During the height of the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Bosnia, an American college conducted a worldwide survey to find out the difference that marketing the organisation might make. It found that, helped by the television exposure of the blue berets, but without any real marketing effort, a respectable 40 per cent of respondents could identify the UN logo.
The UN was relying simply on its long history and on near-blanket coverage of its operations in the world media to help get its message across. But if the researchers were surprised by that level of awareness there was a bigger shock to come. The same survey, which covered countries as disparate as Guatemala, India and the former Soviet Union as well as the UK, found that by contrast 82 per cent recognised the Coca Cola logo. Coke did not just rely on its own long history - it had the world's most efficient marketing machine fighting its corner.
But if, as surveys like that prove, the power of marketing is no longer in much doubt, it is only recently that the status of its practitioners has started to keep pace. And the consumer's dim view of the marketing profession is proving slower still to change. According to a survey by Marketing magazine last year, marketers are still viewed by the public at large as only slightly more trustworthy than MPs, journalists and estate agents.
But there is evidence that that is about to change, as more marketers take their place at the head of the boardroom of some of the UK's biggest companies, ranging from Tesco to Grand Metropolitan.
"You have to remember that marketing is a relatively young profession," explains Roy Hoolahan, joint managing director at the specialist marketing recruitment consultants Ball & Hoolahan, and a former graduate marketing trainee at Unilever. "We're only now getting a proper idea of how a marketing career path might develop, because the graduates that started out when the profession took off in the Sixties are now getting to the peak of their careers." Certainly the experience of those marketing pioneers is more than merely encouraging. A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the marketing recruitment company Korn/Ferry International concluded that marketing was perceived as the fastest single route up the corporate ladder. Jobs in other words that had once been seen as the preserve of businessmen trained in accountancy or the law are increasingly being occupied by those with pure marketing backgrounds.
"There's no doubt that marketing has really blossomed as a career in the last few years," explains Ray Kelly, managing partner at Korn/Ferry UK. "Which I suppose isn't that surprising when you consider how business as a whole has changed. Once, the decision on whether a company should set up in a new location would be a manufacturing-led one. Now marketing dominates. Similarly new products are no longer devised in laboratories, they are devised by marketers. Marketing has become the most important function in many areas and has consequently become more and more satisfying as a career."
Certainly the rewards have now started to keep pace with the increased importance of the role. A graduate trainee at one of the blue-chip fmcg companies - the likes of Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Mars which effectively provide training for the industry - can expect to earn around pounds 17,000. They will probably start out by helping to steer the fortunes of one of the company's bigger brands, before, after a year or so, getting responsibility for their own product and their first pay rise.
Progress from there will depend on the performance of the brands they are responsible for, but typically they can expect to be earning around pounds 35,000 at age 30 and maybe twice that once they reach the position of marketing director in their mid- to late-thirties. And firms will tend to pay more in areas like financial services which have a lower profile, and are presumed to offer a tougher challenge.
Overall, according to the annual survey into rates of business pay conducted by The Reward Group, marketing is comfortably ahead of the average in all junior, senior and middle management positions, and consistently pips traditional high payers such as computing and accountancy at all but the most senior levels.
"Marketing does pay well, but one of its greatest advantages as a career is that there are now so many opportunities to diversify into other fields once you've spent a few years getting experience," points out Steve Ingham, managing director at the recruitment specialists Michael Page Sales & Marketing. "You don't have to stay in any one area of business. There are the opportunities offered by the Internet, which are growing all the time, then areas like telecoms, retail and the media, all of which are increasingly looking to recruit trained marketers, and especially those with a good fmcg background." Indeed, one thing that has not changed is the importance of the big fmcg companies in the training process. Getting onto the training schemes offered by those companies, though, can be a real challenge, as more and more high-powered graduates come to appreciate the opportunities that a career in marketing offers.
"If graduates came to us with no experience, it would be difficult to place them," Ingham admits, "but many are taking up the option of taking a year out of their university courses to gain some experience. This one step can make them immensely attractive to employers, and once they have received a training in marketing from one of the larger companies they are in an enviable position."