Lessons in Marketing from Someone You’ve Never Heard of

lessons in marketing

A note from Mark Schaefer: Over the last year, I’ve been fortunate to regularly feature the brilliant Avtar Ram Singh on {grow}. As he pursues a new career, he’s stepping down from his contributor position (at least for now!) and I wanted to recognize him and thank him for his meaningful contributions in this space.

By Avtar Ram Singh, {grow} Contributing Columnist

I’m about to make a significant pivot in my career. At times like these I find myself in a state of reflection more as i begin to wonder how I’ve got to here … and where I’m going.

I find myself shaking my head at times thinking about how I managed to get through all this without a visible scar or two, and chuckling at times where I did get a scar but could have almost certainly avoided it.

I’ve often talked to my teams or colleagues in a private setting about those scenarios, reflecting on what I’d have done differently if I knew then what I know now. Mark, who invited me to be a columnist on this blog, has often encouraged me to add my personal story — so here we are.

My content tends to lean toward being analytical. I’ve avoided getting personal, or talking through gut and instinct, as I’ve left that to the more established marketers — people like Seth Godin, Scott Galloway, Rand Fishkin and of course — Mark Schaefer!

But today I’ll share some of my personal lessons.

Seek Discomfort. Hunt it Out.

When I started out in marketing, I liked nothing more than immersing myself in the fun stuff. Fleshing out big creative ideas, communication plans, partnerships to spread the campaign further, big media takeovers that would get more eyeballs. I hated anything to do with a spreadsheet, disliked reporting results and trying to justify future expenditure.

It was uncomfortable.

Being forced to think about marketing through spreadsheets, and being able to speak a language that people outside of marketing understand, comprehend and buy into however, is one of the most useful skills I’ve picked up. It’s opened doors that you never thought would have otherwise existed, and give you access to people in organizations that pull the strings that dictate the success of the marketing team. It’s invaluable.

Seek discomfort. Put yourself in situations that are professionally uncomfortable, and once you manage to power through one, put yourself through another. It’s the fastest way to growth, and after a few years of doing it, you won’t recognize who you are. In a good way.

You don’t belong to a tribe.

One of the primary reasons people don’t want to grow into new areas is because they value being part of a tribe. Creative professionals often hate discussing the business viability of their ideas because they feel it cramps their style and the “suits” are out to ruin everything by penny pinching.

Any creative that does bring up business viability is seen as an outcast. They’re accused of prioritizing something other than the creative idea and not willing to fight for it. It’s what happens when you try to identify yourself with a tribe, and seek to confine yourself to its limits.

Large groups want conformity. They seek comfort in sameness. Superstars do anything but. Marketing success depends on non-conformity! (Mark has a great rant out that here.)

Admit what you don’t know. Things move faster.

The marketing industry is obsessed with two things: personal reputation and hubris. These get in the way of … everything.

I was in an all-hands meeting with a client a few years ago, discussing an approach to paid media for the client. At a certain juncture, “long tail keywords” came up. The business lead from their side asked the obvious question, “What’s a long tail keyword?”

Certain people in the room seemed a little amused by this question, after all — marketing people can rarely think beyond their own world. The search specialist explained what a long tail keyword is, and how we come up with them. The business lead thought for a second, and based on discussions with customers and the nature of questions they ask, recommended a few to experiment with.

Again, the arrogant people in the room seemed amused by the suggestions. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which long tail keywords converted like magic.

Every POV is significant.

Marketing can be subjective, and often decisions are driven by emotion. People are protective about their ideas, media planners are protective about their budget allocations, and when the discussion isn’t rational or scientific, it’s easy to take things personally.

Sometimes things get personal, that’s the reality of life. It’s our task to try and rise above it.

But when discussing thoughts, assessing reactions to plans or a gut-feel about an idea, it’s vital to listen to everyone’s point of view in the room. Some might harp on the same thing they always do (let them), some might try and fight for a personal agenda (ignore them) and some might simply be expressing a genuine and honest opinion (listen to them).

Even if you don’t agree with someone’s point of view, it’s vital to hear them out. In fact, it’s most important to hear out someone’s point of view when you disagree. The more time in you spend in marketing, the more you believe in a certain “type” of idea to work. The more you believe in a certain “method” to generating awareness.

Marketing is rarely straightforward. So cast your net far and wide, improvements to an idea can strike from anywhere. Or even a very sound argument against it.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t fit.

We’ve all walked into a clothing store and within the first five seconds thought, “Nothing in here is for me.”

Sure, if you went through enough stacks of clothing, you’ll convince yourself that a particular t-shirt might just work for a BBQ, or if you go to the beach you might wear those shorts. You can force yourself into a decision, but it’ll never really feel right.

It can sometimes be the same with people in a marketing team, or clients that you work with. People don’t fit the culture, they don’t fit the management style, their belief in how marketing teams should operate are different, or they just have a very different set of personal values.

When it’s clear it doesn’t fit, you owe it to yourself, the person or the client, to have an honest discussion about what’s best for everyone. It’s uncomfortable, but hey, we’re meant to seek discomfort aren’t we?

No one knows it all.

Especially you. And when you think you do, take that as the biggest sign of all that something needs to change.

The biggest lesson.

Remember why you do what you do. Marketing as a profession can be brutal. Long hours, unhappy clients or management, a lack of clarity in terms of what comes next, dealing with stress and emotion – it can be overwhelming.

It’s at times like these that you should remember why you do what you’re doing. And who you’re doing it for. If you do what you do for your kids, and work is getting in the way of that for a little too long and a little too often, maybe it’s time to think this through.

Life is about more than work, and it’s about more than marketing. You’re meant to enjoy what you do, work is meant to challenge you and set you free at the same time. Maybe it doesn’t now, maybe it doesn’t some days, but on the whole – it should.

And if you haven’t found it yet, don’t be afraid to keep looking.

avtar-profileAvtar Ram Singh is the Head of Strategy at FALCON Agency, a performance-led, business results oriented marketing agency that operates in South East Asia. He’s built marketing strategies and performance frameworks for brands on global and regional levels, across a variety of industries. You can find him on LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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