Why the idiot curve keeps showing up at every level of your marketing career



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Embarking on a new role in your marketing career often feels like venturing into unknown territory. For the first three months, or roughly 90 days, there’s a familiar sensation of stepping back in cognition before things start to make sense. I’ve aptly termed this phase as “The Idiot Curve.” Essentially, this curve implies that one might feel lost before they regain their confidence.


Understanding the Idiot Curve in your marketing career

Instincts take a back seat: 

At the inception of any new position in your marketing career, you’ll find your innate instincts getting overshadowed. The barrage of fresh information and data can become overwhelming. Hence, when pushed into a corner, it’s easy to lean on new data rather than trust your gut.

Decision-making becomes daunting: 

In your quest to make a lasting impression, particularly on your superiors, decision-making can seem more challenging than before. There’s this constant pressure to deliver results and make the right call, even when the path isn’t clear.

Strengths get camouflaged: 

In an attempt to overcompensate for our perceived inadequacies, there’s a risk of underutilizing our inherent strengths. Remember, while it’s crucial to address weaknesses, it’s equally vital to let our strengths take center stage.

Whether you’re stepping into the shoes of an entry-level Assistant Brand Manager, transitioning to a Brand Manager, ascending to the Marketing Director role, or taking the reins as the Vice President, the ‘Idiot Curve’ is a consistent companion at every rung of your marketing career ladder.

Embracing the Idiot Curve

However, the essential takeaway from this concept isn’t to dread this curve but to embrace it. Recognizing and understanding this phase gives you the grace to accept that it’s alright to feel a bit out of depth sometimes. Everyone goes through it, and it’s a pivotal part of growth in your marketing career. So, whenever you find yourself on this curve, remember, it’s just a bend and not the end.

I want this article to give you permission to know that it’s ok. 

Marketing Careers

On a classic brand management team, there are four key levels:

  • Assistant Brand Manager.
  • Brand Manager.
  • Marketing Director or Group Marketing Director.
  • VP Marketing or CMO.

In simple terms, the Assistant Brand Manager role is about doing, analyzing, and sending signals you have leadership skills for the future.

At the Brand Manager level, 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.

When you get to the Marketing Director role, it becomes more about managing and leading than it does about thinking and doing. To be great, you need to motivate your team’s greatness and let your best players do their absolute best.

And finally, at the CMO level, you must create your own vision, focus on your people to make them better and shine, drive the business results, and run the processes.

As I moved up through each level, I was shocked to see the idiot curve return in the first few months. In this article, I will talk about how that pesky idiot curve kept showing up, and how to deal with it. 

Assistant Brand Manager

Fight the idiot curve to find your way in your new career.

When you first land a marketing job, there’s just so much to learn, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I find it takes three months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. 

What separates the best marketers from the rest is the ability to use their instincts. And yet, for most new marketers, the first thing you lose is those same natural instincts. 

The job is overwhelming at first. 

With so many new facts in your head, when pressed, you reach for a new data point instead of your instincts.

When trying to make a decision, you are caught like a-deer-in-the-headlights, trying to impress your boss, maintain composure, and deliver, even when you aren’t sure how.

You spend so much time covering up your weaknesses, that you forget to allow your incredible strengths to shine through. 

They call it gut instincts, but in those first few months, everything is preventing you from finding them.

Know this is normal.

While we think our natural instincts are right on the surface, that’s a myth. At every level, every year, those pesky instincts have a way of hiding.

You will spend your entire career looking for them. Keep looking. They are there. Use them.

The idiot curve is inevitable.

The “Idiot Curve” is an inevitable rite of passage. Regardless of your intelligence, experience, or determination, it looms on the horizon of every new phase in your marketing career. What’s intriguing is its variability: it manifests differently for every individual. Instead of battling against it, the key lies in embracing and navigating its trajectory.

The Entry-Level phase: A crucible of growth.

Starting at the entry-level in your marketing career is akin to laying the foundation for a house. This phase is fraught with challenges, learning opportunities, and countless moments of self-doubt. However, it’s these very bumps and setbacks that mold you and set the stage for your progression to the coveted Brand Manager position. Amidst the myriad of hardships, the focus remains on growth, knowledge accumulation, and eyeing the next step up.

Distinguishing the exceptional Marketer.

So, amidst the sea of marketers, what sets the exceptional ones apart, propelling them up the corporate ladder?

  • Achieving Objectives: The standout marketers are adept at securing what they need. They recognize the tools, resources, and support required and actively pursue them to ensure their projects’ success.
  • Strategic Insight: More than just achieving their goals, these marketers ensure their objectives align with the organization’s larger vision. Their actions aren’t just effective; they’re also impactful and meaningful.

Finding your way.

Exceptional entry-level marketers possess an uncanny ability to weave narratives from raw data, making the information compelling and relatable. Instead of waiting for directions, they’re proactive, always a step ahead, identifying potential opportunities or challenges. While their roles might primarily revolve around execution, they never shy away from chipping in with strategic insights.

Ownership and Accountability: A Mark of Excellence

Above all, an exceptional marketer stands tall with accountability. They own their projects, both in success and failure. This sense of ownership isn’t about control but about responsibility, commitment, and a deep-rooted passion for their work.

While the “Idiot Curve” is a universal experience, how one rides it distinguishes an average marketer from an exceptional one. Embrace the curve, learn from each twist and turn, and always keep your eyes on the horizon of growth and excellence. It’s ok. 

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Brand Manager

The Brand Manager's transition: Stepping up and out of the "Idiot Curve"

When you first land in the seat of a Brand Manager, there’s a sneaky temptation to slip back into that cozy, familiar role of an ABM (Assistant Brand Manager). Why? Simply because it’s what you’re good at. The trap here is that you start thinking small and shy away from taking those big leaps that the new role demands.

Let’s be real. If you’ve got a direct report and you’re still doing ABM tasks, you’re likely driving your ABM nuts. 

And here’s a little secret: a lot of managers are pretty rough around the edges with their first five direct reports. It’s like learning to ride a bike – there will be some wobbles and crashes. The trick is learning from them, so by your sixth, you’re cruising smoothly.

I recall a chat with a fresh-faced Brand Manager who proudly proclaimed his mission was to get his ABM promoted. I had to play devil’s advocate and ask, “What if your ABM just isn’t cut out for it?” Noble intentions for sure, but the business world ain’t always a fairy tale. The key? Taking charge. Embrace ownership, and you’ll leave that “Idiot Curve” in your rearview.

Running the show.

Own your brand. Seriously, don’t let it call the shots. Dive deep into the details, stay sharp, and always be in the know. The fun twist? The better you plan, the more wiggle room you have to improvise. When you’re truly in command, you know when it’s alright to veer off the script. Deadlines? They’re your best buddies. Meeting them proves you’re at the helm, steering the ship with confidence.

Now, here’s where things get spicy. The best Brand Managers trust their gut. While textbooks and courses offer fantastic insights, they don’t have all the answers. Revel in the moments of doubt. Sometimes, by pressing on and giving problems a little more simmer time, the solutions emerge brilliantly.

So, here’s my rally cry for you: Fall in love with ambiguity.

Relish in the grey zones. Embrace the questions. The cream of the Brand Manager crop not only owns their brand’s vision but also paves the path to reach it. They’re not just brand stewards; they’re people wranglers. They invest time in their ABMs, shaping them into stellar marketers.

Lastly, remember this – the real gems in the Brand Manager realm are the ones who stay cool as cucumbers amidst chaos. They face pressures, deadlines, and curveballs with grace. They build bridges, make connections, and drive their marketing careers forward with a blend of smarts, heart, and a dash of daring.

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Marketing Director

The Marketing Director's dilemma: Establishing your style and staying consistent.

Once you scale up to the Director role in marketing, a peculiar thing happens. The familiarity of the Brand Manager role beckons, and old habits die hard. Suddenly, it’s easy to find yourself meddling in spaces where you shouldn’t, maybe from nerves around senior folks or just old tendencies. It’s a classic trap: diving back into “doing” when there’s a pause in action. And sometimes, when the Director role leaves them without a specific task, they drift around, inadvertently stepping on toes by attempting to do others’ jobs.

However, the Director’s role is a game-changer. This is where leadership overtakes mere execution. It’s not just about tasks anymore; it’s about leading the way.

The Director's Playbook: Communication, Consistency, and Championing

Open Communication: 

This is your mantra. Ensure there are no blindsides. Keep your team in the loop, ensure they’re engaged, and always have senior management on the same page. You wear the captain’s hat now, and it’s your job to champion your team.

Empower Your Team: 

The magic happens when ideas bubble up from your brand team, not just handed down from above. Some of the best projects I’ve been part of faced a heap of resistance. Anticipate it. Navigate it. Your job? Making sure those golden ideas see the light of day and filtering out the not-so-great ones.

The 90-Day Shift: 

Your initial days in the Director role might be about finding your footing. But once those first 90 days roll past, it’s time to establish consistency. Your team looks to you as their north star. They need to know what to expect. That means holding them to a high bar, consistently.

Be Predictable in the Right Ways: 

Your team should be able to anticipate your reactions. Not because you’re mundane, but because you’re steady. Avoid wild mood swings or constantly shifting your stance. It only leads to confusion and turmoil. Decisions need your stamp, or the gears just won’t turn.

Foster Reliable Partnerships: 

This is especially crucial with the sales team. They should view you as a dependable ally, someone they can count on consistently.

Stepping into the Director role is like getting behind the wheel of a powerful vehicle. You’re not just driving anymore; you’re navigating for the whole crew. Ensure your leadership style is up to the challenge, and you’ll not only find success but also drive your entire team towards it.

Marketing Career Marketing Director Brand Management Career

VP Marketing or CMO

Navigating the executive lane: The shift from doing to leading.

Ah, the VP level in the marketing world. It’s like being the new kid in school, only this time you’re thrust into the deep end of the corporate pool. Those initial months can feel isolating. 

Your trusty gang of peers, the ones you’d trade ideas with over coffee? They view you differently now. It’s not just “casual Friday” chats anymore. Some might even give you the cold shoulder, thinking, “Why’d they get promoted and not me?” Remember, they now see you as the boss, and that changes the dynamic. Your friends from before? Well, that ship has sailed.

You will have your moments.

I still chuckle about the time I thought my new position as VP would be a perfect chance to bond with a sales peer over a tricky team issue. I was hoping for some sage advice, maybe even a pat on the back. Instead? “We’ve all got problems. Best of luck with yours!” Ouch, right?

Your main gig now is the P&L and overseeing marketing processes, not micromanaging the day-to-day. But here’s a piece of gold I’ve found: prioritize your people, and results will follow. I’d even say you should devote about half your time to them. 

But be wary – a weak link can hold the entire chain back. Your role isn’t to do their tasks or fill in their gaps. It’s to elevate them, or, if necessary, make the tough call to let them go.

Here’s a little secret: as a VP, you won’t be the go-to in meetings anymore. 

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s empowering. Dive into meetings as the least informed one. It frees you up to rely on gut feelings and intuition. Instead of always having the right answers, pivot to asking the right questions. 

Believe me, there’s a different kind of authority that emerges when you lead with curiosity. So, if you’re dreaming of making a big splash as a leader, try ditching the directive approach and embrace the wonder of “What if?” and “Why not?”.

VP Marketing or CMO Success Marketing Careers Brand Management Career

Navigating the 'Idiot Curve'

1. Wave Your Newbie Flag:

Frequent reminders of “Hey, I’m new here!” can work wonders. It’s like asking for directions on a road trip – swallow your pride and just do it. Remember, people tend to lend a hand when you’re transparent. But a word of advice: don’t over-rely on one individual. Share your newbie queries with various folks so that no one labels you as ‘that clueless colleague.’

2. Value the Wise Owls:

Here’s the irony in marketing: often, you’re leading folks who know heaps more than you. Let’s be real, marketing pros often decide without doing the nitty-gritty. So why boss the experts around? It’s counterproductive. Instead, lean on their wisdom. Asking them for advice doesn’t mean you’re forfeiting your decision-making rights; it simply means you’re smart.

3. Trust Your Inner Voice:

In the chaos of adapting, your instincts might feel like they’re playing hide and seek. Breathe. Recall how you’d react in a familiar setting. Often people lament, “I knew it was a bad idea, but I went with it anyway.” If you’re uneasy about something, there’s probably a good reason. If you don’t believe in what you’re marketing, how can you expect consumers to? And if your go-to excuse is, “I never liked the idea in the first place,” you’re setting yourself up for failure.

3. Embrace the Power of Queries:

When starting out, “How do I do this?” is your best friend. As you ascend the ladder, tweak that to, “What’s your take on this?” At the pinnacle, your role is not to have all the answers, but to pose game-changing questions that provoke thought, encourage intuition, and shape outcomes.

5. Limit the ‘Idiot Phase’ to its Shelf Life:

Picture this: it’s day 90 in your role, and you should be as savvy as you were on day 1. Constant learning is your secret weapon. Anyone still grappling with basics years into their role? Not a good look. Sadly, I’ve seen, worked with, and even reported to a few whose ‘idiot phase’ seemed never-ending. Spoiler: it didn’t end well for them.

The 'Idiot Curve' isn't your enemy. It’s a rite of passage. Embrace it, learn from it, then rise above it.

Marketing career

How to manage your marketing career from an entry-level ABM up to CMO

At every level of your marketing career, you have to adjust to the new role. Brand Managers fail when they keep acting like ABMs and Directors fail when they keep acting like Brand Managers and VPs fail when they don’t know what to do.  In a classic marketing team, the four key roles are Assistant Brand Manager up to Brand Manager then up to Marketing Director and on to the VP/CMO role.

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