First in a series on the twists and turns of marketing career paths.
How does a career in marketing happen? Since my own path to marketing, while not entirely accidental, was certainly unplanned (I started out as a college professor), I was wondering if others had had similar experiences. Did everyone in marketing today set out to be a marketer, or did some become marketers in the course of doing something else? Is there a “typical” marketing career path or are there many paths that vary by industry and area of specialization? More importantly, if you start out in marketing and then develop your own product and bring it to market, are you still “in marketing”?
I figured the best way to get answers to my questions was to talk to actual marketers and ask them how they got to be what they are. I kicked off my search for the truth about careers in marketing by calling someone who knows a lot about marketing: Anne Holland, President of MarketingSherpa. (If you are not familiar with MarketingSherpa, I suggest that you join the quarter of a million folks who turn to them every day for fact-filled, practical, and thought-provoking newsletters, case studies, and reports on a broad range of marketing-related topics.)
So how did Ms. Holland come to found and lead a widely respected marketing research company? Well, you may be surprised to learn that, although her professional work revolves around marketing and she herself has, among other things, actually run marketing departments, she originally “wanted to be in publishing,” so that’s where her career began. A self-confessed “poor speller,” she eschewed the editorial track, choosing instead “the business side” of publishing and worked her way up from the circulation department to eventually launch a successful subscription site and several trade publications on marketing and the new media.
As she recounts it, the idea for MarketingSherpa grew out of her experiences as a manager. She found that people were more readily motivated and inspired by hearing “what the other guy did,” then by “what the manager thinks,” and so she built a whole culture around sharing the actual experiences and effective practices of individuals throughout the marketing organization. MarketingSherpa took this practice to the outside world operating under the assumption that marketing practitioners want to know, and may even pay to find out, what other practitioners are actually doing.
She launched MarketingSherpa relying on a model in which her audience serves both as a source of income and as her best source of content. Starting with a broad network of contacts in the marketing world, she called people she knew and asked them about the specific results of campaigns they had run and tactics they had tried. (As she puts it, “We’re the opposite of Advertising Age. Their model is, ‘So-and-so is launching this campaign.’ Our model is, ‘So-and-so launched this campaign. Here’s what happened.’”) She then sent her findings to her network. Gradually, she built a publishing business around and out of these stories of success and failure, and she soon began to leverage her audience to generate new stories by conducting surveys, interviewing paid customers, partnering with other organizations, and monitoring responses to her e-newsletters (“what headlines are getting the most clicks”). 237,000 subscribers later, her business is thriving.
Returning to the question of career paths, I think it is fair to ask: Is this a story about marketing or publishing? I find it fascinating because it’s about both. Anne Holland has pursued a career in publishing, even becoming a publisher herself, but she has consistently functioned as a marketer and focused on marketing. It is also illuminating because it reminds us that marketing doesn’t take place in a vacuum; we are always marketing something. In other words, a “career in marketing” will inevitably always also be a “career in something else.” (Just imagine someone saying, “I don’t market anything at all. I just market.”)
That being said, it also makes sense that at least one sort of career “in marketing” begins with an interest in a certain industry, entails developing and marketing products for an established business in that industry, and then culminates in developing and marketing products of your own. The question is, if you are hawking your own wares, are you still a “marketer”? And if you are, who ISN’T “in marketing”?