Confessions of a young digital marketer: ‘Nobody wants to rock the boat’

The header image shows the silhouette of a woman.

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Agencies may have their issues, but brand-side can be tough too. In this edition of Confessions, we spoke to a young digital marketing employee at a big brand who moved to a big brand about her experience there.

What was the company like when you started there?
I worked for a big brand at corporate HQ.  Big building, hundreds of employees. It was such a weird environment. It was very strict. A lot of coworkers described it as a company from the 80s. It was very extreme — professional dressing, no personality.  Men just recently had been allowed to go without ties. Headphones weren’t allowed, personal items at your desk were frowned upon, and your time at work was strictly monitored, which was odd for a creative marketing position. 

It was different from what you were used to.
The agency I was at used to be smaller. It had its issues, but it was very casual. But it was very long hours, with big expectations, and a toxic environment where every mistake was treated like the end of the world. So I wanted to go brand-side. 

What were expectations there?
I expected the brand side to be less stressful and have more support. The work itself was a lot more relaxed. It was really simple work. Brand-side was a lot less stressful. Not so with the structure. They had this system, where you had to follow this management system. You were not permitted to talk to anyone except your supervisors, but nobody else above them or anyone senior to you. If you break that rule, there were consequences. We weren’t even allowed access to the same floor as the execs. They were very particular about this rule, and it created almost a class system of sorts within the company, with lower-level employees all striving to reach the higher ground we were denied access to. 

That’s extreme.
Everyone there thought it was extremely stupid. But this corporate culture was tied to the culture of the company. A lot of employees on my level, there was this sense that the people higher than us were gods. We were lowly people whose work didn’t matter. Everyone wanted to be a manager.

What happened next?
I was basically put on probation. I didn’t know why. I’m a hard worker and a friendly person, so I had no idea what was up. It took me some digging to find out, but I eventually discovered my supervisor felt threatened by me and had decided to put me on probation to get rid of me. I believe she did this as a result of the strangely competitive culture at the company.

What makes you think that?
I had shared some best-practices to someone when she had asked for feedback. She told me I needed to make my personality more “floofy.” And then I found out other people my level had also complained. The culture of this company created a unique and toxic situation where co-workers on my own level immediately saw me as the competition they needed to eliminate, and where my supervisor saw me as a threat to her own status as someone in power. With two very different pressures coming from both sides, it made it impossible to succeed there. It was also just really unpleasant. I rarely cry, but I cried multiple times in the bathroom at that position.

What were the implications of this?
The thing is, you’re basically dispensable when you work in marketing at a big company. And nobody wants to rock the boat. I worked for the digital marketing team, which is supposed to be innovative and experimental. But a culture of cover-your-ass means you can’t do that. I laugh when I hear of big brands hiring innovation offices or trying to be nimble. That’s great but if you are in a place where nobody can shake things up and have a personality, it is hard.

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