Salary Survey 2019: Big versus small – which is better for career development?

Marketing Week’s annual Career and Salary Survey shows marketers face a career trade-off – better training and job security in big firms or influence and impact at small ones.

big fish small pond

During their careers, marketers are often faced with a tough decision. Do they opt for the excitement of a fledgling brand where they can make a big impact, or go for the security and structure of a multinational business?

What about feeling valued and seeing the potential for advancement? Is that more important than working for global brand with a clear vision for the future?

As part of Marketing Week’s Career and Salary Survey 2019, we asked the 4,415 respondents to share their thoughts on life at businesses ranging from startups to global organisations.

The data reveals that, if marketers want to be understood by their wider organisations, it’s best to opt for a small company. The number who say marketing is ‘completely understood’ is highest in companies of one to nine people (49.5%) and lowest in organisations of 250 people or more (30.9%).

Marketing understood

This figure is not surprising to Andi Sumner, head of marketing at startup baby food brand Babease. From her experience of talking to people in bigger businesses, the thinking is often that marketing is a “fluffy thing” and not seen as the “cogs and the wheels” of a business in the same way as operations or sales.

In multinational, matrix organisations, the fact that marketers sit in different offices and appear as though they are doing similar jobs to one another could be adding to the confusion, suggests Yilmaz Erceyes, marketing director at Premier Foods.

“There might be a global brand manager, a regional brand manager and a local brand manager working on the same brand and there is always a confusion in terms of ‘where does my role start and where does the other person down the line or up the chain start?’,” he notes.

For Nationwide CMO Sara Bennison, the reason marketing is better understood in smaller businesses is simple – it has to be.

“You aren’t going to sell much without it and the rollercoaster of a smaller business means everyone is closer to that sharp end and aware of the difference a small change in how you promote that business makes,” she explains.

“I think one of the most instructive lessons of my marketing career was managing Google AdWords for my husband’s market research business. I could see the difference that was making every day, far more clearly than what I was doing with the £100m budget I was responsible for at the time.”

READ MORE: Salary Survey 2019 – The best (and worst) paid sectors for marketers

Risk and reward

Smaller businesses also outperform their larger rivals in terms of marketers’ contentment with their financial rewards. Some 49.7% of marketers in businesses with under 10 people feel their company is very good or fairly good at offering fair financial rewards, compared to 44.3% in 50- to 249-person businesses.

In smaller organisations, where results can be driven substantially by one individual’s performance, marketers may feel more integral and therefore fairly rewarded by the success the business yields, suggests Chris Chalmers, marketing and digital director at Express Gifts.

In my team I have lots of bright, brilliant individuals whose career advancement stalled in big

Yilmaz Erceyes, Premier Foods

Jonathan Lloyd, marketing manager at Manchester-based brewer JW Lees, agrees that this level of satisfaction could be driven by the fact marketers in smaller businesses have greater exposure to sales and conversion, which makes it easier to justify their salary in comparison to a multibillion-pound turnover business.

Another potential factor could be a link to equity, says Sumner: “They might say ‘I can’t afford to pay you a big salary or huge bonuses, but what I can do is give you equity in the business so that in five or 10 years’ time, when we do become this huge brand, you’ll be financially rewarded’,” she suggests. Alternatively, employees of small companies could simply have lower salary expectations than those at big companies.

Smaller businesses are also satisfying marketers best when it comes to career advancement. Over half of marketers in one- to nine-person businesses (55.5%) say their employer is very good or fairly good at delivering career advancement, versus 49.8% of marketers in a 50- to 249-person businesses.

Career advancement

In high-growth small businesses, marketers’ careers often evolve in line with the trajectory of the company, an experience Chalmers had while working as general manager for digital and direct marketing at

“Also, because you’re in a smaller operator you might have more exposure to a multidisciplinary role that covers many parts of the marketing function and therefore you become quite well rounded in your experience,” he adds.

Sumner agrees that if you start in a company as the only marketer, when the business grows you could well end up becoming the marketing director.

“In a small business you’re always thinking about this amazing growth you’re going to have, so maybe that is what’s leading people to think advancement is there,” she adds. “You don’t have to work your way to the top of the ladder or wait for people to move on.”

Drawing on his experience of working in global organisations and recruiting marketers, Erceyes explains that in large businesses a culture of restructures and low growth often means promotions are delayed or frozen.

“In my team I have lots of bright, brilliant individuals whose career advancement stalled in big companies,” he states.

A stumbling block emerges, however, when marketers at small companies consider their job security. Whereas 56.9% of marketers in one- to nine-person businesses say their company is very good or fairly good at delivering job security, this is well below those in 50- 249-person firms, at 77.3%.

Job security

Sumner admits that there is a vulnerability to small businesses, which she describes as a “sink or swim” mentality.

“If you lose one listing with a grocer, and that’s your biggest listing, are you going to reach your minimum order quantities? If not, you can’t maintain the pricing,” she explains. “The sink-or-swim [moment] is much closer and you’re more aware of it in a smaller business because you’re hearing those conversations all the time.”

Reflecting on the risk-reward equation, Chalmers likens it to being a big fish in a small pond, where you tend to gain more but this naturally carries a higher level of risk.

“It is something that people have to evaluate in their careers as they move over time and assess their appetite for risk,” he adds.

Is bigger better?

When marketers are weighing up the risks and rewards, access to formal training could make a role within a large business appealing.

Whereas less than half of marketers in 10- to 49-person businesses (45.7%) say their employer is very good or good at offering training, this number shoots up to 59.1% in 250-plus person companies.


Rather than focusing on training, smaller businesses often buy in the capability they need because they are under pressure to scale quickly, says Chalmers.

“In a fledgling entrepreneurial business like training programmes just didn’t feature because the focus was on growing the business really quickly and they would on-board who they believed to be the right level of talent and move the business on quickly,” he explains.

And while structured programmes can seem like an advantage, Lloyd at JW Lees suggests that the benefit for smaller businesses is they are less bound to formal training, allowing them to play with what course content works best.

“My team structure their training or work experience individually, which we do through twice-yearly appraisals,” he explains. “At times we say ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to have a marketing training academy’, but the flipside of that is we’d probably find ourselves doing courses that were 50% to 60% relevant, as opposed to 80% to 90% relevant.”

When it comes to clear communication of the company vision, however, bigger businesses excel. Some 60.7% of marketers in businesses of 250 or more people say their company is good or very good at communicating its vision, versus just 48.8% in 10- to 49-person firms.


The way businesses scale could have a part to play. “When you start off the brand you know exactly what the intention is, you want to change the world and you’re all sat near the founder. As you grow the degrees of separation become wider,” Sumner explains.

“Because of everything that’s going on you forget the internal comms of the company mission and then only when you’re a certain size do you have enough people in the company to put in a department to do that.”

Erceyes agrees that bigger companies spend a lot more time on explicitly communicating the vision. He warns that leaders can easily fall into the trap of thinking just because they said something in a meeting that it will penetrate through the whole organisation.

“You need to make the conscious effort to articulate the vision over and over again, and although it will feel like a huge repetition to you it’s really important that you make an effort,” he explains. “In smaller companies I wonder whether the leaders assume that, given there is no matrix or multiple locations, people will read their minds.”

Being a 190-year-old, sixth-generation family business is an advantage as the JW Lees owners spend a lot of time working on the clarity of the vision and in a wider sense see themselves as custodians of the company, says Lloyd.

“There’s isn’t going to be a new chief executive that jumps in who needs to make a big impression in the press,” he adds. “These people are setting the long-term goals and so the approach is different.”

A seat in the C-suite

While weighing up the clarity of the vision and access to training with a wider sense of career potential and fulfilment, it is worth taking into account whether marketing has a seat at the top table of your company.

Marketers are most likely to appear on the board of businesses with 250 or more people (56.4%), a figure which drops to just 18.7% in one- to nine-person companies. Sumner believes these numbers play into the wider issue around marketing’s perception as an important business function.

marketing on board

“There’s a general piece throughout all businesses to increase the awareness of marketing and how important it is as a function,” she states. “It’s not something you consider after ops, supply chain and account management.”

Chalmers agrees that as a marketer you always look for the leader of your department to be represented at the highest level and if you’re a marketing-led organisation there needs to be a marketer on the board.

The fact that 56.4% is the highest level of representation of marketing at board level in any of the company size categories should be remedied, says Lloyd. While JW Lees does not have a marketer on its board, the business has made marketing central to all operations, so everyone sitting at the top table has “significant marketing experience”.

“However, at the same time I do think that piece on breeding good fundamental marketing practice is a missed opportunity – perhaps not at JW Lees, but at other businesses,” he explains.

“[They need to grow] understanding of those pure marketing principles; that marketing is more than communications, more than insight and research. Having that person on the board being a champion of marketing, or having directors with that marketing and commercial experience, is important.”

READ MORE: How marketing salaries stack up in 2019