How to Survive a Mid-Career Crisis in Marketing
A Step by Step Guide for Reinvention & Personal Branding
May 5, 2017
Editors Note: This Article Originally Appeared in the April issue of British Airways Business Life Magazine.
At 36 my career in marketing was sinking. I was working as a marketer in the music business: a dying industry that had decided it wanted to fight digital technology and was losing. A side-effect of that sad state of affairs was that I was pretty much the least tech-savvy person you could have met; not by choice, but by sheer lack of opportunity.
I recognised that I needed to get out of an industry that I had always dreamed of being a part of. That was a wrench. Even more dauntingly, I needed to start again; to reinvent myself. And the way I saw it, the odds were not in my favour.
Marketing was speeding up as a profession – and the pace of technological change was intimidating. How could I start over when I didn’t know anything about the technical skills that all the hip marketers were talking about? I felt like yesterday’s man – like my career was on the shelf before it had had a chance to get started.
I was wrong – wonderfully, exhilaratingly, life-affirmingly wrong. I was wrong about the ways that digital was changing marketing – and just as wrong in believing that your past has to define your professional future. Or rather, I hadn’t realised that if your past is going to shape your future, you can make sure it does so on your terms.
How I started turning things around
My first response to this mid-career crisis was to enroll in an accelerated digital marketing certificate program from UC Berkeley – accelerated, so that I could be selective and purposeful, skipping all of the tangential digital stuff, and focusing in on the digital marketing skills I desperately needed. However, that was just the starting point. I discovered that digital was changing marketing and professional life in other ways that I hadn’t imagined – and those changes were creating opportunities rather than taking them away.
I discovered the art of personal branding online and on social media. I realised that the sheer volume of material now available online meant that you could learn pretty much any skill you might need, when you needed it, provided you had the passion and energy to do so. More than anything, I saw how the changing nature of work meant that my new career would be defined by who I am, not by guessing at who other people wanted me to be. The minute I started dressing and behaving in a way that was true to myself, I was amazed at how many opportunities were unlocked. Marketing in the digital age genuinely embraces diversity, creativity, and authenticity – and the digital age makes it far easier to connect to opportunities that align with your own, very personal brand.
That’s the insight that’s changed my life. Here’s how I’ve learned how to put it into practice:
Building a personal brand
Your personal brand is essentially how the world sees you. It’s your reputation, who you are and what you value all wrapped up in the unique perspective that you bring to the world. And it’s not optional. If you exist online in any way, shape or form, then you have a personal brand – whether you’ve decided to create that brand for yourself or not. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you have to take control of how the world sees you.
I haven’t used a resume for the last six years. I would really struggle to write one today. On the very rare occasion that somebody asks to see one, I simply direct them to my LinkedIn profile. The great advantage of that profile is that it doesn’t just tell people what I’m about – it demonstrates what I’m about. The work that I’m most proud of is there for them to explore, as are the recommendations and endorsements from people I value most.
The more active you are in managing your personal brand, the more control you have over your life. The things that make you unique in the world and in your industry are only going to be noticed if you put them forward and celebrate them everyday. An actively managed personal brand means you’re not waiting for things to happen to you – you’re inviting those things to happen to you.
Every company that I’ve worked for supported me building a personal brand. I think people should run like hell from any company that doesn’t. It starts with encouraging you to bring your personality to work and wear your passions, side-projects and heart on your sleeve. The ability to do so is something you should be demanding at every stage of your career.
Starting to look for those things brought me to a place I’d never expected to find myself – B2B marketing, first at Marketo and then at LinkedIn. Both of these businesses made me feel at home, encouraged me to express myself, and to take a journey with them that could work for both of us. That says a lot about their values – but their ability to value me was hugely increased by my having the courage to create an identity of my own.
Finding Your Voice
Just as the digital world gives you a personal brand, it also gives you a voice. That voice can be awkward, inconsistent and untrustworthy, it can sound the same as anyone else – or it can be distinct, fresh, exciting and something that’s true to you.
My voice is one part Axl Rose, one part Jerry Seinfeld and one part Stephen Hawking. It doesn't sound like these people – because otherwise it couldn’t sound like me. However, it reflects three personal brands that I’ve always identified with, and three parts of myself that I want to put front and centre. I try to take edginess from Axl, dry humour from Seinfeld and authority and intelligence from Hawking (ambitious I know – but with your voice you can and should aim for these things).
This is where being true to yourself comes in. I’ve never fronted Guns n’ Roses, but I’ve been a heavy metal and hard rock fan all my life. I spend my spare time as a concert photographer just so I can get closer to the action and live and breathe the attitude. But you know what? I’m also a bit of a geek. I love the technical stuff, the scientific detail, the fascinating facts. And like lots of geeks - and lots of metalheads – I was a massive Seinfeld fan.
Bring a voice like this into the B2B marketing space that’s trying to figure out how to use social media and you have endless potential for new ideas. When I was starting out in my unexpected career in B2B marketing it was a pretty boring field – a tidal wave of white papers designed like instruction manuals or the type of pamphlets you’d see on the counter at a dentist’s office. Everyone was doing exactly the same thing – and so I decided to adopt what I call the George Costanza approach to marketing and career management (from the classic Seinfeld episode, The Summer of George): “do the exact opposite of everything the industry does”. My Axl-Jerry-Steve voice turned out to be ideal for this – suggesting provocatively but intelligently, that the way things had been done in the past wasn’t the way they needed to be done in the future. It quickly got me creating content, and sharing opinions that were full of new ideas, fresh thinking – and a different perspective. It was fun too.
The web is your virtual PHD in any topic you can imagine
The rising tide of digital skills that had so intimidated me when I was at my career nadir proved to be the least of my worries. In fact, it was a huge opportunity. As marketers, we’ve become so obsessed with the disruptive threat of the internet that we forget it is, fundamentally, the most incredible knowledge tool ever invented. These days, when I want to experiment with a new content format or technology, I just go online and start looking. The same applies to staying in touch with the issues that I care about in digital marketing. I built a list of the smartest marketers and the blogs that they write for and added them to an app called Feedly. I check this every morning to kick-start my thinking and give me great content to share with my social networks.
An actively managed personal brand means you’re not waiting for things to happen to you – you’re inviting those things to happen to you.
Relationships are everything
Every opportunity that has come my way since I left the music business has been the result either of meeting people at conferences or networking events – or having the courage to reach out to people who inspire me on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. One of the first I reached out to was Ann Handley of Marketing Profs, who’d co-written Content Rules, the most empowering book about content and social I’d ever come across. Ann turned out to be as generous and empowering as her book. She gave me my first guest blogging opportunity, set me on my way, and fired a passion for content and social that still drives me today.
If I hadn’t taken that decision to build a brand that reflected who I am, I don’t think most of my opportunities would have happened at all. Maria Pergolino of Marketo, who gave me the big break in this second half of my career, hired me based on the brand that I was building online. I learned more from her and Marketo in two years than I had in 12 years at my last music industry gig.
The people I’ve met and bonded with on my journey include Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger, Chris Brogan the owner of CEO Media Group, and Mitch Joel, who owns the WPP-owned digital marketing agency Mirium. How did I meet these people? We bonded over a shared love of heavy metal and 80s rock. It’s a lot easier to reach out with confidence when you are being yourself. Relationships matter – and you can only form good ones when people know what you stand for.
Never be the Smartest Person in the Room
The more you realise the importance of relationships, the more you start to realise that your success is not all about you. You may be at the centre of your own professional story – but the characters around you have a huge influence on that story. Make sure they are the smartest people that you know – and try as hard as you can to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. It’s the best way to keep learning, keep evolving and keep your life and career interesting.
It’s never too late to reinvent yourself
Seven years after leaving the music business I now travel around the world speaking at conferences about digital marketing and how to leverage LinkedIn. In addition I now teach the very same digital marketing course at UC Berkeley that I took online to help transform my career. Even better, I still have my connection to the music world through my photography, the rock blog I write, and the friendships and professional contacts my love of music brings about. Now music’s no longer a source of frustration to me, I find myself loving it all the more.
If you would have asked me seven years ago if I wanted to be a B2B marketer, I would have said that you were out of your mind. That’s partly because I didn’t understand what this career could involve – but also because I hadn’t understood the extent to which the digital age enables career reinvention. It’s never too late to decide you need to do something else – but first, you need to first remind yourself who you really are.