Having been actively marketing for the last 10 years, and hired maybe a dozen juniors, this is a summary of everything I’ve learned and my tips for people trying to break in.
I will add the caveat that my experience is more towards working with startups and smaller businesses. But I’ve had a pretty decent spread of positions across the US, UK, and Asia, and on both brand and agency sides so hopefully, my advice can apply broadly enough to your situation.
I get that the current environment is hard so hopefully this can help.
Getting Experience Without A Marketing Job 🤔
If I had the appetite for risk, I would bet you $10 that this is probably your number one complaint.
How are you supposed to get jobs where everyone asks for experience if no one will give you a start? I’ve been there and I recall wanting to throw my laptop out the window when I saw a job post like this.
It is crazy frustrating.
The good news is that there are a couple of ways that you can get experience without having someone employ you in marketing:
Make a blog. This was actually one of my cheat codes. by doing a blog, you can show that you can create content and probably do some basic analytics on what is performing and what isn’t. but if you take it to the next level, you might begin to start promoting your work on social media to get traffic. And hey, now you’re getting involved in social media. Heck, you might take it a step further and try to get subscribers, so now you’re doing a form of inbound lead generation. Your blog doesn’t even have to be about marketing. I created a super basic blog way back in the day that was just me interviewing people who I thought could share really interesting insights. It’s an approach I still use today on my podcast, but prospective employers loved it.
Write socially. One small downside of running your own blog is that no one’s going to see your work until you stop promoting it. Which is a great thing to learn by itself. But you also sometimes need the data super quick, so writing on social platforms like Reddit and Twitter and Medium will give you that feedback. Again, this will show that you can create content but you’re also data-driven in learning what people like to read and how you can use that to optimize your posts.
Treat your professional brand as your own business and build that up to show people that you have vision and the skills to build a brand. Spend some time developing an online portfolio, develop your social media skills — especially LinkedIn — and then use those as resume builders! I had an applicant who had no official business experience, but they had amassed a subscriber list of 1,000 contacts and 25,000 LinkedIn followers.
Highlight your existing experience. When you’re new, and even when you’re experienced, your imposter syndrome is going to be through the roof. That’s okay, but don’t let it stop you from seeing the experience that you already have. For example, have you ever scheduled social media posts for anything, even your own Instagram account? Have you grown a social media following on Twitter by being a nutcase about games? That’s relevant experience. Have you done any kind of research on what people might like about content or products or how they consume media? That’s marketing experience.
Make a small business. This is such a no-lose proposition. Provided that you don’t go absolutely bonkers and break the law, if you do a small business like selling T-shirts print on demand, or making a small neighborhood service such as cutting lawns which you promote using flyers, you’re going through the full works of creating marketing plans and executing them. The worst case is that you get experience. The best case is that you actually make yourself an income and an alternative to getting a job. You don’t need a perfect idea, just try something and go through the motions for 6 months.
Volunteer. It’s intuitive to think that you can look for marketing roles at charity organizations or non for profits, but you can also fandangle your way in to do a marketing-related tasks even if that’s not the core of your role. For example, when I was a university student I volunteered at the MS Society I and pitched creating a student internship programme, which involved needing to market it to recruit students.
If you’re keen to get into marketing, but lack experience, ask if your friends and family know anyone running an agency that can give you some work experience. Offering your services for free, e.g. writing blogs or helping with outreach tasks is a good way to learn, get feedback from marketing professionals and build your CV.
Hopefully, these 5 ways show you some ideas and how you can get experience without actually having a marketing job already.
Starting Career Pathways 🗺️
Okay so you might be working on your experience now, where should you apply?
Honestly, I think you should just apply everywhere if you’re trying to break in but here are some general categories. These will be relevant to you if you’re looking to pursue a particular type of marketing career.
- Marketing agencies. The two main types are strategy/creative agencies that do stuff like cool branding and advertising, and execution/tactical agencies like your local web design or Facebook ads shop. Keep this in mind because if you’re thinking you want to be Donald Draper, then you’re going to be looking at a strategy, creative or advertising agency and not a pay-per-click house. But if you want to blow up apps on the Apple App Store with ads, then you’re looking at a tactical agency. The advantage of working for agencies is that you’re going to get a wide range of experience because they’re going to have a whole bunch of clients that you work with- not just one company. Arguably is more stressful though because you’re on the service end of the relationship working with other companies.
- Brands. These are the companies that buy services from marketing agencies. This is not just consumer products but also includes services companies, tech companies, etc. If you want to work with a particularly cool company, then this is the way to go. Also, it gives you the advantage of seeing your ideas come to fruition over a longer period of time. Arguably it could be less stressful than working for an agency because you’re the buyer if you work with a bigger company. If you work with a small startup, then it’s going to be stressful because you’re going to be having to do everything and work it out yourself. Management is going to be crap as well. The advantage of working with a smaller startup though is similar to working with an agency. You’re going to get a broad range of experience which you can use later.
- Freelancing. This is an interesting one because it’s similar to the starting of the business idea above. You’re going to go through the motions and you’re going to get experience no matter what you do. My advice is you going to have to pick one thing to try at a time. It’s really hard to get good at multiple things at the same time. Think of each service you offer as a product line and try to be as specific as possible. For example blog post writing, or email writing. Not email funnel building or inbound marketing. These are more advanced and you can get there, but the likelihood that you’ll actually be able to get any good at them in a short period of time is very low. You could think of it like a tech tree where you start at the bottom and then you work your way up and add more complicated offerings as you go along. For example, you might write blogs, then move to press releases. or you might write blogs and then move into lead magnets, then into conversion rate optimization etc.
Again, I don’t suggest you necessarily pick one pathway to start since you’re trying to break in here but it helps to know what the lifestyle might be like ahead of time.
Application Tips 📌
I know there are a million and one CV tips out there, so I’m trying to keep this to the stuff that you may not have read elsewhere.
- Use a text-based CV. It is tempting to make your resume in Canva, but the problem with this is that companies are using application tracking systems that screen the text of your CV. So if you do it in a graphical way sometimes the screening goes wrong. You’re better off using a nice clean word-based CV.
- Get feedback. Ask your friends and family who work in marketing for their feedback on how you can tailor your CV to better explain your marketing experience. it’s like having a free resume-writing service.
- Apply like it’s your job to apply. People are shooting out like 10 to 20 applications and then wondering why they’re not getting any interviews. When I finally got my first job, I was told that 150 other people applied as well. It is a numbers game. That was just after the global recession thing and it’s probably even worse these days. You need to hit hundreds of applications. Don’t worry about stuffing it up and doing a crap application. If 150 people are applying to the same thing the odds are that they remember your accidentally stuffed-up application is basically zero.
- Prepare for questions. We all know it’s a game but at least in this one you can work out the typical questions that they’re going to ask ahead of time and prepare some smart answers to them. Trying to be authentic and stuff here is cool, but the odds are everyone else has polished answers and you’ll just stand out as looking unprepared.
- Follow up gently. Try to apply directly by email where appropriate. this will let you follow up gently because odds are, Given the number of people who are applying, your application will get lost so this is important.
- Try harder than everyone else. Once you start getting interviews, now is the time to over-prepare. try to do things that impress the employer. For one job I got I had basically prepared an entire marketing plan for them to go through and they loved this. I was the only one who bothered.
With these tips, I hope you can start to take some action and start getting interviews.
Nice To Have Certifications 🏅
In my opinion, certifications are nice to have because they show you have some knowledge of the areas you’ve studied, and this saves time when onboarding new folks.
Sign up for a free HubSpot account and start getting certified, starting with Inbound Marketing, then on to more specialized certifications like Email Marketing, Social Media Marketing, SEO and more. You can get really valuable hands-on experience using HubSpot that you can add to your LinkedIn profile and resume to showcase your skills in a very tangible way.
- HubSpot inbound marketing certification. This certification is free and it’s fairly robust in that it covers a lot of essential topics involved in marketing. Truthfully is directed more toward the startup and services industries, but it’s nice to have.
- Google Analytics. While Google is changing to GA4, much to everyone’s annoyance, Google Analytics is still the basic standard of online analytics. If you actually learn this and get good at it, you’ll look slightly better than a lot of other applicants. And there’s no escaping it, you’re going to need to learn it at some stage anyway.
If I had to choose one, I think it would be Google Analytics.
Recommended Books 📚
If breaking in was an exam, and you were looking to study to prepare, reading books to some degree is a little bit of an irrelevant distraction. But I do think they’re useful to help understand the greater context if you’re willing to put in the extra effort.
- The Long View by Brian Fetherstonhaugh. The author was the head of Ogilvy Canada, and wrote about how to manage your career. to me, this gives you the overarching structure of how a marketing career works. The basic summary is that when you start you focus on gaining skills, in the middle of your career you focus on making money, and at the end you look to give back.
- Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by Alan G. Lafley and Roger Martin. P&G is considered one of the best marketing organizations in the world. This is the top-down view of how they view strategy, and is very relevant to marketers. Strategy is easily a third of marketing but gets less than 10% air time. So it’s worth reading this one
- Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. These guys are the popularizers of the inbound marketing approach which is very relevant to service businesses or B2B SaaS companies. It gives you the framework of which the tactical marketing is happening.
- Hacking Growth by Morgan Brown and Sean Ellis. This is a foundational book for startup marketers, particularly those working with apps or platforms that involve lots of users spending time there. It gives you the overall framework of how to think about growing an app or digital product.
Again, I don’t think reading more books is necessarily the thing that is going to get people the job but it’s nice to have a greater perspective.
Here are some other pointers I got from asking the marketing community:
Get into communities and groups early on, whether it’s on Slack channels, Reddit groups, Facebook communities, LinkedIn groups, etc. The insight you get from just observing the discussions by the experts there is gold!
What To Do From Here 🏁
Hopefully, that wasn’t too much to digest all in one go, but regardless here is a quick roundup on what to do from here:
- Start a blog
- Finish your resume
- Get feedback and adjust
- Start applying now, and keep applying
- Create a list of the common questions
- Prepare your answers
- Get the Google analytics certification
- Read one or two relevant books