In this post, I provide a framework for how to think about building a marketing career.
Before talking about marketing specifically, it's important to take a step back and look at what a successful career means. The Japanese have a wonderful concept called Ikigai that provides a framework for how to approach your career and life. Ikigai is a concept that translates to “A Reason for Being” and is typically explained through a venn diagram.
As you think about your career, you should be asking yourself the four Ikigai questions:
What do I love?
What am I good at?
What does the world need?
What can I get paid to do?
The intersection of the answers to these four questions is Ikgai. This intersection should be the north star that everyone follows throughout their career. Keep this in the back of your mind as you think about your place in marketing.
There’s a lot of reasons why people decide to work in marketing. Maybe you always liked ads, or took a marketing course in college or maybe you sort of fell into it (like me). Whatever your reasoning. Welcome! I’m glad you’re here.
Marketing is a fun job. You get to be creative. You get to work with technology. You get to always be on the bleeding edge. And if you stick around long enough, you’ll get to work on a variety of different subject matters and industries.
There’s a wide range of disciplines within marketing. This dynamic makes approaching a marketing career a complex puzzle. The general framework I use to think about this decision comes down to four elements:
Function: the type of marketing you do (communications, creative, product, demand, etc.)
Industry: the market you focus on (software, ecommerce, non-profit, cpg, etc.)
In or Out: whether you work on the brand side (in-house) or work at a a service business (agency)
Company Size: how big of a company you want to work for
Throughout your career, you’ll likely bounce back and forth between different roles across these elements. I’ve found that the only way to really understand what you prefer is by trying something for a period of time. It’s going to be an iterative process to figure out what you want to do.
Here’s how I would think about each of these elements:
Marketing has a wide range of functions to choose from.
To determine your function, you should ask yourself two different questions:
What am I good at? Think about the skills you’re bringing to the table and think about how those skills match to the job. For example, if you’re good at writing, perhaps communications, copywriting or content marketing is the right choice for you.
What do you want to learn? Ask yourself what you’re interested in learning more about or what elements of marketing intrigue you. For example, maybe growing up you were obsessed with commercials and viral brand videos,. Then you should consider getting a job in video production and creative direction.
It can be challenging to answer these questions, especially when you’re early in your career. You likely don’t know enough about the nuances of each function to understand where you best fit. You might not even know what you want to learn.
As a result, I would tell anyone looking for entry-level jobs to get a junior marketing role. This will help you get your foot in the door, but also allow you to get a sense of what functions within marketing you enjoy and which functions you hate.
I also recommend that you should constantly be learning by osmosis and observing the people around you to figure out what you might enjoy.
As you advance in your career, the function and expertise of choice will become more clear. You’ll start to develop a set of skills that will come to define your functional area.
The next element to consider is what industry you want to work in. Marketing exists in every industry and looks different depending on what industry you choose. Marketing for a consumer product looks different then marketing for a software company.
To determine what industry you want to work in, you should put a mirror up to yourself and consider what you are interested in. What do you enjoy talking about? What do you spend your free time doing? What are you a nerd about?
The best marketers know the ins and outs of their industry and can understand their audience. You’ll have a leg up if you are your own audience. If you spend your free time learning/engaging with a specific industry, then you’ll be more successful in marketing to that industry. For example, if you’re a gaming nerd then you’ll know how to market to other gaming nerds, since you are one. You’ll be able to take your innate knowledge and apply that to your marketing work.
The other way to look at the Industry decision is through the lens of emerging trends. What categories are increasing? You want to be in a growing industry, so that you can grow your career with the category and become an expert.
For me, the answer to both of these questions was technology, software companies and startups. In college, I became obsessed with entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley. I wanted to learn how to build companies that make money online, so I focused my career on that theme.
The last decision you should consider is whether you want to work in-house at a company or work in a marketing service role (i.e. agency or freelancer). It’s common for marketers to switch back and forth between agency and in-house depending on personal preference and career stage. I started my career at an agency and then moved in-house. I enjoyed both for different reasons.
Agencies can be a great place to sharpen your marketing skills and get exposed to a wide range of problems. Agencies have a wide range of different setups and specialize in different things. Some focus on digital marketing others make commercials. You need to pick an agency that matches your interest.
Agencies are also traditionally split between Accounts and Creative teams. The accounts team acts as a project manager and manages the client relationship. When working on the Accounts team, you get valuable project management skills. You also tend to develop a more generalist skill set and learn how to run a team. I’m biased, but I think working on an Accounts team sets you up well to run a marketing team in the future (that’s what happened to me).
When you’re on the Creative side, you get to specialize in your selected craft. This can range across the different functions that we discussed above. This usually depends on the agency's speciality.
Generally speaking, the benefit of working at an agency is that you get to work across a variety of different accounts. When I worked at the agency, I worked on projects for Google, California Hospital Association, Green Bay Packers and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. I experienced a wide range of challenges that gave me a valuable breadth of experience. One day I was running a digital fundraising campaign and the next I was supporting the launch of a Google product.
There’s also some downsides to agencies. The first is that you’re constantly at the mercy of the clients. It can feel like you’re playing a game to make clients happy, rather than to do the best work for the brand. There’s also a feeling that you don’t get to take things to the finish line or own a project from end to end. Oftentimes, agencies are focusing on just one part of a campaign (ex. video in a broader product launch), but the rest of the campaign is left to internal teams or other agencies. For me, this dynamic made projects less rewarding, and at times, frustrating. I felt like the clients messed up our vision for whatever we were working on.
When you work in-house, the main benefit is ownership. You get to feel like you’re building something and owning projects from start to finish. There’s a sense of ownership and accomplishment that’s hard to get at an agency. I’m way prouder of my work building Lattice, than any of my agency work.
You become intimately familiar with the company’s brand/strategy. You get the chance to go deep and understand all the nuances of the market. You get to build a marketing strategy that captures the market's attention.
For me, the most rewarding part of working in-house is the ability to architect plans and watch them come to life. You get to be the strategist and the executor. You get to be the person who manages budgets, runs campaigns and hires agencies. It’s fun turning concepts into reality, and then seeing your impact on the business.
There’s also greater accountability to impact the companies goals. You have real metrics and goals that you need to hit. When you actually achieve these goals it's rewarding. (Of course, agencies have goals, but I found this dynamic to be different. Your goal is making the client happy, not the business's goal). For some people, this level of accountability and the idea of “owning a number” can be daunting. But for others, this level of ownership is inspiring and rewarding.
In-house marketers also get exposed to how (non-service) companies operate, especially cross-functional relationships. When you’re in this role, you’re able to see how Sales, Product, Customer Success, Finance, Operations and HR all interact with Marketing. You get to feel the tension between marketing and sales around leads. You experience product roadmapping and get to launch products. You work with finance to set up budgets and partner with HR to solve people challenges.
When compared to agencies, the main downside of in-house is the limited exposure to different problems and industries. It can be boring/annoying to work on the same brand year after year. You’re constantly dealing with the same challenges and it can also feel like you’re not learning anymore, which is never a good thing.
In the end, there’s no wrong answer. Working at an agency or in-house both have their pros and cons, and are the right fit for different people, at different stages of their career or life.
The size of a company that you join can have a big impact on the happiness and trajectory of your career. In general, here’s how I would think about it.
Smaller companies: more autonomy and more learning on the job. There will be less formal processes. You’ll need to learn through self-direction either by doing or by using the resources on the Internet. If you get lucky, you’ll find a great manager who can mentor you, but there will be no formal training programs. Your career path will likely be less formulaic. It will be more about how you’re performing and the direction of the business.
Bigger companies: more structure and a more specialized role. You’ll have formal processes and you'll have a level of bureaucracy. You’ll have training programs set up to make sure you’re onboarded and ready to make an impact. You’ll have a more professional manager and straightforward organizational structure. You’ll have a clearer pathway for your career and incentives to keep you growing with the company. You’ll also need to get good at office politics and cross-functional collaboration.
The above dynamics are very much generalizations. There’s a ton of examples that break these rules, but it generally reflects my experience. Again, there’s no wrong answer between small/big companies. It comes down to personal preference.
The modern marketing career is a zig zag path between different functions, industries and companies. As you get older, you change and so does what you want out of your career. The great part about marketing is its inherent diversity, which makes it an exciting career path.