Every year, I meet with many talented interns who are thinking about entering the field of marketing. In the past, I talked about how to get marketing experience without an internship. Here's one question that came from a b-school student this year:
How would you suggest that young people develop their abilities to become a top marketer in a large organization?
This seems self apparent, but each person will need their own approach. A person’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, etc., will greatly affect one’s career path. You might, for instance, have an extraordinary ability or interest in design, or perhaps in data analysis, and either of those would put your career on a fairly specific track.
Obviously, it also depends on your target organization, since they have different needs. For example, a design-driven consumer organization is going to have different needs than a sales-focused B2B organization.
That said, to move up the ranks of marketing management, I would want to acknowledge two big trends. The first trend is that there is a lot more complexity in marketing today than even just 10-20 years ago. This complexity is driven by the availability of data and general technology: we simply have more options and more to consider today than before. The second is that competition in the field of marketing has increased; a greater number of smarter people have jumped into the marketing field—as is probably true of any corporate function.
With these two trends in mind, trying to be a generalist too early in your career may not give you the best chance for development. Competition is just too strong, and things have become too complex. Instead, a simple rule of thumb is to become a specialist in two or more areas within marketing, with at least one being a quantitative discipline. This may sound like a misnomer—to be a specialist, you need to focus; to be a double-specialist almost certainly reduces your focus. However, it would be hard to take a top position in marketing while being a specialist in a single area.
Attempting to be a specialist in two or more disciplines will mean you should be prepared to make a switch after a few years of work, including, potentially, a step backwards at that time. For example, to switch from being a search engine marketing role to a product development role may require you to step back one level.
To become excellent in two or more disciplines, you may need to spend many years in each. That excellence is unlikely to be achieved through classroom assignments. To be a specialist, you’ll actually need to work through real life situations, plan for them, act on your plans, and make adjustments based on your results and on the ever changing marketplace.
It's important that at least one of the disciplines be quantitative in nature. This can include anything that is primarily driven by numbers, such as search marketing optimization, media planning/post-campaign analysis, general statistical analysis, research-based insights, pricing, etc. Measurement has simply become a requirement in marketing, and if you don’t have mastery of numbers, it is unlikely that top marketing jobs will be available to you.