As a sports fan, I love watching how the game changes over time. In basketball, many would say that Steph Curry changed the game, with about 22% of shots coming from three in 2010 vs. almost 40% taken from the three point line in 2022. In golf, distance, power, and the availability of in-depth analytics has changed how people play the game. But, as many like to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Digital marketing is riddled with constant change — from new ad platforms, to algorithm shifts, to the hottest topic of the times: ChatGPT. Amidst all of this change, someone recently asked me to describe the characteristics of great digital marketer in 2023, which sent me down an internal dialogue that felt worth sharing. 

I don’t profess for these to be everyone’s top 5, but here’s what I came up with to answer my friend’s question based on my current beliefs:

  1. Critical thinkers
  2. Creative problem solvers
  3. Love to read
  4. Good with numbers
  5. Almost recklessly fast

Great digital marketers are critical thinkers

Earlier this year we had the privilege of hosting Tim Kullick, former COO of Red Ventures, for a lunch and learn event at Grit. One of his comments that has made its way into a number of my conversations this week is “culture is what you will tolerate.” Initially, the word tolerate is a bit of a turn-off to me, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue.

At Grit, if our mission it to strengthen brands by driving profitable revenue growth, that demands our team understands our partners’ businesses. One of the greatest skills a digital marketer can develop is the critical thinking ability to learn what makes different businesses tick.

A great example of this can come through in an email marketing calendar brainstorm. If you’re in charge of putting together a 12-month email plan, being a great critical thinker means that you:

  • Understand the seasonality of the brand and how that impacts buying habits
  • Get the customer and know what they care and don’t care about
  • Know how much you can discount based on margin profiles
  • Grasp what kind of topics will trigger your audience to engage

It’s one thing to know how to build an email in a platform. It’s an entirely different thing to build an email program that outperforms its comparable brands over and over. In my opinion, the best digital marketers in the world have exceptional critical thinking skills, that allow them to break down brands, audiences, and markets quickly so that they’re able to attack them from the right angles.

If you find it challenging to learn a new business, I’d encourage you to start sitting down with friends or colleagues who run or are part of different types of companies and spend an hour asking them to explain it to you like you are five. It’s humbling — but I’ve done this hundreds of times since starting my own business and I’ll keep doing it because I never want my ego to be the barrier to growth.

Creative problem solving

This second characteristic is one of my favorites. Partially because I love working on both the creative and analytical sides of our business, but mostly because I get fired up when someone finds a way under, through, around, or over a wall that appeared impossible to get past. 

A moment of self promotion here. A project that I’m still proud of from my time at Red Ventures is when schema markup was just getting more prominent. I was part of the DirecTV SEO team and it we all knew NFL Sunday Ticket time was money making season for the partnership. I came up with the idea to put event schema markup onto a couple of our domains and got DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket sale promotion to pull through as an event which gave us extra real estate on the SERP.

The problem (or opportunity) was to get more visibility for NFL Sunday Ticket. Event schema definitely wasn’t meant for this type of use case (and Google probably wouldn’t allow it today), but this is an example of creative problem solving that allowed me to hack the system and find incremental clicks.

I learned this type of behavior by being surrounded by some of the most creative thinkers that I’d ever met. My peers and bosses were constantly hacking a tool to do something it was intended to do, but they needed it to do. This DNA of finding clever ways to accomplish a goal is something that I’ve found consistently displayed by people I’d consider superstar digital marketers. 

In my current role, where I spend a good portion of my time selling new business and/or leading M&A, this type of creative problem-solving has become essential to help me find creative deal structures when negotiations pick up. Things are never black and white. There is far more than A or B. If you want to be an elite digital marketer, start finding new ways to do the same thing. Train yourself to think outside the box and develop your creative problem-solving skills — I promise it will pay off.

Disclaimer: when you become amazing at this, you may find that you’re getting people to do things for you/with you almost too easily! Use the power wisely. As Spiderman’s late uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Readers are leaders

“Great artists steal.” Controversial, but also true. Why do I bring this up? Because oftentimes my best creative problem-solving has come from “stealing” an idea from a blog article or email newsletter that I read the day before. This is why a love of reading is my third characteristic of a great digital marketer. 

In a fast-paced environment, it isn’t possible to keep up with every single change that happens within the digital world, but it is possible to consume significant amounts of content from those who are aggregating insights about the changes. All the top performers that I’ve spent time with begin their days by reading a daily newsletter like MarTech, Search Engine Land, Morning Brew, or something like that.

It can be easy to get caught up in executing the work that’s right in front of you, demanding your time and attention, but when you make the effort to set aside even just 15 minutes a day to read, it makes all the difference. Too often, when we simply put our heads down and do that work that was flashing in front of us, we miss important cues to consider adjustments to our strategy. The best are the best not only because they execute with excellence, but even more so because they’re executing on the right things more often than others. I don’t believe that reading is a silver bullet for great strategy, but it definitely doesn’t hurt!

Side note: If you’ve read this far, odds are you fit the description of an avid reader, so good on you!

Good with numbers

My fourth characteristic of a great digital marketer feels like one that simply could not be left off of the list. We all know that access to endless amounts of data is one of the best parts about being a digital marketer. We have the ability to measure our campaigns and tests with great precision, allowing us to make data-driven decisions, and generally speaking, more confident decisions. 

If you want to outperform your peers, falling in love with your data is a great first step.  If you haven’t checked it out already, I recently wrote an article on measuring what matters, and how to know what matters, that goes into great detail with some of my thoughts about being good with numbers. For the sake of this article though, I’ll touch on another part of what it means to be good with numbers.

When I think about the people I have known during my career who have been “best with numbers,” most all of them have been exceptional at mental math. At Red Ventures, this felt like an unspoken test for analysts’ talent. Writing this feels a little harsh, but it’s just an observation that I thought was interesting during my time there. By no means am I saying that you can’t be a superstar in digital if you can’t do mental math, I mean we have calculators on our phone and Excel on our laptops for that, right? That said, if you’re someone who struggles with mental math, I would encourage you to find some ways to work on it. Worst case, you find yourself with a nice party trick for dinner parties.

Of course, being good with numbers is a lot more than mental math. A more practical skill that helps someone stand out in this area is the ability to recognize trends in data that others might miss. This could look like, remembering something from two years ago that connects and correlates to a current trend, or spotting an irregularity in a report that ends up being an error. This eye for finding the story within the numbers is a special skill, one that comes easier for some than others, but one that can be learned by simply spending time putting in the work.

Almost recklessly fast

I may have saved my favorite characteristics for last. When I wrote this headline, it got me pretty fired up, because it felt like I was able to do honor to the skill in the way it came out. The very best in digital marketing move incredibly fast. When a new ad format comes out, the best have a test running within the day. When a weekly report shows a downward SEO trend, the best have already read three articles to understand how their trend compares to the market and have implemented a new H1 on the page. 

There is a value to being deliberate and making calculated bets. Time is our greatest resource and spending it in the wrong places is one of the most common ways to squander it. That is why I love the “almost” part of this characteristic. So what is the difference between being recklessly fast and being almost recklessly fast? Well, that is why I put this one last — because oftentimes, the almost is made possible when the other four characteristics are present.

When one is a strong critical thinker, a crafty problem solver, a constant reader, and good with numbers, those skills give the best the ability to quickly deduce how to make fast decisions when new information becomes available. We all wish that it was easy to be great, but whether we like to admit it or not, we also know that it isn’t easy. If you want to be a decision-maker and unlock the skill of being almost recklessly fast, you have to put in the work. 

Want to work on this? Here are a couple of tips that might help:

  • Create a decision-making framework and start doing it every time. When you find yourself encountering the same types of decisions all the time, a framework can provide stability to help you know you’ve checked all the boxes to make an informed decision. The first few times you use your framework, it might add time and make you work more, but do it enough and you will start to move through it unconsciously and the speed will come before you know it.
  • Give yourself a deadline. Sometimes you already have a great framework, you just haven’t set an aggressive enough expectation to achieve an almost recklessly fast status. If you’re doing something new in 1 week, set a goal to do the same task in 1 day the next time. If you’re taking a day to make a decision, challenge yourself to make it in one hour. As we discussed earlier, culture is what you tolerate, and if you tolerate longer decision-making windows, you’ll never move fast enough to beat the best.


There are so many things I could have chosen to highlight the characteristics of a great digital marketer, but I hope you enjoyed my list and took something away from it. I’d love to hear what other traits you have found in the great digital marketers you’ve spent time with.

Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at I’m happy to grab a drink — virtual or in person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!


Alex Johnson Founder, CEO

Alex has been leading The Grit Group for 9 years to consecutive years of growth and transformation. He writes about digital marketing, leadership, and culture, with a passion for connecting mission & vision to your day-to-day work.

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