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How to Become a Marketing Manager

Sep 13, 2023
Discover career insights from successful marketing managers Kirstin Johnson and Jesse Spear, both Vanderbilt Business alumni

By Eigen Escario

Marketing is a field with career possibilities in any industry, and achieving a managing role is one of the pinnacles in this line of work. Kirstin Johnson (MMark’18), Performance Marketing Manager at Levi Strauss & Co, and Jesse Spear (MMark’18), Senior Manager at redpepper, have contrasting careers, yet they share similar successes in their abilities to navigate marketing roles on the track to becoming a manager.

Maintaining Momentum Post-graduationPictured: Vanderbilt Business Master of Marketing students in the classroom

Before starting the journey to becoming a marketing manager, assessing the state of the marketing world and meeting key players in the industry is a valuable tool to have beyond graduation. Johnson and Spear discuss steps that they took to prepare for a long-term career in marketing.

“Within Owen, I really utilized the Career Management Center (CMC) and all the brand events to learn about the different types of roles within marketing and different verticals of business,” Johnson said. “For example, in my current role, I work cross-functionally with the accounting, finance, planning, and merchandising teams—having exposure to all those different types of individuals in the recruiting process allowed me to understand how different departments work with one another.”

“One of the main things I learned at Owen was how to juggle,” Spear said. “Not literally, but juggle priorities. When it came to coursework, networking, job applications, and also exploring Nashville and having fun, it was all about balance.”

Both Johnson and Spear point to the CMC as a crucial component of their journey. It is important to build and foster relationships that could lead to professional opportunities after establishing marketable, technical foundations in business school.

“I leaned heavily into the CMC and the camaraderie with my classmates to help keep it all in the air,” Spear said. “Owen has so many resources available, and if you’re not taking advantage of them you’re leaving a lot of value on the table. When I got overwhelmed, I would focus my energy on learning as much as I could and making meaningful connections.”

Navigating Marketing Job Structures

To make strides towards developing within your career in any industry, you also need to know the roads taken by others to reach the role that you’re working towards. Johnson and Spear say there are typical pipelines and structures as well as effective ways to approach becoming a marketing manager.

Pictured: Vanderbilt Business Master of Marketing students in the classroom“This is one of those classic ‘it depends’ answers,” Spear said. “When it comes to working up the ladder, I think the best thing to do is identify what you love about what you’re currently doing and research career development paths that put those things front and center. Agency-side or brand-side? Big company or small company? Specialized marketing role or general marketing role? Strategy or creative or analytics?”

“For me, I started within the agency world focusing on paid media campaign management for brands,” Johnson said. “This ladder started with roles like specialists and associates where you work hands-on-keyboard within paid platforms. And you work your way into Senior Associate and Manager roles where you look at account work more holistically and start to manage teams of specialists. Then you roll up into roles like Directors where you’re managing multiple teams’ brand portfolios.”

Spear says utilizing the support system you gain access to in business school is also a great way to be cognizant of what is happening in your industry.“I worked with the CMC and found it incredibly helpful to develop business acumen in general and utilize the alumni network,” Spear said. “I can ask past classmates or other alums about field-specific trends or job opportunities, which allows me to stay fresh and up-to-date within the ever-changing world of marketing. I realized that people love talking about what they do—you’re not bothering someone by asking for a few minutes of their time, and the insight and connection that you acquire can be game-changing.”

Keeping A Bird’s Eye View

While it’s possible to get overwhelmed with the many different possibilities in marketing, it is important to balance a well-informed overview of different marketing niches without feeling pressure to follow a linear path.

“My biggest advice for those looking into marketing is to first understand all the different facets of marketing roles there are out there—brand marketing, performance marketing, analytics, consumer experience,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of paths once you start a marketing role on getting to a manager position, I’d say keep yourself in the know with trends and how you can grow cross-functionally at a company, offering you the most opportunity for growth.”

“Remembering that the path doesn’t have to be linear can be really freeing,” Spear said. “I began my career in a really specialized role focused on content marketing and paid media. From there, I went more broad, going from Marketing Manager to Senior Marketing Manager. Follow your energy and find the fun in carving your path.”

There are also a couple of helpful skills and strategies that Johnson and Spear deployed to get their marketing manager positions: agility and being adept at cross-functionality.

“You need to be able to context shift to different projects throughout the day, and you also have to be ready to pivot,” Johnson said. “Over the past few years, marketing managers have really experienced this firsthand. You can plan all you want, but if something significant is happening in your community, industry, or out there in the world, then you need to be prepared to pause, pivot, or proceed—authentically.”

“The key of moving upwards role-wise comes with strength in channel knowledge, overarching knowledge of working with cross-functional partners, and people management,” Johnson said. “I think the most essential skill in my position that I was able to craft early in my career was to evaluate performance and build strategies for not just my channels, but also understand and evaluate other team members’ results.”

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