How Should You Start Your Digital Marketing Career?

Should you go work for a brand, business, or agency?

Listener question: I am just starting out in my digital marketing career, and I want to be a freelancer and eventually start my own agency, what career advice would you give me?

I hear this question often, and I think there is a hesitancy to go work for other people. Maybe out of fear or out of a sense of interdependence. Yes, the modern digital landscape makes it very easy to be in this career field of digital marketing, and you can work from anywhere! However, what are you missing out on that may be the biggest benefit to your career?

When you start out on your own, there are a lot of lessons to learn, and not just lessons about digital marketing skills, practices, and campaigns. No, there are many lessons about how to run a business, how to price your services, how to manage clients, and how to manage teams. These are the skills of running a business, and you’ll learn these skills one way or another.


After my last podcast, Is digital marketing certification better than a digital marketing degree? I received a number of questions – great questions which I will share over the coming weeks – so keep them coming!

Today’s question: I am just starting out in my digital marketing career, and I want to be a freelancer and eventually start my own agency, what career advice would you give me?

Great question, but I’m going to give you an answer that you may not expect…


So, when starting out in a digital marketing career, what would I recommend?

When starting your digital marketing career, here are your options:

You could go to an agency, you could go for working with a well-known brand,

Or, find a business and work in their marketing department.

Or start as a freelancer?

Each have their benefits, but as someone just starting in the industry, there is one factor that will contribute to your success more than any other: experience.

Experience is what gives you the ability to make tough decisions, to prioritize tactics, to work with or manage a team.  I’ve simply found that experience counts more than any other factor, so my advice is to get as much experience as possible, as quickly as possible.

SO, let’s look at our options:

Option 1: Go work for a big brand.

Now this is very helpful for your career as having a brand on your resume looks great. Working for a brand can help give you a big global overview of how things work it can also keep you isolated. Because working for a brand may mean that you only do one thing it may mean that you’re only responsible for one particular element of digital marketing and you never get out of that responsibility.  many people i know that work for a brand are only responsible for one particular task. So in order to grow they need to get on additional teams take on additional responsibilities but this depends on the brand’s organizational structure. questions that I would ask in the hiring process would be how easily can you cross train with different departments how much can you work outside of your initial responsibilities and cross train in other areas. unfortunately I see many marketers start in one area such as SEO or paid search or social media and they never get the chance to branch out into other areas. This becomes important when management positions open up. in order to manage a digital marketing department you’re going to have to know how everything works. So an understanding of how the brand marketing department is organized opportunities for growth for cross training and management are all questions that you should be asking.

what i loved about working with the brand was the brand recognition the worldwide work so handling problems of language of regionalization of global marketing are great problems to give you experience. What I didn’t love was sometimes I felt too limited I could only work in my role and it was very difficult to expand outside of that role. In addition, sometimes it felt too myopic – you get locked into how that brand sees the world, and I can be difficult to see anything differently.

Option 2: work with an agency

I absolutely loved agency work. I love agency work because you get to work on many different clients all with different business structures and different strategies. In agency work it’s constantly changing you’re not just working on one business you’re working on dozens of businesses and it could be everything from ecommerce to business to business to lead generation to sales ….you are working on a wide variety of businesses.  so if you like constant change and challenge the agency world can be rewarding.

What I loved about working with agencies is the constant exposure to different business structures and different marketing strategies. I learned so much about how different businesses are structured how they operate how they market and position themselves differently. Simply working on different types of businesses gives you a lot of experience in different realms from government to private industry business to business nonprofit you learn something from every different experience.

The other advantage of working in an agency is the exposure to client management one thing I always wanted to learn was how to acquire and manage clients what was the sales process to get that client in and being involved in pitching clients. if you even think about going out on your own you absolutely need to understand client management and the business of an agency how to price yourself how to mark up freelancer work how to manage expectations. These are all experiences beyond just digital marketing that will enable you to be successful in your own business.

Option 3: work with a company:

Now you can also start at a company small business medium sized business or large business it will all depend on the size of the marketing department. and a small business you will probably be the only marketing person and you’ll probably also have many other responsibilities. In a mid-sized business there would probably be two to four people in the marketing department and in this area you can expand your role take on additional roles and responsibilities and learn and apply other digital marketing disciplines.  this will probably give you the most freedom but it also may be the most stressful.

Working in a marketing department and having people you can work with enables you to build team management skills. You won’t just be working within a specific role but also developing marketing calendars, setting strategy and building processes.

I liked working in a medium-sized company with a marketing department because it really developed a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. Learning from each other in a small team creates great experiences and helps you learn from others. It is one of the more fast-paced environments, and one of the most rewarding.

Option 4: Start your own thing. Freelancer or agency

Now, here’s where things get tricky. I’ve started numerous digital businesses.  But one thing that was consistent, I always had someone who was a mentor or a resource that I could tap – not for digital marketing skills, but for business management and process development. The most difficult issues faced in a freelancer or start-up environment are not issues of skill, but of business operations!

If you are just starting out in a career, I would advise you not to start as a freelancer or to start an agency. I recommend that you go to work for an agency – for at least 2 years.

You’ll learn some additional skills; you’ll gain some experience. But what you learn about managing clients, billing and accounts, different business models and how to work with different types of clients will be invaluable.

Learn how others do it first!

I kept a list of what I liked and didn’t like in each experience.  Many of those items were issues of management and operations. Each boss or manager contributed to how I do business. Either from an example that I wanted to emulate , or from behavior I wanted to avoid.

Then, when it came to starting my own agency, I managed my employees and made business decisions based on those experiences.

Similarly, if you want to start a business – work for another business and see how they do things. Learn from them, see what you like or don’t like – examine how management works and motivates people – these are the extraneous skills that they don’t teach in school.

So, my advice when starting out in a digital marketing career? Go where you can learn the most- not just the tactical disciplines, but learn the business of doing business! Learn how different strategies in different types of businesses work. Learn how to manage more than campaigns – learn how to manage clients and employees.  Go for experience!

Some of you may say, but what if I get into a situation that I don’t like? What if the company treats me poorly, or there isn’t a prospect of promotion?

Well, this is where you examine your situation – what makes the company undesirable to work for? Is it s person a process, a philosophy? Use this opportunity to learn what isn’t working and why it isn’t working.

You see, it is all dependent upon how you see work.  If you simply see working for a company or a business as a paycheck, then you won’t learn anything or have any experiences that will benefit you in your career.

However, if you see every experience as a earning opportunity – if you are asking, what experience can I take from this that will help me be a better marketer, manager or boss? Then you are looking at work the right way.

Sure, you can start your own freelance business or agency to start, but you’ll be missing vital experiences that enable you to run a better business. How to price yourself, how to deal with customers and clients, how to be more efficient, or how to deal with multiple projects by developing time management skills.  Even more, how to deal with taxes, hiring freelancers yourself, managing a team, and different business models.

All of things you’ll be learning on your own, or as people say – “on your own dime.”  You’ll be learning hard and difficult business lessons as you are trying to run your business.

This is why I advocate working for an agency, business or brand for the first few years. Learn from them – on their time – how to run a business! You aren’t just collecting a paycheck for your work! They are paying you to do your job, but they are also paying you to be a front-line observer into the business of running a business! Take the initiative to ask questions and learn how things work. You can learn processes, frameworks, finances, and many more things that will enable you to build a better business. You don’t have to learn hard lessons on your own – learn from those people that have already had the hard lessons and how they dealt with them. Be careful though, you just might get promoted to management if you learn too much and are an eager, proactive, and productive employee!

Everyday, I feel like I apply things that I’ve learned over the years. From mentors, experiences, clients, I have learned from them all and they all affect how I operate and make decisions today.

Don’t avoid working for someone else or a company because you might be fearful – for many reasons. Every work experience is an opportunity, even the negative experiences.  You’ll learn quickly what makes it a negative experience and how things can be improved, done differently, or even better – how to manage people differently to get better results!

Get a paycheck, but most importantly, get experience!

So, what do you think? Am I on track, or do you disagree? I’d love to know what you think about this skill – or any of the other skills that I’ve covered so far in this series. Go to the show page and leave a comment – or email me. I’d love to hear from you.

Until then – I look forward to our next coffee and conversation on the Endless Coffee Cup -thanks for listening!