How to have a successful career in brand management
In a classic marketing team structure, the four key roles are Assistant Brand Manager up to Brand Manager then up to Marketing Director and on to the VP Marketing role. At every level, you have to adjust to the new role. Brand Managers fail when they keep acting like Assistants and Directors fail when they keep acting like Brand Managers and VPs fail when they don’t know what to do.
- Assistant Brand Manager: It’s about doing; analyzing and sending signals you have leadership skills for the future. It’s not an easy job and only 50% get promoted to Brand Manager.
- Brand Manager: It becomes about ownership and strategic thinking within your brand plan. Most Brand Managers are honestly a disaster with their first direct report, and get better around the fifth report. The good ones let the ABM do their job; the bad ones jump in too much, frustrated and impatient and not acting as a teacher.
- Marketing Director: It’s more about managing and leading than it does about thinking and doing. Your role is to set the standard and then hold everyone to that standard. To be great, you need to motivate the greatness of your team and let your best players do their absolute best. Let your best people shine, grow and push you.
- VP Marketing: It’s about leadership, vision and getting the most from people. If you are good at it, you won’t need to do any marketing, other than challenging and guiding your people to do their best work. You have to deliver the results and very few figures out the equation that the better the people means the better the work and in the end the better the results. Invest in training as a way to motivate your team and keep them engaged. Use teaching moments to share your wisdom.
The idiot curve
One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve which shows up at every level. The basic rule of the Idiot Curve is: You get dumber before you get smarter. When you first land the ABM job, there’s just so much to learn, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. It’s overwhelming at first, and yet you see all these other ABMs doing it so that’s even more intimidating. 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 Idiot Curve normally lasts up to 3 months, and then things just start to click. And you’ll experience it in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict.
But the Idiot Curve shows up again in the first few months of each level. In the first few months as a Brand Manager, they keep doing the ABM role because that’s what they know. They frustrate the hell out of their ABM. They keep recommending and acting small rather than start deciding and stepping up to the leadership role. At the Director role, they continue to be the Brand Manager. They get nervous where they shouldn’t, whether it’s with senior people in other functions or even within marketing. They prefer to keep doing, and in those moments there is nothing “to do”, they walk around and start doing other people’s jobs. At the VP level, the first few months are lonely as you no longer have peers you can bounce ideas off. Your peers assume you can do the job, and they don`t want to hear your problems. At each level, you secretly feel like an Idiot. You don’t want it to show, but in a way, you should use it to your advantage.
The values that make a great marketer
Be consumer-focused: Everything starts and ends with the consumer in mind.
Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and think like them. Steve Jobs said he never needed research, but he must have been fantastic at listening, observing and anticipating how the consumer would react. I’d still recommend you do research, but go beyond the statistics of the research study and learn how your consumer thinks. Whenever I go to focus groups, I watch their faces. Moreover, when the research results come back, you always have to ask “so now what do we do.” The research helps you but never gives you the exact answer. Match up the needs of the consumer to your brand assets to figure out your ideal brand positioning. The best marketers represent the consumer to the brand, NOT the brand to the consumer. I always believe that consumers are selfish and deservedly so because they have money to spend. As a consumer, I don’t care what you do until you care about what I need. Focus on them, not on you.
Follow your Instincts: Gut feel of marketing.
Listen to your inner thoughts; they are in there. Too many times people fail because “they went along with it even though they didn’t like it.” The problem is that sometimes your instincts are hidden away. You get confused, you feel the pressure to get things done, and you’ve got everyone telling you to go for it. You get scared because you’re worried about getting promoted and want to do the ‘right thing.’ However, your gut is telling you it’s just not right. My rule is simple: if you don’t love the work, how do you expect the consumer to love your brand. The worst type of marketer is someone who says “I never liked the brief” or “I never liked the ad.” If you blame your agency or team after the fact, I have a word for people like you: “useless.”
Revel in ambiguity: be patient with ideas.
Never be afraid of an idea and never kill it quickly. Watch the signals you send that make suck the creativity out of your team. If you become too predictable to your team, then your work in the market will also become predictable. Ambiguity and time pressure usually work against each other. Don’t ever settle for “ok” just because of a deadline. Always push for great. What I have found is the longer I can stay comfortable in the “ambiguity zone” the better the ideas get. Use time pressure to force the thinking to be more straightforward. Use the performance pressure forces us to push for our best idea, I always say, the longer I can hold my breath, the better the work gets.
You run the brand, don’t let the brand run you.
Be thoroughly organized, well planned and know the pulse of your business. Every six months, I would find a quiet time to answer five key questions that would help me stay aware: 1) Where are we? 2) Why are we here? 3) Where could we be? 4) How can we get there? 5) What do we have to do to get started? Oddly, the more planning you do, the more agile you’ll be because you’ll know when it’s ok to “go off plan” Stay in Control: Hit the Deadlines, don’t give the appearance that you’re not in control. We have enough to do that things will stockpile on each other. Know Your Business and don’t get caught off-guard. Make sure you are asking the questions and carrying forward the knowledge. Enjoy doing the monthly report because it makes you the most knowledgeable about the brand. Stay conceptual; avoid getting stuck in pennies or decimals. A process should enable us, not hinder us: A good process can force your thinking towards a solution. If it restricts your thinking, it’s not a good process.
Be the brand leader, not the follower.
The more you keep your boss informed, the more rope they may give you. If they don’t know what you’re doing, they may clamp down and micro-manage you. Ensure a policy of open communication with no surprises: Make sure you keep your team informed and involved. Keep senior management informed. You must be the champion of the brand. The best ideas are those that erupt out from the brand team–not from a top-down perspective. You have to be a self-starter that pushes your idea through the system, in the face of resistance or doubt. You will always meet resistance from so many people in the system. All the best work I ever did in my career faced a significant degree of resistance. You have to anticipate this and work through it. One subtlety to ownership is your tone. When you don’t know something, speak in an “asking way” and openly seek out the wisdom and advice of your agency, your manager or your peers. Put your ego aside and listen. However, equally, when you do know the answer, speak in a “telling way” that gets others to follow you, including senior management.
Speed, Simplicity and Self Confidence.
- Speed: We don’t do things fast for the sake of it; we do things quickly so we can take advantage of opportunities that have a window. If you recognize an opportunity, realize that others are also recognizing the same opportunity. So speed to market can enable you to win before they get there. Also, doing things fast does not mean sloppy.
- Simplicity: I’ve always said, “If you have a complex answer to something, odds are you are wrong.” Keep it simple enough to explain, and so that the people who need to execute our ideas can implement them.
- Self Confidence: As the brand leader, speak your mind. After all, we are all just walking opinions. Find a way within your leadership style to engage your team, agency or your boss in a debate to get to better answers.
Here’s a presentation on Marketing Careers:
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Founder and CMO, Beloved Brands Inc.