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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Anna-Marie Sargsyan not only graduated with honours from the Master’s programme Marketing Communications and Advertising in Modern Business but also went on to teach the course and later opened a business school in her native Armenia where she teaches future marketing professionals. In this interview with Success Builder, she explains why foreign students choose HSE University programmes, why a marketing professional always has an ‘ethnic’ aspect and how a business can find a common language with clients who have seen it all.

What did you find attractive about marketing as a field and Russia and HSE programmes in particular?

I have always been interested in the stories of famous brands and how they achieved success. I was certain that I would find a job in a large corporation that I would likely end up owning. I idealised the future, but this gave me the ambition and strength to overcome difficulties. I wanted to lead and direct, so I chose to study management at the Faculty of Public Administration at Yerevan State University where it was possible to study my major at different levels of responsibility. At that time, I didn’t think about marketing and didn’t even know that it was part of management. What we studied was probably closer to economics.

I once happened to read a book by Philip Kotler that I thought would be full of boring facts about economics, but which actually contained interesting case studies about successful brands.

I realised that there is a profession in which you study others’ success and deconstruct it to identify the pertinent details

Then, as an experienced specialist, you can turn these details into tools to apply to other cases according to the specified parameters. This is a marketer, and that’s exactly what I wanted to be!

Then I began looking for universities where I could get a high-level education in marketing. I was thinking of going to Europe, but it turned out that HSE had created one of the top programmes in Eurasia, and so I could study in Russia. Reviews from graduates and employers played the final role in my choice of a programme. HSE was clearly the best option. And now as a graduate, I can say that the programme’s rating is fully justified because you gain the knowledge you need to work in any field. What’s more, the prestige of the university — HSE is a brand — plays an important role in the eyes of employers.

I spent a year preparing to derive the maximum benefit as a foreign student. HSE provides several opportunities for this. Although I was coming from abroad, I could qualify for free tuition by participating in any of the academic Olympics that HSE holds in different cities, including Yerevan. I became a prizewinner in one such competition. My portfolio also helped — I had graduated with honours and held an IELTS certificate, which gave me an edge because I could enrol without taking an English exam. I also attended the HSE Winter School, made an impression as a good candidate, learned about the programme in detail and met the instructors. Far from being overly daunting, enrolling here opened up opportunities and gave me a green light, despite my non-Russian citizenship.

Once you were better acquainted with the programme, what did you see as its main advantages?

The first is the connections it gives you. HSE instructors are the kind of specialists you usually only dream of meeting. You constantly read agencies’ news and research and then their directors turn out to be your teachers and advisers with whom you can associate for a whole semester. This gives you a chance to ‘promote’ yourself in the industry, gain access to vacancies, receive recommendations and earn some prestige while still a student.

The second is teamwork. I didn’t come from marketing and didn’t have enough of the target background. Group classes helped me a lot, and HSE University has a lot of work in this format. This is closer to how the industry really works. You perform a task with a team, present it and receive constructive criticism. We still had homework, but the emphasis on completing projects as a team helped me overcome tons of barriers, including my lack of specialised knowledge and the barriers to communication that I had as a student from another country.

How important is knowledge of human psychology to a marketer?

At the start of my studies, not knowing what marketing was all about, I would not have chosen sociology or econometrics as optional classes. But I am thankful to the programme’s creators that it gives students the widest possible perspective and includes important subjects from related fields. You get the necessary minimum from sociology, econometrics, statistics and other disciplines that form the backbone of the field you are studying, as well as aspects of human behaviour and working with data. I found sociology to be really amazing and I took additional courses in it at HSE.

The programme gives you a package of competencies that allows you to continue working independently and with confidence as a marketer — without bringing in specialists from related fields

For marketers, there are questions whose answers depend on the market where you work. For example, Moscow — in fact, Russia, in general, is a big country that has industry research and syndicated data, and if you need to prepare a presentation, write up a strategy or study an audience for a client, you only need to be able to use this data correctly.

In Armenia, you can’t work as a marketer without knowing the basics of sociology and econometrics because you have to collect market data, analyse it and draw conclusions yourself. The smaller the market, the more difficult the work of a marketer is and the more skills in different areas the given tasks require. Working in my home country, I have to regularly initiate and conduct research. Communication skills for ‘working in the field’ with people and understanding the psychology of the market and the behaviour of the audience help me a lot.

Studying at the master’s level still involves a great deal of academic work. At the same time, the programme includes many real-world case studies. How was this balance in practice?

The practical, hands-on aspect of the programme is one of its greatest and most important advantages. Famous clients came to students and gave the teams tasks from their business strategy, and each group had to develop a solution for them. The brand often offered a material bonus. This motivated us and provided a full understanding of an agency’s marketing cycle.

At the same time, HSE University teaches students how to conduct research, which is something that not every specialist with extensive practical experience can do. To search for problematics, you need special skills and optics for looking at issues. You spend two years writing term papers, preparing a dissertation and performing work per academic standards, learn to use logic, see cause-and-effect relationships and formulate conclusions.

I found out later that, when I worked as an intern at BBDO, I was earning 20,000 rubles per month more than the rest of the ‘junior staff’. I think this was because of my education and research qualifications.

Did you start working at BBDO immediately? How important is it for someone just starting to work for a market leader?

From the very beginning of my studies, I wanted to have the opportunity to work in the top echelon of marketing with big brands. But when I wrote my dissertation, I received an offer to work in what at the time was a small company — the Biplan marketing agency, which is now part of MGcom. They gave me complete freedom as a specialist. I learned a lot, but I was worried that the autonomy I had did not meet the corporate standards of major market players. That’s when I decided to move to a big company and was hired by BBDO.

In a major international company, you get “templates” by which you continue to build work with large clients

Even if you don’t plan to pursue a career with a particular company, I think such experience is necessary for building confidence as a professional and for learning the ‘skillset’ that is indispensable in working with clients from different countries.

Where types of jobs can a marketing graduate work?

Honestly, when I graduated from the programme, it was not easy for me to translate my knowledge into tangible results. Now, in just the last few years, HSE University has moved much closer to the needs of the market and business. Therefore, at that stage, I developed a step-by-step strategy for implementing skills at work that turned out to be very effective. Thanks to this method, I received an offer to teach at HSE.

As a rule, graduates start as junior specialists in media planning who are responsible for choosing an effective advertising approach. They can also work as junior specialists in strategies or placement or as consultants on tenders. Marketers often make good brand or product managers for their former clients. In general, the grade you reach depends solely on your motivation and the projects you have implemented.

Has teaching helped you in your professional activity?

It was a mutually enriching experience. Initially, I did not plan at all to become a mentor because it took me a long time to build up self-confidence. When I began giving lectures for the department, I suddenly realised that I was good at speaking in front of an audience. HSE professors provided feedback very quickly and their suggestions were very valuable. They even applauded me when I finished defending my dissertation. I saw at that moment how much I had overcome in myself, how I had mastered a foreign language and conquered my fears.

The start of my studies at HSE was difficult. I cried on the first day of classes because I didn’t understand anything in econometrics and didn’t know Russian very well

I was certain I would get only passing grades at best but wound up graduating with honours. This experience of overcoming obstacles could not but inspire me to take on even greater challenges.

At some point, I set down all of my lectures on work and, attaching my study guide to it, sent a request to HSE in the hope of sharing my experience. I was invited to teach Marketing Communications and Advertising at my old faculty and, after giving several lectures, was confirmed in the opinion that teaching really was for me. In the master’s programme, I taught practical seminars where I illustrated theory using specific case studies and gave students a ‘manual’ of sorts for applying skills that they could use in their future jobs.

Is there a global community of marketers that provides support, certification and networking?

I earned a diploma from CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing). This is an organisation that confirms your international qualification with a certificate of a certain level. I have a Level Six certification, out of a possible seven. I originally joined CIM for the networking and the library of useful resources available to members. Aside from the certificate, information is CIM’s main draw. In general, a CIM diploma serves as a business card and sign of quality when entering the international labour market or working with major clients in other countries.

I also joined the International Advertising Association (IAA) that one of the HSE teachers recommended and am always looking for new professional communities. Unfortunately, all of the networking events in my field have been cancelled or are held online, which is not really an informal environment where you can make friends and get support from colleagues. I look forward to the borders reopening and a revival of the expert community.

It must be difficult to surprise people when audiences have seen it all. Given this, how do you work with clients and how do businesses communicate with their audience?

The fact is, marketing communications have always been considered a kind of creative endeavour. Indeed, the biggest brands have always surprised people by conveying emotions through creative and very original visual ideas.

Now that everyone has TikTok and apps for creating stories, you could say that people have seen it all

Communication has become not just a bright, exciting bundle of experiences, concentrated in time and format. Now it is a combination of creativity, data and purely technical parameters and arguments. The point of today’s advertising is to convey the necessary information at a convenient moment, as well as in a place that is relevant to the perception of this information. We have moved into the era of nativity when a brand does not try to surprise people or enter their personal space, but based on the data that users leave about themselves, simply tries to communicate with people according to their needs.

It turns out that the communications field has greatly expanded and now includes many new, mainly digital and technological aspects. Marketers’ competencies have also changed, particularly due to data analytics, the ability to dissect conclusions and build communication in social networks.

As a field, marketing communications are aimed at tailoring the message to individual consumers as much as possible. Of course, this is somewhat hindered by the law protecting user data, which has set many large companies back. At the moment, we are working on collecting data on social groups, uniting people by subcultural characteristics, which to some extent blurs personal communication. It is also a challenge for us as specialists and an opportunity to demonstrate our competencies in such related fields as sociology, behavioural economics and others.

What are you doing now? What is BSMI?

BSMI (Business School of Marketing & Innovations) is a business school with a focus on marketing that provides an international level of education. I love Armenia and it was very difficult for me to move to Russia, even for studies. I thought I should do something for my homeland and continue working there for the benefit of the local market. When I realised that I had enough experience, connections, competencies in working with global clients and understanding of innovations, I decided to go back and transfer all this to future specialists in my country.

I opened my educational programmes in Yerevan, and now students don’t have to go down the same road lasting 7-8 years that I did. Now they can get the same global knowledge that I have in five months and without leaving the country. Before this, Armenia had no institutions that could train marketers specifically and provide them with the skills they needed to enter the market immediately after completing their studies. And each lesson is an interactive group task.

As part of their education, students do a huge amount of work analysing competitors, which is the key competence of a marketer. This makes it possible to build a portfolio and present it to anyone, even the most demanding employer. We also cooperate with international brands and help graduates find jobs both in Armenia and abroad.

How would you suggest universities innovate and update their programmes?

I am a very critical person, especially with regards to education, but HSE set such a high bar that I can only advise other universities to try to live up to it. HSE manages to do everything and to attentively make any adjustments the market dictates. In my opinion, the success of any management and marketing programme results from close cooperation with specialists from well-known agencies that have worked on large projects. They have something to say to students. Another important point is that you should give students more real-world case studies and practical tasks.

There has been a lot of discussion concerning online education during the past year. I am not a fan of this format and do not recommend that universities go very deeply into developing it. Fundamental education is primarily about communication. It is an exchange of emotions and experiences in gaining new knowledge as well as social support. I like that HSE maintains this balance.

As for career considerations, it would be great if university studies were presented to students as a roadmap providing access to a specific profession. Applicants would like to know their career prospects at the start. I think that, in the future, short courses could become an alternative to the master’s degree — just look at the range of classes that HSE offers on Coursera. But it’s unlikely that anything can replace the university as a school of life.