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Industry Contributor 22 Jun 2022 - 4 min read

‘If you can’t build your brand on TikTok, then you don’t have a brand’: How specialising too early is choking the talent pipeline, narrowing skill-sets, undermining marketing

By Justin Papps - Partner, Sayers Brand Momentum

The talent crunch has exacerbated a trend towards overspecialisation in those entering the workforce, at the expense of understanding marketing fundamentals. That’s a problem we need to fix, says Sayers Brand Momentum Partner Justin Papps. Here’s what he is telling final year uni students to think about.

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the time I get to talk to final year uni students as they prepare to enter the marketing workforce. Students with dual degrees, interesting majors and fascinating takes on the world they are about to enter never cease to amaze me with the questions they ask and their mostly astute observations about the brands with which they interact.

With such a squeeze on talent, we need to make sure that those entering the marketing profession are set on a path early that will give them – and the industry – the best opportunities for growth and success.

The thing that has become more and more concerning over recent years has been the tendency for graduates to want to specialise straight out of uni, limiting their options and giving themselves a suboptimal start to their careers.

Too narrow, too soon

As the industry feels the painful pinch of the talent shortage, paired with the overinflation of wages beyond capability and experience, the deeper issue is how difficult it is becoming to find people with a solid understanding of marketing and business fundamentals.

This misplaced ambition to specialise in one facet of marketing or media – even before graduation – is becoming increasingly challenging and ultimately a lose/lose outcome for the individuals and the industry.

For the individual, the seduction of a high-paying role in a single discipline or channel may be too much when weighed up against a broader marketing role where they will get exposure to the full range of marketing challenges and the array of tools at a marketer’s disposal to solve business challenges. While not discounting how hard it is to get your foot in the door, graduates should set their minds on a role that exposes them to the most facets of marketing, not the fewest.

The TikTok fallacy

This narrowness was brought home to me recently when I saw an undergraduate talking about the “reality of modern marketing”, that traditional media was dead and that if you can’t build your brand on TikTok, then you don’t have a brand. Pause. Breathe. I have nothing against TikTok and I am sure they would also find this statement to be misleading at best, no matter how strong the platform is.

Falling for the classic “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, this person reinforced a challenge that goes well beyond them; where limited personal experience prevents them from learning and discounts the mountains of evidence that show the way different media play a part across all sections of the marketing funnel. If you don’t understand fundamentals, you can’t challenge your own thinking. What might feel like a fast start to your career will rapidly slow as your ability to influence and address bigger marketing and business challenges diminishes.

Go broad to win

Here is the advice I have been sharing with pending and recent graduates, notwithstanding the challenges in finding a great role to kick start your career:

  1. Don’t start your career search by specialising too early – spend as much of your formative time as you can in the workforce understanding the breadth of marketing’s role and the impact it has on delivering the business strategy.
  2. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of the marketing fundamentals and use these as the basis of your interview questions. Client side, it may include: Who is your ideal customer? How have customers habits changed in recent times? Is your biggest challenge attraction, retention or growth? Where in the marketing funnel are you losing customers? What is it that makes your brand distinctive and relevant in the category? Where do you see this role making the biggest impact?
  3. If you do find yourself with a starting position in a specialist role as part of getting your foot in the door, keep your networks wide and stay across what other marketing disciplines are working on. Enrol in The Trenches program, get to know the teams in other agencies where you share clients, subscribe to the raft of trade publications and valuable thought leadership content (Mark Ritson, Rory Sutherland, Les Binet and Peter Field, and the IPA as a start). Do anything you can to feed your brain with worthwhile and challenging content outside your day-to-day role.
  4. Continually seek to understand the role marketing is playing in driving a business outcome. Marketing is one of the few reliable and genuine ways that businesses can attract, retain and grow customers. Know who those customers are and how best to get them to engage with your brand or client.
  5. Don’t give up. This can be a tough industry and tenacity in broadening your understanding of the role marketing plays is something that is within your control and will create more opportunities in the longer term.

Ultimately it all comes down to experience. But that doesn’t mean waiting decades to work on the big, shiny projects. It means supercharging your career in the early, formative years by treating the work and roles you take as investments, which, like any good portfolio, reward diversity over time. Conscious and proactive decisions to grow the depth of your marketing playbook will pay dividends, ultimately leading to a sustainable and rewarding career in marketing.

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Justin Papps

Partner, Sayers Brand Momentum

Justin Papps has over 25 years’ local and international brand and marketing experience, working in creative agencies, as a global CMO and as a Partner at PwC. Most recently, Justin co-founded Sayers Brand Momentum, a business dedicated to helping start-ups, scale up and established companies use brand and marketing to accelerate growth.

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