating workplace experiences that people actually want + are willing to put in discretionary effort for).

2. There are lots of “asks” with inadequate support and/or funding for those asks.

Nothing is more frustrating than being on the receiving end of a goal with little to no feasible ways to meet that goal without driving yourself (or others) insane. And yet as Talent/Employer Branders this is nestled in the very oxygen we breathe at work on a daily basis.

Sure, most of us are highly creative people and fluent in the practice of magically extracting “blood from rocks” with a lot of grit and ingenious inventions. However, the #hardtruth is that generating hundreds of applicants for an in-demand skill set, topping World’s Best Employer Lists and delivering an exceptional candidate experience for multiple worker types are not outcomes that happen overnight, or without some sort of upfront investment, or without leadership support. Yet too often companies are quick to hire a salaried Employer Brand athlete without pairing that hire with a reasonable budget to play. Think hiring Lebron James and not giving him a basketball. Pretty silly, right?

I have several theories (some proven, some not yet) on why this dynamic is so rampant in Corporate America, but that full deep dive will come later in a book I’m in the process of writing. For now, we’ll just suggest a couple response options to help my beloved Talent Branders maybe, just maybe, get a little more sleep at night.  

When interviewing for a new role, ask about what ecosystem of resources will accompany the role, so you can vet your likelihood of success and productivity up front. Resources can and should include things like monetary budget, in-house support teams, leadership champions, tools, technology, and a certain level of recruiter involvement.

If you are facing this dynamic in a current role, don’t be afraid to illustrate exactly what you holistically need to meet the provisioned goal and request a specific period of time within which to execute and monitor results toward the goal as a “pilot”. If this is not accepted, propose an adjustment to the goal that you believe to be more realistic. Present the two options with confidence and certainty.

If this feels too out of reach for your right now, don’t be afraid to call on the support from someone who has been in your shoes and come out the other side to tell about it - an industry mentor or coach. (If you’ve given it your best shot but are still struggling, feel free to message Truist to discuss Talent Brand Coaching options. Also, if you’ve been annoyingly asked to create an EVP with little to no budget, our DIY+ EVP Development Toolkit has been pretty much built for YOU.)

3. You’re hired to represent the company brand, but then often blocked from representing the company brand.

Speaking of not being able to freely do your job, what’s up with branded online content being managed like grade school allowance?

You only get 3 posts this month on the topic that EVERY company and worker in the world is talking about!”

In my opinion, the battle between HR and Marketing or Corporate Communications should be fought and ended at the C-Level before an Employer Brand Manager is even hired. Again, why hire Rachel Ray to cook if you won’t let her serve the food to anyone?

To any “gatekeepers” reading… Your Employer Brand team is usually not asking for special treatment or wanting to completely disregard Corporate Brand guidelines, standards or processes. Rather, they simply want to be treated with the same respect, courtesy and access as their peers in Commercial Marketing departments. (Note: The CHRO should both want and demand that too.) The beautiful thing is that so much expansiveness opens up for the brand, for the company and its people when the departments are working together instead of in competition with one another. After I got to the “sweet spot” of collaboration in my in-house roles, everyone truly had to do so much less, while generating exponentially more in terms of results, positive sentiment and outcomes for both themselves and the company.

So, to the EB & RM practitioners “fighting this good fight” with your Corporate Comms, Brand or Marketing stewards, you have 2 paths here…

You can choose the slow, incremental, executional approach - working “collaboratively” with your peers to get 1 more slot opened up, 1 more channel approved, 1 less round of content reviews agreed, in hopes to have a reasonable amount of freedom with which to do your job by 2031. Okay, I’m being a little sarcastic here, but no judgement. It really is one option (and one I’ve taken myself at times).


You can go to the top and have it sorted at the strategic level (where I think it belongs). Equip your leader (CHRO, CMO or relevant leader closest to those positions) with a 1-2 pager on WHY you need adequate access to branded channels and freedom to produce effective content for the audiences you know best, HOW you plan to balance this higher degree of freedom with responsible quality and compliance standards, and WHAT you expect to gain from the revised way of working.

(If it doesn’t work, message me and we can cry + hit rock bottom + identify your next best move over some virtual cocktails.)

4. You’re doing marketing work but managed by (and paid like) an HR role.

Let’s break this #hard dynamic down into two parts…

The mismatched management situation has definite pros and cons. On the one hand you have to do a lot of educating upwards which can feel unproductive or even frustrating at times. On the other hand, micromanagement isn’t as pervasive in our space because a good portion of HR leaders are mature enough to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. They typically know what outcome they want but are not really sure how to get there, or if it’s even possible.

What’s key here is not that everyone has even a basic understanding of the same skills (target audience segmentation, digital marketing skills, creative development expertise, etc.) Rather, if there is a consistent practice where both sides seek to understand before being understood, good things can usually happen in the relationship and in the results. This dynamic is especially important when it comes to goal setting and evaluating performance. Make sure you agree on explicit target outcomes before diving into execution, so the practitioner doesn’t have to write an employer branding novel in order to rightfully claim his or her annual bonus.

The compensation piece is quite frankly unfortunate, but understandable given the relatively “young” age of this profession. I see so many talented Recruitment Marketing professionals getting paid a fraction of their [sometimes] less competent Consumer Marketing peers simply due to their location in an organization (corporate function vs. commercial function).  I’m not talking about the Recruiters given an employer brand related “stretch project” here. I’m talking about the full-time, educated, trained, experienced Marketeers contributing their expertise to deeply complex human challenges. There is also a tendency to hire a junior level Employer Brand Manager and task him or her with leadership level work. #Notcool

I know several fellow Employer Brand leaders working hard to quantify this gap and make it more transparent. For those doing this important work, thank you. For those practitioners interviewing for a new job, considering a promotion or charting your own career course, please don’t settle for less than you’re worth. When one person speaks their truth, it’s often viewed as a “complaint”. When all of us do, it ignites an overdue movement.

While I’m not naïve enough to think that the industry-wide pay disparity will resolve itself overnight, we are headed in the right direction. So, keep benchmarking with your commercial peers, presenting that data to your decision makers and standing in your fully justified, professional guru power.

5. You’re asked to justify ROI but often not given access to technology that allows you to actually track it.

One of the main criticisms or areas of scrutiny our profession faces is the ultimate Return on Investment (ROI) on our activities. Even with the right technical tools in place, this one is highly complex. Among other reasons why, you need to look at a lengthy journey of leading and lagging indicators to complete a meaningful analysis. Unlike an always-positive purchase conversion, there is not necessarily positive ROI on a hiring “conversion” if that converted person is a low performer and/or leaves the company shortly after joining.

All that aside, we could at least do significantly better if the right tech stack and tools were in place to holistically track and analyze data points across each brand touchpoint in the candidate journey. I’ve worked in several companies where the imposed technology simply wasn’t able to speak to each other - CRMs incompatible with ATSs or Career Sites, no budget for integrations, pixel tracking only allowed for 2 sources in a “hundreds of sources” world, and so on…

Usually it’s a budget or stakeholder issue. HR budgets simply don’t accommodate for best-in-class integrated Cx data and optimization solutions like those offered from companies like Qualtrics or Mopinion. Furthermore, senior HR stakeholders are hesitant to use the little budget they do have for Employer Brand related priorities when they have nuts-and-bolts departments like Learning, Rewards and Payroll to appease.

So, that’s just the reality. Most teams I’ve worked with always do their best, but it’s typically a piece-meal story. Brand KPIs can be reported against, but separately from Campaign Metrics, which are often separate from Application Data and Candidate Experience feedback scores. There is really never an integrated story that helps management know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the $100k they invested in an annual Recruitment Marketing campaign generated 1,000 top performing hires who were responsible for $3B in annual company revenue generation and service delivery.

As a semi-perfectionist this still bothers me, but I’ve learned to creatively optimize a strategy against what is possible, while influencing what can be influenced, and accepting what cannot.

For those getting lost in the quicksand of Employer Brand & Recruitment Marketing metrics, I’ll be writing another whole blog post dedicated to navigating this maze shortly. For leaders out there considering Employer Brand & Recruitment Marketing investments, tune into the macro level research on values and savings drivers (from resources like Gartner/CEB, the, or Universum), and work collaboratively with your EB practitioners to agree what is both desired and feasible at the start of any engagement. In all cases, trust in the relationship and truth in communications are key to keeping both sides somewhat satisfied and fulfilled.

In closing…

We all know Einstein’s definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Perhaps an addendum to that definition (which is pervasively applicable in this industry already) is hiring someone to do a job and then blocking them from doing it. The good news is, there are strategies that I’ve found to be effective over the years and am more than happy to share them via a personalized Consulting or Coaching Engagement. Also, the industry shifts being driven by COVID-19 and other modern-day movements are headed in the right direction.

As with most things in life, we need to work together across functions to be successful. In the meantime, honest dialogues and exposing those darn elephants can be both helpful and therapeutic.

Lastly, a parting gift for my fellow Eber’s/TBer’s… I created Truist’s Fall 2021 Talent Brand Coaching Program to make success in this profession a little less hard to come by, and a little more fun. I’d love to have you join and receive the many benefits it will no doubt deliver! You can learn more about the program and express your interest HERE before August 30th. (Hurry before the remaining slots are gone!)

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