Creative selling beats a slump

Marketing didn't live and die in the Eighties: it still has a useful role to play, says Nick Walker

What is marketing? Confusion still persists. To many it is a curious Eighties creation, inhabiting the grey area between sales and advertising. And it has produced some curious Nineties perceptions - the necrophiliac, schizophrenic protagonist of Will Self's My Idea of Fun, for example, makes his living as a marketing consultant.

Businessmen are certainly worried about the way in which marketing has promoted itself. Earlier this year, a study funded by the Employment Department highlighted the low status of marketing in many British companies. Marketing's image, the report warned, detracts from the role it can play in bringing in revenue. And marketing staff often receive poor training.

The industry was swift to react. This October will see the launch of the Marketing Council, drawing together bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Marketing Society, as well as senior businessmen.

To put the record straight, marketing is a sales-led discipline that involves overall strategy. It is about the process of production and sales. Good marketing research might lead to approaching customers in a different manner or refining distribution techniques.

According to the Chartered Institute of Marketing, those thinking of a future in marketing need "intelligence, integrity, enthusiasm, creativeness and stamina". The "marketing mix", as it is often called, involves disciplines stretching across research, product development, planning and control, pricing, distribution, promotion, selling and after-sales service.

Many graduates aiming for a career in marketing see sales as a roundabout route to the top. It is a route that is often shunned by graduates who consider selling as a down-market alternative to more traditional careers in commerce. Still, Russell Green, a business account manager with Kodak, emphasises the importance of spending time on the road. "One year in sales is ideal," he says. "That gives you a chance to see the seasonal nature of the market and to get to know your customers."

Sam Hudson, 26, also started in sales before moving back into the office. "Sales is all about instant results," she says. "If you want to carry on in marketing, you not only need the experience, you need to know the value of getting results. It's much more long-term in marketing, but you need to have a goal."

The irony is that most graduates say they want their career to provide a challenge, variety and travel - exactly what sales claims to offer. Equally, many blue-chip companies such as Kodak and Unilever hire graduate trainees for their marketing departments but put them on the road to see how the company brings in revenue.

A first job in marketing means time spent researching, analysing questionnaire results and so on. Indeed, according to David Baker, from Meta-Morphose, a Cheltenham-based recruitment consultancy, many of those who start on the road and move into marketing later miss the customer contact (and the commission and car).

Stephen Woodward is chairman of the Marketing Society and a partner in marketing consultants The Competitive Advantage Business. "Starting off in sales is not just desirable: it is critical," he says. "Marketing needs disciplined risk-takers. All the great entrepreneurs were great marketers - they knew how to create a new product or service and drive it through. You need to know when to take a risk ... and when to hold back."

Marketing has suffered during the recession, with departments increasingly required to justify their existence in terms of increased revenue. Budgets have been squeezed at a time when those in the profession would argue the creative use of marketing is needed more than ever.

"Marketing very much became the buzz word in the Eighties," says Fiona Rogers, director of marketing at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. However, she adds, "industry didn't necessarily use it in the way it should. Only now is it beginning to be appreciated how much good marketing can have a bearing on productivity."

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