How to train your marketeer

Last week I was invited by Abiodun Ajiborode, aka ‘Life Coach’ to join him for a discussion on career growth across the marketing and sales industry. Abiodun is the founder of the Brand Management Academy (BMA) in Nigeria, which has been set up to help bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical worlds of marketing leadership.

This was an interesting, and timely topic to discuss especially now in the current reality we are living in. Over the past couple of weeks, so many of us have found ourselves questioning our vocation, the role we play in society and if the work we are doing is making a difference. Personally, I have found myself questioning my own purpose and reflecting on ways to be more, do more and give back. This was a good opportunity to start.

As I thought about the topic and my own marketing career, I decided to keep it practical and personal. No two people have the same journey, no two same people experience the same things on their career path. While there is a lot of excellent academic literature about career growth, I am not an expert by any means in this area, so decided to reflect and share some of the key areas of my own journey.

To start I thought about the core values, or tenants that are critical to career success in my opinion. These values are universal, they traverse industries and are not mutually exclusive to marketing by any means. In my experience, these are key to driving a career that is worthwhile, and one that has meaning.


It all starts here. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, chances are you are not living your best life and getting and giving everything, you can out of your vocation. Life can change in an instant, and the world as we know it can be turned upside down in a few short weeks. If COVID has taught me anything, it is that life is short and that what you thought was once important may seem more trivial now. If you not playing with passion, and doing something you love, you may be falling short of living your best life.


I have written about purpose before through the lens of a brand. When I think about those brands that have a clear, authentic purpose, those are the ones that seem to be adapting to and leading the change that COVID is bringing. We often speak a lot about brand purpose but not as much about personal purpose. When thinking about career growth, I think purpose goes hand in hand with passion. If you feel that what you are doing is making a difference, if the rewards go beyond extrinsic motivators and you truly believe that you are working towards something greater than yourself then purpose begins to be a powerful driver. Careers have their up’s and down’s – some have more downs than ups and it is at these times that people question and second guess themselves. With passion and purpose, those inevitable low moments still arise, but somehow become far more manageable when you love what you are doing and see the difference you are making that goes beyond a pay cheque.


This is a pretty broad word because it can mean so much. The way I see diversity in terms of career growth is two-fold.

Firstly, diversity of experience. By allowing yourself to pursue different opportunities and try new things you shape your broad base of experience and in so doing also start to see what you are passionate about and what is meaningful for you. Passion and purpose do not always hit like a lightning bolt. Of course, this happens for some people, but I have also seen that through a variety of experiences you start to get closer to your calling.

Secondly, diversity of thought. By surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people (culturally, geographically, intellectually, racially, gender etc.) this allows you to see the world through a different lens. One of the greatest gifts I had while working for Coca-Cola was to experience diversity in action. I learned more from people that I had the privilege to interact with from all around the world than any textbook could teach me. Being ‘worldly’ is based on experience, not on classroom hours, and diversity is a catalyst for this.


At the end of the day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and answer for your actions. Much like a brand promise is to consumers, integrity is the chassis that you build your own personal brand on. You either have it, or you do not and there is no in-between on this. Integrity is best expressed not in what you say but what you do. Integrity is not what you do when you on stage, but what you do when others cannot see you. Small acts, day in and day out build that chassis. In addition to education, I believe that integrity is one of the things that no one can ever take away from you.

Using these four values to underpin everything, I then thought about the stages of my marketing career. As I mentioned, there is a lot of exceptional academic literature out there which shows stages of career growth and even allocates time frames to them. The literature also shows milestones and achievements you must reach to progress the various stages. While this is all valuable, it does not necessarily decode to this approach in everyday life and there are nuances and practicalities that individuals face that often mean their path is not as straightforward or didactic as some of the literature suggests.

I see career growth across marketing in four different phases. These phases are not timeframe bound, but more personalized to the individual journey we are each on.

Phase 1 – Getting Started

Starting the journey is often the hardest part. While the marketing world is a relatively small industry, in my experience it was one of the hardest to break into. Unlike other professions like law or accounting, as marketers we do not have ‘articles’ where we get to learn and build experience in the same structured way. While there are internships and university graduate placement programs with some companies, the world of marketing is not as open or accommodating as other industries when trying to get in. This was at least my personal experience when applying for jobs at the beginning of my journey. The most common feedback I received was ‘you don’t have the experience’… It is tough to get experience when no one will give you a shot.
On the back of what started to seem like scripted feedback, I continued to build my academic credentials while looking for experience. Ultimately, my studies paid off and once I got into the industry, I was able to learn and build my experience. These formative years for me were like joining an accounting firm and doing articles, albeit far less structured. I learned so much in these early days of my career and this ‘diversity’ of experience helped shape my thinking and validate my passion for marketing.

I learned a few key things in this phase, including:
This is the opportunity to apply your ‘book’ smarts and begin bridging the gap between theory and reality.
Learn the basics – of the industry, and your craft.
Pay your dues. Although we may think we know everything once we come out of university, the reality is we do not. This is a humbling phase of your career journey in marketing but one that will truly test you, and grow you, especially on the functional side.
Understand the value equation. Knowing how much value you are adding, while knowing how much value you are taking is an important lesson here. Try and make sure that you stay in the net positive range here.

The role of a coach and mentor. These are two vastly different things, and I wish I used them more effectively at the early stages of my career. Look for that coach who will help you with the more day to day delivery of your work, who can be a functional guide helping you navigate the world of marketing and how you fit into the bigger picture. Look for a mentor that can help you with the long game. Giving you advice that will set you up for success in the long run. These are investments from both sides, but the ROI can be significant.

Phase 2 – Ramping Up

You have started to build some stability in your experience and in your career. You have successfully applied your book smarts to the real world, and you are becoming more functionally sound. You have built some base line credibility within your company or within the industry and have a few projects of note under your belt. It is in this phase that while the functional skills continue to drive your experience and growth, the behavioral side starts to become more important. You may have the opportunity here to manage a small team, to engage with a larger set of agency relationships, or to lead a cross functional project. The ‘how’s start to become as important as the ‘what’s’. Success of your projects or campaigns is no longer solely measured on output or deliverables but equally on how they were delivered. Becoming a team player seems to be the name of the game here.

I learned a few key things in this phase, including:
Do not be afraid to step up and take on more visible projects. This may seem daunting at the time, but this is what managers and leaders are looking for. You will make mistakes (I can promise you that) and you will have some tough learning curves, but this is how we grow.

Marketing is a team sport and even the best player in the world is nothing without his or her team. In this phase I really learned that marketing is not an island and that we need to work with other teams a lot. This could be across the marketing function itself, or with other functions in the company. The relationships you build with your agency partners, the empowerment you give to your cross functional team and the way you build the people equation within the project you are leading will ultimately determine success. I have seen far too many ‘Rock Star’ marketers that think they are untouchable and that they single handed have the answers to everything. Believe me, this will catch up with them at some point.

Specialist vs. generalist. This is also a phase where you begin to see the big picture and how marketing truly works. Some people are the best in the world at what they do – they are specialists in one of the sub functions of marketing. For example, a connections strategist that not only understands media but how the human interaction takes place – someone who sees trends and can understand the premise of rituals and how to shape and influence behaviour. Specialists like these are so important in today’s marketing world – they push us to be better and to raise the bar.

Others are generalists, they understand the breadth of marketing sub functions and look to connect the dots between marketing and the business itself. As you progress this phase of your career, you may be drawn to the specialty or generalist path. This again goes back to passion and purpose and only you can decide which direction you want to go.

The Importance of Company Culture. Culture drives so much in the business world today. Some people join or leave companies solely based on their culture. Once you get to this phase you realize you can either add to, or distract from, the culture equation. By the nature of marketing, we are often at the forefront of company culture as key influencers thereof. As I look back, I realize that I had so much more influence than I knew in terms of shaping culture. While senior leadership are ultimately responsible to setting the culture, it is up to us to live it and build it. If you do not like the company culture you can leave, but if you do, you have a responsibility to help enhance and shape it. These are things that leaders look at when doing succession planning for the future leaders of the company.

Phase 3 – Balancing Act

You know you are in this phase when you become a leader of leaders. This is the phase that has the most responsibility first and foremost in terms of the people and teams you lead. The quality of your leadership will determine the success of the work that your teams are doing. You are a little further removed from the day to day delivery of projects but are working through your team to deliver them. You begin to rely on your functional ability and functional experience while you develop your leadership skills and how you get the work done versus doing the work yourself. Your focus has shifted from tactics to strategy, from campaigns to vision. In this phase you are either the functional lead (marketing director) or a very senior role in the organization generally reporting into the C-Suite.

While I certainly don’t have all the answers for this phase as I am still very much living it, there are a couple of things that I have learned so far when it comes to the balancing act that phase 3 is.

From doing to leading. This always looks so easy on paper, but it is incredibly tough in reality. Your role is to lead now and get work done through your team. Sometimes this is tough, sometimes you have to let the ball drop. This is the at the very core of the ‘balancing act’ and your success here is going to be far more proportional to your behaviours and how you lead as opposed to having the functional expertise to do the work yourself.

Challenge your comfort zones. Whether you have been in a certain industry for a while, or whether you are an expert in a specific function or area, there is the risk of plateauing when it comes to learning and growing. If this happens, and you will know when it does, it may be a good opportunity to evaluate your comfort zone and challenge yourself. This could mean moving to a new function, learning a new skill or changing your industry completely. Either way, comfort zones are dangerous, and you need to be aware of the plateau risk that exists in this phase.
Big Picture. More than ever, marketing as a function is been questioned and our seat at the C-suite table is often a debate. I believe more than ever in the importance of marketing and the value that it can add, but we have scored a lot of own goals along the way. Marketing is not only the ‘colouring in’ department as so many view it. Strategic decisions and direction on pricing, optimized route to market, P&L investment decisions etc. should be part of the gambit. As a marketing leader in this phase, you have the responsibility to represent the function holistically and show that marketing is far more than communication and promotion.

Phase 4 – Stepping Up

Phase 4 is called Stepping Up and this is the final phase of the growth journey in marketing. I see this phase as one where the marketer steps up to lead the organization or truly takes her seat at the c-suite table. I look forward to moving into this phase at some point and sharing the learnings from there but for now, I keep this ambition knowing that I still have so much to learn and so mush growth ahead of me before then.

As I reflect on my career, I am so grateful for the leaders and teams I have had the chance to be part of. I look back and feel inspired by the early stages of my growth in the industry I love. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to learn at great institutions like the University of Johannesburg and the Jack Welch Management Institute. Most of all, I feel privileged to have worked for companies like Coca-Cola and Google who have a clear purpose in the world and who have both shaped me as a marketer and a leader. As I reach the mid-point in my journey, I know that there is a lot still ahead for me and I can’t wait to see what the next twenty years has in store.

Written by Brad Ross, Global Account Executive at Google and AdAge 40 under 40


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