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Grads: so, you want to be in marketing or advertising? Know this

By Jeff Tan, Innovation solutions officer

May 14, 2021 | 5 min read

As the class of 2021 heads off into the world, many college grads may feel apprehension at the thought of starting a career in the marketing services industry. Dentsu innovation solutions officer Jeff Tan shares his thoughts and advice on getting started in the industry.


‘Hustle and Flow’ your way to success

Dear graduate, congratulations!

You’re probably experiencing a mix of emotions right now. First, excitement because you’ve come a long way to get to this point. And second, apprehension at the question your parents, professors and pals are asking you – what are you going to do now?

You may have considered a career in marketing, and if so, here are a few pointers.

Understand there is no linear path in this industry. Didn’t study marketing? Neither did I (I majored in engineering). Likewise, my colleagues come from a broad range of backgrounds including technology, journalism, consulting, retail and fashion.

Don’t let that Spice Girls song make you feel you’re behind. “So, tell me what you want, what you really really want?” At your stage in life, not many people are confident knowing exactly what they want, so don’t let not knowing be an immobilizer. In my early twenties, I was hell-bent on being a full-time musician (specializing in rockstardom). Our society expects young adults to specialize and know what they really, really want early on.

Instead, sample and be a generalist (at first). In the book Range, David Epstein pushes against the common perception that the only people who get ahead are those that specialize early. In today’s complex, dynamic and global business environment, it’s generalists who can call upon broad experiences to solve complex problems. So don’t be afraid to sample things and explore. There are no wrong answers at this stage.

Later, find something to be an expert in. Once more established, you can aim to become a T-shaped person – a deep subject matter expert in one area, but with broad knowledge across multiple disciplines. I specialize in marketing innovation now, but over the years have worked in everything from sales to SEO, from developer to digital strategist.

You’ll need to ‘Hustle and Flow’. When first starting out, Nada Stirratt, now global vice-president at Facebook, was so determined to work at Cosmopolitan Magazine she literally wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Stirratt kept coming back to the sales manager with proactive ideas until he finally recruited her. She calls this Hustle and Flow, a way of thinking that combines proactivity, relationship building, determination and a belief that momentum breeds momentum.

Adopt a curious mind. The best marketers read a variety of publications and have a cognitively diverse mix of relationships. After all, we’re marketing to consumers with a broad range of backgrounds and thinking. Don’t make the critical mistake of thinking you know everything now you’ve graduated. You’re just crossing the starting line in your knowledge-acquiring journey.

No one cares, so don’t sit on your ass. Yes, this is difficult initially – you don’t have assignments, deadlines or professors hassling you. No one will bother you, and that’s a big step-change. The only person that can take charge of your career is you.

Understand that good ideas can come from anyone, including you. Once in the industry, remember to continually be proactive. Many people think, “this is broken but I’ll wait for someone to tell me to fix it.” Don’t be that person. I’m a big believer that everyone has ideas, from the receptionist to the chief executive. A good organization can effectively harness ideas from a variety of sources. Be proactive and make sure that your voice is heard.

Steve Jobs once said: “When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is, and your job is just to live your life inside the world ... that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

You’ve come to this point in your life journey. Barriers will get in the way. People will try and put you in your place, in a siloed box. But our industry needs talent that is curious, proactive, who can hustle and flow, with guts, ideas and a vision for the future.

That talent is you. Because if it’s not you, who else will it be?

Jeff Tan is innovation solutions officer at Dentsu International.

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