Graduates seeking their first marketing role right now could feel justified in cursing their bad fortune. As the economy takes its biggest downturn in a generation, what lessons can be learned from those who started their careers during the last recession?
The global financial crisis – sparked by risky banking practices and an implosion of the subprime mortgage market in the US during 2007 to 2008 – saw many jobs lost and careers upset. It was particularly tough for those entering the world of employment for the first time.
Dean Lavender, now head of marketing at The Clean Liquor Co, had the benefit of a clear ambition in 2008 – he wanted to work in FMCG marketing.
“I was quite sure from the outset that I wanted to work in food and drink, in FMCG, because all my favourite brands are food and drink brands,” Lavender explains.
“From my research I understood you could get great training and grounding. So I had my heart set on FMCG as the industry I wanted to be in.”
After a specialised degree in food marketing management at Sheffield, which included a year-long industry placement at Bacardi, Lavender moved to London to get a job, with blue chip FMCG brands such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble at the top of his wishlist.
“I moved to London in January 2008 and thought ‘I’ve got a first class degree and a year’s worth of work experience behind me for a great company. I’ll find a job no problem at all’,” he recalls.
The tough decision was to abandon my plan A and take the plunge on plan B.
Dean Lavender, The Clean Liquor Co
But it was not a good time to be seeking work. Entry level marketing jobs and graduate recruitment programmes had been hit hard by the banking crisis and the resulting economic downturn. A few contemporaries were in the same situation and generally reacted in similar ways. They thought laterally, and more broadly.
Lavender accepted a job on a six-month fixed contract at Freeview. Initially reluctant to abandon his FMCG dream to join the digital television brand, he was impressed when he met his potential bosses and reassured by friends that this experience would be better than no experience.
In 2008 Freeview, a non-profit organisation funded jointly by the big UK TV stations to encourage a widespread digital switchover, was a small company with only 17 staff. That lean structure meant Lavender got more involved with all types of marketing activity than would have been the case if he had been an assistant brand manager at a giant FMCG company.
“It was so broad, it really gave me a sense of how a small business works and all the different disciplines involved,” he explains. “I’m sure if I’d gone in as a marketing assistant in a bigger food or drinks company my role would have been quite narrow in terms of the level of exposure.”
While the role was initially a six-month contract, Lavender stayed for two and a half years before moving into FMCG. Wary of becoming too established in a non-FMCG role, he made a sideways move to an assistant brand manager role on Mr Kipling.
Having nurtured the dream of working in FMCG while at Freeview, Lavender did achieve it – if not by the most conventional route: “The tough decision was to abandon my plan A and take the plunge on plan B. But I did get a bit of reassurance on the way, which helped me out.”
He is now a firm believer that you can get where you want by taking a different route, which might even benefit you in the long term.
On the front foot
Jessica Barlow decided to take a different route. After training to be an illustrator, then discovering it to be too lonely an occupation for her social nature, she took the advice of a tutor to build a career in advertising. At the height of the downturn this proved to be a tough challenge.
“I was obviously applying for jobs. You would just not hear back. I didn’t have any work experience on my CV,” says Barlow. “I had used my summers [while studying at Central St Martins] to go back and see my family in Hong Kong because I was homesick.”
With huge competition for any available job many companies were offering internships to get cheap, or free, talent. Barlow does not advocate working for free, but 12 years ago there was no shortage of people willing to work in unpaid internships to get a start. Faced with the choice of needing to be in work or return home to Hong Kong, she joined them, supported by her family.
“I remember a lot of my friends were in the same boat. I was an international student and I was lucky that I was able to get a postgraduate visa and put myself on a positive trajectory to stay in the country. But I have friends who had to leave,” she recalls.
Some contemporaries managed to secure part-time internships that allowed them to also work in bars or restaurants. One managed to secure a job, but found it paid so little they had to find a second job in the evenings to afford to live in London.
Barlow’s commitment to working in the industry was tested. She interned at a variety of marketing, design and PR agencies to build her contact base and personal brand – both assets she strongly advises all jobseekers to pay attention to.
There was strong competition even to secure internships and she eventually worked through five of them, with occasional freelance work, before landing a permanent paid job as production manager at agency Protein.
While her strategy worked – eventually – Barlow sees the widespread move away from unpaid internships as a positive one for young graduates. Modern jobseekers have some other advantages too, she says. In her view, online recruitment sites and social media networks mean employers and recruiters are far more accessible now than they were in 2008.
Having left her role as head of communications at unsold food ‘rescue’ app Karma in March to launch two new businesses, Barlow advocates jobseekers to work hard and take calculated risks that can help raise their profile and ensure they stand out in a crowded market where creativity is a key asset.
Adam Soclof also started his marketing career in New York back in 2008. During the global financial crisis he gained a strong start by winning a paid fellowship through a family foundation, which placed him with three Jewish non-profit organisations over two years.
More than a decade later, the economy is in a worse state than in 2008 and Soclof is unemployed. He has been looking for a job since February, when his role as director of marketing and communications at The Jewish Education Project ended.
This time around, Soclof does not have the job security he enjoyed in 2008, although he does have a different perspective on the challenges of a downturn. He remains focused on what he has to be grateful for, such as time to spend with his young children and the fact that his family has been spared ill health during the pandemic.
Like many, Soclof has used this unexpected free time to re-evaluate what is important. That has involved moving with his family away from a cramped Manhattan apartment – with views of auxiliary tents set up to treat Covid-19 patients – to live with his in-laws while he considers what to do next.
“I’ve benefited from a lot of professional coaching as part of the inaugural US cohort of The Marketing Academy,” he explains.
“When you compare notes with people – and if everyone opens up about what keeps them up at night – you realise that everyone is dealing with their own deep challenges at work and at home. It taught me a lot to get through this massive change.”
Indeed, Soclof has been left with a sense of optimism that going through this current crisis may improve the way people treat each other: “There is a lot of listening to be done. When I return to the workplace, hopefully soon, that’s one thing I’m hoping to bring.”
He recognises those who graduated in 2020 have been denied everything they were expecting, from a graduation ceremony to a smooth transfer to the jobs market.
“The fact that you have already been through having your expectations of how things would play out pulled from beneath you will have prepared you enormously for success,” Soclof states.
“That is something that is hard to accept as valuable, or as a consolation. But as you enter the workplace you find that every day is about navigating changes that were unexpected. How you respond to that and relate to others in the face of change is really what defines you more than your job title.”
In a career of typical length most people will expect to face some broad financial crises that see them change course, adjust their priorities or make difficult choices. The practical and emotional challenges of starting a career in a downturn will become familiar to many and they are unlikely to forget them in a hurry.
Yet, just as each crisis is different, so each generation of new jobseekers has a different set to tools with which to face it.