As the former head of consumer marketing for a Fortune 50 company, I was accustomed to enlisting the support of a small army of talented managers, coordinators, agency media planners, and digital wonks to light up the factory with marketing brilliance.
Unfortunately, the proverbial factory was closed during the week of Christmas, and I had a last-minute ad campaign that needed execution. There I was, armed with campaign ideas, executive approval, and time earmarked to make it happen. The problem was, I didn’t have the skills to make it happen: I didn’t know how to set up a Facebook campaign, let alone a custom audience. I didn’t have the knowledge to create a landing page, much less A/B test for success. I didn’t even know where to start to send out a quick email to our subscriber list—and forget about optimizing the email for keywords that would improve my SEO.
At that moment, I realized I was useless. I was a classically trained marketer who had cut my teeth at Procter & Gamble, negotiated multimillion-dollar deals with the NFL, and received an MBA at Harvard Business School. And I had become obsolete. Everything I knew about “new technology” I had read in The Wall Street Journal, learned from canned agency presentations, or gleaned from pithy sound bites taken from vendors trying to sell me an expensive bag of tricks.
I was only in my 30s, and I was already becoming a fossil. But if misery loves company, I was in good stead. A growing number of marketers understand that they, too, could face extinction, part of a growing trend of those who fear of becoming obsolete–a.k.a. FOBO.
FOBO extends well beyond the CMO. PR 20/20 founder and CEO Paul Roetzer’s new survey of hundreds of marketers emphasizes that “organizations lack confidence in their internal marketing teams, which are particularly weak in key digital marketing skills.”
Not long after the post-holiday advertising fiasco, I decided I could do a lot more than simply roll over and become obsolete. With that in mind, I left the large company and joined a small start-up, Zave Networks.
With one staff member, a small office, and an even smaller budget, I had no choice but to start understanding the new tools needed to acquire customers. With a total annual marketing budget that wouldn’t cover the tab for most corporate holiday parties, my plan of attack was to roll up my sleeves and relearn marketing from the ground up.
Several years later, I have had the privilege of working for dozens of start-ups. My path includes a Google acquisition, a positive corporate liquidity event, and successful Kickstarter campaigns. Along the way, I have advised corporate executives, coming from the unique vantage point of a top-level marketer who later “downsized” as a way to combat obsolescence. Following are five tips I thought worthwhile to share for marketers who, like me, don’t want to go the way of the dodo:
Tip #1: Get Smart–Invert Your Mentoring
The benefits of mentoring are well understood. At a minimum, marketing professionals should seek help for career navigation, hold themselves accountable to clearly defined goals, be open to feedback, and constantly look for new knowledge .
As David Hosmer, MIT’s learning and organizational development professional puts it: “It’s not therapy, but a quiet place to think out loud.”
The paradigm that you can only learn from people who are more senior and, presumably, older has been turned on its head. It’s what Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, terms “reverse mentoring”: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future.”
Many companies around the country, such as Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Citibank, and GE (the originator of the concept), have implemented reverse-mentoring programs. I think this is useful, but would also recommend finding a mentor outside of your organization. I used a combination of LinkedIn, Twitter, and old school word-of-mouth to find my “tribe of five” digital experts, who have been extremely helpful.
Tip #2: Adopt A Startup
When you’re introduced to a new tool, you need to see it in action. Consider working with a startup to put your new knowledge to the test. Startups live and die by being customer acquisition machines. They will inspire and motivate you. Beyond that, I guarantee they will cause you to look at your current business in a completely different way.
In exchange, consider taking on the role of marketing adviser—you can add a ton of value to the startup, as well.
To find these new ventures, start with LinkedIn. You can also go to your local business journal. Tap into local private equity groups and call a few incubators in the area. You’ll soon see that the problem will be not finding a startup to mentor–it’ll be how to narrow down your enthusiasm to the right one.
This tip, however, comes with a warning: Make sure to clarify your role and get a clear time commitment before signing on. These startups will come to depend on you. If you don’t deliver on your promises, the news will spread like wildfire, and your personal brand will take a tumble.
Tip #3: There Is No ‘Try’–Do Or Do Not
Yoda was right when he spoke that line to a young Luke Skywalker. If you want to win in marketing (let alone lift a X-Wing fighter out of a swamp), you can’t just try. You have to do. I recently spoke with Neil Patel, a brilliant marketer who, at the ripe old age of 28, has already started two successful Internet companies and is now sharing what he knows via QuickSprout. Patel tells a story of starting his first company and giving $20K to an expensive agency that did nothing for him. He realized that he needed to start “figuring stuff out”–which meant experimenting like crazy until he understood the key underlying drivers in the world of acquisition marketing.
Why is this important? Relegating your social strategy to fresh-out-of-college digital natives at an impressive agency is like letting a local bank teller prepare your 10K financial statements. You can do it, but is it wise?
You can’t just sit on the sidelines. You have to start blogging, tweeting, pinning, Snapchatting—in short, use the tools. Without a good understanding of the tools, you will fall short of what is happening with your marketing message, let alone be able to monitor how your consumers are interacting with your brand.
In the words of Dorie Clark, brand expert and author of “Reinventing You”: “Get started, try it out, write things down and iterate.”
Tip #4: Be The Customer
One of the best marketers I ever worked with was Mark Schweitzer, who now runs marketing at Comcast. Schweitzer has the rare blend of being strategic and understanding the way customers shop. He would provide rare clarity when it came to our overarching three-year marketing strategy.
From time to time, Schweitzer would bring back a picture of a local ad from a paper in a small or midsize town he visited. The ad would be marked up with specific issues that were counter to the brief, or confusing to the customer. These days, my current CEO, Ben Legg, is obsessed (and I mean this in a good way) with how customers view our brand online. He is constantly checking all digital channels, ensuring our message resonates with our customers.
The big idea? You have to live through the customer experience that you’re crafting. Relegating this task to the junior manager or an aggregate summary in the form of a trend line that appears on page 79 of a brand awareness study isn’t going to help you understand what is going on.
Tip #5: Learn About Growth Hacking
Growth hacking is one of the most exciting things to happen to marketing in a long time. Sean Ellis, the first marketer at Dropbox, coined the term “growth hacker,” and defines it as “a person whose true north is growth.”
Every strategy, decision, and tactic is informed by one’s ability to grow the business. Of course, all marketers care about growth, but a growth hacker’s singular focus is about using digital tools to grow. The most celebrated companies in the new world—Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, airBnB, Buffer, Mint, Zynga—all used growth hacking (as opposed to big budgets) to amplify their customer acquisition.
The Linear Fallacy
I recently attended my B-school reunion. It struck me that very few of my classmates enjoyed a linear ascent. Their career paths were more like a trampoline. Most had incredible successes as well as stunning failures.
There is no safe, sure path today. The world is rapidly changing. If we, as marketers, don’t embrace this change, what is that saying about us?
The topic of reinvention is incredibly important. The average tenure of a senior marketer today is four years. A friend of mine who was CMO at one of the largest restaurant chains in the country was recently let go. She had killer reviews, provided great strategy, was loved in the field, and had grown the business. But at the end of the day, she had become “too expensive.” Weeks after, she remarked, “It’s a brave new world. The principals are the same, but the tools are completely different.”
Consumer goods giant Unilever’s announcement in December it that would be laying off nearly 1,000 marketers worldwide should have sent a chill down our collective spine. While no one is bulletproof in today’s job market, staying ahead of the digital game is one way for marketers to make themselves (almost) indispensable.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to have all of the answers when it comes to digital marketing. But by actively participating and getting into the game, you will at the least, be able to ask the right questions.