How to get promoted in a marketing team

You might think it’s unwise for a marketing director like me to write an article giving away the secrets of how to be promoted. But there’s a benefit in removing the confusion people have about what might get them a promotion, whether in title, responsibility or salary. Let’s face it, it can be frustrating to be in the dark about why promotions happen or don’t.

In a world where organisations have become flatter, the idea of a promotion is more complex than it used to be. A hierarchical agency, for example, might employ someone as a Junior Account Executive, who six months later becomes an Account Executive, before becoming an Account Manager, Senior Account Manager etc – all, essentially, the same job.

In an in-house job, at a flat organisation, you might not receive any tweaks to your job title during the same period, while still being highly regarded. A promotion in this context might be more around the complexity of work you get to do or whether, over time, you can wangle a pay rise.

However you define a promotion, let’s look at the techniques to get one, what holds people back, and the one thing that’s more useful to your career than a promotion per se.

What really causes promotions?

Firstly, the most important factor is out of your control: it’s about being in the right place at the right time. If someone leaves for another employer, that role might become available. Recessions or periods of economic uncertainty reduce opportunities for promotions because others aren’t moving jobs. Boom times make promotions easier to attain.

Secondly, for any marketing job you take, you ought arguably to be good at delivering 70 to 80 per cent of it from day one. The remaining 20 to 30 percent is stuff that will stretch your knowledge and abilities, and develop you as a professional.

The point at which you are plausible for a promotion is when you are good at delivering 110 to 130 per cent of the role. That is to say, you can do the full breadth of your job well and are also impressing people by taking on tasks that someone with more experience would be expected to do.

According to one career expert, early in your career you should be getting a promotion every three years, but title improvements slow as you get more senior.

Thirdly, it’s important to be clear that you derive energy from your job. Some people are perceived as being happy where they are. They come to work but seem to get almost most of their meaning in life from outside, viewing their job as a transactional relationship. The ones who show excitement about marketing as a profession, by reading books and blogs, going to industry events and suggesting innovations, are much more likely to be considered for a bigger role.

Fourthly, are you professionally qualified, doing professional qualifications, or enrolled on a continuing professional development scheme? These make you valuable not just to your employer but also on the market outside the company, because they get you to the top of a pile of CVs – increasing your perceived leverage.

Finally, do you have a clearly defined value proposition? The work of Alex Osterwalder et al has massively influenced how marketers talk about value, and the models that are applied to products and services can help your thinking in how you position yourself. What are you best in your team or company at doing? What could you become best at?

What are the biggest mistakes that people make in trying to get promotions?

The first mistake is when people try to make themselves irreplaceable by clinging onto information and tasks. People with low self-confidence feel that they can protect their position and get promoted by preventing others from being involved in their function. They ensure that no one else has a login for any system, and they keep the details of how to do their jobs secret. In fact, the people who get promoted tend to be the ones who are train up other people to cover for them when they are away or busy, and are seen as good organisers of systems.

For example, Tony (not his real name) was always invaluable to me as a member of team because I could deploy him to any function and he’d put in place systems that worked, he write standard operating processes and easy-to-read instructions, and he’d train and guide other staff on how to make everything a success. He could have clung onto information but he gained far more by being seen as a versatile manager. His skillset made him valuable and promotable.

The second mistake is to get an external job offer as a negotiating strategy. People have a life-cycle in a job that’s unique to them. If they seek external job offers they give the impression that they are ready to move on. When someone leaves there’s always some disruption but employers often think that there are downsides to a counter offer.

When I left my last job, my boss asked me: “How much would it cost us to keep you?” I am pretty sure that I could have extracted quite a lot of money at that point, because the organisation was doing extremely well and they liked me. But I replied that it wasn’t about the money but that I wanted to become head of department. It would have been a mistake for me to stay, even though I enjoyed the job.

Another mistake is impatience. A career is not a sprint and, though it may be frustrating, sometimes time doing a job well over a good period of time adds value by showing that you can stick with things. If you can do your current job easily, it can be a good place in which to learn new things, including volunteering to help with other work. (But if you have an unsupportive boss, it can help to move.)

Why professional development is better for your career than a promotion

Human capital appreciation, as they would say in the investment world, is worth way more than a pay rise. I’ve spent a five-figure sum on professional development over the past decade, mostly on an MBA, and benefitted from some employer support, too.

If your head of department is on a journey to up-skill the team and deliver better performance, you’re in a fantastic place to grow personally. The trick is to learn how you can access training that will improve your abilities.

I once met someone who told me that he daren’t ask his line manager for training because it felt like he was asking for more money and he felt awkward. But as a line manager and head of department, I see this rather differently.

Asking about professional development is clever because:

  • it shows that you want to improve
  • employers can see that it benefits them, too, as long as it’s relevant
  • companies in the UK are having to spend money on an apprenticeship levy, so programmes such as CIM apprenticeships are likely to be agreed
  • HR types love it.

Digital is transforming how we market, and effective marketing departments need a learning culture. If you are learning at a rapid pace, this can ​be what has ​the most significant effect on your long-term success.