Essentials for a successful career in digital marketing

career in digital marketing

I recently gave a lecture to a class of postgraduate students studying an MA in Marketing at Southampton Solent University. As an alumnus of the University, my purpose was to inspire and motivate the class into taking actions at the relevant time on their career journey to keep taking them to a higher level and advise them when the academic theory they are learning will come in useful.

Although the lecture was mainly focused on learnings from my journey of University graduate to digital marketing professional, on reflection I can see a lot of what I spoke on would be applicable to any current student, as well as anyone just starting a career or looking to move up in to management (or take the plunge and work for themselves!).

The full slide deck is embedded at the end of this article and below I have broken down the notes to make sense to anyone who wasn’t at the lecture.

I hope this article inspires you and motivates you into taking action to develop your career!



Challenges faced in my career and how to overcome them

Stepping out of comfort zone

This has without a doubt been the biggest challenge of my career as well as my personal development. When I got offered the job at Sony’s European head office in Basingstoke, I had only ever been out of Southampton a handful of times and almost declined the job offer. I had a ton of excuses the main one being, “It’s an hour commute each way”. The truth was, I was out of my comfort zone at even the thought of not having so much spare time in the evenings and realised in the long-term I would need to move out of the only city I had ever known. It seems a ridiculous reason now, but at the time it felt like a huge force holding me back.

When I moved into management, the thought of standing up and delivering a complete digital marketing strategy to a board of directors and C-level staff (CEO, COO, etc.) kept me awake at night. I had presented a lot of times in the past, but the thought of doing it to people at this level (some I would be meeting for the first time that day) seemed like the worst thing in the world. But you know what, after doing it that first time it got a little easier each time to the point I will now happily stand in front of people at any level in business and confidently present my ideas.

In fact, when I took my first job in management I knew I could do everything required of me, however I almost didn’t even apply as it was such a salary jump. Always remember this: a salary is just a value the company places on that role to them, at that current time. You may see the same job description at various companies for very different salaries. Never decide against applying for a job based on the salary being offered – if you have the skills required then you are worth the top salary a company is willing to offer.

The only way to overcome the fear of the unknown, the fear of failing, is to commit to do something that is scary (public speaking, ownership of delivering a project… handing an assignment in on time)- you WILL do it and you will grow as a result. When I say “commit to doing something”, I don’t mean waiting to be asked either. I mean volunteer as this will hold you completely accountable and therefore make you committed to the result.

Career development

There will come a time when you feel you are being held back by people in developing your career. Those times when that training course you were promised never materialises, you stop getting invited to senior-level meetings, you are reprimanded for spending too much time helping other departments. When that happens, take it as a complement. When you start to acquire more knowledge than those above you, or even at the same level, you will scare them. You will know things they don’t and no one likes the feeling of being left behind and in a digital world, that can happen very quickly!

If you ever feel you have stopped developing, it is time to move on. It doesn’t matter about how much (or how little) time you spent with the company, it won’t look bad on your CV. Citing a reason for leaving as “career development” will only ever be a good thing!

To always stay ahead in terms of development, invest in yourself. I’m not talking £1000 training courses, you can get just as much from reading industry blogs and top books on your chosen subject from Amazon (check the top physical books on Amazon, not Kindle books – a lot of clever marketers help authors of very low quality content get on the top Kindle books list).

Internal politics

Anyone who has ever worked in any business will have a story of coming up against internal politics. I remember coming up with a suggestion based on research of what’s working in lead generation right now and asking if we could implement it during a meeting. That was my mistake. Senior management had a lot of reasons why we couldn’t do it, none of which made any sense (the data we need is held by another department, we need to focus on hitting our given targets and nothing outside of that, let’s wait and see what our competitors do first).

I quickly learned that if you are convinced you have an idea that will work, to go ahead and do it anyway then present the results (if you don’t know how you will measure it was a success, don’t do it!). To quote Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1986), “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness, than it is to get permission”.


I think this is a no-brainer – distractions feed procrastination! Maybe that’s a quote from someone, if not then you can attribute it to me. Social media is a big distraction for most and that includes the messaging apps that have some people’s phones buzzing all day with notifications from WhatsApp, Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc. I’ve got a lot more done in business and in life by switching off push notifications on my phone and putting it in a drawer when I’m working. That’s a big interruption gone out of your life!

I’m a strong believer that cluttered spaces = cluttered minds. So always keep your workspace tidy (put everything you don’t need to hand in a drawer) and you’ll be a lot more focused.

 Difference makers for my career

These are some of the things that have made the biggest differences in my career, broken down by different stages of my career and in order of importance.

Starting out:

  • Relevant degree
  • Relevant side-project (running my own website)
  • Something to make me stand out from the crowd on my CV (shortlisted for Season 1 of Dragon’s Den)

Stepping up into management:

  • Big brand(s) on CV
  • Relevant experience
  • Communication skills

Going solo:

  • Past results/testimonials (qualifications not so important anymore)
  • Network of contacts
  • Proven processes (hint: know your marketing frameworks!)
  • Professional development – “sharpening the saw”

Important skills required today in digital marketing

For those who are considering a career in digital marketing, or developing their digital career further, these are some of the areas I advise you develop skills in.

Data insights – Businesses are drowning in data as they continue to implement new marketing technology that doesn’t ‘talk’ to their legacy systems. With different departments making decisions on their own systems to implement, this causes big issues and is where start-ups can have the advantage of starting from scratch to obtain a single customer view. There is a lack of people in marketing who can take all this data and use it provide useful insights on which to base future marketing decisions so for someone who is hot on data, there is a key skill gap you can fill here.

Mobile marketing – Mobile seems like it has been around forever now and marketing departments are still not taking advantage of the channels and technologies it provides for highly targeted advertising (such as geo-targeting), sales, lead generation and brand awareness through engagement. Learn how to use mobile effectively and in many industries, this can give you a great competitive advantage.

The two areas above are where I believe there will be a big demand for skills that grows for the next 10 years as the amount of data collected grows and new mobile technologies and capabilities are developed.

Two skills areas to develop where you can trust there will always be a demand are social media and SEO. These are often outsourced which shows that there is a skills shortage, however it also means businesses will be finding it hard to justify a head count for these roles. Therefore, these skills are best to develop if you are looking to work for yourself or for a digital marketing agency.

General skills that every marketer should have are setting objectives and measuring success (theory and frameworks come in very useful here!). In busy marketing departments, it is far too easy to think about the day-to-day tactics, rather than spending time on considering the longer-term strategy

I’d like to end this section by highlighting this key point, “You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but be an expert in something – and have a good understanding of everything else.” – Lee Benning, 2017

Essentials for having a successful career

  • A relevant degree will make you stand out from the crowd
  • Relevant degree + relevant experience = gold!
  • Take any relevant job at the start of your career to build experience
  • Stepping out of comfort zone is the only way to grow
  • Leaders care about results – not how hard you worked to get there
  • Invest in continued development (personal + professional)

Recommended reading

These are some books that you won’t usually find on the reading list of a University course (except maybe the last one, but that book is too good not to be included!).

Awaken The Giant Within, Tony Robbins (self-development)
Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug (usability)
Letting Go Of The Words, Janice (Ginny) Redish (user experience)
Cashvertising, Drew Eric Whitman (advertising)
Do The Work, Steven Pressfield (productivity)
SOSTAC® Guide To Your Perfect Digital Marketing Plan, PR Smith (marketing planning)

Let me know how this article has helped you with your career, either by commenting below or tweeting me @leebenning on Twitter. Wishing you the best of luck in your journey!

Original slides

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Lee Benning | Digital Marketing Consultant