“But that’s marketing darling!”, was the phrase that resonated most in my mind following a call with Stephen, a former boss. I have spoken with him on and off over many years. I used to work for him at an ad agency, where he was CEO, and then was his client when I went in-house at a major global brand.
At the ad agency we used to joke that someone should sneak into his office and leave him a map so he could find his way around the building. He was so often hived away in smoke filled meetings dealing with the gods of creativity and planning, difficult clients, and unrealistic financial targets from Madison Avenue. No Prometheus, he was unapproachable to us mere mortals. Yet when I got to know him a bit, I always found him very generous with his advice, and importantly, brutally honest.
I wanted to speak with him because I knew he had experienced periods out of work, and between exceptionally large marketing services gigs, had done his own thing. Also, I value his opinion. While we only speak intermittently, I wanted some of the honesty sauce that only the brightest and best can dish out. A reality check from a seasoned old pro.
Explore your options
It is important for people out of work to dig deep into their networks, while exploring options. It’s about going beyond the first-degree contacts, who are all tea and sympathy, but generally shocked when you try out different ideas on them. “What do you mean you want to be a scuba diving instructor?” and “You could have told me you wanted to be a Buddhist monk before you married me” are the kinds of conversations you want to avoid with close friends and loved ones, until you really know which way to pivot.
In career transition it is all about exploring options and leveraging that second and third degree of your network, friends of friends. Here you have no expectations to meet. You can pitch what you think will work and be taken at face value. It’s here that daft ideas can die without your marriage or relationships being put under unnecessary strain.
As a contact, closer to second degree than first, Stephen surpassed my expectations. He listened carefully to my rantings about glacial, bureaucratic, risk averse businesses crushing creativity, moving too slowly to capture growth, and simply not being able to transform.
I raved about how nimble startups and agile, digitally-enabled businesses were able to disrupt markets so easily. How with 5G, AI and machine learning the future lay with them.
He pointed out deftly that this was all true, but that the larger companies in the world today held the largest marketing budgets, most startups didn’t make any money for years, and few invested in building a brand at all.
When I started to bemoan the fact that in so many corporates, accountants and lawyers had taken over and marketing was being relegated to a disposable cost centre, he laughed long and deep. It was an odd sound if I am honest, but also warm and infectious. Smiling broadly, he reminded me this had always been the case since marketing departments started appearing in the 60s and 70s.
Don’t lose faith
“But, I don’t want to spend the rest of my career relegated to the colouring-in department at the side of the building, and not be involved in the digital transformation of any business,” I tremulously warbled into my phone.
Patiently, he reiterated what I have told many marketing managers myself, when I have been reviewing their plans: You have to operate in the world as it is today, not how you want it to be. It is only by understanding the reality of the situation, that you can change things for the better.
It was a helpful reminder that for the remainder of my career at least, it is the bigger companies that will do the bigger things, and they all have silos that need navigating.
Then he turned the conversation on its head. “What’s wrong with being called the colouring-in department anyway? You know your worth, you know what you can do for any business and the value you deliver. Who else is going to challenge the board to understand customers better? Who else is going to look at the market, the technology, the changes and the opportunities? Who else is going to really worry about long-term shareholder value that can only be delivered by developing and maintaining a strong brand – and have the passion, energy, and expertise to do something about it? Why do you need to directly lead the digital transformation? Isn’t your role to get the board and the company to be customer obsessed and then act on it? If you have done your job right, it will deliver customer and business benefits that will propel the brand forward, so you can compete better.
“You don’t need to do it all yourself. Be the catalyst for change. Point peers in the right direction. Steer the conversation. Be the customer in the board room, the team Zoom meeting and on the shop floor. Your role is bigger than just communications, that is only your platform to leverage. Your role is to be the customer voice and to drive positive commercial change. And if you want to lead the biggest change, don’t look for it in the smallest of companies.”
Now, that’s marketing darling.