The Myth of Marketing Careers


Trisha Walters wasn’t prepared for a job in sales. After graduating with a B.S. degree in marketing, she wanted to find a career at a company where she could plan promotional campaigns, study consumer behavior and buy media time – skills she had learned from her professors.

But every time Trisha would go to a job interview, the questions were about her ability to sell. She had never taken a class in sales techniques, but then again, one was never offered. Like most universities, her alma mater – Virginia Commonwealth – doesn’t teach sales skills. Instead, it focuses on traditional marketing theories, something few new graduates can apply on their first jobs.

“I don’t know anyone from my class who is doing what they were taught in their college marketing courses,” says Trisha (not her real name). “What you read in marketing textbooks and get taught on the blackboard aren’t what you do in an entry-level job.”

More that 25,000 students earned undergraduate degrees in marketing last year. Yet fewer than one in five thousand found new jobs where they could directly apply their marketing skills, according to statisticians, college placement officers and company recruiters. Some left the discipline, others continued on for M.B.A.s. But the majority became salespeople, simply because no company would offer them marketing jobs without sales experience.

You have to earn a job in marketing, and sales is where you pay your dues, say career counselors. No major consumer products company will spend time recruiting undergraduates for marketing positions because very few B.A.s are capable of handling a marketing job, they say, adding that without sales experience or an M.B.A., it’s unrealistic for students to expect a position in marketing.

Corporate recruiters echo this view. “We only hire M.B.A.s for marketing positions, and usually only those who already have some sales experience,” says a salesperson at General Mills in Minneapolis. Adds a recruiter at GE, “Students who want jobs in marketing but aren’t willing to work in sales will be badly disappointed. Sales experience is a must.”

This isn’t a new philosophy. Companies have historically staffed their marketing departments with experienced salespeople. Yet the number of undergraduate marketing majors has risen about 35% in recent years, glutting the workforce with aspiring marketers.

Many of these new graduates were attracted to by the glamor and creativity of the profession. In college marketing courses, they scrutinized ad campaigns, devised new products and coined slogans based on consumer needs. On first jobs, however, they are asked to make sales calls and develop new accounts. These duties are what entry-level marketing is all about. But some new graduates say that they were never taught the realities of the job market, and that they didn’t earn college degrees to become salespeople.

“Sales jobs are a dime a dozen, and they have nothing to do with marketing. In fact, you really don’t need a college degree to be good at selling,” says Ms. Walters, who has worked a series of sales jobs in a bank, a telecommunications company, a distributor and a temporary services firm since graduating. “Sales and marketing are two different careers. Sales is open to all undergraduates, marketing isn’t. But no one taught us that in college,” she says.

The Real World

For the uninitiated, there’s little distinction between sales and marketing. Certainly, colleges don’t go out of their way to highlight the differences. Adding to the confusion, corporate entry-level titles often are misnomers. Such positions as marketing assistant, telemarketer and promotions planner have far more to do with persuading than market theories. Even an American Marketing Association survey of 300 college administrators found that 90% thought marketing was selling.

But for marketing majors who have had to prove themselves on sales teams, there are few similarities between their schooling and first job duties.

“Marketing covers everything that leads up to the sale. The focus groups, the promotional packages, etc. It’s all theoretical,” says Mr. Walters. “Sales, on the other hand, is the end result. The meeting with customers every day, where communicating is the most important ability. They don’t teach that in marketing class.”

Indeed, at most colleges and universities, marketing majors are taught how products are developed and promoted. But only a handful of major colleges offer courses on the techniques of selling. And it doesn’t appear that additional colleges will alter their curriculum to reflect the demands of the job market.

“It’s not the responsibility of undergraduate business school to teach applied courses in sales. In fact, the pressure from business executives is to add more liberal arts courses to create well-rounded graduates,” says one corporate recruiter.

“Business schools aren’t trade schools. They teach the social and behavioral sciences, and courses in ‘How to Sell’ are too applied for academics to be comfortable with,” says the recruiter. He adds, however, that this does create problems for some undergraduates. “A few want to be salespeople from day one, but a much larger group doesn’t aspire to careers in sales, so marketing theories are more appealing to them,” he says. “The problem is finding entry-level jobs where they can apply those theories.”

The GE recruiter says he believes the problem lies with professors and college placement specialists who don’t accurately portray the industry. “Marketing means servicing customers, and that includes selling. Unfortunately, university (professors and placement staff) don’t explain that clearly,” he says. “I can understand the students’ frustrations.”

Once students realize that sales experience is necessary for a marketing career, recruiters say it becomes easy to recommend a course of action.

“Try calling marketing and sales manages at the companies you’re interested in and find out what they recommend for you to do before you graduate,” says the GE recruiter. “And of course, any internships or actual sales experience you can gain during school will give you an edge.”

Samantha Little, who majored in advertising and marketing at Texas Christian University, can attest to the value of working in sales before graduation. Since her sophomore year, she has spent summers and breaks working in sales at a clothing store, an ad agency and a building products company, where she advanced from secretary to manager of the firm’s Austin office, a position she landed upon graduation.

“The only way to learn how to sell is to try it. And selling is the only way to get into marketing, says Ms. Little (not her real name). “If you’re not a good salesperson, take courses in persuasive speaking, business writing and even human behavior. Be willing to try anything that will improve your ability to communicate with others,” she says.

Getting involved in extracurricular activities, even if it means taking fewer marketing courses, is also a good idea, according to career advisors. Sell advertising for school programs or campus publications, and try to work yourself into positions where meeting people and showing enthusiasm is required, they say.

“A bright person with enthusiasm, dedication and this kind of background will find a marketing job much faster than someone who only knows what they were taught from a textbook,” says Alan Reisberg, owner of a D.C. area ad agency. “This is especially true considering the large number of students who major in marketing just because they don’t like accounting or economics and can’t decide on anything else.” To beat the competition for jobs, he says, “you have to damn sure you know exactly what you want to do, and you only find that out by getting experience while in school.”

Some marketing graduates who have had trouble finding marketing jobs, or who have taken sales positions and discovered that they can’t sell, have decided graduate business school is the answer. But even an M.B.A. doesn’t guarantee a marketing position.

“M.B.A.s are becoming less respected because companies realize that real world experience can’t be replaced by extra schooling,” says Mr. Reisberg. “More M.B.A.s are taking jobs as assistant product managers just to get into marketing.”

One final way to improve your odds of an early move into marketing is to demonstrate your willingness to adapt to company needs. “The trend in the marketplace is to train technical majors for careers in sales and marketing because they can explain the product better to customers,” says the GE recruiter.

“Show that you recognize this trend by taking a technical course that will broaden your knowledge, even if you aren’t technically oriented,” he says. “That would show me, as a recruiter, that you can communicate technically and that you’re willing to open up your horizons to adapt to the needs of our customers, which probably is the most important skill you can have.”

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