25th June 2017
Along with Royal Ascot and Wimbledon, it’s that time of year when multitudes of would-be marketers are leaving school or graduating from universities with their pristine qualifications and degrees firmly in hand, dreaming of new careers in the marketing world.
But education doesn’t really prepare anyone for the working world, no matter the profession. And those first years can be rough. We leave education all fired up to make our mark on the world, and the reality is very different from our expectations.
I’ve been a B2B marketer my entire career – for more than 2 decades now. I started in tech way back when the internet was called the ‘information superhighway’, went on to join start-ups in telecoms, networks and security during the dot-com boom and bust, and eventually moved to professional services in a decade of austerity. I’ve created marketing programmes and campaigns across all sorts of industries such as healthcare, transport, manufacturing and energy, building and leading high-performing teams and functions, and continually reinventing myself as a marketer along the way.
There’s rarely been a dull moment and I’ve loved (almost) every minute of it.
But it wasn’t until much later in my career that I found or sought out people who had been there/done that and could give me career advice, not just marketing advice. There were too many things that I learned the hard way.
Not just a job, a career: 7 tips for longevity in B2B marketing
1. It’s OK not to know everything: your education is, in fact, just beginning. You are talented and capable, but some things can ONLY be learned through experience. Marketing is a blend of skills – technical, theoretical, experiential, interpersonal – many of which are learned over time. And one of the great joys of a career in marketing is that there is always something new to learn.
I know, there is an awful lot of pressure to ‘perform’ from Day 1. But the world of work is constantly changing. You may come to your job knowing how to do a particular job, but you may not yet understand the why of it. So, ask questions, lots of questions, even the seemingly ‘stupid’ ones (but don’t keep asking the same questions over and over or you will try even the most patient of bosses!).
This goes for even more experienced marketers. Many years into my career I moved from a product-led to a service-led industry. I spent my first weeks totally bewildered, wondering if what I had been doing for the past decade had been marketing or something else entirely! The language of the business was completely alien to me. And it wasn’t until I started asking an awful lot of questions that I was able to get a grip.
It can be quite scary asking questions. After all, you were presumably hired because of what you know or have demonstrated in a past role. But this is not a reflection on your adequacy or lack of it. The best marketers, and those whose careers progress, have a real thirst for knowledge, understanding, and continuous improvement, with the ability to constantly renew and reinvent themselves because of the questions they ask.
2. It’s not beneath you: you’ll be the one doing the grunt work. In your first marketing role, you’ll likely be the most junior and youngest member of the team. It’s rare during the interview that you’ll be told about all the mundane tasks you’ll actually be doing at first. Accept it, you’ll be doing those mind-numbing tasks that are a part of the job and no one else wants to do – packing up and shipping the boxes for that trade show or conference, updating CRM and probably every spreadsheet the team uses, taking the notes at meetings and every other brainless task that exists.
But this is a rare opportunity to listen, watch and learn from those around you. I once had a new marketer on my team who I seated next to me. Even while they working on that spreadsheet, I quickly noticed that they were openly and avidly listening to every telephone conversation and desk meeting I had. It was a little disconcerting at first, but eventually I got to the point where I became worried if they weren’t listening in! This wasn’t being nosy on their part; they always followed up with questions on what I said, why it was important, could it be done this way, on and on.
3. Change happens: and much of it you can’t control. The boss you admire and respect leaves and is replaced by someone you can’t seem to connect with; there’s a marketing restructure and you’re moved into another team, in a part of the business you’re not interested in; your company downsizes or is acquired by another and you’re made redundant. Or suddenly you feel you’ve outgrown your role yet there’s nowhere else for you to go in your organisation. It happens to all of us at some point in our careers. What’s important is that you anticipate and respond positively to change.
You will work for many different companies throughout your career, either by chance or by design. While you absolutely must do the best job you are capable of for your employer, you also have a responsibility to yourself. Think about where you want to go and what you want to happen in your career, and make sure you are getting what you need in your current role to enable you to take that next step.
4. Just doing your job is not enough if you want to progress: and your technical skills will only get you so far. You may love what you do and that’s fine. If you keep on learning the new skills that changing technology will inevitably require, those skills will always be in demand and you’re not likely to get bored. But you won’t get promoted for just doing your job well; invariably promotion happens when you are demonstrating that you are already working at that next level. If career progression is important to you, you must always be trying to work at a level up from where you are, so you need to understand those requirements, both technically and behaviourally, and do everything you can to demonstrate that those requirements are consistently being met.
This is the one of the hardest and harshest lessons that I learned in my career. I was an ambitious over-achiever, out-performed everyone around me, and naively assumed that promotion would just happen. It doesn’t. You have to have a plan. Know what the expectations and requirements are for that next step, and actively target, learn and demonstrate those skills and behaviours.
5. Read and write as much as you can: the clarity of your language reflects the clarity of your thinking and it’s your thinking that will ultimately take you further along that career path. Reading will make you a better writer, and I personally believe that writing skills should be a core competency for every marketer. In one way or another, the written word forms the foundation for every type of communication, even if the final output is visual or verbal.
Read everything you can get your hands on. And I mean more than just your social media feeds! Read business books, newspapers, industry publications, fiction, non-fiction, online or offline, it doesn’t matter, as long as you read! It will help your critical thinking skills as well as your writing, open you to new perspectives and possibilities, and is the most cost-effective way to learn from the best and brightest. I’m a voracious reader, an online newspaper every day, a novel every month, and I try to read at least 4 business books a year, in addition to other online reading. I really recommend that you make the time – even if it’s just a few pages on the tube or bus every day – I guarantee you it will be worth it.
6. Get out of that marketing silo: network both internally and externally. Marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it is just one aspect of a business. Marketing serves a purpose for the business and that purpose is in contributing to the achievement of your organisation’s goals and objectives. Talk to your salespeople, go on a customer call with them if you can, shadow one of your business stakeholders – it will help you better understand the world in which you are building your career and how marketing fits into that world. Building these relationships internally will also strengthen your credibility across the wider business.
Networking externally is equally important; it provides you with opportunities to engage with your peers and build relationships across a wide variety of industries and sectors as well as discuss the challenges we all face. These external relationships can also offer objective, on-going support throughout your career, be a sounding board for ideas and a reality check for career plans, and often turn into that next big step in your career.
7. Marketing is your job, not your life: it’s so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day demands of your job, no matter how much you love it. Marketing is too often under-resourced, both at a human and budgetary level, and in many industries the number of hours you work in a day or a week is perceived as a statement of commitment to the job and thus necessary for career progression. This has become increasingly pervasive as technology has created an ‘always-on’ work environment.
Don’t let yourself be drawn into this. Set your workplace parameters from your first day on the job, no matter how much pressure there is to do otherwise. Turn off your work phone after hours and don’t even think about checking your email on holiday. You are simply not indispensable. Of course, there will be days when you will have to put in the hours, but this should be the exception, not the rule.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give, it would be this. Time passes. Ambitions change. Family and friends, health and fitness, fun and relaxation and purpose in whatever form that takes for you – these are the things that give our lives meaning and make us happier people. And if you choose a career in marketing, you will be a better marketer because of them.
Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.