Some Advice For a Career In Marketing
What I’ve learnt in five years as a marketing professional
I’m an accidental marketer. I graduated from a degree in English Language and Literature in 2015 and my big dream was to stay around books. The internship I happened to land at Oxford University Press was in Dictionaries Marketing, and so began my career as a marketing professional. It wasn’t a deliberate career choice, but it’s been incredibly valuable for understanding how people and organisations work. So here’s things I’ve learnt whilst working in marketing and communications.
We’re all marketers
There are two elements to this statement.
The first is that, over the past decade, marketing has been changing. Once upon a time ‘push advertising’ i.e. pushing products onto consumers via big showy adverts in TV, magazines, billboards, and through the letterbox, was the only method. Today marketing is much more than that, incorporating a customer’s entire experience with a brand. That includes how a brand presents itself on social media, the experience of shopping online and in-store, the customer service if something goes wrong, the celebrities and influencers who endorse them. It’s no longer about one big advertising campaign, but about the small interactions and touch points which add up to create how a consumer perceives a brand. It means that every employee of a company is, in effect, a marketer.
The second is that we’re all constantly marketing ourselves. Everything that we put out into the world as individuals accumulates into how other people perceive us. As the digital world has grown, this has become more apparent. Every social media profile, our online CV on LinkedIn, blog posts (like this one), each email that we send contributes to our online persona and how others view us. Beyond that, there’s how we choose to communicate with people: smiles to strangers, offering help and advice, the communities that we participate in. We do these things every day without thinking about it, and we instinctively understand how to communicate with different people. Think about how you would write an email to your boss, compared to a WhatsApp message to your friend.
People ask me what marketing really means, and I think it’s often over complicated into different theories and strategies when this is what’s at the heart of it: understanding how to communicate with different people, through different channels.
Key takeaway: every interaction we have can be viewed as marketing.
We’re constantly being marketed to
So I’ve just said that we’re all constantly marketing ourselves, but it’s also true that we’re constantly being marketed too. Working in the industry has inevitably made me hyper-aware of this, and somewhat suspicious of most messages that I receive.
I find that I see adverts everywhere now. My Instagram feed seems to be more ‘promoted post’ than genuine content, with every other post an advert. Plus, most posts by accounts that I follow are now #ads. Don’t get me wrong, I completely believe that social media influencers have a right to make a living through their profiles. But I do struggle with the idea of how much genuine content there is out there, compared with how much is simple trying to sell us something we don’t need, under the pretense that it will make us happier.
Even causes which I completely agree with in principle seem tainted by this. Take Earth Hour, a yearly campaign by the WWF where people turn their lights off for one hour to raise awareness about our role in the planet’s future. Environmental sustainability is something that I care about. But I do question the worth of a campaign like this. Beyond the dubious central idea of turning off your lights for one hour to beat climate change, Earth Hour is also sponsored by Ariel, a line of laundry detergents. Ariel’s big idea to save the planet is that we all do our washing at 30 degrees instead of 40 degrees. Small, individual actions like this aren’t going to stop global warming, and it seems disingenuous to me for a brand as large as Ariel to suggest that they can, when truly they’re just after the extra customers, creating a perception of themselves as value-led and sustainability focused.
So I guess you could say that working in marketing has just made me super cynical, but I do wonder how many of the decisions that we make today are truly our own, when we’re constantly being influenced in our everyday lives.
Key takeaway: be mindful of trusting everything you read online.
Ask ask ask gets you nowhere
As I mentioned, traditional marketing used to be all about push adverts — place your product in front of consumers and hope for the best. There also used to be a reliance on sales teams to finish deals. Today if we imagine a salesperson we think of a sleazy man in a pinstripe suit with slicked-back hair persuading us to part with money. And most of us would just run away from that now. Most of our sales interactions take place online today, with little or no human interaction. We’re also much less likely to buy a product just from one advert — instead, when there’s a product we want we’ll go to a brand that we trust or have had recommended to us. Therefore, that old model of ‘ask ask ask’ and pushing promotions in front of a customer doesn’t push them towards your product, it just irritates them and pushes them to unsubscribe from your emails, unfollow you on Twitter, and have an unsavoury impression of your brand — which they’ll likely share with their friends.
Instead, marketing today is less about pushy ‘ask ask ask’ models, and more about ‘give give give’ to develop a relationship with a potential customer before they’ve even thought about a purchase. If you can create content that a customer values — whether that be your social media posts, a free e-book, blogs on your website, or a speaker event — then they’re more likely to develop trust in your brand and think of you when they do make a purchase.
Key takeaway: pushy marketing pisses people off.
Start with why
Of all the marketing books I’ve read and theories I’ve learnt, this is the one that resonated with me the most. Author and consultant Simon Sinek gave a TEDtalk in 2009 entitled ‘How great leaders inspire action’ which centres around the idea of starting with why — embodied in the above image.
Most brands will focus on what their product is, or how it works, but that isn’t what makes a customer buy into it. They buy into the why — the purpose, cause or belief that underpins your company; the reason your brand exists.
This has been a valuable framework in my professional life, and whenever I’m planning a campaign I always make sure I know exactly why I’m doing it, what its purpose is, and how that aligns with the bigger ‘why’ of the company.
But it’s also been valuable outside of my career in thinking about my own personal ‘why’. For me, this has been about making sure that my actions and how I spend my time align with my beliefs, values and ethics. It’s something I’m still working on (and probably always will be), but constantly asking myself ‘why’ helps me to get to my most authentic self.
Too many layers of people kills creativity
One of the things I value in working in marketing is creative problem-solving. If there’s a problem out there, how can that be solved in a creative way? How can we spread an idea to the right people?
I’ve worked in a variety of companies and roles, and I’ve found that there’s one sure-fire way to kill this kind of creative thinking — too many people. As soon as an idea leaves your mind it’s prey to other people’s interpretations and opinions on how that idea should be executed. This can be hugely beneficial, as other people see issues that you haven’t or can bring new, interesting perspectives. But when it’s about getting sign off for an idea through multiple levels of management, it just results in an incredibly slow sign off process — and usually if an idea eventually does end up getting signed off, it will have transformed into something completely different to what you imagined.
Key takeaway: design by committee doesn’t work.