The first step to being an expert is choosing to be

We can all become excellent in aspects of our career if we make the active decision to pursue greatness.

One of the cheesiest, most pointless internet memes is the ‘letter to my 21-year-old self’. For the older reader it is an excuse to reminisce and regret the things they should have done, while the younger reader thinks they already know exactly what they are doing.

If I were to write one, I’d say: “Mastering your marketing ‘craft’ is much more rewarding than you can possibly believe. Don’t sit around – try chasing excellence.”

In my 20s I imagined that excellence in marketing would just appear out of nowhere, the result of incredible natural talent, an alignment of the stars or some wonderful benevolent mentor. It is actually the exact opposite. I now know it’s not enough just to have the capability to do something, I should have committed to developing skills, rather than coasting on whatever natural flair or ability I might have claimed – or believed – I had.

This might sound like I am stating the obvious, we know it takes a while to be excellent at something and that we should commit to it. However, I am not sure that many of us actually commit to the idea of excellence in our chosen trade.

Marketer Paul Dervan, who is also the author of the boo
k Run with Foxes: Make Better Marketing Decisions, writes: “I am not the same marketer I was 15 or even 10 years ago. There are things I believed then that I do not believe now, and things I believe now that I too quickly dismissed then.”

I interviewed Paul recently, and he pointed out: “I’ve spent 20 years in marketing and every year I discover new things that make me seriously question the beliefs I have held and the decisions I have made along the way. Its pretty humbling.”

Ain’t that the truth. You commit to excellence only to find that talent can only get you so far. So, how do you become excellent? Why is it important? Indeed, what is ‘excellence’?

In search of marketing excellence

When you try to define excellence in marketing it sounds a lot like the definition of marketing itself because most definitions of marketing imply marketing effectiveness or excellence. A 2007 marketing book by Hugh Burkitt and John Zealley called, appropriately enough, Marketing Excellence offers a more specific idea of excellence in marketing.

They argue “excellence has to be unusual and rare”, but add that this must be accompanied by “endurance and sustainability”. However, what Burkitt and Zealley are really referring to is the outcomes of excellence in marketing.

The book’s introduction draws together common approaches and characteristics of the most successful marketers, which are summarised in three groups:

  • High performers live in a measurement culture.
  • High performers invest in the right skills and capabilities.
  • High performers measure intelligently and comprehensively.

Given that it was published more than 10 years ago, much of the book presages what we call ‘marketing effectiveness’ today. However, I can’t help feeling that something is missing.

The problem in our industry is we don’t get a chance to be good. You could even argue there is a conspiracy against being good, with quick fixes, hustle culture and ageism some of the culprits.

In all of the conversations around effectiveness and excellence, what we are referring to are outcomes. We never refer to the individual marketer and how they can be excellent. We never talk about how to develop skills, whether explicitly by studying the methods of learning or indirectly through practice. Instead, it is implied within phrases such as ‘investing in the right skills and capabilities.’

Excellence is defined as the ‘quality of being outstanding or extremely good’. Excellence therefore is about committing to an approach of being extremely good in your work, skills and behaviours, and simply enjoying the dedication to working hard at being better.

Committing to excellence: Why is it important?

When it comes to developing excellence and expertise, I am sure you have heard of abstract ideas like the 10,000-hour rule or read about masters in sport, music or chess and how much time and effort they spent on practice. It takes a while to be good at something; it’s a bit of a grind.

The problem in our industry is we don’t get a chance to be good. You could even argue there is a conspiracy against being good, with quick fixes, hustle culture and ageism some of the culprits.

WPP CEO Mark Read caused a brouhaha recently when he talked about the reality that the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – and made it seem this is a good thing. The IPA Census shows 44.8% of staff at UK agencies are aged under 30, while just 6.3% are over 50.

Mark Read’s ‘ageist’ remarks point to a more worrying problem for WPP

While platitudes about diversity and inclusion in adland appear hollow, that’s not what matters here when it comes to excellence. What matters for the industry is that it is hard to develop expertise over a long period if we are all turfed out the door by 40.

For the individual marketer, regardless of age, committing to excellence is about a personal ‘competitive advantage’ for their career.

Thinking through skills levels

Becoming excellent starts with developing skills. There are plenty of models around skills levels and how to know when you are moving between them. One of these is the Dreyfus Model, developed more than 40 years ago at UC Berkeley, that designates five development stages we pass through – novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert.

One author who applied the model to computer programmers, Andy Hunt, reckons that most knowledge workers never pass advanced beginner because they never accept consequences for their decisions. I was at advanced beginner and competent for far too long. Why? Carelessness and ignorance, as opposed to laziness.

Sometimes, after careful deliberation, we choose what we would like to be really good at; frequently, the choice is more careless. We don’t realise that there is a choice, or that we actually have to make the choice, to become excellent.

One big mistake we make is thinking we’ve already reached our peak level of competency.

Author Dan Gilbert talks about a phenomenon called the ‘end of history illusion’, where we somehow imagine that the person we are right now is the person we’ll be for the rest of time. During the current pandemic this is a double whammy for marketers, making it even harder to see very far into the future. We need to remind ourselves that it is not the end of history.

A suggested roadmap for becoming good, or even excellent

I am not sure where I sit on the Dreyfus Model. However, I do have frontline experience as a career marketer internationally with brands both big and small, and have spent a lot on education, groping around in search of excellence. So here are my thoughts oh how to go from good to great.

  1. Learning anything involves brief spurts of progression followed by a plateau.
  2. There may not be quick rewards. Starts with baby steps and trust the process – the light does go on eventually.
  3. Aiming for excellence is not just for those with exceptional ability. It is available to anyone willing to get on the path and stay on it – regardless of previous experience. Understand that, just like a poker player, you have been dealt a hand. And just like the folks at the card table, it is what you do with what you are dealt that determines your success.
  4. As Jim Collins’ book Good to Great says: “Going from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence.” That might sound a bit over the top, but he is right when he says we require the discipline to realise that just because we are good doesn’t necessarily mean we will become the best. Focussing on what you can potentially do better than any others is the key.
  5. Emotionally commit to excellence. Then take control of the process and start consciously thinking through skill levels. The amazing thing about working in marketing is that we understand the world around us a lot better than many people do. Use that.
  6. Find a group of other marketers who are on the same path as you and willing to share their knowledge. The best way to improve your skills and competence is to start building a group of people that are ahead of you. In this way, you’re continually reminded that there’s another level out there.

And if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to Dervan: “I know it takes experience to become good but I do feel we could help ourselves by learning from the past. Very solid marketing concepts have been around a long time, I just wish I’d known and understood them 20 years ago.

“The very wise professor Tim Ambler told me that good marketers don’t necessarily know what to do. But they have a good understanding of what not to do. I tend to think about good and bad bets these days.”

Excellence: We all need you to commit

The real breakthrough to a bigger, better and longer-term marketing career comes from taking it seriously.

But there is another reason why it matters. When you’re excellent at something, when you’ve demonstrated you can be proficient or an expert, you can use it to create value for yourself, customers, colleagues and communities. You can raise the standing of marketing. Committing to excellence is the spark that lights the fire. That is what I really want to say to my 21-year-old self.



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