Think With Discipline, Act With Courage

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Christian McMahan, managing partner, SmartFish Group
Christian McMahan, managing partner, SmartFish Group

Often when I'm speaking at conferences or classrooms, I list as one of my key takeaways at the end, “Think with discipline; act with courage.” When I do, I generally see nods of acceptance or the occasional tweet repeating this statement. People like the sound of it, but, more important, they should like it because it's true—especially in marketing.

I compare brand marketing to my time at the Boston Beer Company, my first work experience. When I showed up at the brewery on my first day, I met a few of the brewers and told them that I thought they had the best job in the world; they just snickered and walked away. What I realized over the years while watching them was that we only think about them doing the fun stuff—brewing and tasting the beer, which, as it turns out, consumes only about 10% of their time. The other 90% is spent sanitizing, analyzing, and doing all the grunt work that's necessary to make great beer.

Brand marketing is the exact same thing. People see marketers on location shoots, attending marquee events, and releasing new ads, but the “sexy” stuff that a brand marketer does is only about 10% of his job. The other 90% is spent deck writing, sitting behind one-way mirrors watching consumer focus groups, preparing for internal stakeholder meetings, and the other day-to-day minutia that a brand marketer has to endure to succeed. The key thing is that doing the boring 90% right allows a chance for the other 10% to be truly great.

Much like a successful athlete, a marketer must put in the work to thrive. It's about practice, it's about repetition, and it's about doing all the little things and going through all the processes that enable a brand to be successful.

Most companies don't have the patience or the budget to allow marketers to just throw darts at the board and hope for a bulls-eye. Marketers need to know where that dart is going before they throw it. Ensuring that an idea is strategically sound and properly engages consumers, ensuring that it's been thought through for every possible situation, and ensuring that everyone's aligned with the decision to move forward are all responsibilities that are owned by successful brand marketers.

If all that's achieved, now comes the fun part. Go for it, you can't be afraid. Have the courage and conviction to see your idea through. Execute the plans you've put in place and get the organization to believe in the direction of the brand, and make certain everyone does his job in supporting the idea. You need to get the three legs of the consumer brand stool—consumer, sales, retail—all believing in what you're doing. What do I mean by this? Well, you get great support and commitment from sales and retail behind a brand, but if you're not connecting with consumers there'll be no pull through. And you can create great consumer demand, but if you're not engaging sales or retail behind your brand you'll be advertising to empty shelves. Always challenge yourself and your team if you're pulling all the right levers in the marketing mix for your brand to succeed.

Ask yourself the tough questions: Is this good for the consumer? Why should sales focus on my brand versus others in the portfolio? Why would the retailer be motivated to feature and promote my brand ahead of the competition? It takes consistent focus and alignment on each of the three stool legs for a brand to maximize its potential. If just one of those legs is weak or not addressed, you'll likely fail.

All that being said, it's OK to fail. You must have the courage—and hopefully support—that not everything you do is going to win gold at Cannes. I like to tell people that marketing is a lot like baseball. In baseball, if you're in the game for a long time, have a solid career and hit .333, there's a good chance you'll wind up in the Hall of Fame. The same can be said of marketing. Nobody—agency, client, production team—ever hits home run after home run. But if you consistently get a hit every three swings, then congratulations, you're on your way to a hall-of-fame career in the marketing game.

Christian McMahan is managing partner of SmartFish Group


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