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

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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

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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.

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