How to become a great marketing manager

Five traits you need to level up

Three women in an office meeting room having a conversation
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Marketing roles can be very broadly divided into the following categories:

  • Junior — assistant, executive, officer
  • Mid-level — manager, team leader
  • Senior — head of, director, CMO

There are levels within this, such as senior exec and assistant manager, but most marketers start their career in a junior role with a view to becoming a marketing manager.

It’s an arbitrary job title. I’ve seen marketing managers on £25k with no autonomy and marketing managers on £50k managing a team and six-figure budget. But generally, being a marketing manager is your early-career goal, bringing a bump in salary, your own area of marketing to look after, and even a team to manage.

I wanted to become a marketing manager before I was 30. It ended up being one of the hardest and longest steps I made in my career. Like many elder millennials, I graduated into the credit crunch. I temped for a few months before talking myself into an entry-level position by showing up at a recruiters office with my CV in hand. I started a sales and marketing support role at a charity one month before the 2010 election, (yes, that election which kick-started a huge cut in government funding). As the recession dragged on through my 20s, getting a promotion or pay rise was hard work.

Once I became a marketing manager and began to manage people and mentor junior team members, I could look back on my journey with clarity. Career progression is hard in poor economic conditions, as it is in non-inclusive work environments. But, for all the times I felt held back by the economy, or my comprehensive school background or my lack of business acumen, I can also see the traits I needed to level up. So here’s how to become a great manager, from somebody who grew into one, and helped others grow too.

1. Independence

A marketing manager is independent and decisive. This doesn’t mean skipping the approval process, it means taking ownership of your work.

In a junior role, your workload is set for you and you run decisions and work past your manager for approval. As a manager, you’re more likely to have a weekly catch up with your line manager. You tell them what you’re working on and you need their approval on major decisions only. Think of it this way, you go from being told what to do by your manager, to you telling your manager what you’re going to do (with some discussion). As a marketing manager, you’ll also be handling certain situations such as meetings with colleagues, running campaigns and setting up customer events without too much hand holding.

An important step towards independence is going to your manager with solutions, and a reason behind the solution, rather than problems and questions. For example, saying, “For this next campaign I want to schedule our LinkedIn posts in the morning as that performed best last time” rather than “When do you think we should schedule our posts for the next campaign?” This step can feel scary as it’s natural to fear being wrong. You will get over-ridden at times — and this happens as a manager too — but it’s how you learn to make better, faster decisions.

Other than yourself, the main barrier to independence is an over-bearing manager. If you feel you are outgrowing your role, have a conversation about taking on more responsibility. If they won’t relinquish control, it may be time to move on. And if you get disappointing feedback about your performance, it may be time for some tough love.

2. Responsibility

Being responsible means you care about what you do and the outcome of your work. This comes naturally to some people, but not to all. If it doesn’t develop over time, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to be responsible.

Some wear caring too much as a badge of honour, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. It can lead to poor decision making, bottlenecks and a glacial approval process. There’s a very thin line between caring too much and over-working, which you should avoid.

Signs that you need to care more at work include:

  • Your manager has spoken to you about making mistakes at work or not following through on tasks — this is a biggie and you should take notice and act accordingly
  • Campaigns, content and collateral have to be repeatedly amended or recalled once they are “live” as they weren’t checked properly — you need to learn to check and proofread
  • You don’t have a documented approval process — this is a ticking time bomb
  • When there’s a crisis, your manager always handles it — yes it’s their job to handle this, but you should get stuck in and offer your support
  • You spend and plan activity without checking the budget —yikes! Where do you think this money comes from?

If responsibility doesn’t come naturally to you, it will be hard to progress without it. You need to pinpoint what the exact issue is. Do you need a recap of spelling and grammar to improve your proofing skills? If you are disorganised, what systems and processes can you put in place to help? If you don’t know how to cope with a marketing emergency, can you get some coaching on this?

Being responsible shows that you can be trusted. Once your manager and colleagues start to trust you and value your work, you’re on a good path to becoming a marketing manager.

3. Commerciality

Commercial knowledge and mindset are necessary to step up to marketing manager, and any role beyond that. You need to know how your product/service is priced, what the cost base is and the profit margin. You need to be aware of your company’s revenue and profit and what makes it go up and down. You need to have a handle on product, price and profit and how this fits with the marketing budget.

This means rather than be told what to do, or worse, doing something because you feel like it, you’re choosing to do something because it brings money in. That is what you are paid to do.

At 25 I thought an English degree, fantastic copy skills and mastering social media was enough to make me a great marketing manager. Right? Absolutely not. I had a giant gap in my knowledge about business, finance and all the acronyms that go along with this.

In my case, doing a CIM diploma helped. I spent time with the finance team where I worked and learnt about their roles. I asked to have responsibility for small areas of the marketing budget, and gradually took more and more of it over. I tracked the analytics on the campaigns I was responsible for and made reports. Years later, when I attended board meetings, if I didn’t understand something I’d Google it afterwards and ask our management accountant to talk me through it. The lesson here is to start small and build up your understanding. It’s never too late to ask for help.

Don’t let commerciality kill your creativity (more of that in the next section), just remember you’re being paid to do a job and that job is to help your employer make money. If you apply that mindset to your work, you’ll get results and get noticed. Understand commercials, and you’ll be a great marketing manager and an even better head of marketing.

4. Curiosity

Being curious is the sign of a great marketer, I’d even say it differentiates good from great. This is the part of marketing that compels you to pore over campaign concepts and analytics, excited to share your ideas with the team.

A curious marketer is valued by employers because they keep asking “why?”. Why did that campaign work so well? Why do our customers really like this product but not that one? Why are we doing it this way?

Don’t confuse curiosity with creativity. You can be curious about stats and analytics and curious about consumer behaviour and language. Some of the most curious people I know work in IT. Ideally in a team, you’d have a balance of curiosities.

Some people are naturally curious. Sometimes it comes from developing a passion. If you have a question mark over your curiosity, dig into this a bit more. What do you like about marketing? What excites and what do you want to learn more about? How does it feel when a campaign really hits the mark? And how does it feel when it doesn’t?

If you’re drawing blanks, this will limit your potential and I’d question whether marketing is really what you want to do. You might be in the wrong role or the wrong company and a mentor could help you find your passion.

If you are fascinated by marketing, go and do your thing. Just remember it needs to lead to something. You will need to learn to focus if your curiosity leads to distraction.

5. Productivity

Productivity is the ability to get stuff done. If you’re a marketer working on multiple brands/clients/campaigns/products you’ll know how hard it can be to be productive.

Becoming more productive is not about having better lists, dozens of notebooks or fancy tech. It means having a deep understanding of yourself, how you work and how you respond to stresses. You probably know how you like to work — you might need structure or you might prefer organised chaos. We have an optimum workload level for getting stuff done, with enough time to plan, deliver, follow up and have a grip of what’s going on and what’s coming up.

Our employers often take this level and multiply it, and this is where it all goes wrong. You lose track, you rush or you freeze. If you’re like me, you’ll spend a day doing 5% of 20 different tasks when you could have done 100% of one or 50% of two. Peaks and troughs in workload are perfectly acceptable, and you might thrive in occasional crisis. But when it’s always a peak or always a crisis, you will burn out. When you are responsible for your own workload, being productive isn’t getting through as much work as possible. You need to be working on the right things which will make the biggest difference. Not easy when your colleagues have their own idea of what’s the right thing.

If this is speaking to you, this is my cycle to become more productive:

  • First of all, understand yourself better through DISC insights or MBTI. Find out how you prefer to work and why, plus what triggers you. One of my favourite exercises is to track what I’m doing for a week or so. This helps me identify what I’m actually getting done, where my time goes and what distracts me.
  • Apply this learning at work and create a better environment. If you’re a vivacious creative who becomes scatty under pressure, you need to learn to say no and I suspect you need to make better notes. If you’re a structured introvert who freezes in a crisis, explain to your colleagues that you need time to adjust to new situations. Every personality type brings something to a team, you just need to find the right environment to perform.
  • Accept that productivity is a cycle; you will slip again at some point. Recognise when you are slipping, what’s triggered this and respond accordingly. Your re-set will depend on your personality and your work context. It could look like tracking your week again, blocking time to focus or consciously scheduling down time. This is definitely the time to talk to your manager, mentor or a senior colleague to coach you through the process and help you get clarity.

I want to reiterate that we each have a tipping point at which certain pressures will stop us from being productive. While I would urge you to understand yourself better, sometimes the problem is your employer. I have resigned from a job due to the completely unacceptable workload. It was impossible for me to be productive and it led to me becoming very protective over my mental health at work.

In an ideal world, you would match your optimum level of productivity with your employer and have firm boundaries in place. When you become a marketing manager, your workload and responsibilities increase. You may even have the added stress of delegating and managing workload of direct reports. Becoming more productive will help you be a better marketer, a better manager and safeguard your mental health.

A great marketer is independent, responsible, commercial, curious and productive. I’ve had so many conversations over my career about these five traits and I would love to know what other marketers think. What would you add, remove, replace?

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Branch out and grow your marketing career. For in-house, agency and freelance marketers. By Into The Woods Marketing.

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Veronica Wood Querales

Veronica Wood Querales

Writing about marketing, careers and freelance life • Marketing consultant and mentor • intothewoodsmarketing.com

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