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The closet undergrad

How I ‘made it’ in marketing without a degree.


Caroline Gill



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This year, I joined an internal team focused on improving social mobility.

How we attract people from a wider range of backgrounds into IMA-HOME, and the industry in general. The cliché of UK marketing as being a white, middle class boys club isn’t that far off...

Just 23.6% of marketing professionals come from a working-class background (Marketing Week)

90% of Marketers have a degree (Marketing Week)

75% of Marketing agency leadership teams are exclusively white, and are generally underrepresented by women (The Drum)

As we were listing the types of backgrounds that put people at a perceived disadvantage, I realised I ticked a couple off. My upbringing was very working class. We weren’t deprived in any way, but we definitely weren’t well-off either. I had Hi-Tec trainers when others had Nike. I remember my mum having to take a second job working nights, and there was the year Santa couldn’t afford the Scalextric I wanted.

It started with a boy...

I would have been the first in my family to go to uni and study marketing – until I didn’t.

I’d love to tell you this was down to a well-thought-out plan to write this masterpiece of a blog in my future, but the reality is that I stayed home to be with a boy (no, it didn’t work out).

Anyway, in the summer of 1999 I took my A Levels and headed off to get myself a job in mortgage administration. It paid a cool £7,400 a year and I decided I’d figure out this career in marketing malarkey later on. After three years of being the most annoyingly enthusiastic Mortgage Administration Consultant imaginable, my colleagues – understandably – encouraged me to reach for the stars and apply for an internal entry level marketing job.

I think I actually begged the hiring manager for that job, promising that I’d prove myself if he gave me a chance. He was looking for a graduate of course, but that annoying enthusiasm wore him down. I started just before my 21st birthday, the same time as my friends were graduating into their entry level jobs too. I’d caught up. Boom.

A good kind of imposter?

What I hadn’t planned for though, was spending every job interview thereafter sweating about the idea of someone saying ‘hang on, we asked for a degree but your CV doesn’t mention one?’. Even in the last few years, I’ve worried about being turned away from jobs I can do because I have no degree. In social situations, I’d be nervous that someone would ask where I went to uni, projecting my own insecurities that they’d think I must not be very clever if I didn’t go.

Of all the jobs I’ve applied for that have asked for ‘graduate level or above’, want to know how many people have actually asked me if I have a degree? One. In 20 years! And that was because I was interviewing at an agency who specialised in student communications. And I still got the job. I reasoned that because I hadn’t been to university myself, I was coming to the job with complete impartiality and wouldn’t be led by my own uni experience.

Despite this, it’s fair to say I’ve carried a chip on my shoulder and some super-strength imposter syndrome over that time. It’s a charming combination.

I found that imposter syndrome actually grew for me with every promotion, every big win, every bit of good feedback I hadn’t had before. But what I realised is it’s simply because I’m outside my comfort zone – so really imposter syndrome just means I’m still growing. So, apart from some sweaty interviews, not having a degree really hasn’t stopped me, or even slowed me down. I’ve found that the places I want to work are places that wouldn’t be so rigid about my background. They’re places where my unique perspective is welcomed, places that allow me to do good work at the same time as being a good parent.

Defining ‘made it’

The combination of a couple of decades of experience, the right environment to grow and, of course, my annoying enthusiasm for the industry, has brought me here. I lead quite a large team, and work on some really exciting and varied projects for brands even my mum has heard of. I’m not done yet, but I think having a job I love means I can write ‘made it’ at the top of this page, so I’m going with it.

To sum it up? It’s down to you, not your degree. My hope in writing this, is that someone like 21 year-old me is reading it, and decides not to give up. Hopefully I’ve reassured you that you absolutely can do it. Annoying enthusiasm is free and it will take you far – and in my personal experience, no-one gives a shit that I don’t have a degree!

Moral of the story? I think there are a few… Here are five tips for starting your journey:

1 - Own your story.

It’s what makes you different to everyone else, and the best marketing is done when you bring different perspectives together, so it’s ok that you don’t look/sound/know the same as those around you. Focus on what you do have rather than what you don’t. Maybe you bring a unique perspective to the room, maybe you have three years’ more work experience, maybe you have a different qualification that’s even more relevant.

2 - Apply for jobs you think you can do.

Even if you haven’t ticked off every single ‘requirement’ on the spec. Get in the door and show them who you are and what you offer as an individual. You might offer something incredible that they didn’t think to look for.

3 - Think about your transferable skills.

You might have just moved from a different industry, or taken a few goes to find what you want to do in life. Look at the competencies you refined along the way – great communication, problem solving, conflict resolution. And don’t keep it to just work examples, perhaps you have a hobby that displays your creative skills, or you’ve nailed a few one-minute briefs on Twitter.

4 - Remember imposter syndrome happens to most of us.

It feels uncomfortable, but it might be showing you that you’re just stretching yourself. Gather evidence of the times you’ve figured it out, done it well, even survived a tough situation. You got through 100% of the things that have been thrown at you so far, so you can probably do this too.

5 - Speak to a pro about ways in to the industry.

Ask our Talent Acquisition Manager, Ella, about alternate ways into marketing: [email protected]


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