I am meeting with a marketing student who asked me for career start-up advice.
I’m not giving her the speech I got.
I got my first job in a union hall. I kept my mouth shut, I listened, I did what I was told to do and I swept the floor at the end of the day. You kids want to do too much too soon and you think everyone should listen to you. The world doesn’t work like that. You need to know your place and eventually you can earn a seat at the table.
I won’t sugar coat, but I have more heart than that. Set reasonable goals for your first professional job. Don’t expect to make leadership decisions right off the bat. It will come, and you’ll have opportunities to contribute in ways you did not anticipate, but you need to learn and prove yourself first. Right now the most important thing is to get your foot in the door so you can say you are a marketing professional.
Your First Marketing Job
As a recent graduate the easiest path into an agency is to begin as an intern. Look for these positions. A typical post-school internship lasts six months. At the end, if you learn, prove your worth and they like you, you’ll get promoted.
Look for job titles like assistant, associate, coordinator, trainee and specialist. These are often entry-level jobs. Never pay to apply and avoid jobs that require you to invest money. Avoid jobs that pay commission; these are sales jobs, not marketing. Finally, avoid recruiters; the bad ones work on quotas and the good ones spend the bulk of their time with non-entry-level positions.
Among recent grads, agency jobs are the golden apple. They’re also the hardest to get. Don’t be afraid to start in a local boutique agency. Make a list, bookmark their job boards and check them weekly. Keep track of local marketing events. When you see someone from a local agency is speaking, attend the event with the goal of introducing yourself and arranging an informational interview or chat over coffee. This can lead to a first job, one that was never advertised. Or, if there’s an agency you’re interested in: call, tell the receptionist you’re interested in meeting for an informational interview, and ask who you should talk to. Be bold!
These days many companies have marketing departments and they’re a good place to find that first professional job. Type marketing into LinkedIn’s job search and Indeed.com to see what companies are hiring in your area. Note the companies that interest you. List these and any local competitors. Visit the job boards on these companies’ websites. Often, entry-level jobs do not get listed on the large job sites, so it’s a wise practice to bookmark the job boards you visit and revisit them each week.
Just about any professional marketing position in a reputable company, that you can do for two years, should be acceptable. Finding your first marketing job will probably be more about whether or not you have the necessary technical skills than about actual marketing knowledge or ability. At the same time, employers look for recruits whom they can envision learning, growing and advancing in the field.
Do not let a list of requirements stop you from applying for a position, provided you can do the job. An immaculate resume with accomplishments and numbers, accompanied by a well-written cover letter will often get you an interview.
The immediate goal of any application is to get the call, an invitation to interview. Presentation is everything. I reject most applications within 10 seconds. If I am still looking at your cover letter and resume after 30 seconds, you’ll probably get an interview. This may sound callous, but it’s actually an easy decision thanks to poorly written cover letters and uninteresting or grandiose resumes.
Your resume can never be too perfect. A smart layout, consistent formatting, zero typos and proper spelling will get screeners to read and keep your application.
At the start of your career, a one-page resume is an absolute requirement. If you cannot fill an entire page, that’s okay. A thoughtful three-quarter page resume is more desirable than a page full of fluff. This is not a term paper with a minimum word requirement. This is for real, for keeps. Nothing screams trashcan like resume padding.
If you have a college degree, place it immediately below your name and contact information. As someone starting-out, this is your most important credential.
Leave off the personal declaration or mission statement. We know why you’re applying. A good mission statement gets ignored. A bad one gets the trashcan.
After your degree, or first if you don’t have a degree, organize your skills into two to four marketing categories, applicable to the job you’re to which you’re applying. Within each category, list three or four skills as bullets. This is an opportunity to quickly show you have both a grasp of marketing and useful skills like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, copywriting, HTML or other talents. Two to four categories and three or four bullets, the most relevant to the job, is plenty. Don’t be exhaustive; that looks desperate.
After you your skills, list your experiences. This can be actual jobs, volunteer work or school projects like the newspaper. Provide a brief description of your work, without listing everything you did unless it’s applicable to the job you’re applying to. Share actual accomplishments such as awards, demonstrable growth with numbers, and promotions. Most important, describe what you learned. If you worked at McDonalds, for example, write that you came to understand the importance of efficiency, systems and documentation. A demonstration of personal and professional growth is a lot more impressive than a list of daily duties having nothing to do with marketing.
Like your resume, every cover letter must be individually written. Generic letters are easy to spot, and again, that trashcan is right by my foot.
A good cover letter is three paragraphs. In the first, tell me the job you’re applying to and why the position and the company interest you. Give strong reasons without being wildly imaginative. Whatever you put down, it must pass the believability test.
In the second paragraph tell why you’re a great fit for the job. Explain what skills you will bring, using the job description as your guide. Tell me what I should look for in your resume.
Lastly, in the third paragraph, thank me for considering your application and express your desire to get an interview. This is a good place to list your phone number: “Please call me at (###) ###-####.”
Finish with a simple salutation, either “Thank you again,” or “Sincerely,” Add your name, email and phone number.
Proper formal first person English please.
When you get an interview, the person inviting you believes you can succeed. As soon as you get the call you’re a credible candidate. Don’t worry about whether or not you can do the job; you’ve already passed that point.
To prepare for interviews, go through your resume and prepare verbal descriptions of your skills and experiences. Have a brief story ready to describe how you’ve used each skill in the past. Interviewers like concise, fact filled accounts so keep it short.
Rehearse rehearse rehearse! Tell your skill descriptions and experience stories into a laptop camera or smartphone then watch the videos. Watching yourself is always cringe worthy; you can’t hide. Keep doing this and you’ll get immeasurably better. Get a mentor and some friends to do practice interviews with. Apply for jobs just to get interview experience. The more you interview, the better you will get.
Learn everything you can about the company and the person interviewing you. Read through their website, search for news stories and look them up on LinkedIn. Find simple connections between your own work and skills, then incorporate those into your stories.
The most difficult thing about any job interview is that the person interviewing you controls the topics and the order. The more you prepare, the better you’ll be able to think on the fly and improvise. During your conversation, don’t offer doubt by dwelling on your shortcomings. Focus on the knowledge you possess, your experience and you’re your accomplishments.
Thank You Letters
As soon as you can, after an interview, list all the salient points from your conversation onto a sheet of paper. Pick the most important ones and write them into a brief, thoughtful thank you letter. Send that letter on the same day.
In your thank you letters, stick with why you want the job and the positive highlights from the interview. If something went badly during your conversation don’t revisit it or try to fix it. Chalk it up to experience for the next interview.
On second or third interviews you may not have an email address for the person you spoke with. When this happens, send your letter to the recruiter and ask them to forward it on your behalf.
Once You Get the Job
Your first job is only the initial step in what will hopefully be a long career. From now on you have two jobs: doing the work you were hired for and preparing for your next job.
Give your professional life a trajectory. Evaluate your job every 18 months. You may be perfectly happy in your current role, and that’s fine if it provides you with new challenges. However, after 18 months it’s a good time to consider new opportunities in your current company and at others. The best time to find a new job is when you have one. People who advance tend to advance again. People who stay in the same position too long often find themselves stuck or laid-off.
Network with your professional peers. Go to industry meet-ups and marketing events. Learn how to make professional friends and foster your personal network. Volunteer to help in marketing and industry groups or associations. This will become your number one source for new opportunities. You cannot do enough of this.
Learn how to drink responsibly at public functions. Drink the first glass. Sip on the second.
Become a thought leader. Blog, write articles and actively seek public speaking opportunities. Pick some part of marketing you’re passionate about, become an expert (even on your own time), and teach it to others. Don’t be afraid to fake it till you make it, within reason of course. Become the person others want to network with.
Find mentors and coaches inside and outside your company. During your career you’ll meet people you admire and are doing the types of roles or work you aspire to. Tell them this, then ask them if they’d be willing to have lunch or coffee with you every month or two. Eventually you’ll find a mentor whom you’ll want to meet with more frequently. You’ll discover nothing keeps you on track more than having these people to whom you feel obligated to demonstrate professional growth and success.
Remember, your career is an investment in yourself. Nourish it inside and outside your company.
And good luck!