Friday, January 17, 2014

Five Years on My Advice to MSc Marketing Students 2014

I had blogged a lot before with my best advice for graduates and prospective successful MSc students at Strathclyde Uni on the Marketing 'post grad' masters.

Now I will radically alter my advice to much of my earlier pointers.  First a historical perspective and how you may fit into this.

The MSc course full time is I hear still made up of many local students from the region previously known as "strathclyde" and Scotland as a whole. Most of you are lower middle class and have lost interest in the content of your first degree and the limited career options you had.

Now here is my take: When I did marketing way back when in the early 90s, we had seen a generation just before us do extremely well thank you very much from a career in marketing. Indeed in the 90s you could get on a career path into traditional brand management and so on, but the vast majority of us didn't and that is for two reasons- firstly we wanted to stay in Scotland, and secondly brand management was then and probably is now, a plumb job for Oxbridge graduates and those from the better BSc courses with first class honours, and those with MBAs.

As a marketing master candidate, you are actually not as competent a marketer as someone from Strathclyde with the four years under their belt, and you are up against the best from the oxbridge and ivy clad uni debating societies. Most of my course did continue with careers in sales and marketing loosely, most of those in the core worked in public sector marketing and some in SMEs, while me and others worked in Ad' Agency land.

Now here is the other historical point of view in Scotland in particular: I blogged on my  "growing up on the firth of clyde" that the Middle class made scotland, the working class did a grand job of following their vision, their plans, quality management and their orders. The Middle Class also then saved Scotland in the recession of the late 70s and most of the entire 1980s also, by adapting and transferring their skills to the service economy, becoming consultants, going into offshore management and starting new SMEs. The working class by in large did not adapt so well and became in many areas, the unworking class, with chips on their shoulders about pit and steel closures, which although lamentable, have happened and cannot be reversed.

What has happened thereafter is that the middle class got all the good jobs and started businesses and the new "graduate class" of the 1990s, when education to degree level was vastly (and wastefully expanded) , these  graduates became the new working class. Only this time they had no unions, they had no bargaining rights, they had no overtime payments and they had no job security. In computing, call-centres, finance, business-ananlysis, junior accounting, communications and marketing the workforce had become a commodity, just as workers had been in the 19th century.

What this means is that graduate salaries and the career ladder will not deliver what it proposed to  in the 1980s and in that great killer of common sense "hope" took over. We all hoped that the qualifications we had would be an automatic ticket to a well paid job with a good career ladder, and that our first couple of positions were hard work and poorly paid, as they should be. We woke up thinking we were well enough paid, and that wee flat on the dodgey side of town was a good first property investment. We were deluding ourselves- we were shop floor workers. This came to a head in the early 2000s when it became apparent that train driver's basic pay was 26k before the extortionate overtime payments and antisocial hours allowances plumped up their above-our-wage earnings.  This is the other thing that happened- the unionised and skilled working class in the UK and Europe became damn well paid! Off shore salaries for  skivvies and painters into double that figure!

So my radical departure in career advice is this: make your goal twofold- a rapid rise into marketing management AND the potential for self employment and being an owner-director of a start up or growing SME.

In fact it is the reverse order: you should be looking at being entrepreneurial all the time and trying to meet people to whom your marketing skills are valuable and your personal drives or interest are in line with.

You may get a shot at marketing management and that means being in a large or fast growing company or department where you have very soon the chance to manage other people, such as internet programmers, writers and external marketing and PR agencies.  You should have a clear career ladder in the company or you should be in an industry which is new and fast growing, like micro breweries or the like, where you can choose to cash in your two years initial experience for a better job. As an MSc or BSc Marketing graduate then you do not want to be in a grunt job at the bottom of the feeding chain for very long, six months max.

However as I blogged before the "shot at marketing management" in Scotland is extremely limited and highly competitive. So go south early.

The main reasons people do not get involved with new start ups or becoming self employed is the perceived risk, fear of hard work and uncertainty of income. These are both true, but the stupidly low perceived risk of having a good wee job and a mortgage and the lack of both security and a share in the capital and profits you build up over the years mean that please do consider being self employed or getting early into a start up with possibility to buy shares. Your income is actually not all that certain and also you have levered yourself to hell on the first-and-worst wrung on the property ladder.

Considering "hard work" avoidance -In agency land in particular you will work damn hard and not get any overtime- you will be expected to work at least 48 hours a week and probably do some 60 hour weeks if you are in London and the home counties. Plus in your first job in agency land or in marketing in the home counties or dearer parts of Englandshire, you will also no doubt go deeper into debt as your cost of living with your first car, a few frills and visits home, will be higher than your salary- for a long time.

If I had my time again I would go headlong into entrepreneurial studies, management accounting and networking to the technical leaders of new SMEs post MSc. That is with hindsight, and would have been a successful approach in the 1990s with the explosion of internet SMEs amongst others. Today there is even more focus on all this in terms of opportunities for young people to get on that bus!

Simply put, the long term rewards of going down this route for you as an MSc graduate are far better on average than continuing as a marketing employee in a medium Scottish organisation. Why? Well despite the risks and set backs you will encounter, you will be at some point able to :

1) determine your own salary or profit related income
2) share directly in profits from the business / businesses
3) build capital ownership and ability to sell and buy capital
4) To some extent, be able to choose who you like to work with
5) To a large extent by reaching your mid 40s, you will be able to determine your own working hours, and along the way you will have had the ability to choose "lifestyle" hours which to some extent allow you to indulge in hobbies, sports and personal development while also working many more evenings and weekends.

The latter cannot be played down, but the preceding economic arguments are enough given that you have to slave away in an office anyway. The latter two points are often taken as compensation for those long hours- you may start a business with a friend or evolve a fun working relationship, while on the other hand you may well like my pal who went into the Reserve SAS, be able to be flexible and put in training afternoons and clock off early to train some times.

 As a case in hand in fact, this pal of mine started a cleaning business doing all from houses, windows, wheely bins to jet washing forecourts and oil spills. He did it with a guy he knew quite well, who only went in if he could get a 50:50 share (wise guy!!!) He took Tuesday nights for barracks training, Wednesday afternoon for training for SAS "selection" in the hills, and refused to work Saturdays, doing paper work if the weather was bad (as it is in W. Scotland) on Sundays. He is not rich yet, but at 42 he is much better positioned to be rich and still has all the private pension and so on you would get as an employee.

I am lucky and in a small band of my type, who have worked both in technology Start Ups, SMEs and large multinationals (Global Enterprises as they are now called, I show my 1990s business education vintage!)  I would say that I never got the right job in a start up / SME and that was due to lack of self confidence and nervous communication skills, which is a personal thing I confronted and overcame in my early forties.  The thing about getting into a small end or high growth SME, or a start up is that you need to get in at the right level EARLY - and that all with the right responsibilities and authority defined.

For me I found out that I had better judgment and could make better strategies and game plays for three small technology companies under 15 employees, but I was never in a position to have the authority to do this, and although this was a bit to do with me as a person, it is more to do with the type of attitude they had about my usefulness and position I would be offered in the company.

If a company won't play ball and you will be a grunting employee, then review their technology and use your position as a six month to one year learning tree if you think that there are competing companies you could move to at a higher level.

This brings me to another point: marketing is seen as a very soft skill and you should consider building on your hard skills, or specialist knowledge.Marketing and communications has a skill set which is often perceived as dependent more on personality than education per se by management who decide who gets on in marketing. In fact in larger corporates, I really on average did not like marketing types especially not the arrogant dog-eat-dog women managers I locked horns with inn most of my positions.

What I would say is that you may, like me, have a set of hard skills from your previous degree: you may be an excellent grammatical writer if you studied English and Literature: you may have a computer language or have used a particular database, CRM or ERP; you may have some other hard skill.

As I went on in the malaise of mid nineties graduate employment I went back to Uni and worked as a trainee in the data center, and did this to get hard skills in databases and the internet. This "apprenticeship" was going to be too heavy in programming and I did lack a bit of initiative in maybe picking up how to make decent looking web pages with database back ends, but these new hard skills on the one side gave me the edge on my CV and in interviews, and on the other hand, gave me management knowledge into the black box of what programmers and data admin' types actually do. I still use these skills today in various ways, be that getting new functions out of an ERP system by knowing what is possible, to hot-wiring around a supposedly pass word protected area on a web site for valuable information.

This actually doesn't help a lot in marketing - not as much as it should do. In the last start up I worked in, an Internet consumer opinion web crawler company, there was no real marketing dept, I worked as an analyst, and the function was referred to as "fluffy in marketing". The soft skills are more important than being able to understand the technology and often those "soft" skills involve native cunning, raw ambition, power hunger and control freak-ery!

Where hard skills are valuable is in start ups and SMEs where you are closer to the core and can be involved directly in the technical side of the company, or in extending what you can deliver by virtue of your hard skill. SMEs will be wanting people who can multitask as well as understand their technology. A hard skill on the table, may mean also that you can learn the technology or system to a high level, and maybe even develop it further or take your knowledge and implement it in another enterprise where you are valued higher.

There will however be set backs in going down an SME route: but believe you me there are set backs in corporates- office politics, down sizing and being overlooked for promotion in favour of annoying MBA graduates amongst the worst. SMEs go bust more often than bigger companies and often they do not pay employees very well. Both of the internet developer agencies I worked in went bust and I came out with a bitter taste in my mouth a little unnecessarily and went back to "client side" for a few years. Also some start ups just fall apart due to personality and ambition clashes, or because the feel of the company is lost when the investors, especially VC, come in hard with their own ways of wanting things done and their chosen managers.

Do not despair, a group of venture capitalists were given an anonymised business plan and CVs of the founders and they all rejected it: the company anonymised was in fact Apple. More than a skill set around the market and technology the start up or SME is in, you will also equip yourself with a thick skin and the ability to realise value and be "nimble" in moving quickly on to the next opportunity in a competitor or in your own new enterprise.

The key amount of funding you need is to give your company enough "cash"  in the bank to be able to survive on the one side, a three to six months period of costs and R&D which then bridges the gap to being paid by customers, or as if often the case in technology start ups, reaching the next milestone in acheivements such that more investment follows to cover the next and bigger period before you get paid by customers - in a nut shell. So instead of maybe a year of job security and any money you invest in your pension being safe, you have 3 to 6 months and a very high risk on any monies you have placed into shares in the company!

I think that is about all I want to say in this little ditty about getting your head up as a 22- 24 year old as on average you will be, and maybe actually realising that the path to having a better life with a decent big old detached house, a boat, a chalet, early retirement and so on, is no longer by being a non owning employee and that you can use your marketing in a direction which will pay larger dividends long term.

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