Special Report: The war for talent

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About this time a year ago, traditional b-to-b companies were still grumbling about the so-called "brain drain" of top marketing executives lured to the Internet by attractive perks and new challenges. But for the last several months, in the wake of the dot-com shakeout, many of those marketers who jumped to the Web have returned to more traditional b-to-b environs.

Some have done so because they got rocked by the market correction and wanted to go back to the confines of a company that didn't have to fret about making payroll. Others returned after their stock options dried up.

Still, with one of the tightest labor markets in U.S. history, the traditional companies can ill afford to gloat.

"I'm not hearing much along the lines of 'I told you so,' " said Gene Fixler, president of Ariel Associates, an executive search firm specializing in b-to-b publishing and media. Fixler added, however, that since October he hasn't had a single client interested in going to work for a pure-play dot-com.

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"I have no problem calling in a dot-com executive and having him go to a traditional technology play," said Dean McMann, CEO of Ransford, a Houston-based consulting firm focusing on b-to-b. He said that in the last few months he's seen 20 chief marketing officers leave dot-coms to go back to traditional technology companies such as IBM Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Dell Computer Corp., as well as some of the relatively newer players in the b-to-b space such as Oracle Corp. "Everybody is focusing on the marketing guys," McMann said.

Yet with the surviving dot-coms starting to develop legitimate business models-unlike, say, eight months ago, before market realities set in-and willing to share information about their long-term viability, marketing executives are starting to give the Internet the proverbial second thought.

A shift in momentum

In the ongoing war for marketing talent in the b-to-b arena, the pendulum is inching back toward the dot-coms, say industry observers.

"When there were 2,000 dot-coms, that's where the talent was. Now [after the shakeout] it's with the traditional companies," McMann said. But the 200 or so b-to-b Web sites that have survived and thrived, are still hungry for top-level marketing talent, he said.

"The pure-play Web sites are looking to extend their brands beyond the Internet, and they're going to need smart marketing people in order to that," said Gordon Hughes, president of the American Business Media, which now claims more pure-play Web companies as members than print publishers. "After all the surreal gaiety, dot-coms are getting back to basics, and marketing people are going to go where they see potential for growth," he said.

To retain and attract marketing officers, the dot-coms "will now have to pay them with real salaries and not stock options," Hughes said.

Web marketing positions may hold a greater appeal now that dot-coms are being more upfront in the recruiting process by sharing more information about their financing, business strategies and long-term prospects.

Experienced marketers are "much more in demand [among Web sites] today than they were six months ago" said Bill Simon, managing director for the global media entertainment and convergence practice for Los Angeles-based Korn/Ferry International, the biggest executive search firm in the world. "If you're an 'A' player, it's not going to take long to find a new job, but if you're a 'C' player, it's not a good time. Web sites are much more discerning after the battles they've gone through. So they're looking for common-sense marketing executives with good analytic skills."

Having a touch of gray doesn't hurt, Simon said. "It's a bigger benefit to the [Web site] if the marketer has experience in both traditional media and new media rather than having only distributed product on the Web."

Meanwhile, many of the so-called whiz kids, who have been instrumental the last few years in developing the Internet intellectually, "are being given jobs where they won't ruin the place," Fixler added.

Tackling technology

Sacha Cohen, who specializes in Web careers for, the world's largest online job site, said that, although it's not considered a necessity, marketers who want to stick with the Web-or jump back into it after working with a traditional company-can help their cause by having a solid technology background.

"It's good if they're savvy about technology, but they don't need to be job programmers," said Cohen. "You can't be a good marketer unless you have a fundamental understanding of the products and services [offered online] and a good grasp of what the Web can do as a marketing vehicle."

Indeed, in a BtoB online poll conducted in September, 63% of respondents described their jobs as a hybrid of both marketing and technology. More than 26% said their jobs were purely marketing- or media-oriented, while less than 11% said it was purely technology.

Having technical as well as marketing wherewithal is a trend traditional b-to-b marketers have tried to exploit since the dot-com shakeout.

"Everyone who works at the center wears two hats: technical and creative marketing," said Alice Morrison, a senior executive at the New York center for IBM e-commerce business innovations, a nationwide network of 23 business centers that help IBM's clients develop Web businesses. "We've seen a greater availability of talent," said Morrison.

Many CMOs "are less impressed with pure plays and looking for companies with global reach and end-to-end capability."

But, in a potential omen to traditional b-to-b companies, others say marketing executives have not been pushed by the dot-coms, but have left voluntarily because they know their personal capital right now is more valuable with a brick-and-mortar company with a heavy Web presence than a pure-play.

"Even if they do announce layoffs, [the Web sites] are keeping the marketing guys," said Jon Ekoniak, a senior research analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray Inc. who analyzes publicly traded Internet companies.

Fixler disagrees. "The marketing guys have been the first to go while the CEO and CFO clean up the mess," he said.

But that debate may soon be moot. "[Marketers] are saying, 'I'll work for a traditional company for awhile and then go back' " to a dot-com once the market is less volatile, said McMann.

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