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If the Marketing Career Fits

Hal Conick

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Everyone’s path to marketing is different. How do skills from an assortment of degrees translate to the field?

Years before she became a marketer, Angie Myers was jarred awake one morning by a ringing phone. Get to the newsroom as soon as possible, she was told—Myers, then a TV producer for NBC News in New York City, was resting for a night shift but quickly got dressed and into her car. It was Sept. 11, 2001. Myers fought through traffic from her New Jersey home, finally opting to take the lone working subway line from Jersey City into Manhattan. She spent the day crying as she worked, spellbound and horrified. Nearly two decades later, Myers reflects on whether anything in her marketing career has come close to being as hectic as that day. “Well, hmm,” Myers says. “I haven’t had any bad days.”

Years before he became a marketer, Hunter Rojas worked on a political campaign (“That wasn’t my jam”), waited tables at Chicago fine-dining restaurant Charlie Trotter’s (“I needed to kill time to figure out what I want to do”) and worked for a cryptocurrency company (“I realized the startup thing wasn’t going to work out the way I had hoped”). He left these jobs feeling unsatisfied. There had to be something else.

Before he became a marketer, Brian Wise studied engineering and worked as a project manager for a manufacturing line at Unilever. The job was fine, relevant to his major, but what truly attracted him was the company’s brand mission. “I found that it’s pretty damn cool to work for a company that is really invested in making the world a better place,” he says.

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Myers, Rojas and Wise were all on paths that didn’t obviously lead to marketing—but eventually did. Their stories aren’t uncommon: A 2013 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that less than a third of college graduates worked in a job directly related to their college major. When they change paths, people often find a marketing job, according to a 2019 report by labor market analysis company Emsi, titled “Degrees at Work.” In three of the majors, marketing became one of the top three outcomes by the graduate’s third job. It’s as though marketing has a gravitational pull, says Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer of labor analytics firm Emsi.

“If you think about the core functions within business, you’ve got to make things that people want,” he says. “And once you figure out how to make those things, you have to make sure people are aware of those things. That’s the role of marketing, to do all that strategic communications. That is a huge part of our economy. We just probably don’t talk about it as much as we should.”

Many graduates with these degrees had likely never considered marketing, which Sentz believes is the fault of the university system for not being realistic with students. Universities don’t often tell English majors, for example, that a marketing profession is a common outcome for people who earn an English degree. So when students hear the common question of, “How are you going to make a living with that degree?” they are often faced with unrealistic answers. But Sentz says that these students should know that marketing is a good option for people with a language degree, a path that others have successfully traveled. Marketing may not be their goal, but it’s a good option.

That decision is an especially good one with the current demand for marketers. Marketing positions are incredibly popular—Sentz says that there were 2 million ads for marketing positions posted between May and July of this year—and there’s demand in these roles for the skills held by non-marketing graduates. In terms of major occupation categories, marketing is a top-20 area of growth across the entire country, Sentz says. “Other examples in that category are transportation, statisticians, nurse practitioners, financial examiners,” he says. “Marketing really stands out as playing a key role in the economy.”

Sentz says that people with transferable skills only find marketing through market demand—a needlessly long route. He says that students should be given shortcuts to marketing, such as showing them statistics of career outcomes for those who possess their skills. But they needn’t be dissuaded from their current degree path.

“We shouldn’t tell them, ‘You need to switch your major,’” he says. “It’s good you majored in English and you’re worried about what you might do with the English degree—[marketing] is a really interesting area of application.”

Non-marketing majors can apply their skills to marketing and fill the demand of a hungry market. Sara Eide, vice president of technology staffing services at HR consulting firm Robert Half, says that unemployment in creative professions was far below the national rate of 3.7% as of this July. Unemployment of PR specialists, for example, was less than 1%. This means that firms looking to hire for these roles likely aren’t getting grizzled veterans every time they post a job opening. More likely, they’re realistic enough to look for someone who has transferable skills.

“The net definitely gets cast wide,” Eide says. “From a recruiting standpoint, we always start with specific marketing skills, but we’re always talking to clients—especially with this shortage of talent that we’re seeing. The marketplace across the country is so tight for marketing and digital professionals that we’re asking every client to stretch a little bit.”

If organizations are straining to hire more marketers with less of a requirement for marketing experience, the time is right for non-marketers to make their move. The road to becoming a marketer is a well-traveled path with plenty of demand, even for graduates of the following majors.

Communications

Common skills of communications majors: research, writing, analysis, decision-making, problem-solving, social media, media relations, public speaking

TV news is a young person’s profession, says Myers. After working in NBC’s newsroom amid the chaos of 9/11, she helped launch MSNBC, often working seven days a week from night until early morning. Sometimes, she misses the urgency of the big story, of being the first to hear about important news. More often, she’s glad that she found another career in which she excels and that doesn’t require mortgaging her sleep schedule.

After Myers earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and spent 15 years in news, she transitioned into marketing and communications in 2007, working as a consultant, producer and communications manager in industries such as media relations, politics and food. This year, at 51, she received her master’s degree in technical and professional communications and got a job as director of marketing and communications at the Turnaround Management Association, a nonprofit focused on improving business performance.

“The skill set really does cross over,” she says of both her journalism career and communications degree. “A lot of what we do today is content marketing. We’re always telling stories and we’re trying to engage people with information and tell them why they should belong to a nonprofit organization or support it.”

Communications majors most commonly end up as marketers. Emsi’s report finds that while communications majors start in journalism and PR, the bulk of graduates (20%) become marketers by their second job. “Communications majors are engaging both in the analytics and digital communications that drive marketing strategy, and the systems management needed to implement that strategy,” Emsi’s report says, adding that many also end up in digital marketing with a focus on SEO and analytics.

Marketing can be seen as the ultimate communications profession, Emsi’s report says—it’s creative, analytical and largely web-based, all skills that communications majors often learn in school. Myers agrees, as people with communications backgrounds can write well, make quick decisions and are trained to tell the best stories.

Sentz says that nearly every marketing job posting now mentions management or communication. The natural managers, he says, seem to come from degrees such as liberal arts, social sciences and communications.

“When we talk about marketing at the highest level, what businesses continue to signal in the market is their need for excellent communicators,” Sentz says. “And I would say in the case of marketing, it’s strategic. … Strategic communicators are able to operate really big picture stuff across the web, newsletters and different conferences. They are absolutely critical in the economy. This is how companies distribute their products and services. There’s clearly a huge need for it; the four big degree areas—social sciences, liberal arts, business and communication—all feed it. The more we can make people aware of that, the better.”

Language, Philosophy and Social Sciences

Common skills of language majors: communication, interpreting information, conveying meaning, leading discussion, giving presentations

Common skills of philosophy majors: logical thinking, problem-solving, analysis, attention to detail, research, breaking down complex ideas

Common skills of social sciences majors: research, critical thinking, organizational skills, interpersonal relationships, oral and written communication, analysis

In his undergraduate years, Hunter Rojas majored in political science, philosophy and macroeconomics, a trifecta of topics he believes taught him how to think analytically. “I didn’t really have any concrete skills, but I knew how to digest a lot of information [and] distill it down to the main points,” he says.

While analytical abilities may not have come in handy on a political campaign or in fine dining, Rojas says that it has been essential in working with clients at an ad agency. Now, Rojas is associate director of marketing sciences at the agency Mindshare, where he must have technical knowledge but also be able to translate complex chunks of information to clients in ways that they can comprehend.

“It’s really [about] convincing the client that you guys are moving in the right direction,” Rojas says. “If you want to stay bleeding-edge, you have to do things that are radically different than what was done maybe even five or 10 years ago.”

Those who earned these degrees—after years of struggling with the arguments of philosopher Emmanuel Kant, the writings of author James Joyce and the antipositivism of sociologist Max Weber—are likely better equipped to explain to clients why a radical change is needed. They can read through thick reports and research industry trends and determine how the changes should be made to the client’s business. They can funnel complex sets of information into easily digestible reports and conversations.

Emsi’s report finds that philosophy and language graduates who get marketing jobs—the fourth most popular job out of college of these majors and the second most popular as their third job—are “highly digital,” with their strongest skill being analytics. Similarly, social science majors who turn to marketing—their fourth-most popular job out of college and third-most popular as a second and third job—are also highly digital, working with analytics, SEO and social media.

“I wouldn’t recommend a homogenous approach to getting people into marketing,” Sentz says. “That said, we probably need to do more to help people from English and social science degrees understand that marketing is a common outcome and how they can translate what they’re learning into that area in the same way that a business-communication student [knows]. We should make them more aware of the likelihood of that outcome.”

What Companies Are Looking for From New Marketers

Whether in your first marketing job or looking to move up the ladder, Robert Half’s Sara Eide says that employers are specifically looking for a few different skills:

Social Media: Employers want to see how you’ve used social media to interact with people, whether personally or professionally.

Data and Analytics: “Everybody wants to know how they can get their hands on more data,” she says.

Soft Skills: You could have all the marketing experience in the world, but Eide says that employers are putting greater weight on soft skills. These are non-technical, non-industry-specific skills, such as leadership, problem-solving, communication and building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. If you’re new to marketing, good soft skills may give you an edge.

Motivation: In a recent survey from Robert Half, Eide says that 53% of ad and marketing professionals say that motivation skills are the most important factor they consider, especially when promoting someone to mid-management or supervisory-type positions.

How Much Do They Earn?

Marketing

  • 25th percentile: $25.10/hour
  • Median: $35.81/hour
  • 75th percentile earnings: $55.14/hour

Management

  • 25th percentile: $33.95/hour
  • Median: $49.91/hour
  • 75th percentile earnings: $72.33/hour

Business and Financial Analysis

  • 25th percentile: $24.43/hour
  • Median: $32.92/hour
  • 75th percentile earnings: $44.52/hour

**All numbers from EMSI’s 2019 Degrees at Work report

Information Technology and Business

Common skills of information technology majors: planning, troubleshooting, problem-solving, organizational skills

Common skills of business majors: problem-solving, analytical thinking, organizational knowledge, logical thinking, report writing, communications

Rojas earned his MBA in IT management as he worked in startups. In his spare time, he learned to code through the free education service Code Academy, which he hoped would help familiarize him with cryptocurrency and the startup world. When working as a web analyst at Wisconsin’s Great Wolf Lodge, Rojas noticed that his agency counterparts seemed to be having a lot of fun, so he worked his way into an analytics role at an agency and hasn’t looked back since.

Rojas says that he wasn’t much of a math person before learning to code, but it has been invaluable to his agency career. By learning to code, Rojas was able to grasp online ad operations, which required an understanding of scripting languages such as Javascript. It also gave him better domain knowledge, which has helped him build practical, predictive models, a skill he says many people lack, especially those who are new to analytics.

“How do you configure an ad server? How do you deploy tags? How do you deal with the complexities?” Rojas asks. “Web designers don’t really understand any of that very well. Unless you’ve worked in the ad ops environment or had a job in that space, no one else would be able to teach you how to do that.”

Marketers—whether they feel that they’re “math people” or not—need both technical skills and business know-how. Those who possess both may have an easier time segueing into a marketing career. Emsi’s report finds that 9% of business and 3% of IT graduates go into marketing, making the transferable skills rarer and likely more in demand. Robert Half’s Eide says that many companies are now looking for marketers with web and mobile development skills, as well as user interface and user experience skills.

“It’s all around data and how we’re using it,” Eide says, adding that she believes marketing will soon pull in more technology- and data-minded people.

Engineering

Common skills of engineering majors: technical skills, problem-solving, project management, teamworking

Brian Wise worked in engineering at Unilever and Battelle as he studied industrial and systems engineering at college. He noticed that much of his work, even on machines and factory lines, eventually focused on communication and project management, which he found engaging. Although Wise says that he enjoyed his early engineering jobs, it was the Unilever brand that resonated with him most. The corporation lists one vision across all its brands: “To make sustainable living commonplace. We believe this is the best long-term way for our business to grow.”

Wise got his first taste of marketing in college, starting his own retail company by buying items from Alibaba and flipping them for more money on Amazon. “I realized that I was [practicing] marketing,” he says. “Marketing is really just about the profit and loss statement and finding some ways to … purchase something and connect the consumer with their need. I asked Unilever if I could do an internship in marketing.”

The company gave Wise an internship at Hellmann’s and Best Foods in summer 2017, then made him an assistant brand manager for the company’s The Right to Shower product line. “I found that marketing really ends up being the same thing as engineering in terms of project management,” Wise says. “My engineering education became incredibly valuable.”

Like Rojas, Wise saw that marketing is now based heavily in data, modeling and statistics, something he says has helped him greatly. When Wise studied to be an engineer, he learned a lot about statistics and was two classes away from a mathematics degree, something he’s noticed that few career marketers have. “That grounds me so well to … be able to manipulate a [profit and loss statement], but also understand the statistics and media,” Wise says.

For engineering graduates, marketing gains popularity over time, Emsi’s report finds. Marketing is the seventh most popular job right out of school for engineers, but it becomes the fifth most popular by their third job. By then, Emsi reports that marketing employs 5% of all engineering graduates.

Wise says he’s learned that engineers who go into marketing must strike a balance between their focused, analytic mind and big-picture thinking. Engineers can execute ideas and projects, being strategic and methodical, but Wise says that they often become hyper-focused on a single problem. Someone once told Wise that, in marketing, if you can’t see a solution from where you’re looking, you don’t look harder. Instead, you must look at other facets of the project and avoid hyper-focusing.

Jobs by Industry, From 2009 to 2019**

Marketing

  • 2009: 800, 846
  • 2019: 1.3 million
  • Percent increase: 63.1%

Management

  • 2009: 6.4 million
  • 2019: 8.3 million
  • Percent increase: 30.1%

Business and Financial Analysis

  • 2009: 6.5 million
  • 2019: 8.2 million
  • Percent increase: 26%

Sales

  • 2009: 3.3 million
  • 2019: 4 million
  • Percent increase: 21.8%

**All numbers from EMSI’s 2019 Degrees at Work report

Making the Move

When Eide has a non-marketing client she’s trying to place in a marketing role, she first has to sell the organization on why someone without the role’s desired background should be considered. For professionals trying to break into marketing, this means having relevant skills—soft skills, motivation and technical skills—that could transition onto a marketing team. It also means being able to communicate these abilities to recruiters and potential employers, with which many people—marketers and non-marketers alike—struggle.

“They’ve got to be able to sell themselves,” says Eide. “They need to do a little bit of research and be able to be a consultant on their own behalf, to tailor their résumé. They need to make sure that they’ve highlighted the pieces they think would be beneficial to the marketing team.

“Don’t go in with a defeatist attitude—that ‘I’ll never get into marketing’—when the market is so good right now,” she says. “Go in with confidence. You’ve got to be able to market yourself. … If you want to get into marketing and advertising, but you can’t explain why you yourself would fit in, I would question what kind of strategy and creativity you’re bringing to this team.”

Wise says that marketers are automatic leaders within a company, but they first need to understand their own skill set and how it will be used by the marketing team. Potential marketers should figure out what would differentiate them, how their unique insights could fit onto a team and what they want to do at work.

For someone who has never made a career move before, jumping into an entirely new field may seem scary. But Myers found her career change energizing and fun—“If you look into different professions and different ways to use your skill set, you can make yourself more marketable,” she says. To improve your marketability, Myers suggests accumulating additional credentials, whether that be another degree—she took online classes to get her master’s in communications—or a new certification.

Rojas, admittedly a man of many interests, says that it’s rare for someone to know exactly what they want to do as they start their career. He suggests that everyone—especially new graduates—expose themselves to as many different roles as possible.

“The people who are able to pivot well are the people that are really curious,” he says. “It’s not just about sending an email and then getting the response that you need to finish your project, it’s asking, ‘Why did you do that?’ and ‘How did you get there?’ so you understand the whole process. It’s those kinds of people who are able to get a good feel for all the opportunities that are available in the space. They’re the ones who start making that pivot early.”

Rojas suggests living by a “startup philosophy” of failing quickly, early in a career. Go after the work as fiercely as possible, but be honest and ask yourself: Do you like your job? “Don’t just keep that job for 18 months because you’re afraid that if you leave too early it’ll look bad on your résumé,” he says.

No matter where a future marketer is coming from, there are ways to transfer the skills they learned in college and early in their careers. Sentz says that there should be no rush to switch majors or pit one major against another—the contents of a degree are often worth far more than its title.

“The name of the program is not the name of the job,” he says. “We just need to help them understand that better.”

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.