Marketers' Origin Stories: 6 Lessons From 12 Leading Marketers Around the World

April 7, 2019

Marketer Origin Stories

This guest post was contributed by Kristen McCabe, Senior Content Marketing Specialist at G2 Crowd. 

The truth is, I always wanted to be a marketer. I just didn’t know it.

And, as it turns out, I’m not alone.

The 12 origin stories here come from marketing leaders and influencers around the globe. Some knew their calling from an early age, as proven by eight-year-old hand-delivered neighborhood newsletters and a fifth-grade paper written about cigarette ads. Others deliberately avoided corporate life, studying music and playing the trombone. (I’ll let you guess which story belongs to Ann Handley!)

One thing is clear: There’s more than one road that leads to success in marketing.

My own path to marketing was not planned; I was led by Australian immigration laws. As a recent graduate, I finished a three-month working holiday in Sydney and wasn’t ready to leave. (I know: Sunshine, beaches, and an average annual temperature of 71°F. Big surprise.)

I considered my options. The practical choice? Return to my Wisconsin hometown (in January, a balmy 15°F), and start writing cover letters for jobs I wasn’t sure I wanted. Then, inspiration hit: Marketing. I could get a student visa, and, best of all, a masters degree in a profession I was made for.

I’m a performer, communication studies major, and recovered shopaholic. How had I missed it?!

It’s a fact true for many of us: Marketing is more than a paycheck, it’s a passion.

We are committed to much more than promoting products. We love what we do. According to the 2019 Marketer Happiness Report by MarketingProfs:

  • Only 18 percent of marketers say they are “somewhat unfulfilled” or “not fulfilled,” and
  • 80 percent of marketers have someone they can turn to when dealing with a challenging work problem.

The best marketers appreciate people. Be it customers or co-workers, we’re all about communities and helping others.

So, how did so many genuine people end up in this profession? (A profession in which, let’s face it: Authenticity is always preached, but a select few choose not to practice.)

I reached out to the marketers who bring out the best in us and asked, “How did you become a marketer?”

The answers resulted in five lessons you can apply to your marketing career, whatever stage you’re in.

Across the board, I’m happy to say, this is a community to take pride in.

1. Perseverance really does pay

Andy Crestodina, CMO and Co-Founder, Orbit Media Studios, Inc.

An author and speaker who founded his own company, Andy has provided digital strategy to more than 1,000 businesses, as well as countless others through his book, “Content Chemistry: The Illustrated Handbook for Content Marketing.” Andy’s recognition is extensive; he has been named a Top 10 Online Marketing Expert by Forbes, A Top 50 Marketing Influencer by Entrepreneur, and a Top 10 Social Media Influencer by Social Media Explorer.

“For me, marketing was a necessity. It was do or die. I would have starved (or worse, gotten a real job), if I hadn't figured out marketing.

"We were a tiny business with no money for advertising, so I needed to learn search, and, later, content marketing, or we would have slowly run out of clients, projects, and money. But I fell in love right away and never looked back.”

Doug Kessler, Creative Director and Co-Founder, Velocity Partners Ltd.

Doug co-founded Velocity Partners, a London-based B2B content marketing agency. With clients including Salesforce, Kimberly-Clark, and Sprint, Velocity won Content Marketing Agency of the year in 2016. Doug’s clients at past agencies include Caterpillar, AT&T, and American Express. He also creates honestly compelling CTAs, including my personal favorite CTA to subscribe: “Opt into our crap.”

“Strangely, I was always interested in advertising, even as a kid. I did a paper in fifth grade called 'The Use of Water Menthol Cigarette Ads.' (The teacher said, 'Too many examples.' —it still hurts.)

"When I graduated from college, I moved to NYC and was running out of money fast. I did informational interviews with anyone who would agree to meet me. One of those was a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather on Madison Avenue. I said I thought I’d like to be a copywriter. He asked how much money I had to live on while I wrote a spec book of ads. I said sixty bucks. He picked up the phone and got me a job as an assistant account manager. Never looked back. (Well, often looked back but never stopped tripping forward).

Jay Acunzo, Host, Executive Producer, and Founder of Unthinkable Media

In addition to his work as the executive producer and host of Unthinkable Media, Jay is the author of “Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work.” Jay’s past roles include Digital Media Strategy at Google and Head of Content at HubSpot. Also a keynote speaker, Jay’s work has been cited in courses at Harvard Business School and by writers at numerous publications, including the New York Times, Forbes, and FastCompany.

“I do three things: I host and produce shows for B2B brands, write books, and give keynote speeches. To say I tried to break in proactively is to ignore what a career actually is: a series of connected moments of lifelong learning.

"For me, it was all about side projects. I counted last year: I’ve launched 38 since 2008! Some died on the vine while others — like my podcast, Unthinkable — led to revenue generating work (my original series for clients via Unthinkable Media). So, how did I 'break into' this industry? I tinkered endlessly and shipped a ton of bad work to eventually get to work others hire me to do.”2. People will help you: Be ready to learn and take opportunities

2. People will help you: Be ready to learn and take opportunities

Jay Miller, Senior Vice-President of Marketing, Maropost

Jay’s leadership and marketing expertise have been proven throughout the tech industry with roles in product management at Siemens PLM Software, as Vice-President at Workiva, and as Vice-President of Marketing at Showpad. Currently, as the Head of Marketing for Maropost, Jay is spearheading growth in a company that gives customer engagement to B2C companies everywhere.

“My undergrad was in computer engineering. As a result of that degree, I've now been working in tech companies for 25 years. In my first company out of college, we developed operating software for embedded systems – all the devices and systems that you don't see, yet run our world. 

"At that company, I was fortunate to get to know Steve Bashada, our then VP of Marketing, and he plucked me from the engineering side to the product marketing side after one of our key trade shows. During that trade show, I brought many prospects into the booth. Steve saw in me the ability to translate all the technical goodness that we were developing into language the rest of the world could understand.

"Since then, I've been serving, building, and leading marketing teams ever since. I enjoy the psychological challenge of getting people to connect with our brand and be compelled to buy and utilize our software platforms and technology.”

Rachelle Gibson, Director of Marketing & Industry Partnerships, Ausfilm International Inc.

Rachelle’s Australian marketing career has had a positive impact on the country’s ability to attract international production and visual effects work to Australian businesses, technicians, casts, and crews. Her extensive career in the film industry has led to her current role, where she’s furthered offshore film production attraction to Australia on films and television you know and love, including Aquaman, Thor: Ragnarok, Pacific Rim Uprising, Alien: Covenant, San Andreas, The Leftovers, and Preacher S4.  Fun fact: Also a qualified Hatha Yoga teacher, Rachelle demonstrates how to pursue multiple passions while bringing a mindfulness mindset to her clients and colleagues.

“I fell into marketing, not by design, but because I had a combination of interest in creative design and how to generate commercial success for a business. What makes something sell? Why does design matter when selling a product? I didn’t study marketing at university, I learned everything on the job.

"I started my marketing career in the theatre industry, worked in a London Actuary Firm, then a London Fashion house, a boutique advertising agency, and have now been working in marketing and communications in the film and TV industry in Australia for the last 17 years. Ausfilm markets Australia’s screen production incentives to attract international filmmakers to Australia.

"I got my first break in this industry by volunteering on a number of film events. I’ve been blessed to have worked with some great CEOs who have supported me and taught me along the way, as well as reading as much as I can about strategy, commerce, and marketing from other global experts (Bob Hoffman, Marty Neumeier, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Tim Ferriss, and Noam Chomsky). I didn’t dream about being a Marketer, but now it’s what I love. There is a never a dull day: I enjoy solving problems – you can never predict success or failure, you learn constantly as long as you ask questions.”

3. It’s worth taking a risk

Melanie Deziel, Brand Storytelling Speaker and Founder of StoryFuel

Melanie’s career began by studying journalism, then transitioned into branded content and native advertising at some of the most prestigious publishers in the United States, starting with the Huffington Post. Melanie was the first Editor of Branded Content at The New York Times before moving on to Director of Creative Strategy across Time Inc’s 35 U.S. magazines.

“This month marks three years since I went into business on my own, leading my corporate marketing job and starting the consulting firm that would become StoryFuel. I knew that I loved the work I was doing: Helping marketers to think more like journalists and discover the power that brand content has in helping to connect with consumers. But I felt like I could have a much bigger impact if I weren't working internally at a single company.

"I knew that I could help more marketers create better brand content, and, in turn, help more consumers have better content experiences – if I was able to work with many companies at once. It's always scary to leave the safety of a comfortable corporate job, and life as an entrepreneur is definitely less predictable, but I know I made the right choice.”Matt Heinz, President and Founder, , Host of Sales Pipeline Radio

Matt Heinz, President and Founder, Heinz Marketing, Host of Sales Pipeline Radio

A dynamic event speaker and award winning blogger, Matt is a repeat winner of the Top 50 Sales and Marketing Influencers and Top 50 Most Influential People in Sales. With his 15-plus years of experience marketing, business development, and sales, Matt has helped companies such as Amazon, Morgan Stanley, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation create repeatable sales through strategic marketing engines.

“Well, for me this has all been a giant mistake. I studied journalism and political science in college, and my first job out of school was as a reporter. From there, I went to a PR firm, then Microsoft, then a couple Seattle-area startups.

"Finally, a little more than 10 years ago, I decided to try doing my own thing. It was just me, a laptop, and a bus pass to start. Thankfully, my wife and a few early clients believed in me. The rest I’m still figuring out!

4. Let your creativity thrive

Katie Martell, On-Demand Marketer and Influencer

Katie has been recognized as one of the top 10 marketing writers on LinkedIn not once, but three times. Katie is also the No. 3 most influential B2B marketer on Twitter and a Top 100 influencer in Content Marketing. Katie is also a sought after speaker and emcee. And, she knows how to break the mold in corporate events — whether it’s handing out cash or bringing in a real-life marching band.

“Truth be told, I never wanted to work in the world of business. Freshman year of college you would find me up in Maine studying music, playing trombone, and swearing I'd never work 'for the man' in a cubicle, ever! (No offense to cubicle dwellers.)

"But, during the summer of my freshman year, I needed a job back home. My dad worked for a video production switcher company outside of Boston. His marketing department needed some help, so I accepted a job working for the VP of Marketing, Battista. It was a department of one, and that meant I got my hands dirty right away with customer case studies, trade shows, database management, collateral development, and sales enablement; you name it, we did it together. I learned most importantly that marketing was a discipline within a business that could exercise all my creative muscles (like music did) while, you know, allowing me to actually make some money.

"I also saw the impact (multi-million dollar revenue growth) of a small team with big ambition.

"It only took me one more year of music before I realized there was a far more exciting (and lucrative) future ahead in marketing. I transferred schools, studied Marketing at Emerson College, landed a gig at a B2B startup after graduation, and the rest is history.”

5. Create quality work that puts the user first

Ian Cleary, Founder, RazorSocial

Ian’s success and ability to fulfill his goal came by way of his blog and the quality content he provides in writing and as a speaker. His proven thought-leadership is demonstrated through numerous accolades. To name just a few, in 2018 Onalytica named Ian the 17th most influential person in content marketing globally, the Online Marketing Institute cited him as a Top 40 Digital Strategist, and Brand24 named Ian as one of the Top 100 Online Marketers Globally in 2018. His blog has also won numerous awards, including a four-time winner of Best Social Media Blog by Social Media Examiner.

“I am based in Ireland and I wanted to build an international business. I had an idea for some software but didn't get the funding I needed. I  thought that a blog would be a great way of building a global audience and building a business on the back of this. When I launched the blog, I used my technical background to figure out how to drive traffic and convert that traffic. I use my relationship building skills to connect with and eventually become an influencer. Creating the blog has been so powerful. I've built a business with global clients and get to travel the world speaking at events. And of course, I've met so many great people along the way.”

Stephanie Stahl, General Manager, Content Marketing Institute, UBM

As the General Manager of the Content Marketing Institute, Stephanie is dedicated to great customer experiences. Stephanie works with her team to educate and elevate brands across the globe, enabling them to get creative while engaging customers and creating lifelong brand advocates. In addition, I personally observed Stephanie remain confident and poised while interviewing Tina Fey (yes, THAT Tina Fey) on-stage in front of a few thousand extremely enthusiastic marketers.

“Like a lot of content marketers, I spent much of my career as a journalist. After many years of reporting, writing, and editing, I moved into a content marketing role inside a large media and events company (UBM — which is now owned by Informa and is the parent company for the Content Marketing Institute). My team created content for technology clients and helped with distribution, promotion, auditing, planning, etc. Many projects were campaign-based, but some were part of a brand’s ongoing efforts to build an audience.

"Our goal was always to treat the content the way a journalist would – well-researched, well-written, well-edited, educational, and compelling. Not all clients always took our advice, of course; some wanted content that was stuffed with product pitches and chest-thumping quotes. But it paid off for the ones who did.”

6. Follow your passion: A lesson from two 8-year-olds

These final two anecdotes build on the need for quality content. Marketing, at its core, comes down to connecting with people. If you’re a marketer, chances are, you loved to do this even as a child.

While these two stories of 8-year-old writers show a contrast in spelling skills, they both display marketing as a career that fulfills “what I want to be when I grow up.”

Jon Burkhart, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, TBC Global

The author of four books, Jon wrote “Newsjacking: The Urgent Genius of Real-Time Advertising.” Jon has been a SXSW speaker eight years in a row and his top gigs include Google, Samsung, Uber, BMW, and Deloitte. Jon has spoken in over 30 countries (15 last year alone!) inspiring brands and people worldwide to reach their potential by embracing creativity, storytelling, and innovation.

“Let’s get personal. What came first? Your marketing career or, erm, puberty? My path to writing and speaking for a living began at age 8 — almost a full decade before acne and body hair.

"At elementary school, I only had eyes for one thing: WORDS. I even ATE words; Spaghetti-Os were just words masquerading as tasty snacks, right?

"Not only did I love words, I was a speller. I was groomed to be a champion at spelling. In 1981, there was only one way to train and win as much as I did.

"Equipment needed:

  • One dad ‘word caller’ with a monotonous, Southern drawl, and
  • One tattered copy of the 1979 edition of Noah Webster’s most famous book: The dictionary.

"But wait...you can’t just spell words, you need to put them together to form ideas. After all, content marketing is all about using words to build audiences.

"Well, I was a college freshman before I learned I could create emotion and rhythm by stringing words together. But it wasn’t my coursework that made the difference. My confidence came from the summer ‘form letter’ I snail-mailed to friends. People loved these photocopied newsletters. They would even send me handwritten thank-you notes. (To keep my ego fed, I would often check my mailbox twice a day.)  

"After graduation, I had no choice but to get into wordcraft. I followed my passion to write about my one true love (wife and kids excluded) to this day: soccer. My first job took me to Chicago to write for the United States Soccer Federation. Then, after a few years of copywriting for various brands, I moved to London, so I could worship (and write about) the sport where it’s a proper religion.

"These days, I jump across the pond on a regular basis, speaking about curiosity and creativity throughout the U.S. and Europe. Inspired by my friend Ann Handley, I will bring back this ‘newsletter thing’ this year — after a 23-year hiatus. It will be all about curiosity. I will be honest — warts, acne, and all.

"I love making brands more memorable through the clever arrangement of words (still lovin’ em), video marketing, and photos.”

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs

The inaugural winner of the Hero Award (the Content Marketing Institute’s Hall of Fame Award), Ann is a keynote speaker who inspires content marketers everywhere. Ann is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author whose books, including “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content,” have been translated into 19 languages. Cited as a top thought leader by Forbes magazine, publications Ann has contributed to include Entrepreneur, Inc., Mashable, Huffington Post, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal.

“At eight years old, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a “writter.” But I thought writing a diary was boring. I wanted an audience — someone to interact with. I craved community, comments, Twitter, Facebook – even if social media hadn’t happened yet… LOL. (The truth is that the Internet hadn’t happened yet, either.) :)

"As a kid in the Boston suburbs pre-Internet era, my ability to build an audience was limited. So, I created a neighborhood newsletter and delivered it on my bike to my neighbor’s mailboxes. The neighbors loved it! One passed me on the street and greeted me by name...

"This was heady stuff for an 8-year-old. I was having an impact — or so I imagined...!

"Eventually, I learned to spell “writer,” and I became a writer, journalist, editor, and (when the Internet happened) a content publisher. I worked at newspapers, magazines, and became the world’s first Chief Content Officer at one company (ClickZ) and now hold the title at another (MarketingProfs).

"What I did from my bedroom with my neighborhood newsletter is exactly what drew me —decades later — to marketing: It’s all about telling a story that connects with people and changes a point of view.”

Where will marketing take you?

Whether you are a seasoned marketer, recent graduate, or looking for a career change, you never know what could be waiting around the corner.

When you apply the persistence, creativity, and hard work demonstrated in these stories, you can bet, wherever marketing leads you, the ride will be worth it.

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