Become a Marketing Grand Master: Five Essential Skills

July 19, 2015

I get it – your job is real tough, you’re expected to be part artist, writer, events planner and designer. One moment you’re working with photographers discussing depth of field next moment you’re knee deep in data trying to pull together an email campaign.

The truth is we’re in a difficult job and have to master a whole bunch of left and right brain skills to be truly successful – and its not like we have spare time on our hands right? There are a few essential skills though that I recommend anyone master whether you are just starting out in marketing or a veteran trying to keep their resume looking good and skills sharp.


Modern marketing is increasingly becoming more about storytelling. Thinking like a journalist helps you focus your thoughts when crafting content strategies. Journalists are used to creating a story arc, having a beginning, middle and end and weaving in proof points. The story has a flow and cadence punctuated with quotes and call outs, with a headline to draw the punter in.

punctuated with quotes and call outs, with a headline to draw the punter in

Like that.

With blogs and opinion pieces becoming increasingly more important you can do a lot worse than brush up on both your writing style, punctuation and grammar.

Plain English, short sentences, clarity and the avoidance of business-bullshit are all good starting points, if you fancy some light reading try:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser:


If you came into this profession hoping you can just dabble in graphic design and travel to exotic places managing events you might be disappointed. As marketers we are on the front line of generating demand for our companies products and services. We now have the board breathing down our neck scrutinising everything we do and a sales team driven by hard targets.

To that end, know your business. Firstly understand the principle of how companies operate. Know your profit and loss, learn about product development, understand exactly how the customer service delivers the product. Think like a CEO and remember that every pound or euro you spend must deliver results. This type of ruthless analytical thinking can lend perspective when you need it most, making sure you always see the bigger picture and don’t get too caught up in the weeds of tactics.

There is a great book by a guy called John Brooks called Business Adventures. It was written some time ago and features a series of short stories and anecdotes from the business world. It shows how the fundamentals of business haven’t changed and the obstacles you can encounter. It’s easy to read, witty and a must for every marketer.


Oh hush now, just try it. HTML is a great grounding, or if you’re feeling really adventurous some PHP, Javascript, Python or Ruby. I know – it sounds nuts. That’s what developers are for right? Now I’m not suggesting you start to become a beardy tech-head but I am suggesting you understand the principles. Firstly it’s not as hard as you think. Secondly it can help you craft strategies and come up with ideas when you know what CAN be done with tech. Thirdly it helps you talk to the techies more effectively when you understand the world they live in. And know when they’re trying it on 😉

That’s what developers are for right?

Learning basic HTML is a great skill to have regardless, the ability to knock together an email, be more self-sufficient and agile. It also gives you a sense of achievement and confidence – and also looks great on your CV.

Don’t be frightened, just because you’ve never done it, doesn’t mean you can’t and what do you have to lose?

You can get started really quickly too, and its free – sign up to and follow their excellent and easy to learn courses.


This sounds like an obvious one but many marketers struggle with the basics of visual brand and design. Sure you can have your designer or agency look after that for you but ultimately you need to understand what works and what doesn’t. You need to know how to brief designers and give useful, constructive feedback.

Firstly, if your company has a Corporate Identity – learn it inside out. If you can, get someone to walk you through it and show examples.

Secondly, learn the art of brevity. It’s true that less is often more, and the economical use of design elements can make or break a piece of creative. Learn the basics of typographical layout – understand how serif and san serif fonts work. Understand spacing, justification and different font treatments. Some of the best pieces of creative in marketing and advertising show this principle – simplicity, economy, clarity with a strong theme or story to tell.

A bit like music, visual brand and treatment often works better when you strip everything down to the component parts – resisting the urge for ‘design for designs sake’.

Advertising from the fifties, sixties and seventies often show off this art form and the master himself is David Ogilvy. Learn the rules of advertising – then you can break them.

Try reading Ogilvy on Advertising


I mean really understand how databases and computers think. Many moons ago I had a chap who worked for me, a somewhat abrasive and difficult database developer who I at first disliked and then adored. He taught me how relational databases work. I thought I knew how they worked if I’m honest but he soon put me straight.

This skill is incredibly important, transitioning from thinking in spreadsheets to thinking in terms of fields, queries and relationships. I use that knowledge five or six times a day when I’m crafting marketing strategies. From the way I design landing pages and forms to nurture design and personalisation.

It can be very tempting to think in spreadsheets, taking some data and creating lots or columns and rows, colour coding them, adding formatting. Computers can’t read that.

Learning the principles of fields, tables, keys and relationships can radically change your strategic thinking for the better – it can make you think more creatively and open up new ideas.

In the absence of my ex-colleague giving you one-on-one tuition I’d recommend checking out this geeky guy on YouTube

OK he’s a total nerd and talks a bit funky but he does a good job explaining the basics of database speak for the layperson.

This book by Michael Hernandez is also great, Database Design for Mere Mortals.


So make some time in your calendar – brush up on your skills and become a modern marketing grand master.


If you have any great books or reference material to share on any of these topics I’d love to hear from you, just drop a mention in the comments below.

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