I Got a D in Marketing and Became an Award-Winning Marketing Executive

It was 1990, I was attending University of Kansas (my 2nd stop in my college career after Emerson College) and I was taking a course in my very favorite subject, marketing. My teacher was excellent, the other students were engaging and inspiring and I looked forward to each and every class.

The teacher loved my ideas and thoughts on various marketing problems he asked us to solve. He thought I had tremendous talent but at the end of the day I received a D because of my low test scores. I remember speaking with him directly about my final grade and learning that he was as confused as I was.

Around 1991, I had transferred to my 3rd college, SUNY Purchase which had an incredible career development team ready and able to help students secure their dream internships. Completely ready for dozens of interviews ranging from The Joan Rivers Show to MTV Networks, I went from office to office marketing myself in hopes of landing the coveted internship the following semester.

To be honest, my heart was set on MTV Networks as I was a die-hard fan of Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite. My interview with the human resource rep seemingly went well, at least in my head. But Ms. Hall said to me, “I’m sorry but you are not MTV Networks material” and passed on me right then and there.

How I Got a Dream Internship

I was determined to get into MTV Networks and to enjoy a successful marketing career because despite what I was experiencing, I knew deep inside that that was exactly where I was supposed to start and marketing was precisely what I was supposed to do.

My parents always told me, “don’t take no for an answer.” That was not coming from a place of always getting what you want. It was coming from a place of knowing myself the best and not letting others tell me who I am or what I should do. I’m fortunate to have had parents who gave me that pep talk and drilled into me that I had the power to make things happen even at times when I felt powerless.

I located some executives’ names (pre-internet thank you very much) and reached out to them directly with a passionate letter about why I wanted an internship on their team. It resulted in an interview at Comedy Central Publicity which was an MTV Networks channel.

My work at Comedy Central was crucial. It was their first year of existence and they were trying to grow their audience and distribution on cable channels. My project was to single-handedly pitch a show they had called Mystery Science Theater 3000 to college newspapers and radio stations nationwide. I did well and quickly my reputation led to MTV Networks’ channels and departments recruiting me to join them. I held internships with Nickelodeon Animation (just as Ren & Stimpy was finally debuting it’s 2nd season) and with Nickelodeon Programming where I helped plan marketing sponsorship opportunities that they sold to advertisers. I was runner-up for employee of the year.

As my career continued, marketing was always a major part of what I did each day. Over the years, I’ve won marketing awards for my work at brands like TV Land and Bravo. I’ve been recruited for think tanks to come up with new ideas. I serve as a mentor and coach in many organizations because branding oneself is also marketing.

I’m sharing this with the Grown & Flown readers because sometimes people get caught up in grades, other’s opinions and sometimes they choose paths out of fear. That kind of energy is sticky and won’t allow progress to be made.

Walt Disney’s newspaper editor told the aspiring cartoonist he wasn’t creative enough. A Baltimore TV producer told Oprah Winfrey she was “unfit for television news.” Thankfully, neither listened to naysayers and continued forward living their truth. There are tons of these stories and while all of us are not necessarily going to become a household name like Disney or Oprah, our success is no less important to the work we know we are meant to do.

What parents can do to help their student find their career path:

1. Space and Time 

The number one thing you can do for your student or young professional is to provide them with unlimited space and time to know who they are. There are many exercises they can engage in if they are feeling stumped such as the career assessment tests they take at school or through books like StrengthFinders and What Color is Your Parachute. Those answers do not need to be a perfect hit. They can be used to explore further. There are so many careers one might like and so many we don’t even know about yet.

2. Be Less Literal 

Next in importance is helping your student or young professional be less literal about what they’d like to be. For example, a young child may have dreams of being a New York Yankee and maybe the talent makes it seem possible. But just in case it doesn’t happen that way, what other avenues can lead your child to the New York Yankees in a role they feel enriched by?

Are they talkative? Maybe they aim for the NY Yankee publicity department where they will be paid to talk enthusiastically about their favorite team. There’s a difference between saying “that will never happen” or “you should absolutely go for your dreams and see where it takes you.” Because who knows where a path might take someone. Maybe right to the dugout and maybe to the press team that gets to be right by their side cheering them on.

3. Encouraging Them

Encouraging people to aim for what they truly feel determined to do can only lead to good things. Jobs will come and go but knowing your true self and knowing that you can and will find your way is the ultimate in determination, resilience, problem solving and a success story in itself.

My name is Gennifer Birnbach. I got a D in marketing, and was told I was not MTV Networks’ material. Despite that, I became an award-winning marketer for MTV Networks and beyond.

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Gennifer Birnbach is an award-winning marketer and writer living in Yorktown Heights, NY with her high schoolers and husband. She spent the past 25+ years working on brands including Nickelodeon and Bravo as well as smaller businesses in her own backyard. Her company Gennifer with a G, inc affords her the flexibility to see her kids more. But now their doors are locked so it’s a case of bad timing.

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