Quick buck marketeer

You've got to think fast and talk fast to survive a career in marketing. Nick Walker reports
The area of fast-moving consumer goods is often the glittering prize for the graduate who hankers after a future in marketing. Big may be beautiful, but fast - and functional - is more fun.

David Jones, director of management training at Unilever's training centre in Kingston, knows why: "Markets that are moving faster are by nature of that fact going to be more interesting." For the experience-hungry freshman, it can be argued, there can be no more better training than selling and marketing the quick-moving consumables, the ice-cream and margarine that Unilever's companies produce. Overtly seasonal goods with a high turnover are going to provide more interesting markets, perhaps even more malleable ones. The nervous newcomer can hope that mistakes will be quickly forgotten, and, if you're good, there's the hope that you can not only make your presence felt, but also do so more quickly.

According to Jones, among the 500 or so companies that come under the Unilever umbrella both in the UK and abroad, those dealing in fast-moving consumer goods also reflect broader movements in marketing. "Principles that were being applied in fast-moving consumer markets are being taken from the manner in which we would market to industrial markets some 10 years ago. In the degree to which you have to approach business in partnership with the consumer, this is very clearly the case."

A partnership-based relationship with the consumer, even for goods with a quick turnover, has been increasingly evident post-recession, says Jones. "You have got to know the industry inside out. Marketing now is about working to bring in as many links with the consumer as possible." The role of those in marketing and their importance in establishing and maintaining brand loyalty has never been more transparent, making this idea territory in which to cut your teeth.

But that's not where the attraction stops. At Unilever's training centre, a year could see anything between 300 and 400 fresh faces pass through training in sales and marketing. Big is not only bountiful; it promises diversity, too. "Not only are you dealing with personal care products, tea, ice cream and so on, but also our consumer marketing trainees will consist of some 20 different nationalities. I think there's a question of critical mass when it comes to training."

Making your first move in a career in marketing has never been easy. Like breaking into any industry, entry-level candidates face a Catch 22: you can't a job without experience, but you can only get experience on the job. Despite a generally sunnier outlook for graduates - graduate unemplyment is at its lowest since 1990 - marketing is still an employers' market. Mars, one of the biggest trainers in the competitive area of fast- moving consumer goods, has noted an important shift over the the past few years. It is a move that doesn't bode well for those looking for that all-important entree.

"Compared with five to 10 years ago there has been a general movement away from graduates towards people with a two or three-year track record," says Gordon Storey, external relations manager for Mars. A glut of candidates made Mars look for anything that made an applicant stand out: experience was an obvious asset. "Someone with a couple of years' experience is someone with a track record. It is simple less of a risk."

For some the message is that you have to be flexible if you want to remain in the fast lane. Roly Cockman is chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters: "Marketing is still one of the most sought-after careers, and that is reflected in a higher-than-average starting salary. But here has also been a shift away from long-term training periods. A few years ago, you wouldn't have been expected to contribute to profit until you had finished your training. Today you're expected to hit the ground running."