SEM career playbook: Overview of a growing industry

Digital marketing is a great career field. For more than two decades, digital marketing has been a growing field where individuals can thrive and build impressive careers.

The industry is always changing. But one thing that won’t change is that companies will continue to need smart people to manage their digital marketing initiatives. 

U.S. digital ad spending will continue to grow over the next five years, according to eMarketer research. By 2025, U.S. digital ad spending should reach approximately $315 billion. The rate of change is predicted to slow over the coming years, but the digital marketing industry should continue to provide a wide array of career opportunities. 

U.S. Digital Ad Spending, 2020-2025.

A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows similar trends. Their report does not mention digital marketing specifically, but that data is included in this general report.

According to their 2021 data:

“Overall employment of advertising, promotions, and marketing managers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. About 35,300 openings for advertising, promotions, and marketing managers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.”

The economy is on shaky ground right now. A recession seems to be looming, but no one knows exactly what will happen.

Even if the next 12-18 months are challenging from a macroeconomic viewpoint, the opportunities within the digital marketing industry should continue to thrive. 

Such opportunities can lead you to a small or large agency, an in-house team, your own shop as an individual contractor, and the list goes on. Throughout a career in this field, you will likely find yourself in various roles for a number of organizations. 

The career path of someone in search engine marketing (SEM) will likely move from junior to senior roles.

Let’s explore how many of these roles are structured and how your SEM career might take shape. Your path is unique, but these are guidelines for the industry right now. 

Entry-level/junior SEM roles

Most people will start their career in any field with an entry-level position. The same goes for the digital marketing industry. Many folks will land their first job out of college with a digital agency or in-house with a marketing team.

Also, individuals move into digital marketing from other departments within an organization as well. For example, moving from product development/management to digital marketing. 

These roles often do not require an extensive amount of experience with digital marketing. Most employers will not expect a great deal of experience but they will be looking for individuals with:

  • A drive to excel.
  • An aptitude to learn.
  • A strong ability to communicate. 

The expected duration in each role will depend on where you work.

Some employers promote people faster than others. More aggressive progression is positive if you want to move quickly between roles.

However, if you move too quickly, you will not have time to develop and master the skills that will build toward your next role. On average, individuals will serve in entry-level roles for 12-18 months before being promoted. 

Tasks and responsibilities

The tasks entry/junior level team members complete often focus on supporting more senior members of the team. These duties include:

  • Creating reports.
  • Conducting QA checks.
  • Building SEM campaigns.
  • Monitoring account performance.
  • Attending training sessions and acquiring certifications.
  • Taking meeting notes.
  • Other foundational tasks.

Titles and roles 

There are an endless number of potential titles within the SEM field for each step along your digital marketing career journey. 

There is usually a channel signifier within the title, such as:

  • Digital
  • Search
  • Social
  • SEO
  • Display
  • Paid search
  • Paid social
  • Programmatic 

The second component of titles is the role/seniority. For entry-level roles, you can expect titles like:

  • Associate
  • Specialist
  • Coordinator
  • Strategist
  • Assistant 

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Experienced SEM roles

On average, once someone has 18-24 months of experience in SEM and digital marketing, they are ready to transition to a more experienced role.

Similar to many other industries, just because you may have gained experience and even gotten a promotion, that doesn’t mean you won’t be responsible for certain entry level-tasks. 

A more experienced role within a company will start to contribute to relationships inside and outside the company. Individuals with more experience often help train and oversee junior team members. This doesn’t mean experienced individuals manage entry-level positions – a responsibility usually reserved for the next level of career progression. 

Again, the duration of these experienced roles will vary per company. On average, you can expect to be in a similar position for approximately 12-24 months.

I know most folks are pumped to move to the next level of their careers, but make sure to master every role you occupy before transitioning into the next role. Even though it is tempting to move more aggressively, be sure to build a strong foundation for your career during these critical fundamental times. 

Tasks and responsibilities

When you are in a more experienced SEM role, you will take on more responsibility and ownership within your team, whether you are in an agency or in-house. 

Experienced roles are often seen as experts at execution and QA within accounts. These are the folks who have been in the nitty-gritty with accounts and are ready to be seen as activation leaders. These duties include:

  • Account management
  • Large campaign builds
  • Meeting agenda management
  • Running partial or all client/internal meetings
  • Project management
  • Task delegation

Titles and roles

Similar to entry-level roles, there is a channel signifier as part of the title. Again, those signifiers could include: 

  • Digital
  • Search
  • Social
  • SEO
  • Display
  • Paid search
  • Paid social
  • Programmatic 

The second element of these titles will be position/seniority. You can expect to see titles such as:

Senior SEM roles

Senior roles in SEM and digital marketing begin to own entire client engagements or in-house programs. Individuals in these roles guide:

  • Overall strategy.
  • Internal and external communication.
  • Client relationship building.
  • Budget planning.
  • Cross-channel management.
  • Complex attribution.
  • Team management.

Folks in these roles are seen as senior members of their media activation team. 

With 3-4 years of experience, individuals in these roles often shift into team management as well. They often strike a balance between:

  • Account management.
  • Client communication.
  • Strategy development.
  • Management of a small team.

I think this is where position duration begins to vary much more significantly between companies. The duration of the senior SEM role could be 18-36 months. This sounds like a long time, but this is also when entirely new skills are acquired and mastered. 

Tasks and responsibilities

Transitioning into a senior role in SEM is a difficult balancing act. Often, you still need to complete tasks from the two prior roles. This happens because you need to fill a junior position or you need to cover for someone who is out of the office.

However, you have management responsibilities as well. These responsibilities can include:

  • Cross-channel strategy.
  • Media planning.
  • Budget forecasting.
  • Owning internal/external communications.
  • Team management.
  • Driving methodology in media campaigns.

Titles and roles

Similar to the other positions, titles and roles can vary between companies. You can expect to see titles such as:

  • Senior manager
  • Lead
  • Director
  • Senior director

Leadership SEM roles

Leadership roles in SEM and digital marketing mean:

  • Managing a team of digital marketers.
  • Understanding macro-level trends within the industry.
  • Guiding high-level cross-channel campaign strategy.
  • Owning internal/external stakeholder relationships, staffing and resource planning. 

Tasks and responsibilities

Leadership roles are higher-level and begin to focus on strategy and development. Individuals in these roles have to be able to see what the team needs in order to deliver excellent SEM results. 

Communication is one of the most important elements of a leadership role. You need to be able to communicate with entire teams, clients, C-level executives, and individually with team members. Responsibilities in this could include:

  • High-level account strategy.
  • Setting objectives and KPIs.
  • Cross-channel media planning.
  • Budget planning and scenario forecasting.
  • Team management.
  • Team member development.
  • Staff planning and hiring decisions.
  • Mentoring junior team members.

Titles and roles 

Leadership titles in SEM vary widely depending on each company. 

Here are a few titles you should expect to see for these roles: 

  • Director
  • Senior director
  • Executive
  • Vice president 

Navigating your SEM career

We could not cover every potential role and title in the SEM industry. Hopefully, this gives you a framework for wherever you are in your career path.

In my next article, we’ll construct a plan to help you be an awesome SEM team member, learn as much as possible throughout your career, develop new skills along your journey and build an amazing career in SEM.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

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