Commencement address for marketing students

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If I were to speak at a commencement for just business school students with a concentration in marketing, this is probably what I’d say.


Dear marketing class of 2015,

I congratulate you on reaching the end of your formal education (for now) in marketing. I have good news and bad news for you. Like a true marketer, let’s start with the bad news as the attention-getting device. In about 6 months, and for the next 5 to 10 years, you will feel lied to by your formal education. In the next decade, you will seriously question what you paid all of this time and money for.

Why? Because your school, your formal education has prepared you for a career you probably won’t have for a while. You see, the moment you enter the workforce, you start at the lowest rung on the ladder unless you join or found a startup. Regardless, most of the work you will find yourself doing immediately in either situation is going to be very tactical, in the weeds work. It will not resemble anything you’ve studied here at school.

For example, I went to a reasonably good business school, and my class at the time was outraged that the school was teaching us C++ and not Java. Java was the hot thing back then. The students around me who complained missed the entire point – the idea was to teach the concepts of programming so we could manage programmers, not become programmers ourselves.

So if that’s the bad news, what’s the good news? The good news is what you’ve learned does have value – it just won’t have value to you for a while. Assuming things go well, a few years down the road you’ll move into management or executive positions, depending on how successful you. The moment you do, you’ll be faced with a situation in which you will be asked to create things like strategy and innovation, rather than just follow someone else’s marching orders.

The first time this happens, you will feel like a deer in headlights. You will smile to your stakeholders and numbly mumble, sure, I can do that, and then you’ll go back to your desk or office and panic that you’ve never been in this situation before. It’s at this point where I hope you’ll recall this day, this moment in your formal education, because this is what school has trained you for. You’ve got bucket after bucket of frameworks, concepts, algorithms, and more HBR case studies than you know what to do with right now. Put them on a shelf for the future version of yourself, because when future you has that panic attack, I want you to take your formal education off the shelf, dust it off, and remember what you’ve learned here.

All those frameworks, all those binders full of case studies will be the starting point for you to exit that moment of panic the first time you head up a major strategic initiative. You’ll have a place to start and can pull things out of the toolbox you’ve acquired here. That’s the value of stuff.

Now, here’s the tricky part. Most people aren’t that patient, which is why some of you will throw out all your textbooks and binders and such the moment you take off your graduation robes. The people who do this will be the ones attending conferences in 10 years, paying $2,500 a ticket for executive sessions where the speakers will largely rehash everything you just learned in the last few years in your formal education, only with prettier slides and pre-written note binders.

The people who are clever will hold onto the knowledge you’ve gained here and start finding little ways to put it into action every day. Maybe not at your first job, but maybe at a volunteer opportunity along the way, so that when the day comes when you’re put in charge, you can take charge with well-practiced skills and make a huge impact.

No matter what path you choose, welcome to the world of marketing, graduates. If you’re smart and focused, the world is still your oyster.

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