After 20 years of marketing, I have hired so many potentially great marketers–who were eager for success, brilliant, hard-working and dedicated. But in reality, about 50% of Assistant Brand Managers get promoted to Brand Manager and less than 20% of Brand Managers make it to the Director level. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years and here is my view on what makes great Brand Managers, great enough for them to get promoted to the next level.
What separates good from great?
There are two factors that I have seen in a consistent manner: #1: They get what they need. #2: What they need is the right thing to do. Very simply put, great marketers get both. The rest either fail on #1 or #2. To get what you want, keep things simple and move fast to take the positional advantage. What separates many Brand Managers is the inability to actually rely on their instincts, instead of just the textbook answer. You get so busy, so deadline focused, so scared to make a mistake that you forget to think in a confused state of ambiguity. It’s not easy to sit there without the answer, but sometimes if you just wait a bit longer and keep pushing for an even better answer, it will come to you. Revel in ambiguity.
The Idiot Curve
One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve. At every new job, including Brand Manager, I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. The basic rule is: You get dumber before you get smarter. We’ve promoted some great ABMs and watch them struggle and wonder if we made a mistake. But the idiot curve is inevitable. It just shows up differently for each person.
No matter how hard you fight it, you have to ride the curve. (But, please fight through the curve, you have to for your survival) The biggest gap is that you forget to use your instincts. You spend so much of your time trying to absorb all that is coming at you, that you reach for the basic process instead of your brains.
And then, you might be working on a project for weeks before you think to even look at the budget. You work on a promotion for Wal-Mart and then think “oh ya, I should talk to the Wal-Mart sales manager and see what he thinks”. Or you say something in a meeting you think you’re supposed to say, but it doesn’t even resemble anything that you think, feel or believe in. That’s the idiot curve. And it will last 3 months. And you’ll experience it in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict. Feel free to let me know which way so I can add it to the list. (I won’t reveal names)
The 5 factors to being a great Brand Manager:
From what I have experienced over the years, the five factors for success includes takes ownership, brings strategic thinking, managing others very well, works the system and can handle the pressure of the job.
#1 Ownership: A great Brand Manager takes ownership of the brand.
Many Brand Managers struggle with the transition from being the helper to being the owner. As you move into the job, you have to get away the idea of having someone hand you a project list. Not only do you have to make the project list, you have to come up with the strategies from which the projects fall out of.
A great Brand Manager talks in ideas in a telling sense, rather than an asking sense. It’s great to be asking questions as feelers, but realize that most people are going to be looking to you for decisions. They’ll be recommending you’ll be deciding.
When managing upwards be careful of asking questions—try to stick to solutions. You just gave up your ownership. Your director wants you to tell them what to do, and debate from there.
#2 Strategic Thinking: A great Brand Manager provides the vision & strategies to match up to.
Bring a vision to the brand. Push yourself to a well-articulated 5-10 year brand vision great. But a vision can be as simple as a rallying cry for the team. But you have to let everyone know where you want to go.
The strategy that matches up to the vision becomes the roadmap for how to get there. As the brand owner, you become the steward of the vision and strategy. Everything that is off strategy has to be rejected.
Communication of strategy is a key skill. Learn to think in terms of strategic pillars, with 3 different areas to help achieve your overall strategy. Having pillars constantly grounds you strategically, and is an easy way for communicating with the various functions. Each function may only have 1 strategic pillar but seeing how it all fits in is motivating.
#3 Managing Others: A great Brand Manager spends the effort to make their ABM as good as can be.
Most Brand Managers struggle with their first five direct reports. The key is to keep self-evaluating and looking for ways to improve with each report. Most Brand Managers struggle to shift from “do-er” to “coach. They think they can do it faster, so they may as well do it. They just become the “super ABM”.
Many Brand Managers fail to share the spotlight, so it becomes hard to showcase the ABM. But the work of your ABM reflects 100% of how good of a manager you are. ABMs need feedback to get better—both the good and bad. I see too many Brand Managers not giving enough feedback. And so many afraid of “going negative” so the ABM is left in the dark or left thinking they are doing a good job.
Great Brand Managers take the time to teach up front, give the ABM some room to try it out and then give hands-on feedback in real time. Use weekly meetings to give both positive feedback and address gaps. Brand Managers should do QUARTERLY sit down performance reviews with their ABMs, who have the capacity to learn faster than annual reviews allows for.
#4 Working the system: A great Brand Manager gets what they need.
The organization is filled with groups, layers, external agencies, with everyone carrying a different set of goals and motivations. You can see how the organization works and appreciating what are the motivations of various key stakeholders. You then use that knowledge to begin to work the system.
Start to see key subject matter experts giving you their best. You understand their personal motivations and find a way to tap into those motivations as a way to ask people for their best. It might be an odd step but from my experience a really motivating step. Very few people ask for “your best”.
#5: Pressure: A Great Brand Manager Can Handle Pressure.
In general, there are four types of pressure. Usually, a leader has 1-2 blind spot pressure areas they need to work on. For me, I was great with ambiguity and time. At that point in my career, I was very weak on the relationship side. Which of these 4 do you struggle on?
- Ambiguity is one of the hardest pressures. As a leader, patience and composure help you sort through the issues. The consequences of not remaining composed are a scared team and choosing quick decisions with bad results.
- If the results don’t come in, it can be frustrating. Reach for your logic as you re-group. Force yourself to course correct, rather than continuing to repeat and repeat and repeat. Challenge team to “this is when we are needed”
- Relationships. Be pro-active in making the first move to build a relationship. Try to figure out what motivates and what annoys the person. Understand and reach for common ground, which most times is not that far away.
- Time Pressure. It’s similar to the ambiguity. Be organized, disciplined and work the system so it doesn’t get in your way. Be calm, so you continue to make the right decisions. Use the time to your advantage.
Love the magic of Marketing.
Don’t just do the job, do it with all your passion. Love it please so we can love the work that comes from your passion. Or else just become an actuary and let someone else take your spot.
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Founder and CMO, Beloved Brands Inc.