Specialize

Digital marketing is often talked about in general terms. I hear young people describe their career goals as wanting to become a “digital marketer”. They have identified a growing field to join, which is good, but this is far too general. What do you see yourself doing, I will ask? On a given day, in a given moment? Are you pushing out an email? Are you sending a tweet? Analyzing web traffic? Designing a mobile app?

The thing about digital marketing is, everyone gets it at about 10,000 feet. However, when you start to zoom in, it can be difficult to get everything at 1,000 feet. It is nearly impossible to get everything, or even more than two or three things at 100 feet. An optimization expert probably can’t design an effective email campaign. A social media strategist would probably struggle to build actionable segments in a database. Each of these things requires a different skill set, and requires that successful individuals spend a lot of time developing their expertise. It simply isn’t reasonable for someone to be an expert in all areas of digital marketing.

Depending on your level of experience, you may not need to have a specialized skill set just yet. However, I have found that it is beneficial to have a specialized area of interest that you can speak to intelligently. There are plenty of areas worth specializing in that don’t require many extra years of advanced education. You can specialize in a function (email or analytics) or specialize in a specific tool (Google Analytics or Adobe Campaign). The specialization doesn’t necessarily require a certification (but those help). It is important that you quickly acquire relevant experience that you can speak to. What’s the best way to get this experience? See above comment about certifications.

I fall into the category of a generalist. If I’m trying to sound important, I’ll call myself a Digital Strategist.  If I could do it all over again, I’d probably have at least one specialty that I could fall back on. While I have managed to succeed as a generalist, certain doors within the consulting world have remained closed to me.  Being a generalist requires you to be develop a reputation for having “softer” skills, such as problem solving, industry expertise, quantitative skills, business acumen…and it helps if you can bundle more than one of these. It does offer some flexibility – I don’t have to worry about a tool or technology falling out of favor. But I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked if I have experience with email, asset management, analytics, or lead tracking tools. This specialized experience would have opened doors for me, leading to even more valuable experience.

Growth Is Painful

Your job won’t be easy. But it won’t be challenging in the way a difficult test is. It is messy, without a clearly defined problem, much less an easily identifiable solution. It will feel like you are spinning your wheels, wasting time. It will feel like you aren’t good at your job. This is how it should be. Because this is why a robot can’t do your job.

Look back a day, a week, a month. Has progress been made? It may not have been pretty, but the job got done. Most importantly, a replicable job got done. You are now the person that knows how to handle this particular challenge. You’ve learned. You’ve grown. It was painful.

These are the building blocks to a career. We learn through experience, which is why employers place such a premium on it. The only way to grow, to gain quality experience is to embrace the slog. Embrace the messy, painful, difficult situations that make you want to bang your head against the wall. Dive into the problems that shouldn’t be there, the ones that make everyone throw their hands in the air in frustration. Volunteer to figure out how to navigate politics, antiquated systems, difficult supplier or clients.

We aren’t all Nobel prize winners discovering game theory on a white board. This is how most of us will figure out what we are good at and establish our place in the world. It’s painful, but it’s worth it.

Digital Marketing Career Paths: Consulting

College students or recent college grads that are interested in a career in digital marketing will reach out to me occasionally. It’s a topic I know a lot about, but I almost always disappoint them when I tell them that I don’t actually do digital marketing. I consult on it. I help digital marketers leverage new tools and marketing teams develop new digital capabilities. But I don’t actually stick around to do any of those things. It’s worth noting that my firm does have people that stay behind to do the actual work, but that’s a different post.

So what do I do? Well, the common thread for me has been to work with marketing departments that are undergoing some kind of change. This change is usually geared towards becoming more digital and more data-driven. This may sound simple on the surface, but once you start to dig a little it gets complicated. Really complicated.

We help them organize their data. We help them organize their teams. We help them decide which digital capabilities they want. We help them understand which technologies and tools they should invest in. We help them install these tools. We develop org charts, processes, and governance to ensure everything runs effectively. Within each of these categories, there are other tricky problems that emerge and we help our clients solve these too. With as fast as technology and media is changing, there is plenty of work for consultants in the digital marketing world.

This path has been interesting and frustrating at the same time. You get to work with very smart, very senior, very cool people that do some cutting-edge things in digital. However, like I mentioned earlier – I don’t stick around to DO any digital marketing.

For those that want to become real digital marketers, there is an important caveat here. I have plenty of colleagues that started in consulting and are now DOING digital marketing in another industry. So if that is your end goal, consulting can help you get there. You also develop very valuable problem solving, critical thinking, presentation, leadership and teamwork skills, among others.

What We’re Good At

In a recent conversation with a mentor, I received a mild scolding for not giving myself credit for one of my strengths. I was praised for my ability to take a project from the strategic phase to the execution phase. This is a core strength of mine, and had been crucial to our team. To me, this is just what needed to get done. In my mind, everyone has the ability to do this, because it seems natural to me. Apparently it isn’t.

I think this is very common. We often think that what is familiar to us is familiar to everyone. This is obviously not the case, and I’m glad it was pointed out to me. I think this is especially true with “softer” skills. We either don’t recognize these as skills that make us valuable, or we downplay them because they don’t come with a degree or certification. It is important that we understand that your soft skills – the ability to deal with ambiguity, persevere in a stressful environment, presentation skills – those are all important.

Since these aren’t easily marketed on our resume or LinkedIn page, it is very important to become good at articulating these. While it is worth pointing out that companies and hiring managers could focus more attention to softer skills, job applicants can’t control that. What they can control is how well they articulate their soft skills. They can organize their thoughts around examples of how this has helped them and their teams succeed.

This requires that we spend time to think about strengths, speaking with friends and colleagues that know us best. Then, sitting down and writing out why this benefits your current or future employer. It is exactly the kind of thing that I hate doing (we can talk about weaknesses later), but it is absolutely imperative.

 

McDonald’s

I had probably eaten at McDonald’s twice in the past seven years. Then my dad died. I don’t know why, but this seemed to trigger a brief romance with the fast food chain.

The first instance came when my brother and I hadn’t eaten in hours at my dad’s wake. Hundreds of people came and waited in line for hours to pay their respects. We felt obligated to stay in line, but my cousin ran out to grab us some burgers. I was actually a little concerned with how my body would react. When I bit into my Big Mac, I hadn’t tasted anything so rewarding in years.

The next time I had McDonald’s was a few days later as I was driving from my hometown of Buffalo back to Connecticut, where we live now. Given the whirlwind of a week that had just past, we hadn’t packed anything for our 22-month old son to eat for lunch. So we decided he’d probably eat chicken nuggets and fries. I declared that McDonald’s had the best fries, so we might as well go there. My wife and I had packed sandwiches so we really weren’t eating there (although I scavenged plenty of my son’s fries).

The experience at the McDonald’s we visited that day was dramatically different from what I had anticipated. First, there was a piano on a stage, surrounded by stools. No one was playing, but it was certainly interesting.Then there was the employee that was sweeping the floors who brought over a high chair for my son (I was still pretty disoriented from the past week, so it never dawned on me to get one myself). Then he had a friendly chat with me about his grandson, who is close in age to my son. Finally, after I ordered a second round of fries after my son threw his on the floor, the manager told me he would have paid for them. Completely unnecessary, but the gesture really resonated with me, far more than it would have a few weeks prior. This brief visit to a McDonald’s near the thruway in Cortland, NY was a very unexpected force for good.

Then today, I decided it was time to close out my tryst with McDonald’s. I had given myself permission to eat whatever I wanted for a few weeks, because that was probably going to happen anyways. I enjoyed Girl Scout cookies I might have otherwise rationed along with plenty of salty snacks. I was at a UPS store having a notary witness my signature on my notice to my parent’s attorney to waive probate — something I have been assured is merely me avoiding having to show up in court — when I decided to bring my binge to a close in the best way I could think of, one more trip to McDonald’s.

I decided to recreate a value meal from my past. Growing up, my family would order a meal that had two cheeseburgers, fries and a drink. We’d order about 4 of these for the 5 of us and it would work out. One of our family’s favorite stories to tell is the time we stopped at a McDonald’s in Florida just after our flight landed. When this familiar value meal was unavailable, we all hesitated and didn’t know what to eat. My dad then informed the person working at the drive through that “we’re all brain dead” and pulled into a parking space. We then walked into that same McDonald’s to order our meals.

I ordered two cheeseburgers, a medium fry, and a small drink today. It didn’t really feel special, but I kind of felt I owed it to McDonald’s for being a strange force of comfort in a difficult time. I informed my wife that salads are on the menu at home tonight, and hopefully the weather will warm soon so I can resume half-marathon training. I’m not sure when the next time I’ll eat at McDonald’s again, but for whatever reason, it’s treated me well these past few weeks.

I’m sure there is a branding lesson in here somewhere. But that is for another post.

What are we doing here?

As a college student majoring in marketing looking to embark on a career in that field, I knew remarkably little about what potential career options were available to me. My approach was to begin my career search with the list of companies that were coming to recruit on campus – eventually landing in a sales role with Cingular (soon to be rebranded as AT&T Mobility). This isn’t necessarily bad, after all my family and I had spent a large amount of money on my education, so it made sense take advantage of the career resources available to me, and get a job.
Fast forward to me as a first-year MBA at NYU. This was me hitting the reset button on my career. Taking on loads of debt to make the move from my sales role at AT&T to…something cool in a marketing related field. I hadn’t really defined what I wanted to do, but figured I was in the right place to figure it all out. Naturally, I got pulled into pursuing one of the three main tracks: consulting, banking or brand management. I was going to pursue brand management. I was excited about this career path, but ultimately the CPG firms looking to hire brand managers weren’t excited about me. Accenture eventually found me and I dove into consulting. I am very fortunate this happened, but as you can tell, I kind of lucked into the best move of my career.
What was I lacked at each of these steps was a general understanding of the potential career paths that matched my interests and skills. I was just taking swings at job openings.
I don’t regret any of my career moves, but I feel lucky to be where I am today considering that I never really had much of a vision for myself. I accepted my job with AT&T because they had a great training program, lasting six months. As a senior in college, I couldn’t even imagine being more than six months out of school. The real reason I pursued my MBA is that I had friends applying to business school and law school, and I wanted in on the excitement. I also fell in love with a romanticized version of NYU. By some miracle, it lived up to the hype. Finally, I joined Accenture assuming I’d be out of consulting within two years. The snag in that plan was that I enjoyed what I did at Accenture, which again is a lucky coincidence for me. So here I have I stayed, having enjoyed some successes, and most importantly, still excited by the work.
The reason I state all of this is I don’t think it was entirely my fault. What exists to help students (undergrad and graduate) can struggle to keep up with a rapidly changing marketplace. I recall hearing from a lot of successful people whose careers I would have loved to emulate, but they didn’t get their start in any of the avenues that were open to me. So I formulated a plan to join the burgeoning field of digital marketing. It really lacked specifics.
Now that I am in the position to have students reach out to me, I find that they are in a similar position. They want a career in digital marketing, but don’t elaborate much beyond that. This is too broad of a term for anyone to have a meaningful conversation about how to approach their first job after school. There are many different functions, career paths, areas of expertise, and revenue drivers that make up the world of Digital Marketing. I do my best to turn these into productive conversations with the students understanding what I do in consulting, mainly because I completely understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.
I believe there is value for students to break down digital marketing into its component parts, they can have conversations that go beyond role descriptions. I also believe that it is very beneficial to specialize to have a successful career in digital marketing, and understanding the specialties helps with career planning. I know, because I didn’t do this.
As I have made my way through the twists and turns of my career, I have always been envious of the people whose career moves seem logical, building upon each step as they rocket towards success. They specialized in something early in their career that either became their career or positioned them perfectly for their future.
We all know what happens to the best laid plans. But a comprehensive understanding of the various career paths in digital marketing can only benefit those that are just striking out. Best of luck.