by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who’s Been There, Survived That; note that this article contains affiliate links, and buying through them helps support the Atomic Tango martini fund…
So you just emerged from your academic shell, armed with a degree and a wealth of textbook knowledge. And now you want to enter marketing or a related field, like advertising, design, or feral-cat herding.
To help you progress — and avoid my missteps as a fledgling marketer — I compiled these tips based on my discussions with career experts, observations of professionals, and quarter-century of trial and error as a marketer and professor.
Note that these tips are NOT laws; they’re ideals to help you plan. Treat them like those color-by-number books you had as a kid, and pick your own hues and go outside the lines.
- First, read Career Warfare by David D’Allesandro. I didn’t read it until my 30s, by which time I had already committed half the mistakes cited in the book, such as staying in a job more than 2 years without a promotion, and networking with mid-career flameouts instead of rising stars. D’Allesandro knows what he’s talking about, since he’s risen to the top of the ladder the hard way.
- Patience, grasshopper. At this age, you’ll find yourself in demand… as a social media coordinator, NOT a strategist. Strategy gigs usually go to people with years of corporate experience, regardless of whether they know what they’re doing. (Most marketing strategists don’t. Life’s unfair like that.) So be patient: your day commanding the whiteboard will come. On the plus side, you’ll more likely score this coordinator position (and other entry level gigs) than an equally qualified person over 40. That’s because employers believe young people are naturals at all things Internet… and because you’ll likely work longer hours at lower pay (hello 2 a.m. Red Bulls!). Now don’t delete strategies from your brain cells! Just don’t expect to have much input into major decisions, even if you scored a 4.0 at a top university. You may offer your opinion, but accept whatever the higher-ups decide, even if they horrifically violate every rule you learned in school.
- Focus on EXPERTISE. All your cover letter talk about passion and people skills is cute, but what employers really want is someone who can write, design, code, photograph, present, PowerPoint, Excel, tweet, and make a mean cup o’ java. So continuously research, acquire, and hone the skills and knowledge you need to progress. You’ll find them listed in help-wanted ads for higher-level jobs. Even if you see yourself as “creative,” keep your tech skills honed. In these warped times, young writers are expected to know both PhotoShop and Google Analytics.
- Learn sales. In particular, finesse your ability to pitch and close, since 99% of marketing consists of selling to clients or bosses. Plus, those who directly make money for their employers never get laid off; all other marketers get sacrificed to the Wall Street gods at the first sign of trouble. To start learning sales in an entertaining way, read Selling The Wheel by Jeff Cox & Howard Stevens.
- Stink at taking messages. Don’t mention your experience answering phones, unless you aspire to a career at the reception desk. Sure, receptionists occasionally get promoted (sometimes… maybe… to a certain degree), but by that time they’ve already fallen far behind their cohorts, whose phones they’ve been answering for the past year or six. That also goes for typing, filing, or any other clerical task. Done that? Don’t mention it.
- Get some side action. Even if your job lets you apply your strategic and creative talents, you’ll mostly do what some micro-manager tells you to. Even in the best scenario, you won’t have the creative freedom to flaunt your talents and maintain your sanity. That’s why you MUST have a side project. Or three. This could simply be creating mock ads for your portfolio, managing a blog focused on your professional interests, producing a movie or writing a book, or volunteering for a charity or other personal cause. Your job exists to pay your bills; you need to build your reputation outside of work.
- Social network with a purpose. Young marketers MUST have a website (ideally a blog), a LinkedIn profile, and either a Twitter or Instagram account used for PROFESSIONAL purposes. (Focus on your industry and skills, not what you had for lunch unless you’re a restaurant critic.) While you’re at it, use social media to build your professional brand and a network of people who will actually help you, not just “follow” you. There’s a phrase for a connection you can’t count on to refer you to a job, introduce you to a client, or chip in on your crowdfunding campaign: a waste of time. Rather, find allies and creative collaborators now, not when you need them.
- Volunteer for charities — but nothing more. Having active charity work on your resume (and not just donations or the occasional walkathon) makes you look like you have “values” and aren’t a serial killer. Charities will also give you more responsibility than an entry-level corporate gig. But if you want a career in corporate America (i.e., you like the idea of wealth), only do charity work on a part-time/short-term/volunteer basis. If you go nonprofit full time, corporations will see you as “nice,” not necessary, and you will be 501c-you-later. Ultimately, aim to sit on the charity’s board of directors, NOT report to it.
- In some cases, run. On the flipside, avoid for-profit companies that appear destined to crash or, worse, get embroiled in scandal. A young finance professional I know had the misfortune of going from Arthur Andersen to Countrywide Home Loans, and that corrupt combo killed her career, even though she wasn’t responsible for any of their malfeasance. She makes jewelry today. So if you smell fire, fraud, or imminent failure at your current employer, run for the nearest exit. Some say it looks bad to stay less than one year at a job; trust me, it looks worse to stay even a few months in a bad company.
- Ultimately, attach yourself to a hit. For your first job, it’s fine to toil at some mediocre no-name company, particularly if it’s a garage startup. But unless you want to spend your life stuck somewhere that’s going nowhere, you must score a success story before you turn 30. Obviously, aim for a personal accomplishment or pivotal role, but at the least contribute to a hit project (such as a movie, ad campaign, or political race) that’s made serious money (through sales or just funding), won major awards, or had the backing of Ashton Kutcher. Simply having “Apple” or “IPO” on your resume can add digits to your next salary negotiation.
- Manage people. To land an executive position, you need experience directly managing a team, even if they’re a flock of interns. It doesn’t matter what they actually do — just insist on hiring some, and not just for appearances. Managing disparate personalities is harder than predicting the stock market, and employers know that painfully well.
- Go back to school. And here you thought you might be free from cram sessions forever. Instead, acquiring the skills, knowledge, and connections to grow may require getting an advanced degree. The best time to do so is in your early and mid-twenties, particularly if you’re thinking MBA. While you can get an MBA at any age — I got mine at 38 — recruiters prefer twentysomethings (see long hours/low pay above). You can also drink more at that age, and that’s key to networking, since business schools are essentially frats with spreadsheets.
So there you have it: 12 tips before hitting the big three-oh. Granted, this is a standardized path for marketers preferring the corporate route. Individual paths and fortunes obviously vary. You may chance upon a fresh startup that has both the leadership and resources to take you to the top immediately. You may decide that you’d rather devote your life to academia, and go straight into a PhD program. (Also something best done earlier than later.) Or maybe you decide to give it all up to raise goats and sell artisan milkshakes out of a beach shack. All outcomes are fine as long as they soothe your soul and pay for your student loans.
P.S. Got questions, comments, or more tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them (particularly from those of you over 30) in the comments section below.