In Digital Marketing, Build Your Own Career Path

Digital marketing can be a nebulous career path. It has not always been so.

When I got started in digital marketing in Chicago, I was hired as one of two “digital marketing guys.” This was 2006. Companies had no idea how to optimize or make money in paid search. I learned through the school of hard knocks on someone else’s dime. Since it was only a couple of us working in digital, you could not possibly get everything done. But, at the same time, there was only a limited amount of stuff you could be doing.

At that point in my career, I had never heard the term “marketing channel”. You just did whatever needed to be done that day-whether it was paid search, search engine optimization, partnership building or work on getting a display deal done. This was a great time to really learn the ins and outs of the industry.

Forward the clock a few years and I moved to Dallas to work for When I went to work with North America, in Dallas, in 2010, the digital marketing team was very small. You could still get a lot of hands-on experience-particularly if you were in the right place at the right time and had past experience in a marketing channel.

Today’s digital marketing career landscape is very different. It is challenging to get on a good digital marketing team doing enterprise level marketing on the web. And when you do, you generally get assigned to a marketing channel. You learn that channel in and out. And, if you become very good at your job, that company may very likely want you to stay in that position. But, for the long term of your career, is that a good thing?

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to see my wife’s career in parallel. Coming out of an MBA program, she went to work in consumer package goods. CPG is a great career path. Recruiters know that when they speak to a CPG Assistant Brand Manager who has been in a position for 2.5 years generally what that CPG’er has done. It’s a very structured path that leads from Assistant Brand Manager to Brand Manager to Director. Not so in digital marketing.

A CPG marketer who has been in his or her career path for 10 to 12 years likely has accumulated the tools to lead a CPG marketing team. Meanwhile, unless he or she is aware and actively taking action, that similarly positioned digital marketing professional might be pigeonholed into a channel or one area of expertise. It is my contention therefore, that to be a skilled digital marketing professional and have a long career in the industry, one needs to actively pursue different channel opportunities to advance his or her career.

If I were getting into enterprise level digital marketing today, I would impose a rule on myself to stay in a channel no more  than 2-3years.  Two to threee years is enough time to really learn a channel in an enterprise marketing program.  Then, move on to something completely different – if it is  your desire to be in a marketing leadership role at a high-level.   Alternatively, if you can find a way to get experience in other channels while in your position, that may give you the education that you need in that new channel to move forward.

I spent 4 years as a Navy Officer.  As a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), on your first ship, you might be in Combat Systems, Engineering or Operations.  Two years later, you will be on another tour and another ship doing something completely different.  But, for the Navy, the hope is that by the time you become a Department Head or even a Captain, you have seen all sides of ship management and warfare.  Essentially, the Navy starts with a plan for young junior officers to prepare for tomorrow’s Captains and Admirals.

I think you have to look at your own career like the Navy looks at training junior officers.  You have to give yourself the diversity of experience that you need to be successful in the long-term of your career.

It would be nice if more companies had a “plan” for the future of your career as a marketer.  Unfortunately, most companies don’t have the size to lay out a comprehenshive plan to keep someone on the team for years until they can lead the team.  Therefore, it is on you and the management of your own career to make yourself marketable over time.

To lead a marketing team, you have have different channels under your belt.  It’s not enough to only have done SEO or SEM.  You need a diversity of experiences from leading different channels so that, one day – when you are leading a marketing team – people will look to you for answers.  And, when they do, you can respond and act confidently.  Because, like a Navy officer, you have the diversity of experience that leads to a well-rounded career path.

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