You might think nearly all marketing executives ascended to their powerful roles in a series of predictable steps up the ladder in a particular company or industry. You would be wrong.
Bound-for-glory professionals in this field begin their careers in a variety of situations and crisscross industries on the way to the top. But their choices of positions and employers are far from random. Let's examine how two marketing chiefs got where they are today.
Don't Get Your Foot in the Door Just Anywhere
"The most important moments in my career were when I was accepted into good schools and good companies," says Scott Parker, vice president of marketing for weight-control firm Jenny Craig in Carlsbad, California. "This will multiply your opportunities for a lifetime."
Parker's education was strictly blue-chip: a bachelor's in economics from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles.
His early employers were equally impressive. "Being accepted at Frito-Lay as an assistant brand manager and at Proctor & Gamble exposed me to advertising strategy and brand positioning, while keeping me close to general management."
Make That First Step Count
But don't mistake those early career moves as mere fodder for future name-dropping. When launching your career, the job you step into can be as important as the door you enter.
"Choose companies where you're going to learn the most and where marketing has the most overall application," says Parker, adding that you'll get much further from an entry-level position at a consumer products company than in a similar role at a firm that mainly does business with the government.
The opportunity to learn on the job is critical, according to Jan Temple, chief marketing officer with TransUnion in Chicago. As head of marketing for TransUnion, one of the three national consumer credit bureaus, Temple has a very broad portfolio, including marcom, advertising, strategic planning, product innovation and public affairs.
"I got my first job out of college as an event planner with Continental Illinois National Bank," she says. "This was a great job, because right away I was working with executive management."
Which types of entry-level positions provide such learning opportunities? "If you want to be a marketing executive, it's best to start out in brand management," says Parker. Others list entry-level advertising positions and jobs in direct marketing and Web marketing divisions as strategic entry points.
Your Job Change Should Be a Career Move
When you're ready to jump, don't make a lateral move just to get a bigger salary. Think instead about adding to your skill set by rounding out your experience.
In 1995, Parker left his post as vice president at Dial for a promotion to senior vice president at Bank One. "I made a move from consumer packaged goods to financial services, because I could bring to bear my experience in branding and segmentation," says Parker.
As Parker's career path shows, young professionals with strong experience in marketing fundamentals can sometimes jump across industries. "That's the beauty of functional roles that are not as technical; you can cross over," says Rita Allen, a career coach in Waltham, Massachusetts.
But career paths like Parker's also highlight the importance of using your hard-earned skills in different contexts. "If you don't, you run the risk of being pigeonholed," says Allen.
Consider Graduate School
Graduate school is almost essential for the ambitious marketing professional. "The MBA is almost the new bachelor's degree in business," says Allen.
Both Parker and Temple have the degree. Temple earned her MBA at night at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. In that program, "I learned a lot about the emotional side of branding and communications," she says. When she was completing the MBA, Temple got a call from a recruiter for First National Bank of Chicago, where she became an assistant vice president for consumer advertising. "This was a terrific move, because the consumer space helped me round out my experience," says Temple.
But one path does not fit all. With markets globalizing and product cycles continuously accelerating, marketing is more dynamic than ever. And, say marketing executives, this can be both an opportunity and a challenge for aspiring honchos.
"Things are more difficult these days; you have to be entrepreneurial," advises Parker. "For example, take advantage of emerging technologies; get involved in building a business via Web-related activities like click-to-call, chat and podcasting. Or use your analytical skills to identify a market opportunity and sell the idea through management."
Learn more about marketing careers.