When I was about 13 our maths teacher at school give us his contrarian perspective on careers advice.
“If I were you,” he said, “I’d do your A-levels. And then leave. Go and work for a year, maybe two. Get some experience. And then go to university.” It was an unguarded throwaway comment that stuck with me, because it made a lot of sense.
Towards the end of school I went to a presentation by a lady from the ‘Year in Industry’ scheme. The purpose of the scheme was to get people into science and engineering, but for the first time that year they were opening placements to business students.
I went home that night. I thought about it. Then I decided to just trust my gut, and fill out the application. “It might not go anywhere,” I thought. I found out later that only one other student had applied.
A few months later I started my first real job as ‘marketing assistant’, at a company that manufactured industrial air filters. The company was traditional, and the marketing was traditional. The office itself was a converted barn next to the M.D.’s house. You had to drive round a reservoir and down a single file country lane just to get there.
Whenever I start a new job I always feel overwhelmed for a while by all the incomprehensible bustle; by all the systems everyone else seems to know. The other thing that hit me as soon as I started that job was the smoke. I had no idea people could still smoke in offices.
This was in 2004, before smoking was banned and before email marketing was a widespread thing. Our three main marketing activities were direct mail, exhibitions and telemarketing. I liked the first, felt ambivalent about the second, and avoided the telephone at all costs.
I still hate speaking to people on the telephone, because no matter how hard you try it’s impossible to visualise the person on the other end. I doodle incessantly when making calls, like the visual part of my brain is desperately trying to keep itself occupied.
I’ve always been good at learning new tools and systems. That year I learned the basics of Photoshop. I learned the HTML program Dreamweaver, although I now wish I hadn’t bothered. I became the company’s go-to man for our CRM system, Goldmine.
About two weeks in to the job I caught up with my manager, Marjorie. Marjorie was a no-nonsense lady who drank Earl Grey tea, chain smoked and took bullshit from nobody. After a long draw on her cigarette, Marjorie opened her desk draw and pulled out a thin-looking book.
“We have this database program called Goldmine,” she began. “The sales people don’t really like it, but we need to get all of these contacts into it.” She flicked through the book, flashing thousands of names written in small writing.
The book, it turned out, was a list of all the decision makers at NHS primary care trusts in England. NHS primary care trusts were one of our target customers.
One of my jobs for the next, well, decade if I’d have stayed long enough was to input data from the book into Goldmine. It took about three minutes to input a contact, carefully copying over the name of the trust and the contact’s information.
Inputting data is a thankless task. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have taken half of my meagre wages and paid someone to do it for me. Hindsight is a marvellous thing.
After three months of inputting data I knew more about Goldmine than anyone else at the company. Suddenly my Goldmine responsibilities were expanded to include the exciting task of mail merging.
Mail merging in Goldmine involved a convoluted wizard system. First I would build my contact list by specifying the targeting criteria. Next I would export the list as an Excel CSV file. Then I had to navigate Word’s unintuitive mail merge process (this was 2004, remember).
If the gods that govern the reliability of the office printer were smiling on me that day, I would end up with a huge pile of letters on my desk. Taking another drag on her cigarette, Marjorie would point in the vague direction of the envelopes.
This is where the big gamble I had taken would be exposed.
Doing things in a hurry meant I would usually forget to check whether the letter I had prepared had the address in the right position, so that it sat within the address window of our envelopes.
Of course, it never did. If the printing gods were smiling on me that day, the gods of letter stuffing would smite me with thunder bolts.
So, I would sit there for a few moments. “Ummmm, Marjorie,” I started. “The addresses on these envelopes I’ve printed? They don’t show up in the envelope window.”
(Slooow drag on the cigarette).
“How many are there?” Marjorie asked.
“Well you better go to Staples for different envelopes. And get some Avery labels while you’re there,” she would say, darkly.
So far that day I had been smiled on by the printing gods and smited by the envelope stuffing gods.
Do you know which god came next?
The god of traffic!
Staples (a UK-based office superstore) was halfway across Warrington, the local town. It was perhaps a twenty-minute drive. Twenty minutes that is, if you could fly.
By mid-afternoon I would return with more envelopes and mailing labels, paid for with my own money to be expensed later on. Now it was a race against time to appease the final god of the day; the franking machine.
If the planets were aligned the franking machine would have credit, ink, and the appetite for a thousand envelopes. Minutes before the postman was due we would frantically bundle our letters into bands of twenty, and stuff them into a mail bag.
I tell you, life is too short to have that many gods play with your fortunes in a single day.
Despite my traumas, and despite Marjorie’s incessant cigarette smoke, I had learnt how to build and maintain a contact list. I had learnt how to target people in the CRM system based on specific targeting criteria. And I had learnt how to (eventually) get communications out to those people.
If you might be familiar with this story if you’ve read my book The Marketing Nurture System. It’s a fairly direct story about my first marketing job.
Notice the dialogue in the story. Dialogue lets the reader imagine the situation, rather than just telling them what happened.
I’ve also focused in the story on small things that went wrong. Frustrating mistakes that anyone who works in marketing will have made; like printing an address window in the wrong place.
It’s the small details in your story that pull people in.