The big debate: Is FMCG still the best learning ground for marketers?
Has the FMCG sector lost its crown as the best place for a marketer to learn their trade, as technology boosts the need for experience of faster-paced environments?
FMCG has long been considered the ultimate learning ground for marketers, a place where people could gain all the fundamental skills and get the best foundation for a career in the industry.
But is FMCG still where young people should be cutting their teeth or are there now more innovative, faster-paced industries that can offer a broader array of skills or a different, more hands-on learning experience? No one is denying FMCG has a great deal to offer budding marketers, but are there other sectors that could offer just as much, if not more?
Consumer marketing director at Microsoft Paul Davies, who started out in financial services before moving to tech, has seen first-hand the benefits different industries have to offer. He believes the advent of technology has created a wealth of different options.
“There’s a lot more choice and opportunity than there has ever been before, with so many different industries, categories and different learning and development opportunities to choose from,” he says.
Marketing Week columnist Colin Lewis, who is CMO of travel tech firm OpenJaw Technologies, goes one step further. “The view that P&G, Coca-Cola and Diageo are the oracles of marketing is outdated,” he asserts. “There is so much evidence-based insight to show there are tonnes of other ways to execute and deliver customer and shareholder value. Why do we still think like this? It’s legacy thinking and it’s lazy.”
Although others may disagree with this harsh critique, it is clear people are questioning FMCG’s dominance.
However, despite the naysayers and increased opportunity elsewhere, Mars’s media director Christoph Weber believes right now “FMCG is more attractive than it has ever been”.
He says: “When I left university 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to go into marketing. I asked my marketing professor ‘where should I go to become the best possible marketer I could be?’ and he said FMCG, and that rigour and training is still there.”
As a marketer in FMCG you have to be curious, to find out what makes consumers tick and to act on it creatively.
Matthew Barwell, Britvic
He argues that the foundations of FMCG marketing are the crux of all marketing, no matter the industry, which is why he believes FMCG is “second to none”, as it trains marketers to have the consumer at the heart of everything they do.
“[It teaches marketers to] really understand the consumer and their needs, and turn that into a business opportunity for the long-term success of a business. That rigour of [turning] strategy into action and delivery is fantastic.”
Despite no longer working in FMCG, Emily Kraftman, who began her career at Nestlé and AB InBev before taking up her current role as head of marketing for UK and Ireland at Deliveroo, believes FMCG gave her the best possible start as a marketer.
“I got a really fantastic foundation in the core competencies of marketing, working on amazing global brands with a very structured way of thinking and that more theoretical approach to marketing, which I’m really appreciative of,” she says. “It meant that when I transitioned into this environment, I could take those learnings and apply them to a different industry.”
Often FMCG is seen the best place to learn the basics but many, such as Microsoft’s Davies, argue other industries are teaching different kinds of fundamental lessons.
Financial services, he says, provided him with core digital skills that he applies in his current role in tech. “I had a huge amount of rigour around tests and direct marketing so I learned some fundamentals about the importance of experimentation at the very early stages of my career, which I still use today with the advent of digital,” he says.
However, rather than looking at it from an industry perspective, he believes trainee marketers’ decisions should come down to individual brands.
“If I was starting out now, I wouldn’t look at an industry [but] for a brand with a very contemporary and exciting environment, with lots of opportunity to grow and learn. I would look for brands that are willing to experiment and take risks; brands that are starting to grow and scaling, and that have multiple marketing disciplines within them.”
Meanwhile, KFC’s UK marketing boss Meghan Farren argues that the rigid learning structure acquired at FMCG businesses can lead to tunnel vision. “Sometimes people who have taken a linear path in more traditional companies have loads of frameworks and vocabulary that don’t mean anything,” she says.
“If you don’t have that, it forces you to be able to simplify. I often find people are almost foggy when they try to use so many different frameworks. If you simply boil down your idea so that someone who has not been trained in marketing can understand it, [it will make more sense].”
Farren warns: “It is good to have grounding. But it’s a means to an end, not an end.”
Getting experience in a fast-paced environment
No one is denying that FMCG provides solid training in the fundamentals of marketing. No graduate would leave a first job in the sector without knowing the basics. But is that the full picture?
Katrina Ward-Smith, director of brand and marketing at Three, says she notices marketers coming from consumer goods often lack the experience of a fast-paced environment.
She explains: “FMCG is incredibly good at teaching strategic skills and people are often very strong when it comes to the traditional stuff like creating marketing campaigns, but what they lose is their opportunity to put that thinking into practise very quickly. FMCG is quite slow compared to telecommunications, so [its marketers] tend to lack in the execution experience.”
READ MORE: Mark Ritson – We must fight the philistines on the value of marketing training
Ward-Smith is adamant that the speed of learning at Three, for example, which launches two to four brand campaigns a year, is crucial. “The feedback I’ve got from people who have moved on in their careers is that telecoms has been phenomenal training. They’ll learn more in two years than in five or 10 years in other industries,” she claims.
KFC’s Farren agrees: “For people in my team who have joined straight into [the fast food] industry, it gives you a different type of experience in terms of learning on your feet, in a much more agile and accountable environment where you’re more responsible for the end-to-end execution of things earlier on in your career and probably have the opportunity to learn from mistakes quicker. Not that FMCG firms don’t make mistakes, but the pace [in other industries] allows you to experience a lot of change very quickly.”
The view that P&G, Coca-Cola and Diageo are the oracles of marketing is outdated
Colin Lewis, OpenJaw
At the same time she argues there is value in learning the fundamentals, so long as people retain an open mind. “Our best people are always those who understand the rules but know when and how to break them; when to short-circuit them altogether.”
However, Britvic’s CMO Matthew Barwell believes it is incumbent on all marketers to continually question whether what they are doing will make consumers tick, which means FMCG is far from a dull and dated place to learn.
“As a marketer in the FMCG industry, you have to be curious, to find out what makes consumers tick and to act on it creatively. With the growth in technology and the development of so many channels to interact with consumers, it’s even more exciting today than it was when I first started out. It’s fast-paced and changes constantly, so there is always something new to learn.”
Unilever CMO Keith Weed agrees: “The frequency of purchase means it’s a little bit like a heat-seeking missile. When a heat-seeking missile starts, it is off target so you ask: ‘Am I on target? No? Readjust.’ A heat-seeking missile keeps going until it hits its target.”
READ MORE: Unilever’s Keith Weed on why FMCG is like a ‘heat-seeking missile’
However, one of the biggest concerns from Lewis’s perspective at OpenJaw Technologies is that FMCG marketers are learning skills that are going to be obsolete. He therefore urges young marketers to look at what will be more in demand in the future.
“Where will opportunity be in the future? Technology. Why is this? Because all brands in the future are ‘your brand + tech’. You cannot avoid the fact that all products in the world have an element of tech in them.”
FMCG brands are not completely removed from technology, though, and in many cases they have to work hand in hand.
Mars’s Weber says: “Tech is an exciting place to be and we work with those guys a lot but [in the tech sector] there is a lot more trial and error. It’s a different training ground, a different skill that’s being created. Whereas [at Mars] you combine that with the training and development experience you have with FMCG.”
However, despite the fact FMCG businesses work alongside other industries, Three’s Ward-Smith argues the breadth and depth of this experience is very different.
She explains: “The feedback I have got from people is that [in telecoms] you’re exposed to a lot more media channels, and because digital and social play bigger roles we have to be at the forefront and trying and testing all the time. So the exposure that they get as a marketer is huge. We are keen to find innovative ways to tell our story. There is a real opportunity to think outside the box.”
Brand purpose and making your mark
It is said that young people care infinitely more about brand purpose than their elders. Although marketers might once have been entirely focused on working for the biggest household names, many say now young people are more concerned about having a positive impact and trying to make a difference. They are also keen to take on responsibility and help change businesses from the inside out.
This can be done at FMCG but the importance of purpose has meant that other industries are becoming increasingly attractive.
Weber explains: “I do a lot of work with graduate outreach programmes and the consistent thing I’ve seen is young people want to leave their mark on the world. They want responsibility really early on and have strong ideas on how to improve a business, the world and themselves.”
READ MORE: Be as clear about your personal purpose as your brand’s
If it is a matter of gaining responsibility early on, Microsoft’s Davies believes technology is a good industry to train in as it gives marketers a global outlook.
“There is huge scale and impact and often marketers are working with tech brands that are enablers – that help people get stuff done – and they’re brands that consumers have an opinion about and care about.”
But to truly have influence, marketers must also learn to become leaders, which is something FMCG does better than any other sector, according to Weber.
“A big skill set of any marketer is inspiring the whole of the organisation, from the person who produces the product, to the sales person, to the finance person,” he says. “How do you really inspire and create followers behind your idea and brands?
Mars has a brilliant track record of building great leaders in the broadest business sense. If you look at FTSE 100 companies, a lot of [their leaders] have started their careers at Mars.
Christoph Weber, Mars
“Mars has a brilliant track record of building great leaders in the broadest business sense. If you look at FTSE 100 companies, a lot of [their leaders] have started their careers at Mars, which shows how amazing that training ground and leadership training is.”
However, Ward-Smith argues that one of the benefits of working in telecoms is the “pool of knowledge” it has, given people come into it with wide-ranging experience across sectors – something it could be argued a FMCG company such as Procter & Gamble lacks given it notoriously only promotes from within.
She says: “There is a real mix of people who have had different backgrounds, those that have done the tried and tested marketing practices along with people who are very versed in new innovative thinking.”
Barwell says this is an unfair criticism of FMCG, as Britvic, for example, ensures its marketers have access to its network of advertising agencies, market researchers and specialists in order to gain additional skills and perspectives.
“We also regularly run capability-building and inspiration sessions, and these experiences and networks help our people to build the skills and foundations of marketing excellence they need and will continue to use throughout their career,” he explains.
The role of workplace culture
It is not just about what people learn but the environment in which they are taught. Young people expect businesses to focus as much as on personal development and the workplace culture as the professional aspect of their career.
Davies says: “A lot of young marketers are looking for purpose and flexible working conditions, so the ability to work in different environments, be that at home or different workspaces, is crucial. Plus, an opportunity to develop ‘side hustles’ as well and really pursue not only careers.”
Ward-Smith says that the culture of Three was a “major attraction” for her joining the company. “We put wellness at the front of our business and mindset. We have things like wellness Wednesday where we encourage everybody to take two hours out and do something that’s just for them. Some people go to a seminar about marketing but equally people will go and do yoga.”
READ MORE: Why marketers should lead the charge for better mental health at work
With regard to training, the FMCG hegemony may be waning but it arguably has more to do with other industries stepping up their game rather than a flaw in the FMCG process. Young marketers are looking beyond the status quo to what, as individuals, they want from a workplace. Some will want traditional training, many will want a high-speed environment and others will look for a culture that fosters their individual needs.
Lewis adds: “The real sweet spot is to think about what you are good at, double down on that, and infuse it with creativity and an open mind.”
Weber agrees: “Follow your passion because that is what’s going to give you energy. Follow what you’re passionate about and your career will come. And look for the environment where you can fulfil that passion and bring it to work every day.”
And if he asked his marketing professor today where the best place is to go? “FMCG would still be part of the answer, but it wouldn’t be the only answer.”
Two things. You can’t eat tech. So FMCG products will probably endure. FMCG marketers often own the P&L so that makes a huge difference to what you learn in these firms.
I guess, like sex, your experience with FMCGs or any other type of company, brand or product, will depend on the effort you put into it. As far as FMCGs go, all of the data is there, weekly, even daily, for you to be able to learn at an accelerated pace. It really will depend on the person. Not on the category.