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When I graduated from college, the best career advice I never followed was to build my professional network. As an introvert with a borderline avoidant-personality-disorder, I preferred the mellow illumination of my computer screen, and the sound of a keyboard clicking like rain on a tin roof, over actually meeting people. In retrospect, my understanding of business and sales was naïve.
Now I know that networking is the key to success. Fifteen years of working with other professionals taught me that. More recently, interviews with over a dozen marketing professionals in the health and wellness industry drove the point home.
As part of EMPATH’s giving-back efforts, we donate time to local non-profits, schools, and other community organizations that need support. We found a common thread during engagements at our local colleges: what should students expect when they enter the workforce? A straightforward enough question.
My team and I developed our own take on the matter – through our prism of experiences, biases and inexperiences. It got us thinking. We’re a boutique brand and marketing consultancy. Many of these students aspire to work in large agencies or with exemplar brands. In the spirit of our mission to develop a deep understanding of our clients’ customer’s wants and needs, we decided to apply our own methodology to discovering what eager students can expect and plan for in their new careers. After speaking with many leading marketing professionals, we found that the advice shared, while valuable for students, would also be valuable for those in leadership positions (or those aspiring to become leaders).
We invested hours in interviewing leading marketing professionals in our network, and even more time doing secondary source research (listening to speeches, following social media comments and posts, synthesizing other sources). We found three central themes: be a generalist, know your customers (really know them), and pursue lifelong learning.
Of course, speaking with over a dozen specialists with the highest pedigrees elicited more than three takeaways. The conversations were so rich, it was a challenge to winnow the ideas down to just three.
A hearty thanks to all those who donated their time to satiate our curiosity as to what it’s like on the other side of the screen. Now, back to our three themes.
“It’s not a bad thing to be a generalist.”
Jann Parish, named as Forbes CMO NEXT 2019, is an experienced CMO/executive level marketer with brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and L’Oreal. She described how being a generalist can make you a better leader. Early in her marketing career, she said she had an insatiable drive to learn as much as she could. That meant “never having the loudest voice,” but always developing the deepest level of understanding through asking thoughtful questions. “I didn’t want to be viewed as someone who would take over, but as someone who would contribute.” Especially when she was a young woman seated in a room full of men who had more experience and felt strongly that they knew best. She says that becoming a great leader is about developing a range of skills and being an active listener. But it’s also about “putting the ego aside and hiring the best talent.” When you’re a generalist, you’re good at a lot of things, but you rely on your team to be great in their own domains.
Erin Fitzgerald, CMO at Sermo, agrees. “It’s not a bad thing to be a generalist.” She explains how, for executive positions, “you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into being an email marketing or social media guru.” A big challenge for all brands is understating the polar opposites of creative and technical marketing. From automation to the emotions that your marketing elicits, being a generalist gives you the ability to understand both extremes. She says that myopic views in marketing are dangerous: when you are too focused on technical and esoteric skills, you miss out on knowing why data is important, how to operationalize it, and how to figure out which KPIs matter.
Having spanned various roles at Carl Zeiss Vision over the last 16 years, Pamela Andrews corroborates this take on skillsets. She says that good project management skills are founded on having a broad range of professional experiences: they’re quintessential to overseeing the kinds of disparate projects a marketing professional has to juggle. “Literally, every day, I’m working on something different. One day might be a product launch that has many different elements that need to be pulled together, another day might be a promotion campaign.” The ability to manage all the different aspects of her role reinforces the value of a generalist point of view.
Greg Barntsen, a former P&G Exec, sums it up nicely: “A brand manager is the hub of the wheel of the cross-functional team.” The hub is only as strong as its spokes. And in life, you can’t be both hub and spoke. If your aspirations are to become a manager, to lead others, become a generalist. Your team will love you for it.
“External resources are good fodder. But…”
One of our key questions was to ask what resources these executives use most often to learn, evolve, and improve their skills and knowledge. Perhaps one of the most challenging responses came from Kristin Harper, previous Global Vice President at Cardinal Health: “external resources are good fodder and good food for thought, but the most important thing is to know your customer intimately.” She went on to explain how she doesn’t invest a significant amount of time to reading books and blogs and listening to podcasts. Instead, she invests the majority of her time in deeply understanding her customers. While every other interviewee listed multiple resources, Kristin became an outlier by expressing the importance of focus groups, tradeshows, qualitative data, customized surveys, and secondary source customer research. This was music to our ears because we beat that drum all the time to our prospects, clients, and team. Kristin expressed her love of reading customer behavior reports, looking at sales data, and using her access to PEW and IRI (among others), to learn about her customers' motivations, interests, and aspirations
A key takeaway from our interview with Kristin is that “salespeople are a good source for getting to know your customer.” She mentioned the need to work closely with salespeople, but cautioned against drawing conclusions on one-off conversations. Like the rivalry between circus clowns and party clowns, sales and marketing folks are often in strife overvalues and approaches. You need to break down that barrier. Our next interviewee explains how.
Sarah Mayer, having held senior marketing roles at fledgling brands and stalwarts alike, had this to say about getting to know people: “everyone is busy these days, full days, jobs, family, bills to pay. Take a step back. Rather than being purely transactional, be down to earth, personal, and call out the fact that you know they are busy. Ask them to coffee. Tell them it’s just a conversation.” She says having coffee with people has been a key factor in her success.
Matthew Polk has similar insights. Having been a Marketing Director & General Manager at Foster Farms, he said, “I’m likely not the market for what my company sells. Being over-educated, overpaid, and having lived in too many different areas, I’m not the target customer.” What he said next surprised me. “Understanding consumer insights is quintessential, but It’s not an advantage to be one of your own customers. It puts blinders on you.” For those of you who are worried you can’t relate to your market: don’t be. According to Matthew, it’s an advantage, if you leverage it properly. He says you should develop a “method of thinking about consumer insight, target market, and what the consumers’ attitudes are. How your brand or product fits into, or needs to evolve to fit into their lifestyles. What’s the benefit proposition, relevance, what are their beliefs?” As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If you haven’t learned this already, or are still fighting the urge to live behind a screen, take some advice from Bob Hurley, former Executive Advisor at eHealth. “Relationships are often—usually— the key to all success in life. Both your business and personal lives. The most successful business people are often excellent relationship people. The key to effective relationships in business is to create win-win partnerships that in the end serve all partners and constituents by adding value for everyone involved.”
“The journey is about learning.”
Beyond learning about your customers, Matthew Polk also advised to always be learning, period. Learn by getting involved, being curious and inquisitive. Each executive we interviewed either explicitly expressed their interest in learning or conveyed it by example. Like the way Haystack LLC Marketing Manager, Maria LaTour, started practicing meditation and yoga to inspire calmness. Or Jessica Yarmey, Chief Marketing Officer at Club Pilates, who says, “time in the seat is vital: you’ll make mistakes and learn from them.”
Erin Fasano, seasoned Marketing Director and Brand Manager, shared a resource that provides advanced brand strategy courses, Planning Dirty.
On the subject of strategy, Vice President of Integrated Marketing at Sambazon, Sebastien Marcq, explained how the Prof G podcast is continually improving his critical reasoning abilities.
The leading resources these marketing executives use to discover and distill insights was social media networks (no surprise). LinkedIn led the pack (biased because that’s how we sought out the interviews) with 80% acknowledging it. Instagram was second at 73%, with Twitter and Facebook tied at 26%. Podcasts were mentioned by 26% of the executives. Adweek and CMO Moves were cited by 20%, and Adage, Food Business News Daily, and HBR lagged behind at 13% each.
If you want to be successful in marketing, it’s essential to acquire a deep understanding of your customers. Beyond personas and reviews. Meet them where they’re at: at work, in their homes, or in the field as they use your products.
If you want to become a successful executive, strive for four things. Be a generalist. Develop a focus on relationships. And become an amazing listener, because it’s never about who shouts the loudest, but who listens the longest. And always keep learning.