The importance of stretching: How marketers benefit from non-marketing roles

“Like all the best marketers, I started off in sales.” I winced when a conference speaker opened his presentation like that earlier this year, because I know you don’t need to begin your career in sales to be a great marketer.

I’m privileged to know many exceptionally talented, very well-respected marketers, and only a few started in sales.

But there’s definitely something to be said for marketers taking roles in other functions at some point in their careers—however brief, challenging, or uncomfortable those assignments might be—to develop their portfolio of skills and gain different perspectives on their businesses.

Mathieu Robitaille, who currently serves as marketing director for the Metro banner at Metro Ontario, spent the last 15 years working in roles spanning field sales, finance, project management, business development, key account sales, commercialization, and marketing.

I asked him how his diverse experience helped him as a marketer. “First, I can more easily relate to the various internal departments,” he said. “I can understand their potential position and challenges with my marketing objectives, which enables me to be better equipped to secure their support. Having walked in their shoes gives me credibility that I can leverage to speak their language and better position my objectives for the benefit of their department. I can answer the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

“Second, when building my marketing plans, I have fewer blind spots to support the execution, as I can more readily attempt to address some of the real and unspoken challenges.”

There are many assignments that marketers could accept, either inside or outside their existing organization, to challenge themselves and become stronger business leaders.

Category Management / Research Roles:

One of my first full-time roles was working in category management, where I learned how to turn data into information and find insights that could be used to build brand plans and sales presentations.

Any respected marketing organization requires its marketers to fully understand data and make fact-based decisions, but there’s a deeper understanding that comes with a role where that’s your singular focus. Plus, learning how to use data tools early in your career often means having the know-how to quickly pull answers yourself rather than relying on others to do it for you.

Innovation / Commercialization Roles:

Leveraging an in-depth understanding of the consumer to know what products to bring to market is one thing; understanding how those products become commercially viable is another. Brad Canario, senior brand manager for Budweiser at Labatt Breweries of Canada, accepted an innovation assignment between two marketing roles.

“For me, brand managers are particularly sharp when it comes to communication and team leadership, but rarely do you find a marketer that has a good grasp of finance,” he explained. “[Working in] innovation allowed me to fully understand the impact of price, discounting, fixed costs, and variable costs. When I transitioned back to traditional brand management, I found my innovation experience enabled me to have more robust dialogue with senior leaders.”  

Retail / Buyer Roles:

The best marketing plans in the world don’t matter if consumers can’t find the products to buy; often, this means convincing a retail buyer that what you’re selling is worth supporting. Arlene Stratton is a vice-president/general manager for Duracell, but between a brand management role at Yum Canada and her current position, she worked as a buyer for Target Canada.  “It gave me amazing insight into what matters to retailers, who are the gatekeepers that control what makes it to shelf,” she said. “The perfect product or promotional concept is nothing if it doesn’t ultimately get it in front of the consumer in the way that you’d hoped. Retailer understanding and collaboration is key.”

Account Management / Sales:

Sam Minardi, who was most recently a marketing director at the Kellogg’s Company, began his career working on a customer business development team for Procter & Gamble. “Gaining experience in sales proved invaluable to me as a marketer. It provided me with an in-depth understanding of how retailers work and make decisions, which can be directly re-applied to help build strong brand plans and strategies,” he said. “Beyond that, it developed my presentation and negotiation skills, sharpened my ability to think and react on the spot when faced with challenges, and thickened my skin as a young professional.”

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. You can learn transferable skills by accepting stretch-assignments in almost every aspect of your business: finance, human resources, operations, supply chain and more. You could spend some time working agency-side to get a better appreciation of how strategies come to life, and perhaps become a better, more understanding client as a result. And teaching at a college or a university part-time is a great way to not only work on your presentation and facilitation skills, but also to share your acquired knowledge with young marketers looking to follow in your footsteps.

Such perspective-broadening assignments aren’t anything new, but a fear of the unknown—and of possible failure—still prevents many marketers from moving outside their comfort zone and accepting one. But adopting a growth mindset, and embracing the challenge of a non-traditional path, is a great way to gain new perspectives that will prove advantageous as you progress through your career.


David Pullara is a chief marketing offficer, writer, speaker, consultant, and course facilitator for the Schulich Executive Education Centre. His career has included roles at Starbucks, Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut), Coca-Cola, and Google. You can read his thoughts by following him on Medium, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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