Careers in branding

I had the privilege and pleasure of making a guest lecturer appearance at McGill University last week. It was an enjoyable experience. I must admit I was impressed by the quality of questions I got from business students. Not surprisingly, most common questions were career related. This post is an over-simplified guide to career trajectories in branding.

There are four major roles at a branding agency: Project manager, strategist, new business development person and creative. Depending on the size of the firm, you can have other positions such as finance-accounting, production, etc. However, the below four positions are the must-haves for any agency.

Project manager

This position is also called “Client Manager,” “Client Services” or “Program Manager.” Unlike in advertising, branding agencies usually don’t have “accounts”. Branding work tends to be project-based. A client manager might have an undergrad degree in practically anything: as journalism, communications or business. They come in all seniorities. However, even the least experienced client managers have years of client management experience under their belts. They might have the account or production management experience at an advertising firm. It is also common to meet client managers, who previously worked at client side as a coordinator or a logo police. An excellent client manager should be detail oriented, insightful, superb at relationship building, and knowledgeable. He/she should excel at executing ideas, managing clients as well as the agency’s resources. Client managers tend to be solid presenters and negotiators. In case you are a student, you might consider applying to an advertising company or a small-size creative shop first, gain some experience and then move to a branding agency.

Strategist

Depending on the size of the agency, you can have one or many strategists. They tend to have expertise in certain fields such as professional services, consumer packaged goods or place branding. They could come from all sorts of backgrounds: corporate strategy consulting, client management, marketing management, corporate communications or research. MBA degree is common among strategists. At least five years of relevant experience is the norm. Usually, great strategists have 10-15 years of experience. They are analytical thinkers. Solid writers, convincing presenters and excellent facilitators. They excel at pattern recognition, and they should be excellent at marrying strategy with design. If you enjoy reading a lot, this is a good position for you. In case you are a student, you might consider applying for a product manager or consumer/business insight manager position at a B2B or B2C company first. Alternatively, you can gain corporate consulting experience and then move to this role.

New business development expert

A great new-biz person is an outstanding networker. He/she should know and be known by everyone. New-biz people tend to sit on the advisory boards of other organizations. Their visibility is the key. Therefore, they often have speaking or teaching engagements. They could be the former senior client director or strategist of an agency. Therefore, they are great at understanding client needs and pitching ideas. They often appear in the news, and they are the ones, who are in charge of proposals. So they should have impeccable writing and speaking skills. This role is a senior position that is not suitable for students. Instead, you can follow the client manager or strategist trajectory and have this position when you start your agency.

Creative

Branding agencies would not exist if it were not for the graphic designers. After all, clients hire agencies, because they need creative services. Therefore, the capability of your creative people is what defines the reputation of your company. A creative person has formal training in graphic design. I always believe that greatest creative people are the ones that have the business mentality with artistic capabilities. At the end of the day, branding is not decoration. The agency is not hired to come up with a design solution. Your goal is to find a strategic, creative solution to a business problem. That said a designer possess top-notch creativity. He/she should be an authority in graphic design. A good designer could quickly learn the corporate side of the business. However, you cannot teach creativity to a businessperson. You either have it or not. Another thing that differentiates a great designer is his/her ability to persuade the client. Most customers are ill-equipped to make design decisions. That’s why you should be perceived as a guide in design projects. This is probably the only position that you can start your career as a student at a branding agency, albeit not a major one. But you need to have a design degree to get there.

As I tried to explain above, this is an over-simplified version of career trajectories in branding. In case you are a brand practitioner, feel free to correct me if you see something odd. If you are a student or a professional, who would like to work in a branding agency, feel free to post your questions in the “comments” section. Let’s keep this interactive!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Olivia Siu says:

    Thank you Günter, your “Creative” sections answer most of my questions.

    McGill University does not provide courses that are specifically related to graphic design. As a student in marketing, what other kinds of hands-on experience and internship should I acquire for the meanwhile, before obtaining that diploma/certificate post-undergraduate graphic design education? It seems like there isn’t much I can do until I finish design school (which would be about 3 years from now), and I am looking for something relevant to get involved with, like putting one foot into field and have a better knowledge and experience about the industry.

    Great blog!

  2. Soydanbay says:

    Thanks Olivia.

    First, I would not let a degree slow me down. If you are serious and if you really know what you want in life, I recommend you to gather your portfolio and apply to intern/junior positions at small ad agencies. There are so many of them. I believe if you have enough spark in your portfolio, you could get accepted to an agency.
    If you don’t have a portfolio that you can shop around, then the best is to work on pro-bono projects and use that experience to build your portfolio. As a student, get involved in any association – university-related event. Volunteer to magazines published by McGill. There are so many of those. In the mean time, invest in yourself, that is buy books and read them. Don’t get caught on income. Use your network. Your parents, your friends’ parents might need some of your services.
    Also follow websites like underconsideration.com. Network with people. Finally, subscribe to elance.com and odesk.com. There, you can get some freelance projects that are actually paying. That way, you can both build a portfolio and make money.
    Again, don’t let a lack of degree stop you. If you take a year or two and invest a lot in yourself, you can make a quantum leap once you are done with your degree.

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