Sometimes we forget that every successful innovator, leader, and business executive had to start somewhere before getting where they are today. Many of them were once sitting in a rickety folding chair on the lawn of their alma mater, wearing an itchy cap and gown, and wondering what on earth they were going to do when they grew up.
Not all current marketing executives knew they wanted to go into marketing — in fact, many of them started in sales, consulting, human resources, entertainment, software engineering, government, and a myriad of other fields. We thought it’d be fun to ask a range of marketing leaders what their first jobs were. What did they do there? What did they like and not like? Most importantly, what did they learn from the experience?
On the list below, you’ll hear from former government scientists, cashiers, consultants, MTV interns, co-founders, and car salesmen (among other positions). Check out what these marketing leaders did in their very first professional jobs.
“My first job out of school was with L90, one of the early online ad networks. I was a Sales Planner, which entailed trafficking and reporting on ad campaigns including banners, emails, and pop-ups (remember those?). These were the early days of the web, and it definitely had a ‘Wild Wild West’ feel. Over the next four years, I sat in the same office but our company was acquired three times — first by Excite Network, then Ask Jeeves, then IAC. The bag of stuff that I had to sell kept getting bigger.
“By the end of my run there, search had starting taking off and I was selling a bunch of it to advertisers and agencies. The trouble was that everyone wanted listings sponsored by Google AdWords, not Ask Jeeves. So I left to join the guy who originally hired me at L90 — did I mention he was a fraternity brother of mine in school? — when he started Resolution Media, a pioneering search marketing agency that we eventually sold to Omnicom.
“Key lessons learned from my first job include embracing change, building relationships, and avoiding intrusive advertising!”
“My first job was as a cashier and shelf stocker at a Brooks Pharmacy, a regional chain of retail pharmacies in New England. I remember being really fascinated with the American Greetings ‘Creat-a-Card’ custom greeting card machine that showed up one day in the store. This was 1993, and it was one of the first instances I can remember of people using digital technology to create, customize, and personalize content in that way.
“I’d watch people spend 20 or 30 minutes playing with the machine and creating these cards for their friends and family, and becoming immersed in this process. Looking back, this was totally a harbinger of what was to come — both in the way that people would be drawn to this sort of technology and experience, and in my desire to be part of that movement in some way.”
“I was in charge of the grand openings for Papa Gino’s expansion into pizza delivery. It is odd now to consider that many pizza stores back then only offered eat-in or take-out service. I did everything from attending all the grand openings celebrations to coordinating flier distribution in the neighborhoods surrounding the store to weekend coupons in the Sunday paper and running ads. I also analyzed the success of all of these efforts on a weekly basis.
“In that role, I learned the importance of measuring the impact of any and all marketing programs which ties well with the laser focus today’s marketing leaders need to have on the end number. I also had a wonderful boss who taught me how to communicate and present to an executive-level audience and I’m still grateful for that training.
“Finally, I learned that any marketing program will only be successful if it is communicated effectively to those who it will impact. For us, that meant starting to conduct quarterly training with all store managers on upcoming marketing programs. Today that translates into my passion for making sure that Sales and Marketing are always in lockstep.”
“I started my career in the music business: I worked in a marketing role for a record label (MCA Records) by day and as a musician at night. Interestingly, more of the skills I developed as a working musician have served me as a modern marketer: creativity, resourcefulness, and learning to create a genuine, authentic connection with people through the ‘content’ we created (our music) and the community we tried to foster.”
“My first job was as a loan officer-in-training at Bank of Boston, which has now become part of Bank of America. The program was a terrific way to get started. There were about 50 of us from many of the bank’s branches all over the world: Australia, Hong Kong, Nigeria, England, Argentina, Turkey. It was an amazing group of people.
“We learned accounting and corporate finance, how to assess credit risk in a variety of different industries, cash collections, collateralization, currency risk, etc. Loan Officers are, in effect, salespeople for banks — so as the training progressed, we also got to go on client calls with senior account managers and learned about sales and account management.
“Learning about business and finance first and marketing second has served me well because marketing is really about driving business. In the end, everything we do as marketers shows up in the numbers.”
“I did predictive modeling, reporting and analysis, computer programming, and systems analysis. Today, I’d be called a Data Scientist! I loved it. Working on diverse problems kept me challenged and constantly learning. I often could see the direct impact of my work in decisions influenced by our models or programs achieving their goals because our insights helped steer things in the right direction.
“Some observations? I witnessed firsthand the importance of data-driven decision making. But I also gained an appreciation for storytelling. It’s not enough to have the predictive model or statistical analysis all worked out; you need to communicate the conclusions in a crisp, compelling, and memorable way. Sounds like today’s marketer — you must be great with data analytics and also great with stories!”
“When I graduated from college, I was working for MTV via the Bunim and Murray production company. It was the beginning of reality TV and the setting was glamorous.
“But, let’s be clear: As an intern, my job was to get coffee. Well, not entirely. My job was to pay attention to everything that was happening with the talent, the writers, the production team and anticipate. If someone needed coffee I needed to know before they saw their mug had run empty. If someone needed a new notepad but hadn’t realized they were burning through their current one, I had to notice. If the crowd waiting to go onto the show was getting restless, I had to make sure we kept their attention and calmed them down.
“To this day, I appreciate that experience setting the stage for what I believe to be true in marketing now. If you can anticipate what makes every part of the business more successful, and do it, your marketing team will be viewed as invaluable and will have actual measured success growing the business.”
“My first job ever was as an operator at an answering service at the age of 15. My responsibilities were to take calls for businesses including doctors, lawyers, real estate firms, landscapers, and the like. I worked at an old-fashioned switchboard where you had to plug a chord into the line to respond to the call. I took messages mostly, but also had to ‘page’ doctors and such after hours for emergencies.
“It was a great job in terms of learning about customer service and how to communicate clearly, a skill that I’ve used throughout my career. The most lasting affect of the job however, was my marriage. I was introduced to my wife by a friend from the answering service. How’s that for a bonus?”
“My first job out of college was as an application engineer for Philadelphia Electric Company, now known as PECO. I was one of the 60 engineers hired out of college that year, and only six of us were women. Application engineers were the technical interface for customers and the company account representatives, and PECO customers range from large industrial accounts to residential accounts.
“It was my job to answer customers’ technical questions about high bill complaints, energy usage, and energy conservation efforts. I delivered energy conservation presentations to large and small audiences, which proved invaluable in my marketing career. I calculated heat loss/heat gain reports, so I can still choose the proper size air conditioner for a room — a little less valuable in marketing, unless I’m planning an event needing A/C.
“And ultimately, I learned a major life lesson about customer support: Some customers will never be happy, but you must always remain positive.”
“After college, I worked in the music division for a big film studio called United Artists. They produced all the James Bond, Woody Allen, and Rocky movies. It was a very cool place to work.
“I was as low as you could get on the corporate totem pole there and everyone at United Artists called me ‘Hey, kid.’
“Except for one person. Andy Albeck was the CEO of United Artists. Top dog. Expensive suits. Limos. And he always called me by my name. He invited me to screenings. He asked for my opinions. He included me in meetings that were well above my pay grade. I will never forget his generosity. He made me feel important and appreciated. I think about him every day when I work with my team.”
“My first real professional job out of college was as a co-founder of a recording studio business that we pivoted into a dotcom startup in Jamaica Plain, outside of Boston. First, I was a recording engineer. By the time I left, I had been VP of Operations and VP of Marketing for a consumer internet company that had raised $100+M in VC money in 2000. I was 23 at the time.”
“My first job was in human resources for a healthcare company — about as far away from the marketing field as one could get. I was an HR Generalist for Columbia/HCA, which at the time was the largest healthcare organization in the world. I had fallen in love with healthcare during a work-study program my junior year in college, where I worked as an orderly. When I had the chance to move to Atlanta to work for Columbia/HCA, I thought my career was set.
“I was working in a three-hospital group in Atlanta where I supporting recruiting, onboarding, and benefits administration for clinical and non-clinical. At that point in time (1997), nurses were in VERY high demand — so at times, we were onboarding over 50 employees per month. About a year into my time at Columbia, the company began to go through some major changes and the next year was quite tumultuous. The company began to be broken up into pieces and I survived a few rounds of layoffs before becoming a casualty, myself.
“The first major career lesson, as put by a mentor at the time, was: ‘You either make your employer money, or you cost them money.’ I know many, many folks who have dealt with being laid off. I consider myself lucky to have learned this lesson so early in my career. That had me shift my mindset to the revenue-facing functions in business and eventually to Marketing.”
“My consultant role at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) was a basically 80+ hours a week of coding. This was before there was a lot of packaged software and most software was built custom.
“While I was terrible at coding, this technical background has helped me tremendously throughout my career. While the hours were long and the work grueling, I loved that job because of the team I worked with. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a group of bright, ambitious, hilarious, and fun group of people. I learned a valuable lesson: The people you work with make all the difference.”
“I thought I was going to be a scientist when I graduated college, and I took on my first job in Washington, DC as a computer scientist and researcher. Turns out that one of their needs was to connect our harebrained inventions and schemes with reality, and with real people. So they elected me. I stood in front of funders, staffers, contractors, and government lifers to tell them what we had created and why it was important — or should be — to them.
“It was my start in marketing. Over time, the communications became more interesting and challenging to me than the technology. I enjoyed watching the light turn on when the audience connected with our invention. That’s the same thrill I still get today in marketing, watching the audience connect the dots. So today, I’m a technology marketer, telling stories and managing technology to create awareness, to teach, to help an audience see the light.”
“I was a program manager and design engineer of lasers for high-speed telecom applications. I designed optoelectronic packaging components and subsystems, carried out thermo-mechanical modeling, worked with vendors to source parts, and so on.
“In this position, I learned to solve hard technical problems, work as a team, navigate group dynamics, lead. And, a huge (and startling) lesson learned was this: Just because a product is excellent from a technical perspective doesn’t mean it’ll be a commercial success. You need the right marketing and sales execution. So after that experience, I wanted to get my hands around more than just engineering; to have more control over the success of whatever I work on.”
“I was Assistant Manager for a 8-10-person front desk staff at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. After three months, I also became responsible for a 20-person valet parking and bell staff team ranging in age from 18 to 67 years old. I was in charge of hiring and firing valet staff, scheduling, training, day-to-day managing, and some light budgeting. I also got to be the point-of-contact for any VIP or celebrity guests of the hotel — these were folks ranging from the Judds to Steve Forbes.
“What an unbelievable opportunity to get a chance to lead such a broad array of folks from different walks of life, education levels, and experience. It was true baptism by fire in terms of managing people, process, and even crisis — we had a fire, a heart attack, three lost cars, and one death when I was there and acting as full manager on duty.
“Though it was an 80-hour-a-week role and the guest was ALWAYS right … it also taught me some irreplaceable lessons about how customers want to be treated, how a small touch can go a long way and how to do right (or wrong) by your team. Managing a team in a hotel is heavily operational, but really boils down to general management, challenging all your skills from people management, to strategy and planning and even to creativity. I doubt many roles allow the chance to flex so many muscles all at once.
“Plus, it was a beautiful setting with great co-workers. During that time in my early twenties, I was immersed in work along with a bunch of other 20-somethings and we were at arguably the best hotel in town … which meant we also got to enjoy the best restaurants, bars, and recreation. You work hard but also play hard and get a lot of benefits.
“Two main lessons learned: 1) People are all unique — whether they are your team or your guests, there is no one-size fits all. Developing empathy for your customers (internal and external) is crucial to getting anywhere. 2) Always negotiate your hotel room rate. ;)”
“My first job out of college was with a tech shop. I wrote a lot of code on a team of developers. It taught me a lot about how systems work, what the true meaning of ‘scale’ is, and why it is important in systems, as a manager and in personal life. I learned how to organize data and how to do it in ways that people can actually use. I learned a ton about design and the importance of elegance. I also learned why it’s important to write things down, particularly in comments. When you’re wondering four years later what you were thinking, it’s like finding treasure.
“I love tech and knowing first-hand what emotions people go through and the hurdles they leap to build products helps me appreciate the magnitude of what we have accomplished — and make sure that carries through to the brand and story.”
“My first job was selling Honda cars. It was a pretty remarkable experience for someone fresh out of college — very intense and very long hours. I learned a ton in my 18 months selling cars, but there are three valuable lessons that stayed with me and have been very applicable throughout my career.
“This was the first role of many that I had at HubSpot. My primary responsibilities fell into the category of lead gen programs: webinars, ebooks, landing pages, working with sales. I also created a lot of content (blog articles), ran parts of social media, ran events (exhibiting and hosting) … basically a mix of a lot of things, as you’d expect at a startup.
“I loved it because 1) I got to do/own a lot; 2) I built a lot of skills around lead gen, working with sales, and data-driven marketing; and 3) I got to work with smart, passionate people. That role laid the groundwork for many of the things I took on afterwards.”
“I joined GE straight out of college because its Financial Management Program was renowned for starting a career in finance. I thought I wanted to be a CFO or Wall Street Banker. I had no concept of a ‘startup’ or working for anything other than a large, well-regarded company.
“It was an incredible learning experience and exposed me to many aspects of the business and a parade of leaders: some good, some mediocre, and some great. I was a cost account (my least favorite), business analyst (the best), and an auditor. I learned that I didn’t like spending my day looking for what went wrong or how people might be cheating the system (which I had to do as an auditor). I learned that I loved doing analysis and trying to understand business dynamics. I learned that good leaders keep open lines of communication, set inspiring vision and goals, push you to experiment, and make you think for yourself. They are also there for you when you need them.
“Ultimately, GE exposed me to the world of software. I loved working in spreadsheets (really!) so I decided to work for the company that made them: Lotus, which is now part of IBM. From then on, I was hooked on the technology industry and made my switch to startups. At Lotus, I was the finance manager for the Sales VP, and, as a result, was recruited into the sales team (later becoming the VP Sales for a network systems company). After many years in sales, I made the switch to marketing.
“That’s how I got from a financial management program to a career in marketing. I never did become a CFO or a hot-shot Wall Street banker — and I’ve never regretted it!”
“It was a 80-person startup founded by two Americans and a Swiss out of Munich, Germany. I had worked there as an intern for two summers and the CEO said, ‘Why don’t you work as my assistant for one year? I’ll take you to every meeting, and in a year, you tell me what you want to do.’ It was a great experience and set me off on my marketing career. After the one year, he made me head of the product steering committee and from there I expanded my marketing experience.
“That year as a personal assistant gave me into so much insight into how CEOs think, how to overcome challenges, how to manage limited time, and how to work cross-departmentally. It also gave me a good strategic foundation and the ability to link my own contributions to the company’s success. That same company moved me from Germany to the U.S. two years after I started. I’ve been in Boston since then (1998) and have not looked back, so I’m very thankful for that first opportunity and first job.”
“Three things come to mind about my experience:
“My first professional job was as a Customer Service Associate in the Finance department for Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts — the largest group of hospitals and medical offices in the western half of Massachusetts. My role was to take calls from patients that were trying to figure out how to pay for medical treatment, working with their insurance companies or other types of coverage in order to make sure that the invoices were properly submitted, then paid, and if there was no insurance coverage, setting up the patient on some sort of payment plan.
“The phone calls were brutal, but it was important to understand the needs of the patients and tying it back to revenue for the medical center. In all honesty, I don’t think I could have stayed in that job as a ‘forever’ role … I lasted about three months before I transferred into the Accounting Department, overseeing the Nursing School education fund and the special donations to the hospitals within the medical center.
“The role of talking to the customer was invaluable in understanding that we all see things through the prism of an experience. Marketers call it ‘the Buyer’s Journey,’ but ultimately, it is how well things are handled during a very stressful time of a patient’s life.”
“I was an Account Coordinator at Lois/GGK in New York, working on ABC Sports. I ran down all the content and photo rights for their weekly advertising programs, and tagged along on questions related to marketing strategy for the network. I loved it because I worked for a fantastic account guy named Andy Brief who taught me how to think about advertising, manage clients, and deal with the departments and personalities common to all agency cultures.”
“My first job after graduation was with Liberty Mutual’s internal strategy consulting group, Corporate Research. It was a small internal team of consultants that did the same type of work as Bain or BCG, but for Liberty Mutual business units.
“It was a great first experience because I got to work on business problems in a bunch of different areas, including sales, marketing, and product. I really developed my quantitative and analytical skills during my two years (and I spent A LOT of time in Excel learning advanced functions I still use today). My favorite project involved marketing Liberty Mutual’s personal insurance lines, and it was during this project that I decided I wanted to pursue marketing. So I give a big thanks to Corporate Research for setting me on a great path, and the rest is history!”
“For my first job out of college, I was hired as a commodities broker for Merrill Lynch. I really didn’t know what they did but was sure I could handle it! It was a wild experience. I was hired in 1981, and my very first day on the job is when the metals (gold) markets crashed. Everyone in the office was long (betting price would go up), and when the markets crashed, they got locked into these losing positions. In a ‘locked down’ market you can’t get out because no one is buying. I vividly remember my manager sitting in front of his Quotron, wringing his hands, praying, with sweat slowly sliding down the side of his face. I remained a commodities broker for nine years!”
“My first job out of college was as a Project Analyst at Mintz Levin, a large Boston law firm. I thought about going to law school but decided to work in a law firm first to see what lawyers actually did!
“In the role, I used and developed my writing, presenting, and analysis skills working on legal cases as well as internal operations projects. I gravitated toward IT projects, because I really enjoyed showing lawyers how they could make better use of technology. So it was on to business school instead of law school for me, and then a career in high tech consulting, business development, sales, and now marketing!”
What was your first job, and how has that experience helped you down the road?