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Marketing education without a degree

Nothing substitutes for a marketing education or a marketing degree. It’s invaluable, especially when seeking full-time employment as a marketing manager. 

However, I became a marketing manager without a formal marketing education. Here are the steps I took to learn to be a marketing professional without a marketing degree.

My Story – from Executive Assistant to Marketing Manager

I majored in English literature at Molloy College, a small Catholic college in New York state. My goal was to be a novelist. I wanted to write classic works of literature, including science fiction and fantasy. 

Yet I had to make a living. The occasional magazine stories I sold didn’t pay for much! I worked first as an advertising copywriter, then took a job as an Executive Assistant to the president of a nursery and landscaping company on Long Island’s North Shore.

His company included both a bustling garden center that catered to the rich, famous and wealthy, as well as a landscape design firm. It was one of the few large garden center businesses to have its own marketing manager, and I worked with her extensively. When she was let go in July 1995, the president asked me to take over the role since I wrote well and had worked alongside her.


It was my first marketing gig and I knew nothing! I messed up so many things it’s amazing I lasted the next two years. But last I did, and I ended up creating some fantastic advertising that one customer actually scrawled a message on and brought in to show his appreciation for the ad. I still have a copy of that ad.

Here’s the famous ad in the New York Times – Sunny wrote Russ, the president, a note about how it made her want to come in, and dropped it off in the store.

After leaving the nursery in 1997, I went on to lead marketing for a financial services company and then for a series of education testing, professional development, and publishing companies before founding my own content marketing agency. Along the way, I did return to school, and completed a master of science in direct and digital marketing at New York University, earning not only a degree “with distinction”, the university’s highest honor, but also two national direct marketing awards.

5 Ways to Learn Marketing Without a Marketing Education

Here’s how I ensured my own marketing education despite starting in the profession without a marketing degree.

  1. Learn from a colleague.

One of the first things I did when working at the nursery was study what the current marketing manager was doing. I followed her original blueprint for my first year in my new role as marketing manager, using her example to maintain marketing continuity. At each job, I was able to observe either what the previous marketing manager had done by reviewing her plans or by working alongside a more seasoned marketer. You can learn a lot from your colleagues. Here at Seven Oaks Consulting, we feature an unusual model of taking on a lot of college students and recent graduates as part of our content team. It’s not that we prefer junior marketers on the team, but we love to help them grow. It’s paying the profession forward — helping to build the stellar marketers we hope to see someday in the field. To do that, they need to learn from seasoned professionals as I was able to do so long ago.

  1. Read books by the experts.

In every field or endeavor, there are known experts. In content marketing, Joe Pulizzi comes to mind, along with Ann Handley. Both are true experts in content marketing. My former NYU professor of direct marketing finances, Heidi Cohen, is also known as a content marketing and digital marketing expert. Read their books and learn marketing from people who don’t just talk about it but actually do it!

  1. Keep up with the news.

Another way in which I learned the marketing profession as a junior marketing manager was to read industry news. I’d take along Direct Marketing News to read on the train during my commute or I’d read Advertising Age the Wall Street Journal. This continued my education by exposing me to current marketing trends and campaign examples.

  1. Attend conferences.

I learned so much at the old Direct Marketing Days New York and the New York City Direct Marketing Club meetings. The guest speakers, the trade show booths, the small group sessions….I’d leave with copious notes and ideas about what to incorporate into my own marketing plans. Some of the contacts I made at those trade shows remain good friends. If you can, attend marketing conferences live or online as much as possible.

  1. Ask a lot of questions.

Vendors want to share their knowledge with you. Ask questions of everyone! I went on press with my printing vendor to learn more about catalog production and eventually became a known expert in the field of traditional direct marketing thanks to my deep understanding of both mailing houses and printing. Marketing vendors were keen to help me understand new techniques and ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions.

Now…If I Had to Learn Marketing Without a Degree

How things have changed since I was a young college graduate studying marketing on my own!

The internet has opened up tremendous potential learning opportunities for marketing managers. You can watch YouTube videos, subscribe to podcasts, download tons of books thanks to Amazon Kindle and Google Play, and so much more. 

Hubspot free marketing courses enable any junior marketing manager to learn from the comfort of their own homes. Need to learn marketing software such as MailChimp or ConvertKit? The software vendors themselves provide training!

Many of the old newspapers like Direct Marketing News have gone digital. Gone are the days when the only way to learn about new techniques and marketing research was by attending a conference or seminar. But the opportunities unfolding daily on the internet have made it easier than ever for someone motivated to learn to find the information they need.

A marketing education remains, to me, a priority for anyone interested in a full-time career in marketing. I wouldn’t trade my New York University degree for anything. It was an amazing experience to learn in a workshop environment, to go to the offices of some of the best creative agencies in the world and watch as they planned campaigns, to learn marketing finances and accounting from people who were actually working in the profession. 

But if you aren’t blessed or lucky enough to be able to earn a marketing degree, you can still ensure your marketing education with these ideas. 

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