For the last decade and a half, I’ve thoughtfully grown my marketing career—sometimes moving carefully, sometimes taking big risks. I’ve worked in big advertising agencies, small marketing firms, fortune 500 corporations, and technology startups. I’ve had some incredible bosses and mentors…and some much less incredible. I’ve led large teams of marketing professionals, and now work as a solo consultant and the co-founder & CMO of a software startup. The point is, I’ve racked up some perspective along this journey—perspective I’d like to share with young marketers getting their footing in this fast-moving profession.
This post is the end-product of an iCloud note I’ve kept for the past few years, jotting down little pieces of advice as they came to me. These 10 pieces of advice are geared toward marketers coming out of school or perhaps working in their first job. However, there might be a few nuggets in here that resonate with even the seasoned vet.
Work in an agency
I highly recommend every marketer work in an agency at least once in their career—and the earlier the better. Agencies are wonderfully insane places. They are chock-full of talent, big personalities, demanding clients, and impossible deadlines. Working as an account executive will put your marketing knowledge and know-how on a fast track. You will oscillate between the strategic and the tactical, while balancing the needs of multiple accounts. You will own the details. You will travel. You will get exposure to great clients who are impressive executives at large corporations and exhausting clients who will push the limits of your patience and negotiation skills. You will work directly with a team of designers, art directors, copywriters, and traffic who will teach you (or bark at you) the details of what makes great marketing an art form. You will help build budgets and manage hours and OOPs with more care than you will ever manage your own personal finances. You will log your time carefully each day, teaching you important time management skills that will last a lifetime. The hours are long and the pay is usually mediocre, but the energy and experience are worth every late night.
Find your support system
To really grow a great marketing career, you need a support system. Your system could be comprised of peers or supervisors at your current organization, past colleagues, and/or fellow members of a professional organization. You need at least one person who can help you navigate the process and politics at your company and can proactively identify opportunities for you to take on new projects and show your skills to company leadership. You may need someone other than your supervisor—sometimes called a sponsor—who is ready to take on this role. Take advantage of mentor programs, sponsor programs, and networking events supported by your company. I also highly recommend finding a professional coach. If you are early on in your career, it may be challenging to get financial approval, but this is one of the best investments you can make in yourself. A professional coach is paid to be honest with you, push you, and help you improve your self-awareness. He or she operates outside of the political circle of your organization, making them a perfect complement to your internal sponsor. If you can’t get your company to pay for 1:1 coaching, request approval for a workshop or group event hosted by the coach instead. These will be less expensive and may also help you grow your network.
Ask one great question
I had a great boss early in my career (thank you, Pat!) who gave me a solid piece of advice before we walked together into a major strategy meeting with company executives: Just ask one great question. When you are a young marketer trying to find your voice in a room full of minds and voices more senior than yours, a great question can be your opportunity to get your foot in the door. It signals you are curious and want to learn. It can help leadership remember you. And most importantly, if it’s really a great question, it can spur an important discussion that takes the strategy in a new and better direction. Asking great questions and being prepared go hand-in-hand. Do your homework before you walk into the meeting and be ready to challenge group assumptions.
Stop taking notes
Okay, you don’t need to stop taking notes altogether, but you are probably taking more than you need to. Note taking is a safety blanket that leaves us feeling productive and organized. However, when we are taking notes, we are not participating in the discussion. We are writing down the thoughts of others and not sharing our own thoughts. Studies have shown that women especially are vulnerable to this bad habit—sometimes out of their own accord, and other times because they are directly asked by their male peers to take meeting notes. So how do marketers break the habit? Keep your notebook or your laptop shut during meetings. Make eye contact with your team instead. Be present. Turn down the request to play secretary by letting the team know it’s hard for you to participate if you’re relegated to meeting minutes. Suggest cycling through different note-takers for recurring meetings. If you need to capture big ideas or action items, walk up to the whiteboard and get them down for the entire room to see, debate, and agree upon.
I attended a session at the HubSpot Inbound conference years ago and heard then-CMO Mike Volpe (now CEO at Lola.com) present on how to recruit the best marketing talent for your organization. One of his points stuck with me. Simply put, every good marketer has ready-proof that he or she has grown something. It could be marketing sourced pipeline. Or it could be personal Instagram followers. It doesn’t really matter so much what you have grown; it matters more that you are passionate about what you’ve grown and can recite every detail of how it was achieved and why.
Spend time with customers
I know a lot of marketers who have never heard—let alone met—an actual customer. Not to be too harsh on my peers, but that is irresponsible marketing. If you are directly communicating with customers through email, social media, advertising, or any form of content marketing, you have to know the details of how your customer base communicates and likes to be communicated to. Reading survey responses or reviewing marketing data does not count! You need to get close to your customers and literally hear their voice. If your company won’t pay for you to travel to customer sites or industry events, ask your Sales colleagues if they will let you listen in on customer calls. Chances are they will be delighted you’ve taken an interest in their work and would appreciate having you in the room. Your colleagues in Sales, Support, and Services are your best connection to your customers and they have a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be tapped by a savvy marketer. After you’ve spent some time on sales calls, spend a full day in technical support listening in on customer problems. It will open your eyes. It will make your marketing better. And it might just make Sales, Support, and Services better if you can apply your marketing smarts to making their days easier. Think: a new whitepaper that addresses a common customer pain point or a new diagram that helps simplify the sales message, all because you listened to your customers.
Nurture your communication skills
Every great marketer I’ve known is a great communicator. They are strong, concise writers. They take every internal email as an opportunity to refine their communication skills—stating their intentions, motivating the reader, and giving the reader a clear call to action. Great marketers present their ideas both formally and informally every chance they get. So how does a young marketer nurture his or her own nascent communication skills? My advice is to make every piece of communication count. Your words matter. Write high-quality emails—each and every time. Present an idea to your boss in a 1:1. Present programs in small meetings. Volunteer to interview a subject matter expert at your company and write a blog post. Attend a professional development event and then offer to present what you learned at a lunch-and-learn for your department or even the company. Speak at a small, local event for your marketing peers on a topic you’re passionate about.
Get comfortable with data
Comfort with data will make or break the modern marketer. You need to understand charts, graphs, diagrams, and spreadsheets beyond face value to get real value from them. If you haven’t come into your career with a STEM background, you’re going to have to cultivate your data-oriented skills in the workplace. My advice? Practice storytelling with data. Look at a graph and tell its story out loud. What is the graph about? How is the data changing over time? What are the limitations of the data? How can you act on it? What other information should you be collecting? Practice taking numbers and turning them into a story that can be shared with others, debated, and acted upon.
Keep your resume updated
I have spent too much time staring at a cursor trying to jog my memory on what I accomplished at my last job in order to update my resume. Don’t make that mistake. Log your accomplishments in a running note that you train yourself to update frequently. Also, remember to log not just what you were responsible for—but how that action made an impact on the business and why it was important to the company’s success. Build your digital portfolio. Build a beautiful, functional resume. Don’t miss the opportunity as a marketer to market yourself.
Know your values
Every role in every company will challenge your values system at some point. If you don’t have a firm grasp on what that value system is, you will be swept by the tide of others, allowing the people and work around you to define who you are. The most important piece of advice for every young professional is to take the time to write down your values, assess them frequently, and determine if your current job is honoring those values or pulling you further from them. What are work values? They include concepts like honesty, control, prestige, transparency, work-home balance, salary, positivity, quality, helping others, creativity, and security. Consider reading this article from The Balance Careers if you’d like to learn more.
If a piece of advice in this article resonated with you, please share it with a colleague or let me know by commenting below. You can also send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!