Wash career advice out of your hair: start by selling shampoo

Agenda: The art of persuading someone to part with their hard-earned cash for something they didn’t know they wanted can take you a long way

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The Independent Online

It is always interesting to hear the careers advice that captains of industry hold dear. I was in the novel position of dispensing some the other night when I sat on a panel with fellow University of St Andrews alumni at a networking forum for recent graduates, hosted by the investment bank Citi in its Canary Wharf headquarters.

Alongside me were Citi’s corporate banking head, David Walker, Sarah Whitehouse, QC, and Grant Duncan, once in advertising, now a senior marketing and media headhunter at Spencer Stuart. There was a lot of familiar stuff: do your research, seek advice from the best in the business, get to grips with how competitive it is going to be in whatever field you choose. But it was something Mr Duncan said that got me thinking.

His pearl of wisdom was to learn to sell – not just yourself but goods, services or ideas, either through an internship, holiday job or trainee scheme. The art of persuading someone to part with their hard-earned cash for something they didn’t know they wanted can take you a long way.

It might explain why the selling task always makes for the most compelling episode of The Apprentice, and some of the most successful self-made millionaires – including Lord Sugar – have that barrow-boy style.

And take a look at the bosses who seem to be taking over Britain. Dave Lewis, a week into the job of turning round Tesco, spent 27 years at Unilever, where he sold a bucket load of soap. These consumer products groups are every bit as good as training grounds as the big accounting firms.

Andy Cosslett, now in charge of Fitness First, was selected for the graduate scheme at Unilever at the same time as Tim Mason, who also scaled the heights at Tesco. Mr Cosslett still recalls the character-forming exercise of touring corner shops in Liverpool in winter, trying to sell ice-cream as a sales rep.

Several others honed early skills at Unilever’s biggest rival, Procter & Gamble. Gavin Patterson, now chief executive of BT, was in charge of marketing Pantene shampoo for a time, which could explain his lustrous mane of hair today. He praises P&G for letting him run his own brand within three years, given him responsibility while still young. Over at BSkyB, the chief excutive Jeremy Darroch started out on Clearasil and Vicks VapoRub.

I’m not saying that flogging the contents of the bathroom cabinet is for everyone. But recruiters buy into candidates who can sell, sell, sell. Unilever and P&G sit in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. Much can be learnt from how they bred fast-moving future chief executives too.

The media needs print. Digital can’t do it alone

There has been enough hand-wringing over the decline and fall of traditional media outlets that when successes come along, they should be applauded. Two of these, Vice Media and Monocle, have just raised cash from backers excited by their business model. The pair have different audiences but a common strategy. They have shown that what begins with a strong brand and the printed word can be carried across numerous media if you can take your audience with you. They hold out the hope that the leakage of advertising dollars and readers from print to online does not have to be inexorable.

Vice has its roots in a Canadian punk magazine but has spawned websites and TV shows that put a fresh spin on current affairs for the youth market. Nor is it afraid of a stunt, taking Dennis Rodman, the ex-basketball star, to meet the North Korean leader last year. Vice has just been valued at $2.5bn (£1.5bn) in a financing from the Silicon Valley investment fund Technology Crossover Ventures and American cable group A&E Networks.

Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle aims at an older market but aspires to be no less cool, mixing up international affairs, business and culture and branching out to run its own shops, cafés, travel guides and business books. The Japanese media group Nikkei bought a 5 per cent stake, giving Monocle a value of $115m. Mr Brûlé, who launched the design title Wallpaper in 1996, is sniffy about some forms of digital, describing his social media as hosting a drinks party for Monocle subscribers in Berlin or Tokyo.

There is evidence that digital alone is not a panacea that will cure the media industry’s ills. Consider a study carried out by the affiliate marketing firm Optimus Performance Marketing. It polled more than 2,000 British bloggers and found their average income from advertising was a princely £906 a year. That includes both banner advertising and pay-per-click revenues. Better than nothing, but no wonder that everyone polled was in full-time education or employment as well.

For those who still see the media as offering a career, rather than just a hobby, the fear that print pounds convert into digital pennies is often repeated. The best media outlets are those that don’t pick sides.