Well, Idiot, you did it.
You majored in the humanities. Or, if you’re like me, you doubled down on that initial investment with an M.A. in Unemployable. Like half your freshman class, you may have taken organic chemistry to preserve the pre-med fiction for one semester, but it wasn’t long before you traded your lab coat for a tweed blazer.
As graduation approaches, you may sense the first pangs of a panic attack. Because while humanities evangelists are quick to remind you that your degree is a trunk with many branches, those branches seem spindly, ill-prepared for stormy economic weather. Still, you have a few options:
- Go to law school. Ensure hearty backslaps at your parents’ dinner parties and a robust debt portfolio.
- Get a terminal degree in the humanities. Dedicate seven years to gain access to a job market already flush with experts in the motivations of eighteenth-century Welsh poets, and similar intellectual oddities.
- Await an advance for the novel you haven’t written. Thinking about writing a novel is not a job.
- Grab the bottom rung of corporate America. Get an entry-level job for which you’ll be vastly overqualified and far too self-aware to enjoy.
- Look for another ladder. Rungs include commission-only sales jobs, filing, and all-caps listings on Craigslist.
So what do you do? From most employers’ perspective, you’re qualified only to write a narrative—years from now, mind you—of what a silly idea your Philenglishtry* degree was. That certainly won’t pay the bills in the near term.
But before you give in to a job that’s too embarrassing to include on LinkedIn, let’s assess your existing skills that are rewarded in a free-market economy:
- Critical thinking
- Domination of one Jeopardy category per annum†, such as:
The good news is that the first four skills are eminently marketable, but not in their generalized forms. Usually, you must pair them with technical certification or work experience. This rules out most jobs you want to work. That’s the crux of the problem: connecting the dots. You’re smart enough to know you can do something more lucrative—and vastly more interesting—than cold calling for a local insurance rep (and other off-white-collar jobs), but no one is hiring the future version of yourself.
Ten years ago, you would’ve been stuck, daydreaming about fast forwarding your one-bedroom takeout life until your early thirties, when that dingy-collar job might be scrubbed clean. But not anymore. And you have digital marketing to thank for that.
†Technically, that knowledge is rewarded in a free market. Jeopardy is just a really small market. And tough to get into.
Why Digital Marketing Don’t Care
Digital marketing is one of the few jobs that values soft skills above hard ones. That’s largely because no one offers a degree in the field, so anyone coming out of college is equally unqualified (or, as we ultimately look at it, qualified).
Add to that the neutral, if not negative, impact of deep industry experience: Most tactics employed even a year or two ago are, at best, dated and, at worst, spammy. Plus, digital marketing hasn’t been around that long, which means there’s little competition from the 45-to-65 crowd. Top it off with the diverse skills required of digital marketers—data analyst, researcher, writer, account manager—and you’ve got a sense of why it’s an open playing field.
As Google has evolved, an interesting thing has happened on the SEO side in particular. Quick hacks and mundane keyword research have become less important, and bigger strategic thinking and data-to-action analysis have become more valuable. In short, SEO is attracting, retaining, and rewarding smarter people. Not smarter in the degreed sense, just flat-out smarter. Sharp. Ambitious. Curious. Easily bored. These are all attributes of our best analysts.
The shift toward strategy doesn’t mean meetings are battles over whose intuition is right. We’re still data driven. We still look at spreadsheets (lots of them). But the starting point has shifted, or at least has begun to do so. Advances in Google’s algorithm, more semantic by the day, mean we can start by thinking about a company’s brand, its values, and its unique position in the marketplace, and tether those values and goals to data.
Previously, it worked the other way around—a brand was molded by search engine opportunity, a great content marketing strategy was a stack of keywords with high volume and low difficulty, and Neanderthalic page titles vaulted sites upward through search results:
Digital marketing agencies will never operate like Sterling Cooper, but the brains they attract are increasingly similar. We apply analytical and communication skills previously devoted to Joyce, Plato, or Thucydides to narratives in business and industry. We’re successful when we validate our intuition quantitatively, when we match a brand to how people talk about its products and services to search engines. We dress like shit, though.
Perks (Beyond Free Beer and Red Bull‡)
If you’re about to graduate, a job—any job—seems like a perk. Digital marketing, in addition to highly competitive pay and benefits, has other plusses, too. For one, your parents will be excited, mainly because they'll understand only two things about your new job:
- It’s in technology.
- They don’t understand anything about your new job.
For those of us with siblings or spouses in hard sciences, this is a welcome opportunity to reenter the Christmas letter in more optimistic language. No more, “Jeremy is looking forward to applying his critical thinking skills to the next stage of his life,” while sister Amanda is lauded for “completing the coursework for her PhD in bioengineering.” You, too, will have a profession your parents are blissfully ignorant and proud of.
Maybe it’s enough to have a shot at an out-of-college job that’s challenging, fun, and exciting. But maybe you’re a solid Type A that needs a long career trajectory. (Most of us who majored in the humanities, of course, have no 40-year career trajectory, or we wouldn’t have majored in the humanities.)
The good news is that a career in digital marketing can look very different within an agency and over time. You can go from generalist to specialist, from practitioner to manager, even from execution to sales. Further, Google continuously tweaks the rules of the game. Every day, our strategies adapt. You won’t be bored.
‡Available at participating agencies only
Am I Making This Stuff Up?
I am not making this stuff up.
Here’s the thing: Digital marketers increasingly are incentivized to invest in complex data research; authoritative and engaging content; and collaborative relationships between traditional and digital teams. These incentives demand smart, socially adroit people to develop and execute strategies. (Business is booming, too, by the way.)
This means I’m producing higher quality content for small businesses than I did as an editor for major encyclopedias. (Great content follows the money.) It means kicking ass for clients is distilling academic research for mass consumption; analyzing massive datasets to align digital strategy with offline agency findings and Fortune 500 brand values; and pitching strategies to CEOs, CMOs, and other people who live in shiny offices in big cities.
And my main qualification? Intellectual restlessness. The same restlessness cultivated in the wide-open spaces of the humanities, where the enduring lessons are how to approach new problems—not how to solve recurrent ones—and where diplomas confirm a lot of about how you think but little about your future.
Philenglishtry, it turns out, can get an Idiot a pretty sweet gig.