Top Marketers Talk about Their Scariest Professional Moment

October 31, 2017


Everyone is afraid of something -- from clowns to heights to things that go bump in the night.

Around this time of year, we tend to reflect on what scares us, and doing so can be a genuinely productive exercise, leading to personal growth and learning. As Bertrand Russell once said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

In this spirit, we reached out to some of the top thought leaders and influencers in marketing with a simple question:

What is one thing that has frightened you most in your career and how did you overcome it?

Here’s what they had to say.

Doug Kessler, Creative Director and Cofounder of Velocity Partners:

Early in my career—my first marketing job, in fact—I had two super-insecure bosses who second-guessed everything I did. It really undermined my confidence and made me not want to go to work each morning.

I asked for a meeting with someone senior that I really admired and he gave me a pep talk that included this tip: “You’ve got to come to work every day totally willing to get fired.” I loved that.

Went back to my office and promptly issued a ‘memo’ (this was pre-email) that summarised what I thought was a big idea. Then, instead of getting it approved by my bosses, just put it on the desks of all the recipients.

The result? I got my ass kicked. My boss ran around collecting all the memos, called me into her office and lectured me for an hour.

I never got fired but I did end up leaving. And lived happily ever after. So far.

Mitch Joel, President of Mirum Agency:

Selling my business. I had been working at Twist Image (with our awesome team and my three other business partners) for well over a decade before the largest marketing and communications network in the world, WPP, came knocking. It was during a time that we were looking for explosive growth, and we realized that being acquired by the number one player might be the ideal way to scale (and it eliminated a certain level of risk). It was tough to "sell our baby" -- as it were -- and there were many mitigating factors that helped me overcome my fears and uncertainty. The number one way was staying close with my three other business partners. Using them as mentors and a shoulder to lean on. We did everything by sticking together. All for one... one for all. It remains a huge lesson in my life: the right business partners will always take you much farther than going at it alone. Now, as Mirum, we've added in many more partners globally... it's exciting and way less frightening.

Mark Schaefer, Author of KNOWN: Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age:

Public speaking. In fact, I was terrified! Becoming successful required adopting a new mindset that "I was going to work" and tricking myself through the first two minutes by memorizing my opening lines so thoroughly that not even nerves could screw me up!

Chris Moody, Content Marketing Leader for GE Digital:

The fear of complacency.

As marketers, there is always room for improvement. Too often, we launch a piece of content, or product, or webinar, and convince ourselves that our job is done until the next one. We chase shiny objects (new channels, social networks, technology, etc.) instead of focusing on business objectives.

The best way I've found to overcome this is to write down the goals you're working towards and glance at them daily. With an exponentially increasing number of distractions, our eyes should always have the end destination in sight. I remind myself frequently to stop chasing the next big thing and do my job better. At times, you may hit a ceiling on how far you can go depending on your organization. Passion projects can be a great alternative if you're ever stuck. A sense of complacency can derail a marketer's career.

Andrew Davis, Keynote Speaker and Bestselling Author:

The times that I've been most frightened in my career are the times when I took on a challenge I wasn't qualified for in any way shape or form. Instead of shying away from those challenges, every single one of them made be a better marketer, person, and employee. Don't be afraid to take on a massive challenge. It's only scary until you've done it.

When's the last time you did something for the first time? (Darius Rucker)

Michael Brenner, Founder of Insider Marketing Group:

The one thing that frightened me the most in my career has been public speaking. Yes that's right, today I absolutely love and truly enjoy getting paid to keynote for events and speak in front of thousands of people. But my secret is that I had to overcome a debilitating fear of presenting and physical stage fright that prevented me from achieving my career potential.

And here's how I overcame it. First, I realized that fears are just frightening stories we tell ourselves. So I started telling myself a different story about speaking in public. Instead of feeling the anxiety, I convinced myself I was excited. Instead of focusing on my fears, I focused on the goals of the audience. Instead of memorizing lines, I shared stories of battles I had won, lessons I learned, and tricks anyone can use. I saw presentations as a means of sharing and helping. And that changed everything! Now I even help other people overcome their fears and deliver better presentations

Joe Pulizzi, Founder of Content Marketing Institute

As I started to travel the world speaking and sharing my story, I met some amazingly smart people… like truly intelligent and gifted. As I met more and more people like this, I truly started to fear that I could never be successful because, at least to me, these people were SO much smarter and more gifted than I.

Over the years, I began to realize that talent and skills (aka “smarts”) is only about 20% of the game. The rest is availability… getting up every day and doing the work.  While many of those very smart people I met kept moving on to different projects, never sticking to one thing and never really finding an audience, we just kept delivering value, every day, over years and years… and that made all the difference.

Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Marketing:

When we started our marketing agency in 2001, earning new business wasn't easy in a down economy. As both an introvert and someone passionate about marketing, I decided to face one of my greatest fears in order to reach more clients: public speaking. I had done corporate training in small settings before but nothing prepared me for speaking on SEO panels where presenting is more bloodsport than conversation. Despite introversion and failures, I stuck to it. Today I speak all over the world, giving keynotes and sharing stories about our amazing clients and the great feats of marketing my team accomplishes.

Andy Crestodina, Cofounder of Orbit Media Studios:

I used to be scared of Twitter. It frightened me. I was scared that it would be one more inbox and that it would overwhelm me. So I hid under my bed for several years… and missed a big opportunity to grow an audience early.

I finally overcame my Twitter-phobia and realized that yes, people may talk to you there. But it’s not the same pressure to respond as an email inbox. Expectations aren’t quite as high. And it’s filled with some real treats. I’ve met tons of fun people and collaborated with them. It’s also generated a bit of traffic.

I regret that fear, but it felt good to get over it. It was a lesson that any hesitation to try something new may have a bad effect on your marketing. Don’t get spooked by new platforms or technology!

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