Best Practices to Providing Professional References for Your Marketing Career

References for your marketing career

If you’re being considered for a big new marketing role, at some point through the application and interview process you’ll almost certainly be asked for professional references. Who you choose–and how you select them–could make the difference between landing your next dream job and being turned down in favor of someone else.

Candidates often don’t realize how valuable references are.

Candidates often don’t realize how valuable references are to organizations with good marketing recruitment and hiring practices. In many cases, they could be as important to your cause as your resume.

As author Egon Zehnder puts it, references offer “an accurate, third-party assessment of your strengths and weaknesses so managers can hire knowing full information. Given the option of either interviewing a candidate without checking references or checking references without interviewing, I would choose the latter.”

As a job candidate for anything from marketing analytics staffing to a full-blown advertising executive search, you must therefore be thoughtful and strategic about both whom you ask to be a reference, and how you prepare them to speak on your behalf. Here are some tips you can use at any point in your marketing career to ensure you have a strong reference strategy and maximize your professional opportunities.

Don’t Get Caught Off Guard

The interview process

You should expect to be asked for references in any interview process. Before you’re even heavily involved, you should develop a mental list of past and current colleagues who could serve as references for you so you can provide them quickly when the time comes.

Ideally, your list should include a mixture of former and current bosses, coworkers, and subordinates, depending on how far along your marketing career path you are. The best options are those who have worked closely alongside you “in the trenches” and know details regarding how you perform on a day-to-day basis and under pressure.


Marketer’s Pro Tip: Keep Your References out of Your Resume

Many marketers make the mistake of including a list of references right in their resume, or mentioning “References available upon request.”

This is a waste of time and, more importantly, valuable resume real estate. In any advanced marketing recruitment process, it’s assumed by hiring managers that you’ll have references available when needed–but no one is going to want to see them right away. Typically references won’t be checked until at least the first round of interviews have passed.

Instead, use that space to share more about your capabilities, accomplishments and goals–but have your references ready ahead of time so you can provide them as needed.

Choose Good Communicators

Even someone who would give a glowing review can reflect poorly on you if they have a hard time communicating clearly and professionally over the phone. Your references don’t have to be eloquent orators to be effective; but they do need to be able to carry on a direct, methodical and professional conversation over the phone. If your connection has a tendency to ramble or speak inappropriately, consider using someone else.

Target Your References


Aligning your references to what the employer needs to know makes the process more productive for both of you.

When the hiring manager requests your references, it helps to find out specifically what kind of information they’re looking for. If the manager wants to learn more about your leadership style, then they should speak to your former and current direct reports. If they want to check your ability to develop a marketing strategy, bosses are the people to call. If they want to learn how you perform day-to-day in a workplace environment, they ought to talk to your peers. Aligning your references to what the employer needs to know makes the process more productive for all parties involved.

Offer Context

Always ask your connections for permission before naming them to a hiring manager. Then help your references offer the best possible endorsement by providing them with information about the roles you are being considered for and why you want those jobs. Gently remind your references of your past achievements or marketing projects you worked on together. You may also ask different references to highlight different talents and strengths, to give the reference-checker a well-rounded selection of reviews that aren’t repetitive.

Be Creative

In some instances you may find yourself in consideration for a role in which you don’t have much experience; for instance, if you’re taking your first step into a major marketing executive job or looking to transition to a digital field that interests you more. In these cases, it can be tricky to come up with an appropriate reference.

For hiring circumstances like these, you’ll likely need a less conventional approach. Recount a time in your past where you picked up new skills to adapt to a changing market landscape, spearheaded a project that spanned multiple teams and departments, or took responsibility for marketing to a new audience. Then think about colleagues with whom you worked closely during those periods. You want references that can speak to your strengths, have seen you work well outside your comfort zone, and understand how you overcome challenges.

Anticipating Negative References

Negative feedback

It’s uncommon that you’d name someone you know would have a negative opinion on you as a reference. But occasionally hiring managers might ask to speak with a manager at a job you were fired from, or expect a reference from someone who might have been offended that you left their business.

If that’s the case, it’s helpful to provide context on the situation so that the reference checker isn’t surprised by less-than-stellar reviews. You can say: ‘This person may give you a negative reference. Let me tell you why.” Then preemptively explain the situation and offer alternative individuals who might offer a similar perspective but a more favorable opinion of you.

Recap: Reference Do’s & Don’ts


  • Have a ready list of references that includes a mixture of bosses, colleagues, and direct reports who will provide strong testimonials on your behalf.
  • Think creatively about others who might be a good reference; your list could also consist of consultants or customers who can verify the quality of your performance.
  • Remind your references of your past achievements and ask them to highlight specific skills and strengths.


  • Ask someone to be a reference unless you’re sure that person will say positive things about your work.
  • Rule out using references from your current organization; consider your circumstances and decide whether it makes sense to tip your hand that you’re leaving.
  • Be vague about your potential new opportunity; provide your references with information about the role you are being considered for and why you want the job.

Article source: Harvard Business Review

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How to Get the Most Out of Your References

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