Learning About Marketing Careers 101
Updated: Oct 10
What is a marketing career? What do marketers do?
Freshman spring, I took a marketing class and loved it. Right then and there, in introduction to marketing, I committed to becoming a marketing major. My parents didn't even know the definition of marketing. I kind of didn't either. Flash forward to sophomore spring: I'd taken introduction to marketing, consumer behavior, and marketing research. But as summer internship application season rolled around, I realized I knew nothing about the marketing industry. What is a marketing career? What do marketers do?
Last week, I met with my first advisees as a new Student Industry Advisor (SIA). A freshman and sophomore considering pursuing marketing asked similar questions following my basic agency vs. in-house shpeal. Mainly: "this was great, but how do I keep learning?" Rather than verbally spewing everything I know at them, I decided to compile my favorite resources and approaches in an organized, living document.
Not everyone reading may want to pursue a marketing career, but the general types of sources and learning process I used to go from "I don't know what this is" to advising other students may help generate a learning plan for familiarizing yourself with any professional field.
In my experience, there are two main obstacles to learning about anything complex: 1) each industry or career uses specialized vocab—early answers to beginner questions may raise more confusion than before. What's a holding company? Account manager? Copywriting? In-house? And 2) it's hard to ask good questions without knowing what it is that you don't know. My early experiences with research and informational interviews felt like reading a chapter from the middle of a book. I understood each sentence, but not how it fit into the full story or where the chapter sat relative to others.
As a SIA, I hope to alleviate the confusion and stress that comes with understanding marketing careers. I spent all of sophomore year incredibly anxious at my lack of understanding about what I was working towards and how to prepare. I can't wave my hands and unlock all the information I've pieced together over the last year, but I can provide a starting point and game plan in an otherwise unstructured learning process.
Agency vs. in-house
The two general categories that make up the the zoomed-out birds-eye-view of marketing careers: agency and in-house. In summary, agencies specialize in marketing projects for other companies (eg. Nike hires Wieden + Kennedy to create assets for advertising campaigns). Agencies can specialize in advertising, public relations (PR), social media, etc. or provide a full range of marketing services. The agency-client set-up involves working with new, diverse clients frequently. In-house marketing means you're directly hired by a brand (eg. Nike. Pretty much any brand you can think of has in-house marketers). As an in-house marketer, you'll focus on the company's brand and likely hold a more specialized role. Here is an overview article on agency vs. in-house careers.
"What are the top marketing companies? Like, McKinsey and BCG for consulting but for marketing." I also asked this question in the beginning. But unlike consulting, marketing isn't really rank-able. In-house marketing, as an internal division, isn't evaluated in isolation, and agency ranking metrics vary: by most revenue, most prestigious clients, longest repeat client contracts, most innovative culture, etc. That being said, some client-side marketing departments receive larger budgets and more business priority than others and agencies do get ranked, via a variety of metrics, all the time.
An extensive PDF, courtesy of Ad Age.
Top in-house marketing
Brands like L'Oréal, Procter & Gamble (famous for their brand management role), Chanel, Nike, and American Express invest in their marketing departments (and resulting campaigns). If a company has been featured in marketing articles (like this one) or spends ad dollars generously, then there's a good chance they have a solid marketing department.
For the most part, though, if a company as a whole is growing and doing well, all of its internal divisions (including marketing) get more funding and decision-making influence.
How to use rankings
Companies officially ranked for their marketing may not be the best fit for you. Rather than informing where to apply, I like to use rankings for:
Context. Accustom my ear to company names and industry players to immediately recognize the contexts in which they appear. It's of those things like when you meet someone in class and then you suddenly start seeing them everywhere; you don't actually see them more frequently, you just now notice and recognize each occurrence.
Branding. Look though the websites of known strong marketing players. How do they brand themselves? What marketing jargon do they throw around? What "vibe" are you getting? How do they talk about their business goals and company mission? This is another step that will tune your ear to the marketing language and start to introduce patterns.
Job descriptions. Established, growing companies who emphasize marketing will likely hire marketers at a higher frequency than average. Browse their openings— What skills do they ask for? What is the wording of the job description? Job descriptions can provide an easy way to understand marketing job responsibilities without having to talking to current marketers.
There's no such thing as an overarching culture for all marketing roles out there. For in-house roles, the culture of the marketing department will closely mirror the company's culture, whereas agencies may overlap more in being fast-faced, hierarchical, and creative. Culture is complex and influenced by company mission, geography, management, recruiting practices, etc. The best way to understand culture is to talk to a handful of current employees at a company to collect your own internal sample.
Required marketing skills vary widely depending on your role of interest. A marketing intelligence analyst may need to know SQL, basic coding, advanced Excel, and data analytics. On the other hand, a content marketer may need a writing portfolio, familiarity with social media, and graphic design skills.
Overall, though, after asking "what skills do you need to excel at XYZ-marketing-specialty" over 30 times, the most common answers, regardless of speciality are:
Writing and copywriting (distinction here)
Communication (both written and verbal)
Storytelling (more on its application to marketing here)
There are entire blogs dedicated to the ins-and-outs of marketing. I highly recomend subscribing to their respective newsletters for weekly learnings straight from your inbox. In no particular order:
HubSpot, Buffer, Marketing Examples, SEMRush, CLX (advanced long-form articles on marketing experimentation), Disruptive Advertising, and Customer Journey Marketer. I also like the Marketing Brew newsletter for free marketing news snippets.
Very rarely is someone's job title just "marketer." Here is an extensive list of possible titles. Marketing is a rapidly changing industry in general, so new titles emerge and fluctuate in popularity often (eg. "digital marketer" used to be a niche. Now it's way too broad to mean anything). I recommend doing a quick Google search of every row in the article to understand the definition of each role and how they relate. Then, when you're ready, find school alumni with each of those titles on LinkedIn to talk to someone about the specifics of the role.
Key Words: The Marketing Glossary
Beginning my marketing careers research, I ran into unfamiliar vocab and acronyms left and right (search engine optimization (SEO), qualified lead, call-to-action, buyer persona...). This comprehensive article diving into marketing definitions is worth a read and bookmark for future reference.
I'm still learning and there wouldn't be much use in rehashing existing helpful content. See below for a list of helpful links. Readings optional but strongly encouraged :)
How To Shape A Tone of Voice - A deep-dive into one aspect of brand marketing
37 Free Social Media and Marketing Courses - If you prefer a more guided way of learning, check out one of these free online classes
The Growth Marketer: Skills of Modern Marketers - One view of the generalist vs. specialized balance of modern marketing skills
How To Become A T-Shaped Marketer - What is a t-shaped marketer and how to become one
B2B SaaS Marketing Guide - For those interested in business-to-business, software-as-a-service tech companies (eg. Adobe, Slack, Salesforce, etc.)