In my 20 years of my CPG Marketing career, I must have interviewed 1,000 potential Assistant Brand Managers. I was lucky to have hired some of the best, who have gone on to have significant marketing careers and I became notorious for asking for some of the toughest questions, some even bizarre. I always asked an analytical question to see if they could piece together lots of data and tell a story that made sense. I’d ask a creative question to see if they had a certain flair and pride in the output. I’d ask a problem-solving question, some very hard, no real right answer, but I wanted to see how they think. Finally, I wanted to know that they had done something at a very high level–it didn’t matter what–but I wanted to know they could make it happen.
A marketing career is very challenging. At the entry-level role, only about 50% of Assistant Brand Managers will get promoted to Brand Manager. The percentages go down at each level.
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’s becomes more about managing and leading than it does about thinking and doing. To be great, you need to motivate the greatness from your team and let your best players to do their absolute best.
My advice to new marketers
The most eager first-time marketers want to change the world. The role is a reality check where you learn before you can run. Too many new marketers want to focus on strategy right away, but the ABM is a “doing” role. You will be executing programs, analyzing results and learning how to be a project manager. Through the execution, send signals you are capable of thinking and leading in the future.
What separates the average from the great ones that get promoted? The best seem to figure out the right thing to do and then make it happen.
- Some figure out the right thing to do but struggle to work the system to make it happen.
- Others can work the system, but they forget to think through what is the right thing to do.
The Assistant Brand Manager role can feel frustrating. Many times, it will inhibit your creativity and even your ideas. Fight through it. It provides a foundation and discipline you will use throughout your career.
You have to nail the obvious
You must hit deadlines.
Never look out of control or sloppy. Marketers have enough to do, so if you begin to miss deadlines, things will stockpile on each other. Do not be the one trying to negotiate extensions constantly. There are no real extensions. Just missed opportunities.
You must know your business.
Avoid getting caught off-guard with questions that you cannot answer, such as P&L (sales, growth, margins, spend) market share (latest 52, 12, 4 weeks for your brand all significant competitors) and your sales forecasts. Make sure you are asking the questions and carrying forward the knowledge.
There should be no surprises, especially with your boss. Keep everyone aware of what’s going on. When you communicate upwards, always have the situation, implications, options and then quickly followed by an action plan of what to do with it.
Take control of your destiny. We run the brands; they do not run us.
Be slightly ahead of the game, not chasing your work to completion. Proactively look for opportunity in the market, and work quickly to take advantage. When you don’t know something, speak in an “asking way,” but when you know, speak in a “telling way.”
Able to use regular feedback for growth.
Always seek out and accept constructive feedback, good or bad, as a lesson for you. Do not think of it as a personal attack or setback. Identify gaps you can close, never think of them as weaknesses that hold you back. You should always be striving to get better.
Listen first; then decide.
It is crucial that you seek to understand to the experts surrounding you before you make a decision. Early in your career, use your subject matter experts to teach you. As you hit director or VP, use them as an advisor or a sounding board to issues/ideas. They do want you to lead them, so it is essential that you listen and then give direction or push them towards the end path.
Five success factors for Assistant Brand Managers
- Turn data into analytical stories
- Take action before being asked.
- Make it happen through others
- Speak out to challenge the strategy
- Be accountable for your work
1. Turn data into analytical stories
- The role has a ton of data with market share results, tracking scores or test results. Look for patterns or data breaks, ask questions and start putting together stories.
- The analytical stories show you know what it means, helps sell recommendations, and supports the action you will take.
- Never give a data point without a story or a recommended action, or you risk letting someone else (your boss) take your data and decide.
2. Take action before being asked
- On day one, your manager will set most of the projects for Assistant Brand Managers. When you are new, it is comfortable to wait for your projects. But don’t get in the habit of waiting for someone to create your project list.
- As you mature, start to push your own ideas into the system and create your own project list.
- Start making smart decisions, on your own, and communicate those choices with your boss.
- Don’t ask permission, but tell them what you want to do and look for the head nod. Know what’s in your scope and align with your manager.
3. Make it happen through others
- Instead of just functionally managing the steps of the project, find ways to make each project better, faster, or deliver more significant results.
- You need to understand each critical milestones to hit, and manage bottlenecks. Every marketer meets resistance; the best knock can down those resistance points.
- Figure out the task with the longest completion time and the element that is most important, as both will impact the entire project.
- You will need to push people to get things done. You need to find a bit of magic by inspiring people to give their best ideas, put in their best effort and deliver their best work.
4. Speak out to challenge the strategy
- Stay on strategy. Show you are always thinking, and feel confident in your strategic thoughts. Avoid just falling in love with an execution tactic that is not aligned with your brand’s strategy. It is so easy to get lost in your own “cool” projects.
- Ask the right questions. Challenge the strategy to make sure you understand. Silent marketers never last. Show you are always thinking, and feel confident in your strategic thoughts.
5. Be accountable for your work
- Accountability is the first stepping stone to ownership, which sends a signal you are ready to be a Brand Manager.
- You have to find the right balance by motivating experts to give their best and knowing when to step in to avoid letting things slip or miss. Never allow your team to get stuck. Stay on top of timelines and lead your project teams. Be action-oriented, and solution-focused.
- Be the hub of communication for all team members, and keep your manager aware.
Ten reasons ABMs fail
- Can’t do the analytical story telling.
- Struggle to deal with the ambiguity of marketing.
- Slow at moving projects through.
- Selfishly think about themselves.
- Don’t work well through others.
- Miss answers by not being flexible.
- Fall for tactical programs that are off strategy.
- Hold back from making contributions to the strategy.
- Settle for “OK” rather than pushing for “great”.
- Poor communicators with their manager.
The Idiot Curve
One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve. The basic rule of the idiot curve is you get dumber before you get smarter. When you first land the Assistant Brand Manager 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. It’s overwhelming at first, and yet you see all these other Assistant Brand Managers doing it, so that’s even more intimidating.
However, 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 lasts typically up to 3 months, and then things start to click. You’ll experience your own version of the idiot curve in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict.
Here’s our story on how to land your first marketing job. You have to want that marketing job, more than anyone else.
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About Graham Robertson
As the founder of Beloved Brands, Graham has been an advisor to the NFL Players Association, Shell, Reebok, Acura, Jack Links, Miller beer, Earls restaurants and Pfizer. He’s helped train some of the best marketing teams on strategy, brand positioning, brand plans, and advertising.
In his marketing career, Graham led some of the world’s most beloved brands at Johnson and Johnson, Coke, General Mills, and Pfizer, rising up to VP Marketing. He has won numerous awards including Marketing Magazine’s “Marketer of the Year”, Businessweek’s best new product award and four Effie advertising awards. His book, Beloved Brands, is the playbook for how to build a brand consumers will love.
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