Unconventional routes to marketing: How marketers at Virgin Media, Instagram and Mini made the transition

Written by: Mindi Chahal
Published on: 5 Apr 2016

Unconventional routes to marketing article

Looking at the career path that some of the UK’s top marketers have taken into the profession illustrates the true diversity in skills that are required in businesses today.

From neuroscience to engineering, the marketing function is attracting a wealth of talent from all sectors. But how and why do people make that transition and what is needed to succeed?

For Kerris Bright, CMO at Virgin Media, a PhD in molecular neuroscience preceded a move into marketing at Unilever, and helped define the balance between science and art epitomised in her career.

Bright says: “That’s why I got into marketing and why I have been able to achieve some of the things [I have], because [I] bring that combination.”

“It’s hard for people to move jobs,” admits Sonia Sudhakar, director of digital growth at Guardian News & Media. But she adds that there is “a lot of learning by osmosis” in business.

Sonia Sudhakar, Director of digital growth, Guardian News & Media

“It’s about learning on the job but learning sideways [and] trying to get into projects that aren’t necessarily in your job scope. Identify projects you know will help you in your road map and muscle in somehow,” she advises.

Sudhakar studied hotel and catering and worked in hotels before moving into a marketing role in the travel sector. A job at The Telegraph was her first step outside of the leisure sector and “when it became more about marketing than the industry” she was able to make a “side step”, but she advises that it takes determination too.

“The hard work element cannot be understated,” she explains. “If you are trying to move into an area you don’t know well, you need to put in the extra hours and time to make yourself feel credible in that area.”

Amy Cole, head of brand development, EMEA at Instagram agrees that in order to transition  into marketing, people have to “get involved and find ways to start interfacing with [the right] groups and get involved with activities”. Cole studied mechanical engineering before entering roles in the automotive industry with Chrysler. She joined Instagram when the team had only five members.

Amy Cole, Head of brand development, EMEA, Instagram

For Cole, finding the skills in one role that could be useful in the next is important. She says: “As an engineer in the auto industry, a lot of the strategy is driven by sales and marketing and the engineering executes on what those plans are; I really wanted to be closer to how you build a strategy for a business.”

Cole also advises people looking to move into a new area not to worry if they don’t know what they are doing. She says: “That was the biggest learning for me, just taking a risk and trusting that you don’t know everything but you can figure it out.”

The diverse skills needed in the marketing function mean that a background in the discipline is not entirely necessary. Phil Rumbol, co-founder of agency 101, board trustee of The Marketing Academy and fellow of The Marketing Society, says: “It’s usually the breadth of skills that you are using that is a key attraction to [marketing for] people.”

The former marketing director at Cadbury, who was responsible for the famous ‘Gorilla’ ad and the social media return of Wispa, adds: “In any given day, you could be in a meeting analysing sales figures, later on you could find yourself in a meeting where someone is presenting a script, and you have to use your imagination to see if a gorilla playing the drums is a good idea.”

Learning on the job is also beneficial, according to Rumbol, who believes it’s not always necessary to do a marketing degree because it can be “overly theoretical”. He adds:  “I don’t put as much [weight on] people doing a marketing degree as some other organisations would.”

For Marc Lengning, head of brand management at Mini, gaining skills on the job was part of his journey when moving from mechanical engineering to marketing.

Marc Lengning, Head of brand management, Mini

He says: “At the very beginning, I just had my internet knowledge – that was the only thing that was needed – then step-by-step I learned.”

Lengning’s technical background has helped him as the role of marketing has evolved. He explains: “Calculations for engines are exactly the same [in that] you have a lot of data to analyse. What helped is that marketing in the past was less technical. Now it’s about KPIs and you can measure more, especially in digital marketing.”

To be able to tackle the diverse nature of what a marketing role involves, perhaps a diverse career history can also be beneficial.