Marketing needs a true culture of mentorship

The breakdown of mentorship has consequences not just for the next generation, but for the entire industry. Embracing a non-hierarchical model of reciprocity could be the answer.

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Who helped you? Who took a chance on you? Who was the person that saw your potential and nurtured you? What did that mean to, and for, you?

If you read that and thought ‘no one’ then that must have been really tough. There is so much to learn and understand at the start of your career. Figuring that out on your own is a lonely space. Particularly when an inevitable part of it is learning from your mistakes.

If you did have support around you whilst learning from your mistakes (still hard and valuable) you will have had a safety net. At the start of careers, the people that give advice, guidance, reassurance or a kind word make a difference in that moment. The impact of that difference can also be felt and seen later on, often unbeknownst to the person who gave the guidance.

We talk about ‘throwing the ladder down’ to articulate the idea that it is important to use any privilege, advancement or seniority to help those on the same journey as you. But there is a problem that no one is talking about. In the era of squiggly careers, the traditional career ladder no longer exists. So, if there is no ladder, we don’t have one to throw down.

It would be great to see mentorship becoming a strategic priority, not just an ad-hoc activity.

I am hearing, with increasing frequency, stories of a lack of support and feelings of isolation. Not just early talent, from marketers at all career stages, both agency and client side. The reality is, many marketers are neither mentoring, nor being mentored any more.

On one hand the traditional structures that facilitated support in the past either aren’t there any more or have dramatically changed. On the other, marketers are facing a lot of challenges at the moment, from budget cuts to a stagnant job market.

We are starting to see improvements as hiring freezes are lifted, but there is still a strong whiff of redundancy in the air. In turbulent or tough times, it is human nature to focus on yourself.

Whilst squiggly careers have increased flexibility and opportunity, there is also a wider sense of precarity than ever before. In this context people don’t extend thought to putting the ladder down when they are focused on their own professional survival.

Generational fragmentation

At the same time, mentoring is not consistently being modelled from the top down. With a striking number of senior leaders holding their post for a year or less and the average tenure dropping every year, the CMO scope does not easily facilitate the development of mentoring relationships.

Talent development teams with the remit of employee retention are investing in training and learning opportunities. The reason why these are not often complimented with mentoring support is because it’s difficult to create long-term mentoring relationships within organisations when people’s careers squiggle off in another direction.

Marketers on their mission to democratise mentoring

There is also demand for early career candidates to be the finished article, not a work in progress. I have seen a rise in entry level job adverts asking for a range of qualifications and three years’ experience. For those starting out it feels impossible to gain the required experience. This contradictory situation is piling pressure on those who are trying to find a foothold in our industry and makes the first step of their career feel impossible to achieve. We are actively putting off talent who want to come and work in our industry.

As Jacqui Jagger, co-founder of Catalyst Careers, pointed out to me, in other industries (for example accounting or law) firms invest a lot in early talent and a lot is expected in return. The idea of needing to learn and being supported in the early stages of careers is structurally dominant. However, in marketing we are seeing a lack of investment in talent development at the ‘work in progress’ stage, with firms preferring to recruit the ‘finished’ article.

Minimising investment in early talent and the breakdown in mentorship for our next generation will have consequences. A lack of guidance and support inhibits skill development, career progression and retention. It also contributes to the widening generation divide and reinforces generational fragmentation.

Dismantling hierarchies

It’s not all doom and gloom, there are specialist coaches and mentors who work with individuals. There are incredible programmes that work outside the constraints of organisations to foster talent and mentor within our industry such as The Marketing Academy, School of Marketing and Brixton Finishing School.

However, the bedrock of mentoring across our industry has gradually eroded. The time has come to rethink how we all approach mentorship to better support talent in our industry.

This isn’t someone else’s job. I would argue it is all our responsibility. Not as a one off, an afterthought, or a tick box exercise. We can all help and need to find creative solutions to enable us to give our time, energy and opportunities to learn from each other.

Minimising investment in early talent and the breakdown in mentorship for our next generation will have consequences.

We are busy so part of the reason we don’t mentor is time. Adding another thing on the to do list and stretching ourselves further isn’t a good idea. However, short-term, project-based mentorship arrangements can facilitate the introduction of mentoring in a time efficient manner.

Additionally, there is no rule that we can only have one mentoring relationship. I advocate for a personal board of advisors rather than a single mentor. This means that the mentoring is spread and there is more opportunity to learn by leaning into each mentor’s specialism. Mentoring also doesn’t just have to be confined to a hierarchical structure. Peer-to-peer mentorship can work really well.

It’s important to note that not everyone knows how to mentor well. It isn’t a case of grab a grad and get started. Organisations can offer training and resources to facilitate and even incentivise mentoring. In my view it would be great to see mentorship becoming a strategic priority, not just an ad-hoc activity.

My own personal model of mentoring flips the script on traditional mentorship and addresses generational fragmentation. Based on the concept of reciprocity, my model is not just about a junior marketer learning from the senior, but a mutual sharing of perspectives, skills and experiences.

How marketers are closing the mentoring gap

Using this approach senior marketers gain just as much value from the mentorship relationship, whether it’s learning new technologies, gaining a fresh viewpoint, or tapping into the energy and creativity of early talent. The focus is on catalysing dynamic dialogues and co-creating solutions, not a unidirectional transfer of advice. I have developed a range of programmes to activate this model in different contexts.

The key benefit of this approach is the cultivation of a true culture of mentorship, where everyone feels empowered to learn from one another. It dismantles hierarchies and silos, whilst also giving senior marketers a vested interest in developing early talent. Rather than viewing mentorship as a one-way street, this approach harnesses the power of mutual growth and exchange.

I asked some questions at the beginning of this article. If your answer was ‘no one’ then you know how hard it is if no one puts the ladder down. If you thought about someone who helped you in your career, then you know how valuable that support can be. Please take a moment to pop into their world and thank them today. It will mean a lot.

Laura Chamberlain is an award-winning professor at Warwick Business School, a marketer, career strategist and coach. She is also founder of self-development consultancy Think Talk Thrive.