From Aspiring Marketer to C-Suite: ‘Dream Idea’ Showcases Marketing Career Paths

18 September 2020

By Jay Hodgkins

Marketing departments are not created equal in every company. And the opportunities for career development for marketers in those companies are not equal, either.

Yet, the nuances of the marketing function can be difficult for aspiring marketers at the beginning of their careers to parse, which can lead to early career missteps that alter their trajectory for years to come.

To help students across the University of Virginia avoid those pitfalls, Darden School of Business Marketing Professor Kimberly Whitler received the 2020 Mead Endowment John Colley Award and was invited to submit a “dream idea.” Her idea was to connect aspiring marketers from undergraduate and graduate programs at UVA and teach them about different career paths.

On 15 September, that dream idea came true despite the limitations of the coronavirus pandemic, as Whitler hosted a virtual event attended by more than 100 students from across the University featuring Greg Welch, head of executive search firm Spencer Stuart’s North American Marketing, Sales and Communication Officer Practice.

Welch has placed more than 800 C-level marketing professionals for his clients over the years. Examples include the chief marketing officers at Facebook, Planet Fitness, Target, Patron, CVS, Aetna, Beam Suntory, Buffalo Wild Wings and even English Premier League football club Manchester United as just a few of his placements.

“There’s no one I can think of who is better-suited to understand how early career choices can impact later career options,” Whitler said, introducing Welch to start the session.

Slow and Steady Versus Big Salaries and Startups

Welch commended the UVA students for proving their academic merit to date, but said upon graduation, they will reach a crossroads. “Now what are you going to do with your impressive degree?” he asked them.

Some students pursuing first jobs out of an MBA or undergraduate business program pursue the largest salary they can earn while others chase a big company name and others still target work for a startup. Welch said there is no one right path, but urged students to consider taking a first job at a larger company with a “pedigreed” marketing department where they can learn the craft well, benefit from corporate resources to train them, learn from a great leader — all while earning a competitive salary.

“It may not sound exciting to work for Proctor & Gamble, General Mills or Unilever, but they produce some of the best global marketers I’ve ever seen,” Welch said. “Don’t just get lulled into the sex appeal of the company’s brand or some hot, new startup.”

When he is looking to find chief marketing officer (CMO) candidates for his corporate clients, Welch said he is looking for “five Cs in executives:”

  • Career
  • Capabilities
  • Capacity
  • Character
  • Compatibility (the alignment of the leader with the organization and desired outcomes)

“When I look at the alumni from companies like General Mills and Kellogg who are now running companies, they are some of the finest executives I know,” Welch said. “Their early training and foundation allowed them to go on and do great things.”

If an aspiring marketer isn’t sure if a company really cares about marketing or is a springboard for marketer careers, Welch advised the students to ask a few questions. Who are the people who joined the core marketing team and what are they doing now? What does the company spend on marketing compared to its size? How large is the marketing team? Where have marketers moved on to inside or outside the company? And which function does the CEO come from?

To Be a Successful Marketer, It Takes Being da Vinci

Welch shared the top skills students would need to become a CMO of the future, including the ability to steer company strategy, present a future vision to a company’s board of directors and “whole-brain thinking,” among others.

He distilled the broad set of skills encompassing both left-brain and right-brain attributes down to being like Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was a mathematician, architect and scientist, demonstrating his prowess for left-brain thinking, but he was also a renowned painter, sculptor and storyteller, traditionally associated with right-brain thinking.

While Welch acknowledge it doesn’t take being da Vinci to succeed in marketing, his broad skillset is a perfect analogy for the balance successful marketers will be asked to manage between quantitative, data-based marketing and what he called the “magic, artsy” creative marketing.

What an Aspiring Marketer’s Resume Should Say

Many young professionals fresh out of an undergraduate or MBA program tend to bounce between several jobs early on. While this isn’t a fatal flaw, Welch said, at a certain point, a job candidate’s resume must show stability and a willingness to stay with a company for several years, if the candidate hopes to reach a senior leadership marketing position.

“With my clients, I have to take 25-year careers and boil it into a 30-second pitch,” Welch said. If someone has bounced around throughout their career or not worked for companies with a known marketing pedigree, the pitch can be tough.

Spending three to five years with a consumer packaged goods company, as an example, might not sound incredibly appealing for students, but Welch said such early career decisions will open more opportunities in marketing in their future.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Press Contact

Sophie Zunz
Director of Media Relations
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia