Natalie Adler Skarzynski
The First 5 Years: Advice for Marketers at the Start of Your Careers
6 min read
Let me preface by saying that I am certainly no font of career wisdom. But I have managed it to make it through my first five years in the “real world,” and have arrived at a career happy-place. It hasn’t been the easiest journey, which is why I want to share my thoughts with those of of you who are thinking about pursuing the field of marketing or are just getting started in your marketing careers.
Although I obtained a four-year business degree with a major in marketing, the first few years in the workforce were more informative to my practice as a marketer than anything I ever learned in school. This is in part because marketing is such a broad field, and also that the purpose of school is to teach you how to learn (not necessarily how to do your job).
That said, here are six pieces of advice I’d like to share.
1. Very few of us get to market something sexy. Move past that.
Businesses of all kinds need marketing. For marketers, it means that few of us will have the opportunity to work on a really fun, exciting brand. As an example, I’ve spent my entire career thus far marketing software (mostly B2B). The insurance company down the street needs marketers just as much as Skittles or Nike.
But just because the products or services you’re tasked with marketing might not seem fascinating right off the bat doesn’t mean that it can’t be interesting and creative work. I’d argue the work is actually more challenging, and will push you to develop your skills.
2. Embrace the fact that you’ll wear many hats at once.
“We have more time and resources than we know what to do with,” said no marketing team ever. There will likely be more work than people to do it, and as you start your career, it’s a good bet that you’ll be tasked with all the things nobody else has time to do. Embrace it. This is a huge learning opportunity and your chance to develop expertise in an area where nobody else on your team has much knowledge.
In my experience, the specialty you “fall into” at your first internship or job can be career-defining. If there’s an area you’re interested in that is under-resourced, underdeveloped, and can drive results for the company, take the initiative to build it up. You’ll be a hero to your team and establish yourself as a subject matter expert.
3. Develop uncommon skills.
Take some time reflect on the skills you’re developing over your first few years. If there are multiple areas that you enjoy, ask yourself which of those skill sets is more in-demand.
This question was posed to me by a mentor early in my career. At the time, I was responsible for content creation and SEO (among other things). He asked me which one I would prefer to do more of. I replied that I enjoyed writing, but also found SEO to be challenging and interesting.
He asked me which one of those was a rarer (and thus more marketable) skill, something I’d never considered before. Lots of folks can write, but fewer have expertise in SEO. From that point on, I focused on learning and developing my SEO skills, which have become a vital part of my career.
4. Learn the technology.
I can’t speak to the marketing curriculum taught today, but when I graduated from the University of Dayton in 2012, I can honestly say I’d never heard the term “martech,” much less had any inkling of what it was.
Considering that today’s marketing teams rival IT departments in their technology spending, I’d say technology is an integral component of modern marketing. You have to be part artist and part scientist, creative and analytical.
My advice? Dive into the technology early. Learn how the systems work. This could include things like marketing automation platforms, CRM, analytics software -- anything that drives actions and decisions in marketing teams. Younger generations have a natural advantage as digital natives, so use that to your benefit.
5. Step back from time to time.
In your job as a marketer, as in life, prioritization is a valuable skill. As I said before, I’ve yet to meet a team with unlimited time and resources, so knowing which projects truly matter most will make your workdays much less stressful. Instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to accomplish everything, stepping back to view your tasks with a bit of perspective makes all the difference.
It seems like a simple concept, but you’d be shocked at how many people (of all ages) I see in the workforce that seem to not understand this. They approach their to-do list arbitrarily, with no consideration as to which thing will make the biggest impact, which thing has the closest deadline, which thing has contingencies with long lead times, and so on. The result is a lack of focus and a frenzied, stressful work life. Learn to prioritize early, and your work-life balance will thank you.
6. Own your path.
In school, there’s a defined progression: grade school, high school, college. There are credits you have to complete, tests you need to pass.
Marketing, like many other career paths, lacks this kind of definition. In my first year out of school, I remember feeling as if I’d been driving along and suddenly there was no more road underneath me. Once you join the workforce, there is nobody telling you what your next move should be or where you should take your career. It’s freeing, but also scary.
Nobody will own your career path for you. You must decide for yourself where you want to go. Luckily, you don’t have to plot the course of your entire career all at once -- in fact, that would be an exercise in futility.
Instead, I’d recommend reflecting on the kind of life you want to have, and let your choices be guided by that. For instance, it’s important to me to be engaged and challenged at work, but not constantly stressed. I also appreciate having the freedom to make decisions I feel are appropriate, establishing good relationships with colleagues, and keeping after-hours work to a minimum (see #5 on prioritizing tasks). I will seek positions that deliver these things, and move on when they don’t. I’m not by nature a competitive or power-hungry person, so those things aren’t important to me for my career path. Each person must decide for themselves.
Marketing is an exciting, challenging field with lots of room for creativity and growth. I wish you the best of luck in your career endeavors!