Authenticity should start with marketers not marketing

If authenticity comes from within, marketers should free themselves from expectations and identify the difference between competencies and skills.

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The most recent casualty of marketing buzzword bingo has been authenticity. It was used so often at a big event I spoke at in the summer, people started changing their presentations and referring to “the A word” as an insider joke that developed as the event unfolded.

When I reflected on this, I realised the conversation about authenticity had focused on marketing and not marketers.

Perhaps the starting point for authenticity comes from us developing a better understanding of ourselves. Rather than trying to fit other people’s expectations, or industry norms, embracing who we are as individuals will lead to us to being more authentic marketers.

A great place to start is to identify and understand your skills. I’m not talking about technical know-how, like coding or SEO optimisation (I call those competencies). I’m talking about the things that are unique to you, that you have learnt and developed, and shape how you approach your marketing. Skills are shaped by an individual’s personal attributes.

My research has shown the top skills for marketers at the start of 2024 are communication, analysis, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, strategic thinking, leadership, adaptability, negotiation, storytelling, collaboration, empathy and resilience.

Could it be the case that being a parent is helping me develop and apply the skills that make me be a better marketer?

You could look at this list and argue that those skills are relevant to any profession and in some ways you are right. That is because these are skills that are shaped by an individual and their experiences applied to a professional context, in this case marketing. How a marketer needs to be empathetic or solve problems will be different to another profession.

The trick to skill development, and tapping into authenticity, is to understand what each of these skills means to you. How you define, interpret, understand and use each skill. To know how you use your skills in lots of different contexts across your tasks, role and responsibilities.

My research has found that generally, people find it easy engage with their competencies, to talk about them, to know when they are using them and how to measure them. But, when we move to skills, things get a bit murky. Imprecise, difficult to articulate and quantify. It even makes some people feel uncomfortable talking about their skillset.

So, people gravitate towards building their competencies and learning more about things like analytics, coding and project management. Whilst these are important, over-emphasising these and neglecting our skills can create blind spots.

Embracing authenticity

To thrive professionally we need to understand, develop and practice using our skills. This enables us to adapt to different contexts, which in turn means our skills become stronger.

When thinking about how marketers can strengthen and stretch their skills through application in different contexts, I realised that I am applying all the skills in that list consistently as a parent. I have to empathise and look at the world through the eyes of my three-year-old to try to understand what the world looks like from his point of view. I don’t always get it right, but understanding him and his perspective helps me to parent better and to communicate with him more effectively.

I have also had a crash course in the fact that negotiation with a fairly stubborn three-year-old (no idea where he gets that from!) is some of the toughest negotiating and persuasion I have ever had to do. Anyone who has had a newborn knows all about dealing with ambiguity and trying to figure out the best course of action when you have very little information.

With my five-month-old I regularly do what I refer to as the “flight check” to try to figure out why she is crying. Is she hungry? Is she tired? Does she need a clean nappy? Is she hot? Is she cold? Does she need a cuddle? None of the above? Just crying then.

I’ve worked in toxic cultures. The idea of being authentic felt impossible when I was donning a Teflon suit of armour just to get through every day.

We tell stories to our children to help them understand the world. Collectively or individually, we have to manage the stakeholders in our families to make sure the family unit, whatever that looks like, runs in some kind of functioning way.

In that vein, show me a parent that doesn’t lead and engage in leadership. It’s easy to see examples where parents solve problems, are creative, think critically and are adaptable. You could read this as me being glib, but I look at a list of skills that are important to marketers and I see a mirror held up to the skills often required in parenting.

At its core, marketing is all about understanding people; our customers. Being a marketer is also about understanding our colleagues and wider stakeholders. Being a marketer who is customer orientated and seeks to deliver value to both customers, an organisation and society, is therefore fundamentally about understanding people. It mirrors parenting in so many ways.

Meaningful purpose can come from being a marketer and a mum

This realisation made me re-value my role as a parent and made me start to think about the harmony between my personal and professional roles. Rather than looking at these two roles as points of tension with one another, could it be the case that being a parent is helping me develop and apply the skills that make me be a better marketer?

By practising these skills every day, they are becoming a core and important part of my professional toolkit that I know how to draw on at a moment’s notice.

I am embracing authenticity. I’m not trying to keep two very important sides of my life separate.

I, like many parents, have been on my knees with tiredness and frustrated at the seemingly endless array of germs. The cycle of guilt that can arise from trying to give my all to my children and my work simultaneously is very real. But seeing, and starting to value, what I do bring to the table and how I am developing my skillset in a meaningful way has helped me enormously to understand, appreciate and articulate my value, both as a mum and a marketer. It also means that I am embracing authenticity. I’m not trying to keep two very important sides of my life separate.

I’ve worked in toxic cultures. The idea of being authentic felt impossible when I was donning a Teflon suit of armour just to get through every day. Also, being authentic isn’t easy when you’re simultaneously trying to be what others expect you to be. However, finding change can often come from a focus on self-development.

‘On the backburner’: Marketing leaders on tackling the upskilling imperative

Recognising our skills and value allows us to be better marketers and create space to nurture ourselves and grow. We can pay attention to, and develop our skillset. This can be informally in everyday life. Parenting is my example, which may not be applicable to everyone. Some people might not have read this far because the example doesn’t resonate. I used it because it’s my example.

I’m not saying parents are more skilled than non-parents. Far from it. Taking a moment to reflect on how you are developing your skills without noticing it, can be powerful, regardless of context.

We can also seek out ways to learn about our skills and include them in our quest for lifelong learning. There are an increasing number of formal learning opportunities focused on skill development which sits it firmly alongside acquiring knowledge and learning competencies.

Laura Chamberlain is an award-winning professor at Warwick Business School, a marketer, career strategist and coach. She is also founder of self-development consultancy Think Talk Thrive.