Get ahead in your career: five tips from top marketers

Came across an interesting piece in Marketing, about how to get ahead in marketing, based on interviews with marketers from several leading companies. Below I share what the article suggests are the secrets to success in marketing, along with my own observations from my experience.

1. Don’t stop learning

“The key to success in marketing today is to be learning constantly,” says Sara Holt, head of brand and global campaigns at BBC Worldwide. On the one hand, the fundamentals of brand strategy are exactly the same as they were when I started out in marketing many moons ago, as I posted on here. However, the way brands go to market and connect with consumers has of course changed and become much more complex. And as there are some many articles, books, conferences and the like screaming for your attention, it can all be a bit overwhelming. Where do you start your personal learning journey?

My suggestion here is to clearly identify 2-3 key areas you want to focus your learning on and then to seek out the best ways of meeting these needs. For example, In my own case I had the following learning agenda in 2015:

  1. Digital marketing: did an online course created with Google called We are Squared, plus invested in the Collider Madtech accelerator
  2. Charity marketing, to support the work I do as a trustee of St Christopher’s: online research and reading
  3. Brand vision to Action (our core business): 1-to-1 interviews with CMOs

2. Take (calculated) risks

“Mistakes are a good thing, you can learn from your mistakes. The biggest mistake people make is to not take risks, because they are afraid,” says Lysa Hardy, chief marketing officer at Holland and Barrett. Being brave enough to experiment and take risk is to be applauded. But at the same time, these need to be calculated risks where you minimise the downside. The new generation of digital start-ups are showing the way forward here, creating “minimal viable products” (MVPs) that they test with customers, learning fast and learning at low cost. If needed, they then “pivot” and adjust their product and value proposition, as I posted on here.

More established, bigger companies could learn from this “lean innovation” approach, doing more low cost prototyping and experimentation, and less expensive and overly complicated quant testing perhaps.

3. Leave a legacy

The rapidly “revolving door” of marketing people has been well documented, with marketing directors changing every 18 months according to some reports. But this limited time in role may reduce effectiveness. “I’ve never learnt the role of a job in just a year, and neither has anyone I know,” says Martin Dyhouse, marketing director for Thomas Cook.

I suggest that ideally you should be staying in a role long enough to leave some sort of legacy, assuming you are happy with your job. This means creating or adapting the brand strategy and then quickly turning this in into tangible growth plans that hit the market, and make a mark inside the business. This is better for the business, passing on the brand in better health than when you took it on. It is also more satisfying for you personally. And it may also be better for your career, as Andrea Newman, head of advertising and marketing communications at HSBC, points out:  “When you look at a CV and see someone has moved every 18 months, you get suspicious from the get-go.” 

4. Accept that life is a zig-zag

This is a big point, worthy of a post of its own. As Thomas Cook’s Martin Dyhouse comments, “Wherever you want to end up, three, five or 15 years down the line – it is more of a zig-zag approach than a straight line.” This is about being flexible enough to change course during your career, and accepting that you won’t get where you want to in logical, linear steps.

My own career has had its share of zigs and zags

  • Do Engineering at university…
  • Zig: start in brand management at P&G …
  • Zag: leave P&G to do an MBA at INSEAD…
  • Zig: consultancy internship with McKinsey … my green marketing suit doesn’t go down well …
  • Zag back into marketing with Sara Lee in Paris… the European President who hired me gets fired. Whoops…..
  • Zig: back into consulting to start the Paris office of a small 35 person consultancy called Added Value
  • Zag: 9 years later, Added Value Paris is 50 people … take the leap to start the brandgym
  • Zig: ……. ?

5. Focus on your strengths

I agree 110% with the idea that focusing on the areas in which you excel will make you stand out. “Play the game you are good at, and don’t play anyone else’s games,” as Jacco Van der Linden, marketing director of Heineken, says. The idea of celebrating and concentrating on your strengths, and worrying less about your weaknesses is one I have posted on several times, including this post here.

In conclusion, decide what you want out of your marketing career, build on your strengths and then highlight the 2-3 areas you want to learn about to improve your effectiveness. And accept that the way you get to your destination is going to be a series of zigs and zags, and definitely not a straight line!