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6 ways to kill your marketing career

6 ways to kill your marketing career Adam Kleinberg

You've worked hard. Over delivered. Pulled long hours. Given blood. Sweat. Tears.

Yet, still you feel that your career is not secure. Why?

Because it's not. You're in marketing.

Remember John Travolta flying around on that electric bull in Urban Cowboy. Bucking like crazy. Holding on for dear life.

The marketing industry is so volatile, so turbulent, so wrought with wave after wave of endemic change that it is like that electric bull. Holding on tight isn't enough to survive. You've got to make the right moves or you'll be tossed away. If you land wrong, your career could get killed.

But like the heroic Mr. Travolta, you can prevail. How? Learn the right moves by avoiding the wrong ones. That, dear reader, is the subject of this article.

Of course, I only know the wrong ones because I screw up so much. Luckily, I've landed safely because I strive to learn from my mistakes. And if you make a mistake and learn from it, you've turned a failure into a success.

So, what are the wrong moves? How can you avoid them? Read on.

You don't make mistakes
This, of course, sounds counterintuitive. Making mistakes should be the very thing most likely to put your career at risk, no?


The problem with never making mistakes is that you never learn anything. And in today's rapidly changing world, not learning is not an option.

This is a challenge in an ROI-driven world. The temptation toward risk aversion is great when you're accountable for results. You're apt to do what you know for sure will work. But the absence of risk leads to mediocrity.

I recently saw Scott Bedbury, the former CMO of Nike and Starbucks, speak at the Marketing Forum conference in Miami. Bedbury told the audience that we are living in an increasingly commoditized world and that the vast majority of brands are competing in a race to the bottom. He described the need for brands to consider the brand experience they deliver to their customers, and where the opportunities for innovation -- and differentiation -- exist.

I stood up and asked the question, "How do we convince our clients to invest in innovative ideas and brand experiences when they are challenged to prove ROI for every dollar when the very nature of being a new idea makes that impossible?"

Bedbury began his answer, "That's a real challenge. But fully half of the things we as marketers should do for a brand are not predictably quantifiable."

The crowd went nuts.

Over time, more often than not, tried-and-true results wane, slowly and steadily into the marketing career abyss.

So, make mistakes. Take risks. Fail sometimes. And learn when you do.

Shiny Object Syndrome
When I was a kid growing up in suburbia, we used to eat dinner on the deck in the backyard in the summertime. It was warm, and it was fun to eat outside. But there were bugs. Lots of them. Until one day, my dad climbed up on a ladder and mounted a bug zapper on the wall. Its glowing purple gleam drew in the moths and mosquitoes one by one. They couldn't resist. Until, PHZZZZT! One by one, they died a fiery death.

Today, I see many marketers that remind me of those bugs. But instead of staring unblinkingly at a purple light, these people have their eyeballs glued to Mashable.com, incessantly searching for the next new innovation that will revolutionize their go-to-market plan. They have Shiny Object Syndrome.

The malady of Shiny Object Syndrome is the opposite of being too risk averse. It's the unwavering belief that being the very first to incorporate every new technological possibility into your marketing plan will be like arming yourself with a silver-bullet machine gun. It's the inability to stop looking at what's next when you actually should be looking behind you.

How do you know if you have this disease?

  • Are you feverishly planning your new iPad app without knowing why?

  • Do you think Foursquare mayor specials are going to replace your TV budget?

  • Would you like to replace company HQ with a Facebook fan page?

  • Are you spending more time worrying about how Twitter is going to monetize its business than how you are going to monetize your own?

  • Did you really build an island in Second Life?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are you're showing symptoms of Shiny Object Syndrome.

Yes, it's important to embrace new technology. Yes, it's important to innovate. Yes, it's important to try new things.

But do it because you have a strategy to achieve an objective, not just because you can.

Depending on what you're marketing, a good strategy could be to provide utility to your customers to make your product work better for them. It could be to provide entertainment to your customers so you can deepen your emotional relationship with them. It could be to provide free stuff to your customers so you can expose them to offers on a recurring basis. Heck, it might even be a good strategy to be the first to do something with a particular new technology because you see a PR opportunity.

Contrast these with the non-strategies of a Shiny Object Syndrome victim. These include "because everyone else is," because it's "innovative," and "because I can."

Believe me. I'm no enemy of innovation. I fervently believe in its value to build businesses and crush competitors. But innovation for innovation's sake is not innovation at all. And if you consistently chase it blindly, you're liable to throw your career down the toilet.

You hitch your wagon to stardust
How do you define yourself? Are you a guru? A maverick? An all-star?

As the fickle universe we live and work in continues to evolve, be careful that you don't hitch your wagon to a star that may dissolve into the ether.

Imagine how silly you'd sound like if you called yourself a "Web 2.0 designer" right now. Might have been a tempting moniker three years ago.

Brand positioning is an art and a science. It takes insight and experience to uncover an effective brand position because one must consider so many factors:

  • What appeals to the target?

  • What are the target's perspectives on the brand?

  • What are the differentiating brand attributes?

  • What does the competitive landscape look like?

  • What are the trends in the marketplace?

  • Which of those trends are likely to be lasting ones?

We should consider our personal branding no less seriously.

Be careful not to define yourself by what might be a flash in the pan. Today, the term "Web 2.0" describes everything and nothing. Tomorrow, what other buzz words will become so ubiquitous and ill defined as to become meaningless?

Take a look at the term "social media expert." That term could mean you are an expert at monitoring social conversations to mine them for insights, that you're an expert at building relationships with bloggers and key influencers for brands, that you're an expert at creating marketing programs or planning paid media that is social in nature, or that you're an expert at transforming organizations to be more social in nature.

Too much face time
In college, we used to hang out on the quad between classes. We'd wave to our friends and acquaintances as they passed by. We'd wear sunglasses and be cool. We'd see and be seen.

We called it getting "face time."

Now, anytime is face time. Everyone's on Facebook. The cool kids are on Twitter saying, "Look at me." The cooler kids who have a social life are on Foursquare showing where they've been. And the really cool kids are on deviantart.com, shaking their heads at the rest of us.

It is clearly important to take the time to understand and make good use of emerging marketing tools. More than 400 million are logging onto Facebook every day. Surely, exploring ways to connect with them makes sense.

It is also all well and good to leverage these tools to help accomplish your daily business objectives. LinkedIn can be a great way to recruit talent, meet potential partners, and crowd-source answers from subject matter experts around the globe. Facebook and Twitter are great ways to build communities of your most passionate brand advocates. Yelp can help you find a good restaurant where you can take a client out to lunch. Hell, use Pandora to create a personalized electronica radio station that gets your creative juices flowing when you need to get "in the zone" under your headphones at the office.

But realize there is a fine line between using these tools effectively and becoming a social media zombie. The slope toward mental mush on the other side of that line is very steep indeed.

Simply put, these tools are addictive. What starts with minutes to "check in" on your social channels can easily transform itself into a three-hour procrastination session. Every day.

You see where this is headed. If the most productive thing you did this afternoon was write a clever tweet, you've got a problem. Because you know that gal three cubicles down competing for the promotion that's going to pay for your kids to go to that fancy nursery school with the on-staff yoga instructor? That gal actually got some work done today.

You're a lousy communicator
Marketing is about communication. We work hard to uncover insights and craft messages that resonate with the human beings we want to become our customers. Then, we create and deliver ideas that shift their perceptions and compel them to action. At the core of everything we do in this business is the what, how, and why of communication.

Yet, we seem to be lousy at doing it amongst ourselves. We don't define our objectives. We shove kitchen sinks into creative briefs and then give unclear and unconsolidated feedback. We assume people understand. Or we let people assume we understand when we don't.

This last one is the worst. What people don't realize is that 90 percent of communication is listening. Many people in the ad biz don't get that because they've grown up in a broadcasting mindset, but if you don't listen -- and listen carefully -- you're apt to broadcast the wrong message.

Which leads to mistakes. Which, if you learn from them, is OK. But if you don't...

You take relationships for granted
Every day, you have to get things done. To get those things done, you have to work with people -- employees, employers, partners, clients, and vendors. And, to get those people to do those things, you've got two choices.

First, you can make them do it. You can force, compel, order, threaten, coerce, strong arm, squeeze, pressure, or browbeat them.

Or, you can build relationships.

All of the "make them" techniques I described can be very effective in the short term. But what about tomorrow? What about when you don't have leverage over someone -- to fire them, to quit on them, to deny them your business? Maybe they don't report to you. Maybe they don't need your business. Maybe they have 50 emails in their inbox, but only have time to respond to three. Will yours be one of them?

This business -- heck, every business -- is built on relationships. If you don't invest in them, you will not have them when you need them. I'm not just saying, "Don't be a jerk." That's obvious. I'm not saying, "Be everybody's best friend" either. But if you want to succeed in your career, you need to build relationships with people so they know who you are, so they trust you, and so they want to do their best when they interact with you professionally.

Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction.

On Twitter? Follow Kleinberg at @adamkleinberg. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

MediaPost named me an OMMA All-Star in 2013, an award given to the three most influential digital creatives in the U.S. each year. I was called one of the Top 25 Most Innovative Marketers in Digital in 2012 by iMedia Connection. In 2014, Traction...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2010, December 20

Thanks for all the enthusiastic comments. If you enjoyed this post, also check out a follow-up post I did called "What is innovation?" at http://www.tractionco.com/blog/50-what-is-innovation


Commenter: Rich Teich

2010, December 20

Great article, thank you. I am old enough to remember when the marketing world was non-digital and it seems like some of the basics have gotten lost in the impulsive knee-jerk need to try every single available platform without first figuring out whether it makes sense for the brand or client.

Commenter: Margie Simon

2010, December 20

This should be required reading for anyone related to the ad industry or for students headed there! Congratulations on a great article.

Commenter: Nicolas Vega Mora

2010, December 20

Thanks Adam.

I Like your point of view. fun to read, useful to apply every day..And different from everybody write lastly


Commenter: Nigel Copley

2010, December 20

Loved the post, Thanks Adam :-)

Commenter: Beverly Dracos

2010, December 20

Great post. I especially like your point about listening. In my career there has never been a time when subtle changes in messaging made such a difference in response. The only effective way to communicate an effective message is to listen, hear, and respond.

Hearing not only what is said, but taking it a step further, to hearing what is unsaid... it makes all the difference.

Commenter: Edward Sattaur

2010, July 06

Thanks - Spot on and a good reminder to all

Commenter: James Andre

2010, July 01

Thank you for saying what needed to be said. It isn't only about marketing; the race to mediocrity is affecting all media, bringing us 'good enough' and quickly drowning 'great.'

Commenter: Keri Albers

2010, July 01

I love it Adam, thank you for writing such an excellent piece....your last paragraph- stellar closure.

Commenter: Keri Albers

2010, July 01

I love it Adam, thank you for writing such an excellent piece....your last paragraph- stellar closure.

Commenter: Sue Reddel

2010, June 30

Completely agree with you Adam. Thanks for adding a dose of common sense to a crazy industry. We need it.

Commenter: Don Skylar

2010, June 30

See...I just made a mistake by not completely proofreading. I meant ..."always smart TO listen"

Commenter: Don Skylar

2010, June 30

Excellent, excellent, excellent....there are so many ways to screw up...sometimes unknown until we experience them...AND then learn from them. So thank you for giving us some "oops" insights, so that we may not have to make as many mistakes. It's always smart ti LISTEN...to real pros.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2010, June 30

Thanks, Chas (and the rest of you),

You're right. Five years ago, no one knew what to do with interactive, so agencies built silos. Today, it's obvious that EVERYTHING is interactive and digital needs to be thought of holistically.

Now, no one knows what to do with social media, so they're creating silos again. It still boils down to understanding human motivations and creating communications that appeal to them. The only thing that has changed are the tools we use to accomplish that.



Commenter: chas salmore

2010, June 30


Not only is your article "spot on" accurate but I love your writing style. Too many "experts" in our industry are blinded by the light. They believe social-media, digital and interactive is separate from all other forms of media. They become mesmerized and fail to appreciate that all these new tools and technologies are simply ways to connect with people. But people are humans. If there is no emotional currency - binding the message to the community - there is not results.

It's human nature - which is not going to change anytime soon. Again, great article.

Marketingworks, Inc.

Commenter: Peter Platt

2010, June 30

Great article! There are a ton of shiny objects that appear every day in this industry and it's easy to forget what we all really do for a living.

Commenter: Kevin Nalty

2010, June 30

OMG I could think of 106 things I've done personally to kill my marketing career. Mostly it's saying what I believe to be true instead of what people need to hear.

Commenter: Sherri Wilmoth

2010, June 30

Great Article! I see many marketers (and other business leaders) that are impacted by the Shiny Object Syndrome.

Thank you for pointing out that we create business and marketing plans to achieve objectives and while it is important to be flexible - it's more important to learn from (and not relive) past mistakes.

Just because it's "cool" doesn't make it the right thing for every business.

Commenter: Casey Martin

2010, June 30

Great article, very well thought out, it has just been forwarded to everyone on my team. The only point that I felt was missing is the fact that not only will these things kill your carreer/ personal brand, they will also kill an agency/ marketing organization even faster. When an entire grpoup of people collectively engage in these types of behavior it only compounds the problems you've listed and leads to poorly formed and executed marketing plans that can quickly tarnish a brand, sink a product, and cripple future success.

Commenter: Jim Nichols

2010, June 29

I always love the things you write. The points and the style. You really are one of the joys of this business. All that soft soap, and I don't even need a favor from you! ;-)

My favorite is the first reason. Fear of mistakes is the worst place to be in this business. If you haven't made mistakes you aren't imagining what could be, you're only focuising on what was.