I had a meeting recently with the daughter of a life-long friend; she’s 19, in her first year of a Marketing degree and she wanted to talk me about what to expect from a career in marketing. We talked for an hour with a mixture of anecdotes; advice and lessons learnt that I’ve picked up over thirty years of careering through the world of marketing. In no particular order, here’s what I said:
In a marketing career, work out if you are a Generalist or a Specialist. If you want to be a generalist, then plan your career progression so that you continually learn new skills in different marketing disciplines. Eventually you will start to understand how all the disciplines interact and impact each other – a key skill set for a Marketing Director. If you decide to become a specialist, then choose your specialism and do a deep dive into it. Become an expert with a deep understanding of your discipline to the point that you are innovating and driving that discipline forward.
Avoid being neither a generalist nor a specialist – there lies the path to mediocrity in a marketing career.
You can work on the agency side or you can work on the client side of marketing – but make the effort to work on both sides of the Agency / Client divide during your career. If you only ever work in agencies, you will never truly understand the issues facing your clients in the corporate world. If you only ever work on the client side, you will never truly understand the pressures of agency life and how to get the best work from your agency.
Marketing is a career where you can get to use both sides of your brain – it is both art and science. Use your left brain to analyse data and think of a problem logically and then your right brain to find a creative solution to the problem. Alternatively take a creative look at an issue and then deliver that creative solution with logic in a practical way. Challenge yourself to be balanced and flexible in the way you think.
Whatever you end up doing, avoid being sucked into the mire of marketing bullshit. Marketers speak a language and get excited about things that people outside the marketing department often find hard to understand. Learn how to talk about what you do in terms of real impact rather than marketing metrics. The best definition of marketing I’ve ever come across is that it is the ‘Sourcing and Harvesting of Cash Flow’ (Tim Ambler, London Business School). Describing it thus will make the most skeptical of Finance Directors, who see marketing only as a cost centre, think again.
Find a way of measuring your progress through your marketing career. You can chose to measure it in terms of salary, job title or status. However, these are all things that can be taken away from you at the stroke of an HR director’s pen. My personal measure of progress has been around knowledge & experience; what am I learning in the role and how is that learning adding to my potential for the future? No-one can take away that accumulation of knowledge & experience.
If you stop learning in a job role, ask for a new role that will get you learning again. If your employer refuses or is unable to support you, find a different employer!
In a marketing career – expect change. Develop a mindset that change is exciting and positive, and not something to be feared. Embrace it and use it to find new opportunities to learn and progress. Expect to be made redundant more than once and don’t take it personally.
Realise quickly that no one gives a damn about your career (unless you are lucky enough to find a great mentor). There will be managers, friends and family who will offer advice and support, but ultimately it is down to you. Marketing does not have a structured career path that other professions have, so you need to own your career yourself, be critical of your progress and make some big decisions when necessary.
As your career progresses, don’t define yourself as your current job title and employer; find a bigger way to define yourself around your accumulated knowledge, experience and skills. That way, when HR come calling (which they will at some point in your career), you don’t end up in a crisis of self-identity. The only challenge facing you is finding someone else to pay you for your knowledge, experience and skills.
If you choose a career in marketing – then have fun and enjoy it. You will meet some amazing people, travel the globe and if you are lucky, work with great brands and on projects that will really make a difference to the world. Enjoy it, ride the wave and become the architect of your own success.
What advice would you give a young person thinking of a career in marketing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
David Robertson Mitchell is a brand consultant and author of ‘The Little Book of Career Advice’
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