Why aren’t we sexy anymore?

I was very lucky to begin my marketing career when and where I did - with Cadbury Schweppes in the U.K. in 1979.

I was very lucky to begin my marketing career when and where I did – with Cadbury Schweppes in the U.K. in 1979.

I felt like I was in the centre of the known universe. I was intimidated by the fact that everyone around me seemed destined for greatness. Could I live up to their standards? Could I play a part in continuing what seemed like the inexorable development of the marketing function from mere business leadership to immortality?

The fact was that consumer packaged goods marketing was the number one career choice – to work in it was SOOOO sexy.

In those (thankfully) far off days of being single, it was extremely good for the social life. ‘Oh, you work in marketing, tell me more….’ How we used to feel sorry for our unfortunate peers in finance, or even worse IT, obviously destined for a life of solitude.

I saw the evidence that I had made the right choice every single day. All the people in finance wore dark blue suits and white shirts, with the inevitable pens jutting out of the top pocket. Their only real status symbol was the miraculous ‘desktop’ calculators the size of a small suitcase with keys designed for a blind gorilla. They bitterly resented their stage left role in running the business, and it manifested itself so clearly in their doomed attempts to veto our latest killer initiatives.

Still, at least the blue suits were recognizably human between the hours of sunrise and sunset, whereas my trips to the computing department (as IT was quaintly known back then) resembled nothing less than a trip to another planet.

The behemoth known as the mainframe resided in a glass-walled, blindingly lit basement. Positive air pressure meant you could always feel the draught as you neared Moonbase Alpha. Then, in a kind of air-lock, you spoke to someone in a white coat who took your request for a special computer run – which you could hopefully expect back the following Monday – as you stared transfixed at the whirling tape reels and the incessant disgorging of punched cards.

I’m sure it would get to all of us if we had to spend our days in that environment, but the complete absence of social skills in these people never ceased to take one’s breath away. Still, it meant for less competition in building the social life and, in a way, I always felt proud to work for a company that gave these sorts of people some kind of meaningful work.

For at least a decade, nothing happened to change my somewhat smug view of my place on the Great Totem Pole of Business.

I am not aware of any seismic event that told me I had been dislodged. It was more of a gradual dawning of realization. We found some of the brightest university graduates were turning down our job offers, not to work in someone else’s marketing department, but to work in other disciplines.

At first, in the mid 1980s, they rushed into corporate finance, and mergers and acquisitions. This trend greatly accelerated following movies like Wall Street, and it wasn’t difficult (even for us marketers) to see the attraction.

When was the last time you saw Michael Douglas pick up chicks with his latest round of sequential monadic research debriefs?

In fact, when was marketing ever positively portrayed on the silver screen? Remember those two self-obsessed, jargon-spouting, can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees losers in Big? You have to go back to Cary Grant in North by Northwest to see anything like a positive role model, and even that was an advertising executive.

And therein lies the answer. We believed our own publicity. The reality was public scorn and derision. We had lost touch with public opinion (who, us?). We got complacent and let our product become ever so slightly unfashionable as it was overtaken in the glamour stakes.

The final nail in the coffin was the dot-com boom – we had to wake up and smell the coffee when good people were turning down marketing for a career in IT.

Who could have believed it would come to this. Is this how the Romans felt when they woke up to find Visigoths running the show?

The fact that those careers crashed and burned (and how we laughed at the now worthless share options they took in place of our six months sales force training) should not mask the reality.

The call to action is clear. We have to get back to being the sexiest damn job there is. The need to market a career in marketing has never been stronger. How? Well, isn’t this what we get paid for?

We just have to take back the promotion of a career in marketing from the HR function and do what we do best. Understand public opinion, optimize the product, and get out there selling it. There’s still time to turn it around. At least people aren’t turning us down for HR yet.

John Bradley is president of Yknot Strategic Solutions, Toronto. He can be reached at 905-469-0340 or via email at yknot@cogeco.net.