Remembering that first job in marketing

LONDON - Four senior marketers explain what they learned from their first marketing roles, revealing how it influenced the course of their career, their proudest achievement on the job, and their biggest mistake.

Dianne Thompson chief executive, Camelot

'My first job was as a marketing trainee in the grocery department at the Co-operative Wholesale Society. I had no real idea what marketing was, but I impressed the interviewers with my knowledge of the Rochdale Pioneers, who founded the Co-operative Movement, and a definition of marketing gained by reading a couple of paragraphs in an otherwise useless guide I had bought in preparation.

'I had no marketing or business qualifications - I had specialised in Shakespeare and Old Provençal at university - but I learned loads on the job.

'Perhaps the biggest thing it taught me was how much I enjoyed dealing with consumers - something I should have remembered when I later became managing director of Sandvik Saws and Tools. Business-to-business and industrial marketing have never interested me.

'After redesigning the packaging for the Co-op's own-label pharmaceuticals range, I was promoted to product manager for the packing factory.

'I can't think of any particular mistakes I made in my first job, but I did learn a lesson later on in my career when I turned up for a job interview with Radio Rentals that I hadn't prepared for. Needless to say, I didn't get the job, but how arrogant is that?'

Before joining Camelot, Thompson held marketing director and managing director roles at companies including Woolworths and Signet.

Sue Farr executive director, Chime Communications

'I've spent roughly half my career on the client side and half on the agency side. Getting a good grounding on the former at Northern Foods has proved invaluable in understanding the pressures clients are under. I think having experience of life on both sides of the fence makes you a better client and a better consultant.

'Northern Foods used to make a lot of own-label products and was the primary food supplier to Marks & Spencer when I became brand manager of its Park Cakes line. I quickly became aware of the retailers' power - someone from M&S head office visited at least three times a week - but I was impressed by its attention to detail, quality control and the partnership it had with Northern Foods (it co-invested in the factories, for example).

'I am proud to have sorted out a problem for a powerful and senior buyer at Sainsbury's, who phoned up ranting because he hadn't received a delivery. I was still relatively junior, but I managed to persuade the production manager to swap the production schedule and got the head of distribution to switch lorries onto the Sainsbury's run. We couldn't have pulled it off had I not already forged relationships with those people and got them on-side.'

After Northern Foods, Farr moved into marketing consultancy, then advertising (primarily with WCRS), before becoming director of corporate communications at Thames TV. Prior to Chime, she was marketing director at the BBC.

Matthew Higgins head of brand planning and communications, First Direct

'At KPMG, which helped arrange Department for Trade and Industry grants for a variety of clients, I learned a lot about all sorts of different business sectors, from pet food to Tarmac. I was immersed in marketing, research and business, and will always be grateful to the company for giving me a break because I feared I was unemployable after three years touring with a band.

'I felt I needed to prove myself to win respect, so I quickly got used to standing up in front of people and making presentations. An early mistake was delivering a report to the wrong client. Fortunately, it was based close to our office, so I was able to pretend I needed an extra document and dash back and get the right report.

'I developed good communications skills, learned to read people, and gained a sense of the politics of a situation. My proudest achievement was the first time I completed a grant project on my own. The grants represented a lot of money for some of the small businesses we were dealing with, so I felt a big responsibility to get it right.

'I got into the research area by chance, but it really helped my career progress. For instance, although my role has since broadened considerably, I joined First Direct as a researcher.'

Higgins' first job was playing drums in an anti-corporate rock band. When the group disbanded, he completed an MBA and joined KPMG Consulting as a market researcher.

Marc Sands marketing director, Guardian News & Media

'I spent my first year at Granada/LWT in a bit of a limbo. But then Granada and Carlton set up ONdigital in a bid to challenge Sky. There were about eight of us, so it was a baptism of fire.

'I had a clean slate in marketing terms and had to come up with everything, including the name, branding, positioning and so on, in the space of about nine months. It made me realise how much I enjoyed being able to take control of a project and be accountable for its success.

'We selected DDB as our preferred agency but, because we needed to move quickly, I didn't have time to go through the usual tortuous negotiation on fees, so I rang up the managing director and offered him a seven-figure sum on condition that he said yes or no by the end of the conversation. He said yes, and the lesson that taught me was that if you fire straight with agencies, you save yourself a lot of hassle. Clients have to be direct, whether in response to creative work or in giving clear briefs.

'ONdigital ultimately failed because the technology didn't work. I felt a huge sense of achievement in having set up a completely new brand from scratch, but I regret the fact that we never got the chance to properly test it out.'

Starting his career in advertising as a trainee with DMB&B, Sands subsequently moved to Simons, Palmer, Lintas, and then HHCL, before taking up his first marketing position at Granada/LWT.

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