So it turns out that not too many marketers studied marketing or advertising in college. This probably isn't a huge surprise, but the sheer variety of backgrounds that marketers hail from is staggering. And they all bring unique skills to the table.
Theo Fanning, executive creative director at Traction, went through six different majors while in college. "Well, I certainly learned how to learn, " he said, "which is almost more important than what you learn."
I asked marketers with non-marketing majors to share their stories, and the response was overwhelming. Marketers come from all types of backgrounds, and they all have something to say about how their studies have influenced their careers. Many shared the degrees you might expect, such as business, economics, and communications. But in this article, we'll look at the most unusual majors of all.
Human waste management
"My original career was leading to a lifetime spent knee-deep in what flows in the sewers beneath," said Keith Edwards, senior CRM marketing manager at MJN Canada, "which at first glance seems like a full 180 from my current position in digital marketing but was actually the perfect training. The need to memorize the names of pathogens, enzymes, and microbes trained my brain to organize and remember statistics and test results -- so important when presenting and selling to senior management, customers, and colleges alike. The analytics of chemical processing and the precision of microbial testing created the desire to measure, measure, measure, and rethink even the slightest variation to a hypothesis (I must admit sometimes to a fault); not to mention the numerous comical situations and clichés used to create interesting conversation to nab me jobs with great brands such as Samsung and MeadJohnson.
"Every marketer has advice on how, what, where, and when we should deploy," Edwards added. "The two things my training brought me is how to recognize a pile of s**t when I see it, and when to chase a diamond that has been flushed without full awareness of its value by the flusher."
Takeaway: Know s**t when you see it.
Charlie Ray, CEO of Broad Street, said, "I never thought I'd work in digital advertising. (Mainly because it did not exist when I was in college.) My degree in political science prepared me for two paths: law school or Washington as a paid staffer. My family preferred law school, but after working in my uncle's law firm, I couldn't bear the thought. After a very winding road, I found my calling. Digital strategy and media has been my passion since my first startup in 1999. My political science degree taught me how to look at the 'root issues,' find audiences, and most importantly, communicate with clients. Digital media isn't just about math and big data; it's about connections and strategy. There are many roads that can lead someone to success in this business."
"What law most prepared me for was pitching and presenting to clients," said Kelly Ferraro, director of social media at Anomaly. "As a lawyer, you have to really know the facts of your case, present a credible argument, and be likeable in front of a judge and jury. It's no different as a marketer presenting a campaign idea. You have to know your client's brand inside and out, think on your feet as they poke holes in your thinking, and be able to read them and react accordingly. I'm positive that law has everything to do with my ability to present, persuade, and essentially sell ideas."
Takeaway: It's all about communication and the power of persuasion.
"The time I spent studying how different cellular elements add up to create and influence the whole organism gave me an understanding of how our marketing efforts interact to create an overall strategy," said Jessica Ryan, search marketing leader at iProspect Chicago. "The process of understanding what causes disease and how to prevent or cure it can be applied to all types of problems that come up with accounts. My education in zoology gave me the analysis and technical problem-solving skills I use today, but my work experience is what gave me useful professional skills. Rescuing injured, angry, and biting animals helped me learn how to work quickly and gracefully under pressure. Explaining laws and medical issues to upset, angry, or confused pet owners helped me develop a sense of how to communicate accurately and persuasively. Being solely responsible for saving an animal's life gave me a sense of accountability for my actions that I still feel today. It was a strange path to online marketing, but I wouldn't have had it any other way."
Takeaway: Be graceful under pressure, even if you're getting bit.
John Coleman, CEO of The VIA Agency, said, "First, engineers are always taught that there is a better and simpler way of doing everything. I just apply this attitude to advertising. Second, engineers are often tech-obsessed geeks, so when the internet started changing everything about marketing, I found it thrilling versus petrifying. Third, engineers are trained to be data-driven. So in this era of big data, having a quantitative-heavy education makes analyzing insights from information a concept that's not foreign. "
Michael J. Pratt, CEO of Extra Sauce, has a degree in aerospace engineering from West Point and spent six years on active duty as an engineer in the Army. He said, "It's no secret that the era of Don Draper is over and data skills are the new creative. Approaching marketing from an engineer's viewpoint is a great complement, in my opinion, to the creative (right brain) side so often associated with the industry. As technology invades the CMO office, it will become more common to see us engineers in traditionally non-engineer roles."
"Marketing is a balance between art and science," said Chris Loll, managing director at Wunderman New York. "In the last 10 years, though, the science end has rocketed up in importance. I majored in engineering at the Air Force Academy and post-graduation, I designed satellites. It's an experience that lends you a great deal of credibility with a client like Microsoft. My background was quite useful during a pitch for the U.S. Army. The importance of protocol and structure in the military is legendary. When people on the team wanted to know how decisions were made, my understanding of the chain of command helped save us a great deal of time and potential embarrassment."
Takeaway: Data is the new creative.
East Asian studies
Kent Mark, project manager at Situation Interactive, said, "I had the intention of working for the UN, or doing something related to international business. My major involved writing and reading about culture, politics, and history. While the topic never fully applied to my career in marketing, the experience of writing papers and presentations helped with my communication skills immensely. Studying culture, philosophy, and politics also helped prepare me for handling stressful situations. The Japanese philosophy of preserving harmony in all aspects of life has helped me juggle tough deadlines and personalities."
Takeaway: In the face of stress, remain calm and thoughtful.
"As a social strategist at Vert," said Cameron Huppertz, "I get to explore a creative space on Twitter and Facebook daily. For projects like our #TornadoWeek campaign for The Weather Channel, I had the opportunity to merge my interests in digital with live performance. Livestream video production and live-tweeting are a lot like live improv comedy. You have to think quickly and trust your team, but keep all that energy focused on your objectives for the scene/campaign. Not to mention having spent some time on movie sets and backstage helped me know what type of food to bring to our #TornadoWeek set to keep everyone happy."
Kendra Campbell-Milburn, head of social at TVGla, said, "Many parallels can be drawn between performance and marketing majors, like the need to be heard, the creative perspective, and wowing a crowded room."
Michael Perkins, assistant account executive at Situation Interactive, added, "Theatre teaches important skills such as teamwork, time management, working within tight budgets, and creativity, all of which are essential to marketing. My theatre skills also help me get a clearer message across to a consumer. Above all, I am passionate about theatre and marketing. I believe that as long as you're passionate about something, you will learn what you need and succeed regardless of your past educational studies."
Takeaway: Be passionate and improvise.
"Although my studies involved grain yields and tractors instead of paper and copy machines, the skills of managing a business to be profitable and successful were just as important as with a traditional business degree," said Laura Riehl, a business services coordinator at Red Door Interactive. "In addition, we focused on seasonality and how that impacts everything from marketing campaigns to yearly financial planning. Many industries have seasonal swings, and it is an even larger factor with agricultural clients. With a broader understanding of the business and valuing the time sensitivity associated with strong seasonal trends, I'm able to relate to clients such as the California Avocado Commission."
Takeaway: Timing is everything.
History and American culture studies
Alexis Lamster, director of people and culture at Carrot Creative, focused on social movements and popular culture in college. "You know what it taught me? I learned about people -- what motivates them, what gets groups to act and react, and how individuals speak about events after the fact," Lamster said. "You may think this doesn't relate directly to working at a social media agency, but you'd be wrong. Here's what I do every day: I work with groups of people, I try to get the best out of them while making sure they actually enjoy their jobs. I help brands create new and exciting products that get people talking. And I'm infinitely better for it. I learned to think about the big picture rather than just the execution and/or the numbers. I learned to really focus on the people we're talking about every day, the people I work with, and the brands we help every single day."
Takeaway: Stay focused on the people.
"By opening peoples' eyes to new concepts, whether it is photosynthesis in a classroom or capturing the minds of scientists with an ad for new technology, I hope to influence the way people think," said Anna Moldovan, senior search strategist at Red Door Interactive. "As with teaching wide-eyed high school students, marketing is about finding out how audience members navigate their world and influencing how they interact with it. What holds true across these varying audiences is the nature of humanity, in that we all arrive with questions and have an innate need for answers. Our questions vary, and the answers we accept vary even more. The challenge is in the delicacy of influence -- allowing the individual student or the greater audience to be drawn in by creating desire rather than forcing an action. Ultimately, the dance between the message and the audience is a mutual one, whereby alignment and connectedness moves the individual."
Takeaway: Think about how you answer questions.
Lauren Borjon, client services manager for iProspect Chicago, said, "The best lesson I've learned is that stress is normal for human beings to function. From an early age, children are stressed for various reasons and require an adult to show them appropriate coping skills to deal with the sometimes difficult issues life throws at us. As a manager, I remind my employees that stress is normal, but knowing when to ask for help is the key to managing that stress. Like children forming a trusting attachment to a parent, I work hard to build a trusting relationship with the search marketing specialists and coordinators so they learn to make decisions on their own, but with the security that I am there to back up their decisions or educate them when needed. Like a good parent or role model, sometimes the best way to teach your employees is to let them stumble a bit, but always have a hand ready to help pick them back up."
Takeaway: Know when to ask for help.
Jeff Rosenblum, founding partner at Questus, said he actually regrets majoring in marketing. "Everything I learned in my marketing major, I re-learned at a visceral level during my first year in the real world. Perhaps it provided an initial advantage, but a non-marketing major would have been more helpful in the long run because it would make me more well-rounded. A broad perspective is critical in the advertising world. I specifically look at the major of prospective employees, and I love when I see something like English or psychology because those are directly applicable skills. I also love to see biology, criminal science, art history, or jazz performance because it shows that the candidate has an interesting background, which is important for both internal culture and client relationships.
"There are three critical skills in advertising: understanding people, supporting culture, and communicating ideas," Rosenblum continued. "There are a lot of majors other than marketing that support those skills. There's also a lot more to be learned in college than what they teach in the classroom. When I see a GPA of 3.9, I probe deeply to make sure the candidate is well-rounded and interesting. This isn't a text book industry, and we don't want a team member who missed the adventure of life while sticking their nose in a text book. Or, perhaps I'm simply making myself feel better since I barely graduated college."
Takeaway: Don't be afraid to follow your interests.
Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Woman standing out from a graduation group," "sewerage worker," "symbol of law and justice," "giant panda bear sleeping," "abstract background of the metal gears," "beautiful cherry blossoms with Mount Fuji," "two mimes man and woman," "combine harvester," "large crowd," "professor giving class at the blackboard," "curious baby boy," and "businessman in a box" images via Shutterstock.