Why Entry-level Progression is Vital to the Performance Industry

There are 7,000 people employed by the UK performance marketing industry, and 30% of those people are in entry level roles. That’s 2,100 currently available entry level positions.

Entry level roles are primarily focussed around administrative work or repetitive tasks. They are usually jobs people do as their first or second role in their careers and there is a general expectation that people won’t stay in the role for more than a year or two before progressing.

As an example of what we mean, let’s talk about the career of Carly who began her career in an entry-level role in performance marketing.

  • She started out in the publisher team at an affiliate network, answering support queries and vetting publisher websites

  • She had no ambition to forge a career in performance marketing and had no relevant knowledge prior to joining the industry

  • In eight years since that first entry-level role, Carly has had 7 different jobs across 4 different companies connected with performance marketing

  • She now works for an advertiser, where she is head of e-commerce, managing a cross-channel digital budget that includes affiliate


 In performance marketing particularly there exists a heavily shared concept that lots of people ‘fall into’ their careers. Not many (if any!) people set out on a career in performance, and many of the most successful people in the industry have a career story that started almost by accident, taking that first job without really thinking that it would lead to a long and fulfilling career.


To understand why entry-level progression has become such a staple of performance marketing, and how it will develop in the future, we need to consider why entry-level roles became such a vital part of the industry. Back in the early 2000s brands were engaging with affiliate marketing for the first time. A lack of in-house resource combined with a new channel meant brands lent on their media agency, tracking provider or affiliate network to help them navigate this untested marketing discipline. These partners intensively supported brands in the early days, introducing them to affiliates, guiding, educating and seeking the best opportunities.

The channel quickly realised the value of advertiser facing ‘service’, to the extent that it became considered as a major USP of affiliate marketing. Companies quickly established dedicated teams to distinguish themselves on what became known as account management. But, in the industry’s earliest days a ready-made pool of people with affiliate marketing knowledge didn’t exist.  To bridge this skills gap companies created a large number of entry-level roles to recruit, train and develop people in affiliate marketing. This established the defacto model of entry level progression that the industry has relied on since to support its growth.


Why has the industry sustained the model of entry-level progression? 

There are three key reasons that the performance industry has sustained this model of entry level progression: 

  1. It has proved successful. The idea of employing inexperienced people, nurturing them and helping them to progress is a concept that has been tried and tested by all parties across the industry’s ecosystem: advertisers, publishers and technology companies.

  2. The processes involved in doing performance marketing are inherently manual, and that means they need people. We estimate that in the UK alone, 6,000 hours a week are devoted to the manual, day-to-day work involved to get affiliate advertising in front of consumers.

  3. The model is cost effective. The salaries for inexperienced talent are much more palatable for businesses than finding resource from engineering teams who may be able to find a technical solution to relieving the administrative work, but whose time verses a junior person’s salary is more costly.


We should be singing the successes of the entry-level progression model

The model of entry-level progression has been one of the cornerstones of affiliate marketing’s success for more than a decade. Yet, the channel shies away from celebrating the unique role it has played in creating opportunities for so many people to build successful digital careers.

Let’s look at the career of Nigel.

  • Like so many people, Nigel began his digital marketing career in an entry-level role; doing familiar entry-level jobs like reporting, commission changes, validations and…making the tea!

  • After that first entry-level role, Nigel has gone on to have a successful career in performance marketing spanning the last 11 years. During that time he’s had 10 different roles.

  • Nigel now works for a brand and is responsible for the affiliate channel globally. One of the key parts to Nigel’s role is ‘selling’ the channel internally to ensure that affiliate is always represented and included in important strategic decisions.

This idea of ‘internal champions’ is not uncommon, in fact half the top IMRG brands operate an affiliate channel, and half of those are run by someone who cut their teeth in an entry level role in affiliate.

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What are the challenges of entry-level progression?

The number of entry-level roles in performance marketing has grown 42% in the last 5 years. However, the availability of senior roles has not grown at anywhere near the same rate.  And this dichotomy highlights one of the key challenges performance marketing faces by being so reliant on a model of entry-level progression – churn. It’s estimated that 30% of all people entering the industry in an entry-level role will have left it within 18 months. The industry-average churn rate for digital marketing is 19%.

Even if entry-level recruits don’t churn out of performance marketing quickly, the incredible pace of their career mobility creates enormous challenges. Nigel, who we met earlier, has been in the industry 11 years, but in that time he’s had 10 different roles!

High churn can result in a loss of knowledge and talent from the industry. It can also impact the culture and dynamic of a team, and inflate the cost of running a business. It’s estimated to cost an average of £30,000 to recruit a new person. This is a combination of direct costs (such as recruiter fees) and also the costs associated with recruitment; selection processes, interview time, legal requirements, onboarding and training. This figure also includes the ‘unoptimised period’; the length of time between the new employee starting their role until the day that they are actually competent enough to do the role they were hired for. This period can represent a very real risk to a business.

Growing service demands impact the value of people

While the model of entry-level progression has remained a consistent factor in the industry’s success, performance marketing itself has evolved. In particular, the demands placed on this concept of ‘service’ across all sides of the ecosystem have increased significantly. The solution to these ever changing and increasing demands has been to layer on more service and therefore increase headcount. It has not, to date, been to look at how technology could offer an alternative solution.

Google operated their own affiliate network in the US from 2008, following the acquisition of Doubleclick.


In 2012 they launched in the UK market. Whilst the brand was enticing to advertisers, Google’s penetration of the UK market wasn’t immediate. And 13 months later Google Affiliate Network closed its proposition globally. Interestingly, Google has never tried to re-enter affiliate marketing as a service provider. When Google announced the retirement of the network there was almost certainly a sigh of relief from some companies who had seen them as the competition. There was also some talk that Google, as big as it was, wasn’t able to shake the ‘relationships industry’. But Google is one of the world’s most successful digital marketing companies. So with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the reason Google didn’t remain in the industry was because having experienced it, they felt it’s advertising model was actually the anthesis of what they believed digital advertising to be. In other words, did Google have a realisation before the rest of us that performance marketing’s resource heavy model could lead to future inefficiency and sustainability issues? 

Let’s consider on one side, resources are increasing to meet growing demands. Yet, on the other side pure CPA payments in performance have decreased by 20% from 2014 – 2017. It doesn’t take a maths genius to solve this equation. Growing cost caused by increased resources against declining average CPAs means the value per person is being eroded.

This isn’t a sustainable situation.

Therefore, if sustainability is, or does become a challenge it also presents an opportunity to reassess how the industry thinks about entry-level careers.

Up until now entry-level progression has existed to serve a manually traded and manually executed performance marketing industry. But the pockets of automation creeping into the industry will change these two behaviours. Traditionally, when automation takes hold of any industry it seeks to remove the people-time associated with the repetitive and administrative work; the work that is commonly associated with entry-level roles. 

Technology automation to create efficiency and relieve the industry of manual tasks is already being used in performance marketing, but just not at a scale necessary to make a big impact on the industry. Last year, a Connected Path client developed automated spend management and forecasting tools that saved a media agency save 1,245 people hours. That’s 31 weeks of staff time reinvested into tasks more suited to the lateral thinking us humans prefer to do.

Technology to deliver a more automated workflow will have a lasting impact on the day-to-day world of performance marketing, and nowhere will that impact be more keenly felt than across the army of entry-level roles that have been the lifeblood of the industry for so long.

Remember Nigel and Carly – the entry level roles that kicked off their careers were the type of manual, repetitive tasks that are ripe to be replaced with technology.



What does the future hold?

The entry-level progression model, and entry level roles won’t evaporate overnight, but there will be less roles in the future and the skillset required to enter performance marketing at entry level will change. This change is not just taking hold in performance marketing, with IBM predicting that data science roles will account for 28% of all digital jobs by 2020.

Performance marketing in the UK currently values a specific skillset in its entry-level recruits, one heavy on soft-skills and customer-centric personalities. But this is no longer enough. The future will see performance marketers need to be better all-rounders, marrying soft-skills with greater underlying technical competence. What does that competence look like? 

  • With online tracking technology set to undergo a silent revolution in the next few years thanks to an explosion in browser security, technologies like JavaScript, Web APIs and even Responsive Web Applications will all be core skills

  • Knowledge of front-end data processing platforms like Google Data Studio, Tableau and Power BI will need to roll off the fingers of performance marketers as easily as Excel. Manipulation of large data sets will become the norm for channel optimisation, while back-end data storage technologies like Big Query, Spark and Athena will no longer be the digital marketer’s identify stamp of ‘good technically’, but just ‘good’.

Individuals already in performance marketing careers should be offered the opportunity to upskill. Here is where we look to the employers to be flexible and react to the training, learning and development needs of their staff. In particular, performance marketers should be considering enhancing their knowledge of the above technical disciplines.

For hiring managers it will be important to include technical competencies into the job descriptions of all entry-level roles in performance marketing from today onwards, and commit to supporting individuals who start their career in entry-level roles to learn basic technical skills. Crucially, these skills will need to be taught from the ground up, as fundamental requirements for a career in the industry, rather than useful add-ons.