Look outwards to step up
Gaining experience outside the marketing department for a broader understanding of business is not just good practice, it is essential to boost career prospects.
Jesper Engelbrecht Thomsen, vice-president of customer service at Maersk Line, has a background in marketing but he works for an employer that believes in giving its staff a broad understanding of the business, which is the world’s biggest shipping company.
As a result, he has been educated beyond marketing during his 14 years working for the company. He says his three-year stint as senior director of HR operations and learning was the most useful for his current role, where he is putting a customer-centric strategy in place across the entire business.
He says: “I did not plan to work in the HR department but during my time there I learnt a lot about change management and that learning has been crucial to implementing a new strategy across the business.”
Looking past marketing has enabled Engelbrecht Thomsen to gain skills and experience beyond those that he could have achieved by staying in one place - essential for anyone aiming for more senior positions. In turn, he is a loyal employee. The company has benefitted from more than a decade of the experience and knowledge that he is now using to influence employees to change the way they think about customers.
Cross-functional working is also something that Haseeb Rahman, marketing manager for dressings at Unilever UK and Ireland, says is key to the role of brand builder.
Rahman, who looks after Hellmann’s and Colman’s among other products, says: “I’m constantly trying to seek out ideas and sniff out opportunities to grow the business. This means I work closely with a variety of different cross-functional teams based in the region or locally.
“One of the leadership competencies we have is about building talent and teams. Without looking outside your marketing department it would be a really difficult competency to develop,” he says.
He adds that Unilever recognises that all departments need a broad understanding of the business and have programmes in place to ensure that people both learn the theory and are also able to put what they have learnt into practice. Many, including Rahman, are introduced to cross-functional working when they join the graduate scheme.
“As a graduate trainee I worked in HR, finance, sourcing units and sales. And as a marketing manager I continue to work with these teams.”
Although some will be able to look beyond the marketing department without moving to another company, other marketers are finding that taking positions across a range of industries enables them to find out what their strengths are and what they enjoy doing.
Puneet Ahira is one marketer who has packed a broad range of experiences into her career. On Ahira’s way to becoming head of agency strategy at Google in the UK, she achieved a double first degree at Oxford University in biological and environmental science, has been a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs and even co-authored a book on youth civic activism.
Although this is not be a standard path to a top marketing position, it is one that has given Ahira an understanding of what is required to succeed in business and as a marketer.
She believes that the best marketers are able to combine creative and logical thinking. From a degree to a position at the biggest search engine in the world, she has been drawn to jobs that require her to use this combination of thinking.
She went into investment banking at Goldman Sachs, but even there she discovered that you have to use both sides of the brain to excel. “You can’t just be good at the numbers. You have to be able to analyse data and understand numbers, but you also have to be able to listen to all the noise, perhaps look at the micro-economic climate and be able to understand that something not directly related to the economy could be crucial. You have to be able to give a unique perspective that’s outside of the economic climate.”
All of her experiences outside the marketing department have enabled Ahira to realise that she enjoys being able to “look outside the traditional parameters”. And she believes this is essential to become a top marketer.
She says: “Chief marketing officers can come from two extremes. On the one hand, you get those marketers who say it’s all about the numbers and if you can’t prove the return on investment then it’s not worth doing. And others say it’s about instinct. I think it’s about finding the balance between the two. Being able to use your initiative and experience is just important as being able to analyse numbers.”
Having experience of the numbers side has helped Helen Tupper, global head of customer experience and thought leadership for BP brand Castrol, to be taken more seriously. Often sales and marketing departments are where tensions are reported. But Tupper says having sales roles at Britvic and Procter & Gamble has given her “a lot of credibility”.
“When I’m sensing cynicism from the sales team, I can pull my experience out of the bag and explain to them that I understand the challenges and targets.”
In addition to building bridges between the sales and marketing team, Tupper says the commercial experience makes her much more analytically minded in her marketing role. She says: “When I look at an ad campaign, I think my sales experience gives me a much more critical eye. I look at the advert through a slightly different lens. I always ask what is the benefit to the customer rather than looking at the creative and thinking it looks good.”
Gemma Howells, senior brand manager for Pedigree dog food at Mars Petcare, agrees that having commercial experience makes her a much stronger marketer. She says: “Sales makes you understand how you can influence and gives you an understanding of what targets and goals the sales team has to achieve.
“It’s healthy to have a balanced perspective of the business. You could have the best product and ad campaign but if you don’t understand how to get that product to the customer then you fail,” adds Howells.
As well as looking beyond the marketing department, Howells has worked for different types of companies - from an entrepreneurial set up at Innocent, to Mars, which employees more than 3,800 people in the UK.
Howells explains that having experience at a small entrepreneurial company and the contrast of a big corporation means she has a “breadth of perspective”. She adds: “I can take the best bits from both experiences. At Innocent, there was the passion of the founders - a ‘can-do’ attitude.
“At Mars I’ve understood the importance of having a structure and proper processes in place to make sure that things get done. But the experience at Innocent means that I have the confidence to push more and not just accept that it is the way things are done here.”
At Mars, there are cross-functional career development opportunities, and she explains that if you want to become a leader, getting a broader understanding of how the business works is essential. She says: “If your aim is to become a general manager, then perhaps having HR or sales experience would be a good move. Opportunities at Mars depend on your goals.”
But even if there is no development programme in place, marketers who want to get ahead should consider gaining experience from other departments, and even other industries to broaden skills, and ultimately be considered a serious contender for the next big promotion.
Sometimes it is good to turn your back on the marketing department, even if you know that is where your career ultimately belongs.
Mentoring for maximum experience
A scholarship at The Marketing Academy, which Marketing Week helped to found looks good on the CV and helps young marketers to understand how other businesses operate, which is vital for career progression.
Founded in 2010, the not-for-profit organisation was set up to find and nurture the next generation of leaders. The 2012 scholars get access to experienced top marketers who can help to mentor the Academy students, and it is also a chance to mix with their peers, who work across a broad spectrum of industries, from entrepreneurial start-ups to corporate monoliths.
One of the 2012 scholars is Marketing Week Rising Star 2010 winner Gemma Howells, senior brand manager for Pedigree dog food at Mars Petcare. Howells, who is on the 12-month programme at The Marketing Academy, which includes seminars delivered by experienced marketers, says mixing with marketers who are at a similar stage in their careers is a “constant source of inspiration with scholars and mentors providing moral support”.
Being able to share experiences and build a camaraderie with others has enabled Howells to better understand what her strengths are as a marketer.
She says: “You can see that people have different leadership styles, which has helped me to figure out my leadership style and where I fit in.”
For Helen Tupper, global head of customer experience and thought leadership at BP’s Castrol brand, mixing with scholars and the Academy mentors has increased her network, which is vital for career progression.
She explains: “I was at the Marketing Society awards dinner and I saw so many people linked to the Academy. It made me realise how The Marketing Academy has introduced me to so many senior people.”
She adds that building a network of marketing peers from a variety of different industries has enabled her to gain an understanding of how other businesses operate. “Being part of The Marketing Academy has taught me things about how other brands do things - for example, how Coke deals with the challenges of being relevant on a global and local level.”
Career pick’n’mix: taking the best bits from each opportunity to climb the job ladder
“I’ve done a number of different things and to be honest I never thought I’d be a marketer,” admits Emad Nadim about the career experiences that have landed him an assistant brand manager role at Kenco.
Despite leaving university without harbouring an ambition to be a marketer, different jobs in a variety of industries have given him the skills and the passion for his current marketing role at Mondelez International, which makes the coffee brand.
En route to leading a loyalty management programme, Nadim has dabbled in political journalism, finance and sales, as well as launching AIESEC - a cultural exchange programme in Pakistan, where he also studied economics.
Although Nadim has not taken a straightforward path to marketing, he says the diverse experience that he has makes him a better marketer.
He says of AIESEC, a youth leadership scheme, that it made him realise that he had “a desire to work for a cause and to want to make a difference”.
In contrast, Nadim’s stint in finance in Karachi, Pakistan, showed him the importance of networking. “I was working on pensions and mutual schemes - not exactly products that interested me. But I got involved in brand building and launching a new product.
“Through this I was able to use a new network and learnt how networking is key to influence in business. I now understand the huge value in connecting people to each other, and if you connect someone they will in turn do something to help you.”
Political journalism is probably not a feature on most marketers’ CVs but while studying in Pakistan there was political instability, which Nadim felt compelled to document in a blog. This, he says, gave him an understanding of how to tell a story and how digital is vital to enable your words to spread - a skill he is using at Kenco as leader of its digital engagement strategy.
These skills are vital for any marketer, he says. “We are in the business of telling a story and if you can’t tell a story then you’re a rubbish marketer.”
While his experiences during and after university have given Nadim skills that he uses today, it was at the Cadbury graduate scheme interview that the HR team recognised that he had commercial skills. Although he was in a sales position at Cadbury, now part of Mondelez, owned by Kraft, he had the opportunity to work with the chocolate brand team and was involved in the brand going Fairtrade.
He says: “I took on a marketing role in Cadbury for the experience but ultimately wanted to go back to sales.” However, he was bitten by the marketing bug because it combined his passions and skills of influencing large groups of people, and working for a cause that he believed in.
But, he believes his sales experience has made him a more respected marketer. “You can’t run a business if you can’t sell. There is no better way of gaining credibility with the sales team than having a sales background. Earning your stripes is important in sales.”
Ultimately, he says different roles have enabled him to really understand what he is good at, and what he’s interested in. And, in the future he believes that his marketing skills will enable him to become an entrepreneur.
Chief marketing officer
RSA Insurance Group
There are benefits in bringing skills from one sector to another. In my industry - insurance - I’ve brought in people from telecommunications backgrounds for example. That industry tends to be very fast-paced and data-focused and that kind of knowledge can be hugely helpful in our sector.
There is a danger in any sector that you can become a bit stale and bringing in people with different skills, experience and importantly, quite a different perspective will shake things up.
More junior marketers should grab every opportunity they can. Those that religiously stick to their job description and say: “I will just deliver this”, will struggle. So if you work in digital marketing, talk to direct marketing and brand. Volunteer to get involved. Tell your line manager that you want to work on a brand project in addition to your day job.
Start where you are, maximise those opportunities and only look further afield if you feel you have exhausted them.
When I’m recruiting, I look for the story in someone’s CV, or LinkedIn page and consider how everything logically fits together and why they moved from sector to sector. To really have proved yourself in a discipline, I think you need to have been in it at least 12 months so you can say: “I delivered this.”
Secondments or job swaps can work as long as there is a clear brief on both sides in terms of what is expected. At RSA we are good at it. Two of my team have been to Canada - one to shape the e-marketing function and the other to develop B2B marketing. The secondments moved them on in their careers and helped the market there. Having international experience is more important than ever.
If I was to look back at my early career, I focused too much on just the marketing discipline without making those connections into the wider business. I could have spent more time thinking about what role the brand plays in recruitment policy; what role marketing plays in driving strong leads or growth; and what connection the brand has with call centre staff, for example. I did an MBA a couple of years ago that was about reaching out beyond just marketing.
Showing that you can understand the role of marketing within a business is as important as saying something like: “I’m an expert in social media.” Marketers of the future are going to have to be very business savvy.