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Becoming “Mad Men” – How to Get a Career in Marketing

Written by:   |  Strategy  |  July 3, 2020  |  0 comments

I’m often asked how to get into a career in marketing or advertising, particularly by recent grads or students majoring in marketing, but also by people looking to switch careers. For years, I’ve provided some of the following advice over email to those who have asked, but thought it might be better to share it in a blog post for everyone to see. Here are my tips for landing a career in marketing.

Dice with letters spelling words related to careers

Step 1: Agency vs. In-House

The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out if you’d like to work in an agency or for an “in-house” marketing department. This choice is important as it can shape your entire career. Early on in your career, it’s not that difficult to move back and forth between agencies and in-house or between companies in different industries. But once you’re established, it can sometimes become more difficult as the longer you work in one industry, the greater the proportion of your experience and knowledge is tied to that industry.

There are lots of differences between working in an agency and in-house, so usually either one or the other will appeal to you.

Agency

  • You’ll usually get a wider range of experience at an agency, working on different clients, in different industries, and on different problems. People who are easily bored, prefer working on a number of different challenges, and enjoy a faster pace, usually prefer working at an agency (but there are always exceptions).
  • You may also get to work on a wider range of channels and technical platforms, as agencies usually have access to more platforms and tools.  
  • Agencies are generally a fast-paced environment and are often very deadline driven, which can mean overtime occasionally, or often, depending on the agency.
  • Agencies are usually more cutting edge as they have specialists across a wider variety of skill sets and have the resources to test out a wider variety of new channels and technologies.
  • Agencies often have a more relaxed atmosphere with perks like office dogs, ping-pong tables, etc.

In-House Marketing Department

  • You’ll get to “go deeper” as you’ll have the opportunity to understand the business and its challenges to a more granular level. This especially appeals to people who are passionate about a particular industry (i.e. if you’re passionate about riding motorcycles, playing music, or knitting, you’d probably prefer to work at a company that offers a related product).
  • You’ll work alongside people from other departments and can see how marketing fits in with the rest of the organization, including operations, finance, accounting, etc. 
  • Some in-house teams have specialist roles, like in agencies, but most of the roles tend to be broader, “generalist” roles where you’ll get to touch many different aspects of the marketing process (strategy, brand, creative, media, social media, website, etc.). As a result, generalists learn how to do a lot of different things, but are not at an expert level in any of those areas, unlike someone who has worked as a specialist in one area (which tends to happen more often at agencies).
  • Over time, you’ll develop expertise specific to the industry you’re working in. That can sometimes make switching jobs between industries more difficult (e.g. much of what you’d learn in the auto industry isn’t directly applicable to tourism or packaged goods).
  • In-house tends to have more predictable hours (more 9 to 5). If you have children, substantial commitments outside of work, or are just very protective of your free time, then in-house may be a better fit.
  • Often, you can get a greater sense of ownership as you’re able to follow things through to the end, including analyzing the impact on the business of your marketing efforts.

Usually, I advise new grads to start out in an agency if they can, as you’ll get experience across a number of different clients and industries, then later on you can go “in-house” and specialize in an industry you’re particularly passionate about. This approach will give you more options down the road.

Step 2: Decide what kind of role you want

Next, you’ll need to decide what kind of role you want, so that you can prepare yourself for it and tailor your resume accordingly.

Agency Roles

There are a wide variety of roles you can start out in, so it’s important to choose the one you’re most passionate about. The following are the most common starting roles. The actual titles vary greatly from agency to agency.

  • Client Services – Client Service Managers (also commonly called Account Managers) are the main point of contact for clients. This role tends to be more appealing to extroverted people who get energized by the idea of working with clients, establishing their needs, then working with a specialist team to develop a plan and execute on it.  They must have excellent communication skills, be comfortable presenting to clients (sometimes large groups), and have an appreciation for great customer service.
  • Creative roles (e.g. graphic designers, illustrators, writers, and art directors) – Unsurprisingly, these roles tend to appeal to creatively minded people with skills in at least one of these areas. Often, creatives will be strongest in one area, but will often be able to contribute in more than one area. 
  • Media planning – This role requires an understanding of all media channels (offline and digital) and how they work together. It also requires knowledge and understanding of how people consume media and where marketers should invest their media budgets. Media planners work closely with Client Service and Creatives to develop media solutions for a variety of marketing and advertising challenges. They must also enjoy researching and staying up-to-date on the latest trends and are comfortable presenting to clients (sometimes large groups). To be successful, they need to be collaborative and open to change. 
  • Offline media buying (TV, radio, print, and out of home) – This role tends to appeal to people who enjoy building relationships through individual interactions as they spend a lot of time talking with media partners to determine options, availability, and negotiate buys. Extreme attention to detail, strong computer skills (Excel, Word, Powerpoint), and being adept at learning new systems are also all a must!
  • Digital media (search, display, social media, and SEO) – These platforms are all online, so the roles tend to appeal to people who are technically minded and are adept at learning new systems. They also tend to prefer to work independently. Extreme attention to detail, strong computer skills, and a love for Excel are also all a must!
  • Analytics – These roles appeal to people who love numbers and get excited about dissecting data sets using Excel and other tools in order to look for insights, trends, and patterns. They also enjoy creating compelling visualizations using charts and graphs to communicate what they’ve found. They also enjoy coding using Javascript to implement tracking and R and Python to develop custom statistical models. Their favourite classes in school were likely math and statistics.
  • Developers (website, apps, etc.) – These roles tend to appeal to programmers who appreciate aesthetics and have an interest in marketing. If your passion is building products, then a marketing agency is probably not the right fit as a lot of the development you’ll do will be commercial websites and apps, not full-blown products.

Depending on the agency, some roles will be very specialized (e.g. just Social Media), while at other agencies the roles are more generalist (e.g. one person may do both offline and online media buying and maybe some analytics as well).

In-House Marketing Department Roles

  • Most in-house marketing departments tend to have more generalist roles, where they have wide-ranging responsibilities, not clearly specializing in any one area. Usually, these roles are organized by level of experience, with some combination of CMO, VP Marketing, Marketing Manager, Marketing Coordinator and Marketing Assistant. Most often, as a new hire, you’ll start as either a Coordinator or Assistant.
  • Some in-house roles are specialized and it’s not uncommon to have some of the agency roles described above on the team, but most are usually generalist roles where each person is doing a number of different things.  

Choosing whether to go for a specialist or more of a generalist role really depends on your interests. If you like to do lots of different things and enjoy having more variety of work in your day, then a generalist position will be right up your alley. But if you know that you’re most interested in a certain area, then focusing on it will make you very marketable. If you decide to go the specialist route, then again, I’d advise starting out at an agency as you’ll have more opportunity to be mentored by experts in that area. Specialists within an in-house marketing team are often the only one in that role and have to learn the role on their own.

Step 3: Prepare for the Role

Once you’ve figured out what you really want to do,prepare yourself as best you can for it. Find out what skills you need, if there are any certifications you can get for the area, and make it happen. Having a list of courses and certifications in your resume will help to grab attention and show that you’re serious about the role.

To find out what’s required for a role, start watching job postings and see what they’re asking for. Or if there’s a particular company you’d really like to work at, reach out and ask them what they look for in new hires for that particular role. They’ll usually be happy to point you in the right direction.

A degree or certificate in marketing provides a good base knowledge, but is not a must. Other degrees can also be applicable and you can also do a lot of training on your own instead. It’s having the base knowledge that matters, not necessarily the degree or where you went to school, as employers can tell pretty easily if you have the knowledge or not during an interview.  

The following are a few examples of courses that you can take:

  • Local universities and colleges offer both degrees and certificates in marketing. Other degrees can also be applicable (we have a Psychology grad on our team), but generally marketing provides the best base knowledge. 
  • For specialist roles, there are often online courses that are very good. Here’s one we’ve used for staff training in the past – http://www.marketmotive.com/
  • Coursera have a number of great courses, some offering certificates.  https://www.coursera.org/browse/business/marketing
  • Here are also a whole host of free online courses – https://www.mooc-list.com/tags/marketing

If there are any certifications needed for the role, go and get them as well, if you can. Potential employers will be impressed if you already have them as it shows that you’re serious about the role.  

  • I encourage everyone to get their Google Analytics certification as it’s helpful for almost every marketing role. Certification is free and there’s lots of free information at the Google Analytics Academy and around the internet (Google and Youtube provide a wealth of information) – https://analytics.google.com/analytics/academy/
  • We also like our hires to have channel-specific certifications, such as Google Ads, Facebook Blueprint, and Bing. These certifications aren’t generally required for client service roles, but are a big plus so I’d still recommend them. If you have all of them, you look like a real keener, regardless of the role you’re applying for.

Get some experience, if you can. Offer to do some work for a friend or relative for free. Or offer to do some pro-bono work for a not-for-profit. Any experience helps as it shows that you’re passionate about marketing and you’ll also learn a lot by actively managing a campaign or helping a charity with their marketing, no matter how small.

Step 4: Market Yourself

Apply for roles that you see posted, of course, but also apply to companies that you’d like to work at, even if they don’t have roles posted. Not every role gets advertised, so you might get lucky. In addition, most companies will keep a database of applicants and will look there first when they next need to hire, so it’s best to get on their radar.

Tailor both your resume and your LinkedIn profile to the role. Most people will tailor their resume, but very few tailor their LinkedIn profile, so that’s where I look to see if an applicant is really interested in the role or just casting a wide net. There’s lots of great information out there on how to tailor your resume, but basically you just need to ensure you cover off everything asked for in the job posting. If you don’t have direct experience in a requested area, try to find similar experience that you have which is transferable. And bonus points for making use of the same terminology as the company has used in their job ad. In LinkedIn, try to get some skill endorsements and recommendations related to the role you want, if you can. But something that everyone should do is follow influencers and related companies. It’s an easy thing to do and again, it signals that you’re serious about the role.

Write a cover letter. Always! Your cover letter shouldn’t be long and doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, but you show that you’re serious about the role by writing one. It’s also your opportunity to position yourself. Why hire you? What do you have to offer that’s different from others? Personally, I always look for passion, so if you can communicate passion for the role, the company, and/or the industry it can really make you stand out.

Join industry associations (e.g. Calgary Marketing Association, Advertising Club of Edmonton, etc.) and attend events. You can learn a lot from the presentations and conversations, but more importantly, you’ll make connections which can help you land a role down the road.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the industry and/or at companies you’d really like to work at. You may not hear back from all of them, but many will gladly give you a little bit of their time and point you in the right direction. Be mindful of their time and ask for 15 or 20 minutes to ask a few questions. And make sure to have questions ready such as, “who do you follow or read to keep up-to-date?”, “what kind of creative roles do you have at your company?”, and “what do you look for in new hires for those roles?” Having a few questions ready will show that you’re serious and get the conversation started.

Above all, show passion! Show passion by putting in the work, by being focused on what you want to achieve, and by being inquisitive and asking questions about the role.

If you follow these tips, you’ll be well ahead of most new applicants. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out. I’m always more than happy to answer any questions or have a quick chat. Best of luck in starting your new career!

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