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So, you want to be a performance marketer?

Published Dec 8 2023 5 minute read Last updated May 8 2024
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  • Sean Dougherty
    Written by Sean Dougherty

    A copywriter at Funnel, Sean has more than 15 years of experience working in branding and advertising (both agency and client side). He's also a professional voice actor.

As you might imagine, our Funnel team places significant importance on performance marketing. After all, it’s what our product was built to support. 

But how exactly do you become a performance marketer? Is there a formal career ladder or entry point? What does the day-to-day life of a performance marketer look like? 

To unpack what it means to be a world-class performance marketer, we decided to speak to Lee Riley, who lives and breathes the role at Funnel. He took us inside his world and shared some insider tips he wished he had known when he started in the industry. 


A diverse group of people

We admit it may be easy to hold a stereotypical view of a performance marketer. You might imagine someone who is obsessed with data and statistical analysis. Or you may be thinking of someone who has been a math nerd since childhood.

However, performance marketers can have quite diverse backgrounds and careers before entering a role like this. Lee, in fact, studied creative writing at university. He also started his professional career as a recruiter during the day and worked as a stage actor at night.

That is all to say that you don’t necessarily need to go to a four-year university program to find a place in the industry — although it can help those who are so inclined. To get started, Lee recommends a few skills to hone. 


Get comfortable with analyzing data

While you don’t need to be a master statistician, you do need to get comfortable with analyzing the results of your performance marketing efforts. And to do that, you need to handle data. There’s no avoiding it. 

Lee has some direct advice for those looking to break into the industry without strong data analysis skills. 

“Personally, I would immediately undertake a coding course that teaches data analytics or science,” said Lee, “and get comfortable just working with that data.”

According to Lee, these courses will provide you with a solid foundation to build more advanced data handling and analysis skills. Some of these more advanced skills can include linear regression, which can help you identify the point at which your ads will experience diminishing returns. 

“Sounds hard? Well, maybe, but it is fun when you can prove a hypothesis,” said Lee. “And this [ability] will help you drive real value and get those pay rises and promotions.”

However, it’s not all about hard data skills that will help you attain long-term success in the industry. As Lee suggested, being genuinely curious and creative is just as important as traditional classroom skills. 

Curiosity and creativity can help propel your analysis, testing, optimization, and strategy. These traits will also help you with Lee’s next point of advice. 


It’s okay (and good) to be wrong

You’ll never have the courage to take creative risks that satisfy your curiosity unless you are okay with being wrong sometimes. In Lee’s view, nothing is wrong, per se. What you learn from last week’s A/B test could mean nothing, or even point you in the wrong direction, this week

“You just have to accept that your job is to, basically, test things,” said Lee. 

By analyzing the results of past tests and efforts, you can continue to iterate and gradually improve your overall performance. And when you see that one tactic has failed to achieve the intended results, you will learn from the experience and shift investment. 

“So, adapt the mindset that the results of a test, whether you were right or wrong, is always positive,” said Lee. 

This can be especially important when working within an agency. You’ll need to point out to clients that the “fails” are often equally important as the wins.


Communication and collaboration is key

Your ability to surface game-changing insights from performance data means nothing if you can’t effectively communicate across teams and/or to clients. A successful performance marketer can inspire change in strategies and focus a team on the best path forward. 

Your ability to communicate extends well beyond what you might say in a meeting or over Slack, too. Great communication skills will help you tell a data-driven story through the visualizations and dashboards you build. 

Over time, well-honed communication skills will build trust with your stakeholders, allowing you more freedom and opportunities. 

“I was once told that, in order to break rules, you have to know the rules — and that’s where innovation comes from,” said Lee. 


That process becomes much simpler when you’ve built trust among your colleagues and clients. 


An example of great collaboration

According to Lee, the greatest example of collaboration in performance marketing is that data-driven marketing efforts and creatives should work hand-in-hand. By this, he means that they rely on each other. 

“Performance marketers create the structure — the easel and canvas for the creative to succeed upon,” said Lee. “Performance marketers also need to accept that good creatives truly prove that insights and optimizations were correct.”

In this dynamic, Lee views disagreements as a good thing: a natural push and pull to achieve the shared desired goal. 


Challenge your leaders (respectfully)

One important caveat for this tip is to remain respectful and professional. 

Okay, with that as a baseline, Lee’s experience has taught him that it is important to stand your ground — especially when hard data back up your perspectives. 

“You were hired for your expertise and opinion, even if you’re still junior,” said Lee. “If you speak your mind positively and enthusiastically, with the logic your data skills allow, then [your managers] will listen.”

Strong communication skills and trust across teams are incredibly valuable here, too. It’s also essential to stay confident and trust your ever-improving data skills. 

Pushing back against leadership isn’t just about voicing opinions or debating which strategy to employ. In fact, one of the most important messages you can communicate to managers is the word no.

“Learn to say, ‘no,’” said Lee. “Innovators and leaders don’t develop by saying ‘yes’ all the time.”


Get to grips with attribution (or the lack thereof)

You probably knew this topic would arise at some point. Attribution can simultaneously be every marketer’s dream and nightmare. We dream of precisely attributing every tactic and marketing dollar to hard sales. The reality is that this is still impossible. Sorry. 

“Attribution is easily the most complicated aspect of performance marketing,” said Lee. 

As the marketing industry becomes more complex, and new technologies emerge to improve online privacy, attribution becomes much more difficult. And while platforms like Google or Meta may promise the ability to track contribution, they often point to themselves as the biggest performance driver. 

“There is no objective solution here. I don’t care what anyone says,” said Lee. “Understanding each channel’s and model’s pitfalls, and the evolving theories around full-funnel marketing, will help you explain it better.”

To dig into this subject further, Lee recommends checking out the authors Les Binet and Tom Roach. 


Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes

Despite working with data and AI-driven platforms all day, it’s important to remember that you’re still human. As such, it’s only natural that mistakes sometimes happen. 

Across his eight-year career in performance marketing, Lee has seen many different things go wrong. This includes someone (not Lee) spending £250,000 marketing tampons to men one weekend, or any other manner of micro-disasters. 

The truth is, we’ve all been there. Fellow performance marketers and managers must remain calm, fix the solution at hand, and be supportive of each other – particularly if a junior team member is at fault. 

Learning from these mistakes, while practicing calm communication, can help everyone on the team grow. 


You need to be realistic

Lee’s parting advice is for performance marketers to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. You have to be realistic and understand that, sometimes, things are a bit out of your control. 

“Strategic tasks that you know are right may take time due to internal or client politics,” said Lee. “Or they may just be impossible to implement due to smaller retainer times or a lack of digital maturity within your clients.”

Simply put: you need to set realistic expectations based on your environment, your budget, and the risk aversion of your stakeholders. After all, you wouldn’t demand that your younger self splash cash on that new Mercedes-Benz if you didn’t have the money, right? 

Likewise, you can’t force your team or clients to make new investments, despite the returns they might promise. You’ll have to accept that you can’t do or achieve everything — and that’s okay!


Keep calm and carry on

You can enjoy a highly successful career as a performance marketer by setting realistic expectations for yourself and setting your curious mind to grow incrementally. Just don’t be too hard on yourself. Create space and time to evolve and learn while looking at mistakes as opportunities.

And remember, whether you start as a stage actor, a firefighter, an accountant, or a digital marketer, there is plenty of space for you to succeed if you would like to explore the world of performance marketing. 


Related reading: what is performance marketing?


Disclaimer: The featured image for this article was created using generative AI.


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