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How to choose a first job in marketing, advertising or PR

Choosing a good first employer can be a huge boost and help direct your career in the right direction. But how do you know if an employer – and specifically their marketing department – is any good?

I like to think of employers as fitting into four categories:

  1. Big and first rate. Here you learn from excellent colleagues who are ahead of you, where the culture is ambitious, and where you also learn how to navigate and successful in big organisations. There are probably some nice perks, too, like private health insurance.
  2. Small and first rate. You won’t learn how big organisations work, and there are fewer formal process, policies and departments. The upside is that you might end up doing more senior and varied work because there are fewer people around.
  3. Big and second rate. There’s still a lot you can learn from these, but the organisation has lost its way and is in decline. If it’s an agency, there may still be some good, prestigious clients to work on, but which the agency is struggling to retain.
  4. Small and second rate. Working here will teach you little about how to be successful as a marketer and it probably won’t sound prestigious on the CV. There are higher risks here to your wellbeing and careers, such as having to deal with the emotions of a manager whose business is stalling, and there’s a much higher risk of unexpected “termination”.

Someone early in his career asked me for some advice, after he’d been let go from a couple of PR agencies in quick succession. Incongruously, he was clearly bright and a good communicator. The issue, I concluded, was that his employers had been in categories 3 and 4, and he probably needed a different environment and someone to take him under their wing. I helped him get some some-short work, and he has subsequently worked for in the world of category 2 (small and first-rate) and been successful.

How to categorise a prospective employer

Of course, this is all well and good in theory, but how do you know in advance what an employer is really like behind the façade of a good-looking website? The answer is that it’s actually quite difficult to know. However, here are some ideas:

  1. Obviously, famous brands can be great options – it’s why so many people apply to work at Microsoft, Unilever and Nestle. They will normally be in category one, but a brand like BHS would have been in category 3. You can determine the category through annual reports or coverage in the business sections of newspapers. However, all big companies have stronger periods than others, and a weak period where a company grasps the nettle and puts in place a turnaround plan (like John Lewis) doesn’t stop it being in category 1.
  2. Go to industry events before you graduate and talk to people a few years ahead of you about who they recommend.
  3. Do summer internships to get an inside look. If a summer job is at an employer you like, it could be perfect for a graduate job. Internships are also a useful vantage point to learn about employers in the sector generally, and to make connections.
  4. If you’re planning to work in an agency, look up the client list. The agency may not be a prominent brand, but do its clients look like companies with significant budgets? The ability to say you worked at an agency on its Sainsbury’s account is much better than saying you handled the local hairdresser’s account.
  5. Check out employer review sites such as Glassdoor.
  6. If they have a team page on their site, think about whether there’s sufficient experience and gravitas among the team for you to learn from. An agency shouldn’t just be fresh-faced new graduates plus the boss.
  7. If not applying for an official graduate training programme, ask potential employers what their commitment to personal development and training is.

How I chose my first employer

Of course, I didn’t know all the above when I started out in my career, but it is a codified reflection of what I learned along the way.

My first proper job was in my gap year before university (and went back to the same employer afterwards). The Adam Smith Institute was (and is) a small but first-rate organisation. My boss had been described in John Major’s official biography as one of only two intellects that Major had respected. He had been a syndicated newspaper columnist in the United States and on the editorial board of a British national newspaper, a professor of logic at a US university, Secretary of the high-IQ society Mensa, and had degrees from Edinburgh, St Andrews and Cambridge.

I had a really interesting gap year as a result, helping to place stories in newspapers, develop ideas for the website and, around a month after leaving school, made my first appearance on BBC Radio 4. Unlike a large organisation, there was no formal HR-led training programme (there was no HR department, either). But there was plenty of learning how to do stuff from someone with expertise.

To take the role, I had turned down an offer to spend my gap year in the Press Office of the Conservative Party, working for someone who is now the eminent Executive Director for Government Communications. That would have been a great learning experience too. Hate to be mercenary, but the deciding factor was simply financial.

How did I know the employer I was choosing was good? I went to a range of the organisation’s events and spent a good half hour talking to someone who was part-way through a gap year job there. It was a small outfit but I understood the internal dynamics and what the job was going to entail.

The thing about first-rate organisations is that they are not afraid of change; it’s the constant iterative process in how they function that makes them first rate. Once a week, my line manager would take me for lunch and the idea was that I would pitch ideas for new activities and tweaks – actually, that might not have been the idea, but it is what I did.

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