The Six Most Important Lessons From My Career in Marketing

“Choice”​ by Adam Levine

No up-front summary for this article, dear reader. You’re going to have to slog through it to get to the good stuff the way I came up with the content for it — the hard way. But I’m confident you’ll find at least something morsel of use.

My career in marketing has spanned just about 17 years now. I’ve had good times, bad times, great times, confusing times. Your career has likely had the same, or will have the same. I guarantee it. But what you may not realize along the way (or in retrospect…) is what you’re picking up along the way. What follows are the most important things I’ve learned along the way. These lessons help me regularly, daily even, and I have a feeling they’ll help you, too.

So, let’s get to it.

Lesson 1: Networking. It’s not what you think

If you ever read a book (or an article just like this one) that purports to guide you in your career, you will undoubtedly come across the concept of networking. I first learned all about it in that famous but tragically out of date screed, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Before I go on, I have to tell you — if you’ve been told to read this book, don’t. The lessons are generations out of date. Here’s what I mean.

When you are told to network, it is positioned as a task. Tasks are work, chores. How do you approach tasks? Why, you get them done, of course. So if you walk into the room with the purpose of networking you’ll shake hands, smile, exchange business cards…if you’re an introvert you’ll end the day an exhausted wreck. If you’re an extrovert you’ll be jazzed and ready for a night on the town. But regardless of how you approach it, many of those contacts you make are unlikely to develop into anything.

True networking is simple. And it isn’t hard work. It is, in fact, fun. True networking is the people you meet and work with along the way. The people you have to spend hours with brainstorming for a new campaign. The ones you share a booth with during a trade show, then later share a meal with, away from home and out of your element. The people who struggle alongside you. That’s a network. It’s not really something you can force, but it is something you’ll spend your life building.

If you’re nice to people, if you’re helpful, if you’re even halfway decent at your job and if you care, your network will find you. These people will be your reference. They will tell you about job openings. They will share best practices, copies of old documents to save you time. They will commiserate with you when you lose a job.

And the secret to maintaining that network is just to keep in touch every so often. Like right here on LinkedIn. Once a year I reach out to everyone I haven’t talked with in a long while and I say hello. I catch them up on the latest with me and I hope to hear from them. I’m no longer an active part of their life, but I want them to know I’m there for them when they suddenly do need me. Just as I hope they’ll be there for me.

Lesson 2: The most effective workers are the ones who think

Think about the last big project you worked on. Who came up with the idea for it? Who helped develop that idea out further? Did the concept change during the development? In my experience, those who are active participants in their work go the farthest in life.

By “active participant” I mean, people who spend time actually thinking about what they are doing, or being asked to do. Odds are you do this without even thinking about it, but many people will just blindly follow orders and not once take a step back and objectively review what they are doing.

For example. I was once asked to create an email campaign for a B2B tech company. The request was very prescriptive and I built what was asked. When I launched the campaign, I found my open rates were high but conversions were poor. If I was just following orders I would report back to my stakeholder that the campaign was a failure. Instead, I spent time considering what might be going wrong and thinking of things to try. I came up with a spiffy offer that caused conversions to blow up on the second round of mailings and all it took was a 30 minute phone call.

No one had to ask me to think up that solution. And the cost to me personally, if my stakeholder’s email campaign failed, was minimal. I’d eventually be asked to do another. But because I came up with that solution and made that stakeholder happy, I came away with a great story to tell and, per lesson one above, a person who trusts me and enjoys working with me and who I keep in touch with today.

There are other advantages to thinking proactively about what you’re doing. Perhaps the accepted method of accomplishing your task is laborious and can be easily improved. Perhaps your background gives you some insight that isn’t instantly obvious to everyone else and you can improve the work somehow. There’s no losing condition here.

Lesson 3: A leadership vacuum is a form of springtime

If you’ve been working long enough you’ll notice that people tend to leave a company in clumps. I’ve heard various explanations for it, like if a particularly prominent person ups and leaves it causes others to consider their options. Stuff like that.

But the surest sign of turnover, and opportunity, lies in a leadership vacuum.

Now, by that I don’t mean “the lack of a leader,” I mean a lack of leadership. There are plenty of people who rise through the ranks and become leaders who aren’t particularly good at the job for one reason or other.

Time and again, when leaders become inaccessible, or take too long making decisions (any decisions), or leave the company, two things happen. First, people will start to leave the company (this ties into lesson 4, BTW). Second, opportunities arise.

So, part the first. No leadership and people leave. Perhaps people get bored of waiting around for direction. Perhaps people lose faith. Regardless, they up and leave. Why? Likely because sticking around isn’t doing their career any favor (seriously, read lesson 4).

Part the second. When you have an ineffective leader, it’s an opportunity to step up and propose some projects. This makes their lives easier because it outsources their thinking, and it does come with some risk to you in the event of failure. It depends on the ambitiousness of the project. This is also a time to hop to another role in the company, one that may have recently been vacated.

On a more mundane note, riding out a leadership vacuum is boring. In your younger years you might have thought to yourself, “It sure would be nice to get paid to do easy or no work!” but that, dear reader, is bullshit. The worst jobs I’ve ever had were the ones where work slowed to a crawl or there was just nothing to do. If you find yourself in this position, start reading lesson 4 right now.

Lesson 4: One day you’ll be able to answer the “Where will you be in five years?” question and that day will be GLORIOUS

Early in my career people would ask me this question during job interviews. When you’re that junior the answer is typically, “OMG I don’t know! I just want to pay my rent, okay?” Later in your career you start to pick up some things and you can mumble your way to something halfway acceptable. But mostly you hope no one asks.

I wasn’t able to answer this question with confidence until 3/4 of the way through my career. God, I wish I’d been able to do so sooner.

I didn’t have that answer sooner because I wasn’t focused on the big picture and I wasn’t paying attention to the world around me. I was heads down, working hard, trying to do a good job and keep my job, and not sure what my marketable skills could buy me. To be honest, I didn’t think too hard about it, either.

When I finally had all the puzzle pieces, I quite literally smacked myself in the forehead. I would be in a different place in my career had I known this answer much sooner.

So how did I gather all these pieces? Here’s a short list, in no particular order:

  • Ask people how they got to where they are today. I’m incredibly polite, and shy, to a fault. I will not ask people personal questions because I don’t want to impinge on their privacy. But, had I asked colleagues (particularly the senior ones) how they ended up where they are, the answers would have astounded me in their simplicity. Things like, “How did I get this job earning $50,000 more than you? I once spent six months building ads for company X and then learned company Y would pay me to do it full time.”
  • Job ads will tell you what skills you should be building. I once spent a ridiculous amount of time learning to use Photoshop. I’m not a designer. I suck at design. But I can use Photoshop like a damn pro. Guess how many employers want this skill in their digital marketing managers? Pretty much zero. During my career, if I had spent time looking at job descriptions in job ads, I would have learned that they valued skill X or experience Y and I’d have tried to find opportunities to learn these things.
  • Look at more senior people and ask yourself if you could do their job. I mean, really ask yourself. Pay attention to their work, their day to day. How their thinking is revealed in their presentations or planning. Are they freaking brilliant? Can you reproduce that level or brilliance, add on to it? If you think you can, you may just have what it takes to get yourself a promotion.

If you’re just chilling out, doing your job and having a good time, it’s easy to not do any of the above. But if you act as a more active participant in your own career you can find yourself years ahead of people in your age group.

Having some chutzpah certainly doesn’t hurt.

Lesson 5: Stories are EVERYTHING

This one is short.

In marketing we know that people love to hear stories. Some of you describe yourselves as storytellers. Customers love a good story and, yep, it’s persuasive as hell. But you know who else loves a good story?

The person interviewing you.

I once interviewed for a job at Amazon. Those guys love to hear your stories and they love to get into detail on them. “Why did you make that decision? What were your alternatives? Did your client hire your again?” That was grueling and it was also eye-opening for me, because it made me realize that, up until then, I’d been approaching the process of selling myself to employers based on my skills.

But experiences are every bit as important. More so, even. Allow me to illustrate.

Let’s say you’re interviewing two candidates. You ask this question: “Are you comfortable with social media?”

Candidate 1: “Yep. I’m an expert at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.”

Candidate 2: “I am. I use Twitter every day to talk with friends and people who love the same hobby I do — building LEGO kits. In fact, I have my own Facebook group for LEGO collectors and my Instagram has pictures of all my completed work. Do you want to see?!”

Which candidate would inspire more confidence in you? If you don’t think the answer is #2 then you, my friend, have a ways to go in your career.

Lesson 6: Sorry, but staying in one place long term is no longer a good thing.

When I began my career I was keenly aware that longevity in a role was critical. Employers wanted people who were dependable, and if you hopped jobs you couldn’t be relied upon in the long term. Or perhaps it’s a sign that you get laid off a lot because you’re not a good worker.

This may have been true once. Certainly in the aforementioned Dale Carnegie’s time (basically prohibition America, BTW). But today, if you stay in one place too long, you are doing yourself a disservice on a multitude of levels and the only one that benefits is your employer. Let’s start with the most obvious: Salary.

If you’ve ever been the recipient of a raise at work, it’s entirely likely it was a modest increase. Maybe enough to keep pace with inflation? Double that? That’s great. But when you switch jobs you could potentially see 25% increase in salary. Early on in my career, when I job hopped, this increase in salary went a long way to easing my worries of how employers would perceive me. It certainly helped to have skills that were in high demand.

The second benefit of job hopping is that it enables you to find the best role for you. This benefit becomes clearer later in life, when you’ve learned your lessons and you know what you’re worth or what you want. With that clarity, everything changes. You stop applying to every single applicable job and you start asking yourself, “Is this the right industry for me? Is this the right company?”

To be perfectly honest, I wish it wasn’t this way. I would very much like for my career to be in one place for the rest of my life, as it was for the generations who came before. And, as I progress in my career, I find that hopping is slowing down considerably. You could chalk it up to being more senior and there being fewer opportunities. You could also say I’m much better at finding what works for me because I know what I want to do and I know my worth.

Lesson over

Okay, that’s it. Are you still with me? As many former managers of mine will tell you, I’m a wordy bastard. Bless you for reading all that.

So anyway. Those are my biggest takeaways so far. Share yours in the comments, you know how it works.

A digital marketer

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