Creating a Marketing Career Path When You’re Just Getting Started

I was speaking at the University of Colorado recently to a room full of marketing majors.  One of the questions someone asked stuck with me.  A women in the room raised her hand and said she was trying to figure out where to work after graduation.  She struggled with the different options and was looking for advise on what size company she should target.

For marketers, like many professions, there are several roads to go down.  Specialists vs generalists.  Creative vs technical.  Client-side vs agency.  Choosing the right path can be daunting.  So here is the advise I have for a marketer just starting out trying to define a path for their own career.

Specialists versus Generalists

specialist

This is a question I get a lot from young marketers.  Should I pursue a career as a specialist or generalist?  First here’s the main difference between the two, as I see it.

A specialist can make more money due to lack of competition, but there are less jobs that hire specialists because they’re a bit of a luxury.  Generalists get paid less, but jobs are more plentiful since they can wear multiple hats, which companies tend to appreciate in an employee.

If you’re starting out, less than 5 years of experience, pursue a generalist role.  The more hats you can wear, the more valuable you will be over time.  A generalist can always become a specialist, but the other direction is quite difficult.  By learning as many areas of marketing as you possibly can now, you can discover which areas interest you or discover an unknown talent.  Then later, after you’ve got some experience under your belt, you can drive towards a career that is best suited towards you.

Creative versus Technical

When most people think about marketing, they think advertising – which is a very small piece of the overall puzzle.  I believe marketing is the meeting of 3 skillsets:

  1. Mathematical Analysis
  2. Behavioral Science
  3. Art

Because no one of these areas outweighs the others, the question is not should I be a creative or a technical marketer, but what amount of each.  To be a strong marketer, you must learn all three areas.  A whitepaper is a technical document that requires creativity (art) and is driving towards a certain behavior (behavioral science), which usually leverages some sort of mathematical analysis in its argument.

You will naturally gravitate to one skill set over the others, but learn all three.  You’ll need them.  Like I said, generalize now and specialize later.

Client-side versus Agency

work-humor-work-memes

You have two main options when looking at a marketing career.  You can work for a brand directly as part of their in-house marketing department.  Or you can work for an agency supporting many brands with a specialized offering.  Which one should you pick?

I say, do both.  Spend 2-3 years at one, then switch.  The experience you gain at an agency is critical.  Balancing projects, managing clients, understanding different types of brands and their needs – you need to do it all.  Then when you go client-side you get to know a brand intimately, which will teach you voice, budgets and vendor management.  After 5 years, you’ll know which life you prefer.  Jack of all trades or mastering a signature dish – you don’t need to know the answer yet.

Small versus Large Business

This is the question I get most often.  Should I go with the small company or the established brand.  There’s a few things to consider with this one.

  1. Will the brand recognition (or lack there of) affect you in the future?  How so?
  2. Will you be allowed to change anything about the brand?
  3. How many people stand between you and the head of marketing?
  4. Do you operate better in a structured or unstructured environment?
  5. How important is salary to you?  Can you take a financial risk?

Here’s the thing.  You’re going to make more money at a larger company starting out.  The logo will look nice on your resume and people will be impressed.  But you won’t be allowed to touch anything and you’ll likely not be allowed to draw outside of very well defined lines.  You’ll be forced to specialize sooner than I think you should as there are many hands to do work.

At a smaller company you can immediately deliver value because you’ll wear many hats.  Events, social, content, digital, advertising, sales training, RFPs – you will touch everything.  On the flip side you will probably make less money.  Student loans and rent are real concerns and you can’t not pay them.

I recommend targeting small or medium-sized companies when you’re starting out.  You might work at PepsiCo, but no one is impressed if you were the Jr Content Researcher and there are 18 levels between you and the CMO.  Instead, take the risk now and learn everything you can physically stick in your brain.  The pain will be temporary, but the work will be much more fulfilling.  Then, after a few years, if you haven’t already been promoted you can go to the big brands at a higher level and make a larger impact.  How do you know if the company is too large?  Are they on Fortune 500?  Then they’re too large.  Go smaller.

learn_all_the_things

Team Building According to Coach K

I recently attended MarketingProf’s Annual Conference and wanted to share some of my insights from this event – which I highly recommend.

On-the-Edge-SM_11151One of the keynotes was Alison Levine, the Captain of the First All-Women Mount Everest Expedition.  The story was incredible, and I encourage everyone to read the book, but I want to focus on only one story.  Alison was tasked with building a team of five women to hike to the highest point on Earth without dying.  How do you do that?

She called her friend, Coach Krzyzewski, the legendary Head Coach of Duke’s Basketball team and the USA Olympic Basketball team.  He said he looks for 1 thing when building a team – Ego.

Alison assumed he meant lack of ego, but he corrected her.  He wants two types of ego.

  1. Performance Ego – You want people who can walk on the court and have believe they have what it takes to win. You don’t want folks who are filled with self-doubt and question themselves constantly… Especially on a mountain.
  2. Team Ego – You want someone who is proud to be part of something collectively bigger than themselves.  They have to be happy in the team’s victory, even if they get none of the glory.

Maybe you’re building a marketing department for the first time.  Maybe you’re trying to find slot players to fill gaps.  For those of us who have been individual contributors for years and are not used to a “team” mentality, this can be difficult.  I have recently been promoted to run field marketing across all our regions.  The idea of building a team from scratch was an incredible opportunity, but I did wonder if I had what it takes to build the right one.

As we look for talent and encounter opportunities for growth I think we should challenge ourselves to follow Coach K’s advice.  Do we walk on the court and believe we have what it takes, while celebrating the successes of our team members?  Are we hiring team members who do the same?  I challenge you, and myself, to look for ego when hiring, but the right kind.

Thanks Coach.

Image result for coach k

3 Ways to Dominate a Department of 1

Image result for stranded on an islandMarketers often find themselves on an island.  No, I don’t mean wonderful President’s Club trips (we’re never invited to those).  I mean working alone.  This is one of those skillsets we just have to master.  But we’re not alone.  A ton of B2B roles find themselves alone, especially in smaller companies.  Field sales, HR, accounting, legal – they can all be stranded on an island, expected to do the work of 12 people with the accuracy of IBM’s Watson.

But the big question is how do you do that?

This post is not about how to get your boss to hire more people or how to lower expectations.  It’s about truly dominating your field – all by yourself.

Image result for marketing plan funny1: Make a Plan

If you’re going to be stranded on an island, you should probably start making a list of what you need to do.

  1. Build a shelter
  2. Find food
  3. Figure out how to make fire…

You get the point.

In work it’s no different.  For marketing, that plan is fairly straight forward.  Their called “marketing plans” and you spent 4 years in college doing nothing but preparing for them.  In large organizations marketing plans are usually a luxury.  They are time consuming, cumbersome, and the only people who care about them are the people on your team.  Many small or medium B2B companies will tell you they are a waste of time too, but don’t listen.  When you are doing everything on your own, your marketing plan is your saving grace.

A well crafted marketing plan can do many things.

  • Create buy-in from executives on time spent, budget, priorities, etc
  • Define where you want to focus your efforts
  • Show exactly how big an undertaking many campaigns can be
  • Document your value to the company

It doesn’t have to be the massive business document you designed in school.  When you’re a department of one, you can skip a lot of the pageantry and get straight to the point.  Here is the outline I use:

  • What I accomplished last quarter/year.
  • My goals for next quarter/year.
  • Marketing Mix
  • Budget
  • Calendar

I don’t need to go through SWOT or Competitive Analysis.  I can just speak to those when asked.  The only people who ever read those are marketing anyway.  I dare you to find a small business executive who wants to read marketing’s SWOT analysis.  Go on, I’ll wait.

The other thing I highly recommend is writing them on a quarterly basis.  Business moves too fast for an annual marketing plan.  It normally takes about 3 months to throw them out anyway.  Do them in 3-6 month increments and they’ll be much more useful.

2: You are the expert – Act like it.

Image result for expert funnyIf you are running a department by yourself, it is your job to execute.  No one wants to babysit you and no one has the skill set to help.  You are the expert – act like it.

This is one of the reasons I love my quarterly plans so much.  I can take the time to think through what I want to do and why, rather than being put on the spot every 30 seconds when someone has a question.  Planning breeds confidence, which breeds trust.

Pro-Tip: Ultimately the trust of those around you enables you to dominate a department of one.  If they don’t trust you, you cannot lead.

Keep one thing in mind.  Experts don’t know everything.  They just know more than everyone else in the room.  I am not the world’s foremost expert on marketing.  But I am the expert on my team.  And if I don’t know an answer, my expertise tells me how to find it.  And 99% of the time, that’s good enough.

3: Know Your Limits

I had a VP once who called me “Wonder Woman”.  The nickname was so prevalent that for secret Santa one year he actually gave me a pair of Wonder Woman pajamas (they are insanely comfortable).  He gave me this nickname mostly because of the sheer volume of work I could churn out in a small amount of time.  This ended up being my downfall.  I got overconfident and determined to do anything and everything to succeed.  I over committed.  I made mistakes.  And because I moved so fast, it took a while before anyone (including me) realized.

Image result for exhaustionIt was embarrassing, but the entire experience taught me a very clear and simple lesson – know your limits.  Had I simply pushed back and told him I was going to start dropping balls if I took on any more work, he would have probably backed off or taken something off my plate.  Just because I’m the resident “expert” does not make me a superhero.  I can make mistakes and I can forget things, just like everyone else.  Part of being an expert is knowing how far you can go before you have nothing left to give.  It’s a hard lesson, but a critically important one.  Especially when you’re all alone.

Working alone does not have to be a death sentence.  You have all the creative and prioritization freedom in the world.  The question is whether you will rise to the occasion.