4 ways young marketers can build postgraduate training

Graduating and starting work shouldn’t be the end of your marketing training, especially with new technologies, practices and skills gaps arising all the time, but young marketers must take advantage of learning opportunities and make some for themselves.

Marketing is lagging behind other industries in offering access to training. As Marketing Week reported on 18 June, a study of 2,300 professionals by CV-Library found that over half of marketers claim to have no access to training, while 94.6% consider basic training to keep up with market developments to be essential. But how should marketers build their own strategy for getting the training they need after graduating and embarking on their careers?

1. Exploit employer programmes

While skills gaps are cropping up across the marketing function, there are encouraging signs that bosses are taking steps to address this. Many larger corporates have long had a history of continuous employee development, particularly in the retail and FMCG sectors. For example, Sarah Ellis is Sainsbury’s head of corporate responsibility and society, and is also in charge of the company’s Marketing Excellence programme, which is now in its fourth year.

“Our approach to development is that you learn through a combination of on-the-job experience; mentoring and coaching; and workshops, both face-to-face and online.
It’s run by a group of volunteers from across the marketing department, so it is designed and supported by people who are living and breathing marketing every day. They know what skills and behaviours they need to develop. Each year, we update the programme with something new.”

For other marketers, their own career training is influencing how they structure their staff’s development. Direct Line Group CMO Mark Evans believes his training ethos was first cemented during his years at Mars. “It was a learning-centred organisation. There was a real hunger to develop personally through training and resourcing. Not having a development plan was unacceptable.”

Many marketing-led companies, particularly agency side, are developing a learning-first culture. They are setting up sessions such as breakfast seminars, talks, workshops and ‘learnch’ (learning lunch). But are these ad hoc trend updates enough to plug the holes in marketers’ fundamental knowledge around areas that are critical to the bottom line?

2. Personalise your training plan

It is impossible to ignore the effect of data and digital, even more so considering that Marketing Week sister brand Econsultancy’s Digital Skills Index has found marketers weakest in email and search marketing – the two most significant contributors to return on marketing investment.

Sainsbury’s offers marketers a combination of on-the-job experience; mentoring and coaching; and workshops

There are a raft of institutions and qualifications available to upskill marketers at every stage of their careers but the particular demands new technologies and channels are placing on organisations mean they are not always sufficient.

“We did research a year ago because we couldn’t assume any more what marketers needed,” says Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) CEO Anne Godfrey. “Marketing is wide and diverse in terms of the skills that marketers want. Some don’t even want to be called marketers.”

Responding to the suggestion that academic institutions are unable to adapt their regimes fast enough to keep up with the sector, Godfrey says that was one of the reasons why CIM changed how it delivers the qualifications. “It has gone from being very prescriptive to flexible, where students can choose elements such as digital or innovation. We also do annual research to find out what is going to be useful on the course,” she explains.

Small is beautiful and increasingly practical when keeping on top of changing marketing landscapes. Evans at Direct Line Group elaborates: “We’ve tried to approach training with agility because we don’t have the scale or budget to do grand things. It’s about being iterative and launching at pace; looking for a quicker yield, surveying, responding and changing.”

Evans illustrates that the problem with the skills gap may not be the willingness of executives to learn, but the ability of the C-suite to understand which skills might be required. “The challenge is on CMOs to keep up and know what to programme. I do reverse mentoring, as does our CEO. The head of digital takes me through what’s going on. It’s impossible for the CMO to be a guru in everything.”

With data, digital and business leadership high on the agenda, CIM’s research into essential skills revealed interesting results. Godfrey notes that despite all the talk of digital and data, her most heavily subscribed course is copywriting. “If [content marketing] is not just copywriting for the 21st century, I don’t know what is,” she says.

3. Be a marketing chameleon

As the marketing remit changes to encompass a wide range of skills, it might be that the traditional, ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ marketer no longer exists. If there is no longer a typical marketer, will there still be a common trait that unites them?

Ellis at Sainsbury’s says: “The best marketers, and leaders, are naturally curious and have an ‘I’ll never be done’ approach to learning.”

Evans at Direct Line Group claims that much of what is required is about a state of mind. “Marketing is so much about what goes on in people’s heads,” he says. “You need a personal curiosity as an overlay for everything else because that’s a person who will respond to a changing world. We see people who are intellectually astonishing but it’s not great if they can’t see that the world has moved on.”

CIM’s Godfrey notes that marketing career paths are also changing. Traditionally, marketers went from being specialists to generalists through promotions. Now they are becoming specialists again. Even on the higher rungs of the ladder, there is no need to stop developing. Top marketing executives see further study as vital to make the leap to the top rungs.

Lesley Wilson, head of marketing profession at BT, explains why it was important for her to take a temporary break from her role to attend Harvard Business School, sponsored by a bursary from the Worshipful Company of Marketors worth £50,000. “I have taken a shortcut past a number of roles that I might have taken time to work up through. When I come back [BT] doesn’t have to look at me so narrowly in my functional area. I also hope that as a female executive, I can offer inspiration to other female executives who are not as confident about doing something like this.”

4. Learn from your colleagues

Marketing teams have a variety of skills and backgrounds, and colleagues can become the most responsive learning resource. Sainsbury’s Ellis says: “Our marketing team has a diverse range of people who have previously worked in our stores or for other brands and industries. We all bring different experience and skills but we share the same passion.”

Mickael Paris, head of digital marketing at Standard Life explains that he is looking to undergraduates and even schools in his search for the next generation of adaptable, cross-discipline candidates. By sponsoring BIMA’s Digital Day, which was created to raise awareness of digital careers among young people, he hopes to access agile, future-proofed employees that his company needs.

“We’re looking at people from universities because they are digital natives and don’t even know it. Some of our interns said they had no digital experience and yet they’re blogging and vlogging. That’s when profiles become interesting compared to a 10-year-old diploma that is out of date,” he says

For marketers, the way forward is not necessarily to plunge head first into digital or data courses. Instead, the ability to adapt is more highly prized. Evans at Direct Line Group
says: “There are areas where we need to bring in specialists such as data scientists but in general, we are looking for intellectual ability. We want people to be generalists, who can knit all this together and can evolve their skill sets rapidly. We’re asking people to be both marketing 101 and marketing 2.0.”

There is a skills gap because the marketer that existed five years ago doesn’t exist today. Companies want to create cross-functional teams that are self-sufficient.

We look to recruit people who come from digital agencies because in those companies, they tend to be more switched on. I look at a candidate’s personality and I can see if they’re passionate about digital. They can learn on their own and spend evenings reading about new trends and come back to me with them. We need to nurture that.

Digital marketing courses can become outdated quickly. Instead, you first need a strong knowledge base around business in general. Everyone in the team needs to understand commercial and marketing principles. The four Ps [price, product, promotion and place] are used every day and those are the things that shape your thinking. But when it comes to the day-to-day work, the data scientists and marketers aren’t sitting far from each other.

You need both creative and data-led people. Roles are evolving. Data scientists can upskill in other ways too; it’s not about being the data guy in the back of the room. As managers, it’s our role to empower people to make decisions. Everyone is accountable for success.

Lesley Wilson is embarking on an eight-week leadership and business course at Harvard Business School, sponsored by a bursary from The Worshipful Company of Marketors. Her employer is giving her the two-month career break to complete the course.

Q. What attracted you to this scheme?

Harvard is one of the best-known business schools in the world. It has a superb reputation for the quality and content of its curriculum. I’m expecting to be taught by, some of the best in the management world.

Q. What opportunities do you think such a course offers marketers?

It gives you credence as a businesswoman. It’s a brilliant lever to demonstrate your capabilities and move from marketing to the board, even to CEO level. You’re going to be able to demonstrate a level of business-wide understanding as well as building on your functional expertise.

Q. Can postgraduate training help marketers fast-track or by-pass traditional routes to the top?

It depends on your own motivations and the opportunities within your company. You either have to make conscious role moves into non-marketing positions to build your business credibility or you can leapfrog a number of those years and do something like Harvard. It’s not short-cutting the experience but it’s fast-tracking your understanding, which might have taken some time to get to through a number of roles.

Q. Why was it preferable for you to take a sabbatical?

The nature of the job in marketing means you have to be dynamic and responsive. Marketers are some of the busiest people in any company and therefore we can be our own worst enemy because we’re too busy delivering the thing we love doing. It’s also very difficult in a results-driven business to [make time for] meaningful learning.

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