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B-School Grads Shirk Staid CPGs for Startups

With Narrow Job Descriptions and Laser Focus on ROI, Big Marketers May Not Be as Attractive to Work for as in Years Past

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After graduating from the University of Michigan's business school in 2010, Kimberly Dillon landed a plum job as an associate brand manager at Clorox. But she was becoming restless and quit to work on her own startup as soon as her contract expired. For Ms. Dillon, the prospect of waiting three or four years for a promotion and the near certainty of having to spend a year doing a sales rotation with a retail partner like Walmart or Target (perhaps in Arkansas or Minnesota) were essentially deal-breakers. Plus , she had known from the outset of business school that her goal was to be at a startup.

Kimberly Dillon, VP-mobile marketing, Desti
Kimberly Dillon, VP-mobile marketing, Desti

"The tech world moves so quickly, and it was hard to be in a world of slow motion," said Ms. Dillon, who added that she turned down a job offer from Procter & Gamble after interning there in between business-school years. She's now VP-mobile marketing for a yet-to-be launched startup called Desti that 's aiming to improve travel planning on mobile devices. She he has a higher salary and said she has more people reporting to her than she did at Clorox. She also gets to own her company's marketing strategy.

"At tech companies, oftentimes you're building the brand yourself," said Ms. Dillon. "When I was at P&G and at Clorox, there would be eight agencies sitting at the table."

Ms. Dillon is not an anomaly. The marketing departments at P&G, PepsiCo and Kellogg traditionally have had their pick of A-list business school graduates. But lately the pool is shrinking as potential candidates migrate not just to startups but also tech companies and more entrepreneurial enterprises. The reasons are many, the potential to make more money faster and the lure of being able to shape your own destiny at a smaller company among them. But there's another explanation -- that as packaged-goods marketing relies more on analyzing big data, negotiating with procurement and obsessively proving return on investment, it may simply not be an exciting enough career path.

"The question I've been debating is whether CPG generally is viewed as as attractive as it was a generation ago," said PepsiCo's Global Chief Marketing Officer Salman Amin. "I think the jury's out on that ."

Salman Amin, global CMO, PepsiCo
Salman Amin, global CMO, PepsiCo

There's little doubt that the bar for talent is being raised as marketers become choosier in the pursuit of candidates with an analytical skill set. The demands of "big data" have had a big impact on recruiting, sometimes obliging CPGs to vet the field in a way that 's reminiscent of consulting firms such as McKinsey & Co. or Accenture. While it used to be that an MBA candidate interviewing to be an associate brand manager would be asked to assess the creative of an ad campaign, the line of questioning has grown much more quantitative in the last three to five years, according to Michael Malone, who heads the career center at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. Candidates are often given cases to work through; for example, they're asked what they would do if they were working on a brand due to launch in six months and learned that a competitor was launching a similar product. They might first be questioned on a macro level and then be given more details, such as the projected target for the product, to let them hone a numbers-driven plan.

But the very best analytical minds are apt to quaver at the thought of being pigeonholed at a traditional marketer with a narrow job description where they might be tasked with managing the discounts given to retailers, for example. According to Peter Fader, a professor at Wharton who teaches a popular class on predictive modeling, most of the best minds in customer analytics still go into consulting and investment banking, though he steers them toward companies like P&G. It's a given that CPGs can't offer as much money (associate brand managers typically earn a bit south of $100,000), but they also aren't giving students the range of exposure desired in jobs.

"The best and the brightest students are impatient and they want to wear those hats now and not wait five years to see what fits them best," he said. "They don't want to have four choppy little descriptions on their résumé."

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