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Marketing skills they don't teach in school

Marketing skills they don't teach in school Reid Carr

My education at the University of Oregon was absolutely invaluable to what I do today. I am one of the few, it seems, who actually majored in the very thing I do for a living. If you can believe it, I actually knew what I wanted to do in high school and therefore chose Oregon because of its advertising program. And, while I learned a lot about advertising (prof. Ann Maxwell, among others), marketing, psychology, consumer behavior (shout out to prof. Dalakas!), and grammar -- yes, I had a grammar class -- there are a few things that I've picked up since I graduated about 15 years ago. Hopefully the following discoveries can help you ace your next career test.

Budgets, numbers, and dashboards

For most marketers, as was the case with me, the last math class they take is in high school (I got a Bachelor of Arts). Or, if they do take math in college, it starts with panning the class directory to answer the question, "Which of these looks like the easiest class I can take and that still satisfies the minimum math requirements?"

Unfortunately for me, marketing is completely different today than it was 15 years ago. Math is more important than ever. Statistics and dashboards are the latest weapons in marketing. Business intelligence and advanced analytics are part of the language and, ultimately, performance is paramount. The common denominator between your budgets and results are dollars and cents. You aren't going to present your creative brief and story boards in the board meetings.

It isn't about the tactics

Marketing is not a sum of all the various tactics at your disposal. Too often, universities want to "stay up to date with current trends" and start teaching tactics. Social media and CRM classes are starting to surface. When I started in this business, Twitter and Facebook didn't exist, nor did -- pause for effect -- Google (remember Alta Vista, Refdesk, Excite...?).

It isn't about the tactics, but rather it is about the same basic principles we've always had and then adaptation. You have to update your skills, but I believe, in college, we need to develop the foundation from which to build, learn how to learn, and learn how to apply what we learn. Then, after graduation, you have to adapt to your environment using those skills.

Case studies are either the best of the best or the worst of the worst

What I learned in the classroom is, for the most part, not your normal every day type of work. Thankfully, a lot of school brings people in from "the real world" to talk about their candid experiences. If you got some of that, you're lucky. If not, then your perception of how campaigns win or lose or brands rise and fall is unusual. Very rarely do you get to introduce "New Coke" or start a low-cost "nuts" airline (if you do get that opportunity, honor it and consider yourself lucky to have such a career-making opportunity). And, very rarely does your success hinge on a single decision-point. Most of the time, you have to grind out your tactics over time, learn from small mistakes, and put together a suite of tactics that makes incremental improvements. Your make-or-break is not a viral video.

Make a decision

Ironically, given the context of this article, I received this advice in a marketing class. It was delivered as "advice that you don't normally get in school," so I thought it appropriate to pay it forward here because this small tidbit has proven invaluable to me thus far. Most people are afraid to make a significant decision; therefore they default to the eponymous decision-maker. Be the one to make decisions and you earn the title, "Decision Maker."

The key is that you need to have a good reason for why you made the decision that you did. Take risks, own up to and learn from mistakes, and inform yourself. Your boss most likely doesn't have all the answers, either. Sometimes just doing something makes all the difference. Doing nothing rarely gets you ahead.

How to fail

If you are willing to make decisions, then you will also learn quickly that it is OK to fail. It really is. Failure, however, is different than making a careless mistake. It isn't OK to let the details slip, such as typos in headlines or, worse, not learning from previous mistakes. If you do fail, dust yourself off, fix the problem, figure out what happened, and then make sure that it doesn't happen again. You get bonus points for sharing that experience openly with others on your team so that they don't make the same mistake. You now are the battle-worn hero.

How to move fast

I remember when I got my first job in advertising after college, I got an assignment at the agency and, after getting the details of what was expected, it dawned on me: Just a month prior, I was given three months to do this exact same project in school. Here, I have a week. Gulp. Thank goodness I at least had the structure down from my studies and I also had the support of several people with tons of experience who were available to help. Skip to the end: I got the project done and disaster was averted (and then the next one was due in four days…).

Keep up your network

Let's face it: Unfortunately marketers are not known for keeping their jobs for very long. I am sure that this isn't you, of course, but someone you know could benefit from this information. Please keep up on your network. Agencies are great for helping you know other marketers in your area; leverage them to help you get to know other people. As a by-product, you get to know what other tools and tactics are gaining traction. It gives you outside perspective


So, technically, you probably have been taught to prioritize things at some point. However, in the context of marketing, too many people put too much time into every possible tactic and never really learn to identify the things that work well and then enhance those activities. Too often I see marketers continuing to add new tactics, activities, and resources well before they've maximized the things that work. I have yet to run into a marketer who thinks they have too much budget, resources, or time to get everything done that they'd like to. By definition, you have to prioritize.

Stay focused

Too many marketers get pushed by senior management who are looking to increase sales to "reach more customers" and therefore interpret that as an order to broaden their message, product, or targeting. The problem is that, when you broaden, you start to matter less to the core audience who really love your brand and advocate for you. So, when trying to increase sales, consider trying to make your product or service matter more to a more specific audience.

It is all connected

Your culture, your people, your product, your strategy, and your marketing efforts are all connected. You have to get a greater understanding of everything going on in the organization to ensure there is alignment with the messaging you're putting out into the marketplace. If what you're telling your customers doesn't match with how the people act within the organization, then you erode trust and damage your brand. Marketing cannot operate successfully in a silo.

Build your personal brand based on what you want to be "when you grow up"

In very short order, you are going to have to make a career decision. What type of work do you like to do? What categories do you like? Like it or not, it can take less than five years for one to be labeled by a potential employer as a "car guy/girl" if you've worked on all car accounts, for example, or client-side versus agency-side.

Inside five years, you still have the opportunity to identify what you like and either stay in the category or make a move without much penalty. After that, you can still make a change, but you might end up taking a step back in your career to move into something different.

Bear in mind, there is quite a bit of flexibility in every category if you're creative about discovering the connections, but every career move is linked to the past by some particular type of experience you have had that the new employer needs. It is your challenge to create and articulate those links to hiring managers by extrapolating valid experience from one past job to what is required in a future role.

It is easier to go downstream than upstream

That may sound obvious to salmon, but it isn't always clear to marketers building their career. Most of the time, if you start your career at a top agency or brand, you have a whole lot more options when you're looking for the next job compared to starting somewhere small and trying to go big. Lots of small agency pitch teams are loaded with people who "used to work at [insert big agency or brand]."

You have more influence somewhere small than somewhere big

On the other hand, small agencies allow marketers to wear a lot more hats and therefore be exposed to a lot more aspects of the agency business. You can quickly see what you like and don't like as well as get a better view of the interoperation of functions. Functionally, it is often a lot harder to come from a big agency and work at a small agency for the simple reason that, at a big agency, you end up doing one small part of the overall work and rarely see, much less touch, other aspects of the work. Therefore, you may not actually know how to do a lot of the work that might be asked of you because "other people did that."


There is a lot that I've learned along the way in my career, and I hope that some of these resonate with those of you who've stuck around long enough to get to the end. I know that, for some, these may be reminders of past lessons learned, while, for those of you who are still in school, it might help you get a nice jump start on day one at the new post-grad job. In any case, feel free to comment and add some of your own advice for others. This can be a tough job, so we all could use a little help from those around us who are willing to share it.

Oh, and despite having passed my grammar class and test, please don't critique my grammar or liberal punctuation. Another thing I learned quickly since graduation: Good advertising does not necessarily require proper grammar. Think different, anyone?

Reid Carr is president and CEO of Red Door Interactive.

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"Funny little squint eyed little girl posing" image via Shutterstock.

As Red Door Interactive's President & CEO, Reid is there for clients and employees alike. Having began his career in advertising, Reid appreciates the integrity of the brand, but focuses on the fact that what we do for clients has to make them...

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