6 Lessons Learned from a Year of Crisis

February 23, 2010

Dictionary.com defines the word “crisis” as: a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.

Last week marked the one year anniversary of my personal crisis.  I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned during this turning point, in case any of you out there are considering making a significant change, or if you are at the beginning stages of going through one.

Background

Prior to the last 52 weeks, my higher education and career had gone largely to plan; every step I took from high school to college to my first job to graduate school to my career in brand management was thoughtfully planned and executed.  Then, in February of 2009, I was laid off — taking my career on a very unplanned course.

My immediate reaction to this crisis was a negative one, but I quickly came to embrace it as an opportunity to take my career and life on a whole new trajectory.  I went into business for myself as a branding and marketing consultant — using my experience and skills in understanding customer insights to help others build stronger brands, products, and customer connections.

The Lessons I’ve Learned

Over the course of this year, I’ve found that people are very interested in and almost envious of the decision I made to do things on my own. I know that for many, being an independent consultant sounds liberating and ideal, and sometimes it is.  Sometimes it is far from it. One of the most important factors for me was timing.  In order for me to chart my new course successfully, I had to rely heavily on my previous experience and credibility in brand management, my network of colleagues in the industry, and my own personal maturity to remain dedicated and focused.  For anyone who is curious about the path I have taken, here are the lessons that I have to offer:

  1. Reading has never been so important.  On average, I now spend 2-3 hours a day reading about marketing — the latest marketing news, marketing thought leadership, marketing blogs.  When I worked for other organizations, I didn’t focus on external marketing information like I do now.  It is now my job to be ‘in the know’ about the latest books or the latest technology, and so I spend so much time absorbing the information on a daily basis.
  2. Befriending your competition is key. In the world of freelancers and consultants, your competition is an invaluable source of support, helpful resources, and potential projects.  I have been gratified by the amount of help and information that my direct competitors are willing to share with me.  We realize that we are all better off with comraderie and the opportunity for collaboration than if we operated separately.
  3. Celebrate your successes. In any time of significant adaptation or change, it will take a while to get some momentum behind you. At times, this can feel very frustrating, and it makes all the difference when you recognize the steps forward that you have taken along the way.  Celebrating even your smallest steps forward, and having a group of people who can remind you of these steps can motivate you to keep going.
  4. Develop thick skin. This lesson has taken a while for me to learn. I’ve always been the person who people called back or wanted to talk to when it came to my work.  I never got ‘blown off.’ Suddenly, as I switched gears and had to establish myself in a new identity, at times I was no longer treated with the same regard.  I took this very personally for the first few months, but eventually it got easier as my skin got tougher.  Thick skin gave me the armor to persevere, and this is the key to getting through a crisis.
  5. Developing self discipline is a requirement. Luckily for me, self-discipline has always been a strength.  However, it has been challenged more in the last year than ever before.  It takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to keep pursuing your goal day after day when you aren’t seeing immediate results.  It takes self-discipline to stop doubting yourself when those thoughts inevitably cross your mind.  In my consulting situation, it takes more self-discipline than I realized to power through very long days of work at home alone, when you could so easily be distracted by other things around you.  It also takes self-discipline to finally turn it all off when it is time to focus on your other priorities like your family.
  6. You are the one who is in control. This lesson is particularly ironic, because while it was the #1 reason I chose to forge my own path, many times in the last year, it felt like I was the only one without control.  I was always waiting for someone to get back to me or waiting for someone to accept a proposal.  But then I remembered that I was the one who was in control of how many people I met, how many proposals I submitted, and how I sold myself.  I controlled those things.  Once I came to that realization, I started to make real progress.

I hope that some of these lessons are helpful to anyone who is considering making a change or who is currently going through one.  I imagine that many of these lessons are applicable to all kinds of turning points such as a starting a new role, working for a new organization, or even reporting to a new boss.  If you have any questions about these lessons, or what to discuss further, submit a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

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How to evaluate the Super Bowl ads

February 8, 2010

Every year, during the day after the Super Bowl, there is a lot of chatter about the best and worst ads that debuted during the big game.  If you haven’t had a chance to catch up on the conversation, or if you somehow missed the game Sunday night, AdAge has all of the spots available for your viewing pleasure.  For me, I personally walked away from the TV with the overwhelming sense of having seen two types of dramatic executions over and over again:  violence and men in their underwear.

Despite these two themes, I did have a few favorite ads, however I won’t go so far to say what ads were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of their overall effectiveness.  I don’t really see how I could, given that I am not the target customer for every brand or product that advertised during the Super Bowl.  This is why I find the evaluation of the ads that takes place each year to be a little misleading.  Critics comment on and judge the ads based on what they found to be humorous, moving, or interesting.  However, since the ads are ultimately about persuading a target customer to buy or bond with a brand, isn’t it really only the target customer audience that can accurately evaluate the strength of any given ad?

With all of that said, for those of you who are still hungry to understand which ads were ‘good’ and which were ‘bad’ from this year’s Super Bowl, I present you with a few questions that you can use to help you decide for yourself.   Note as a support to my earlier point:  several of the key questions assume an understanding of and identification with the target customer.  Without this perspective and understanding, an evaluation just isn’t complete.

Questions for evaluating advertising:

  1. Is the story of the ad unique or different?
  2. Does the ad capture and keep the target customer’s attention?
  3. Does the story of the ad focus on the brand’s benefit?
  4. Is the ad meaningful to the target customer?
  5. Is the ad in line with the brand’s character?

So go ahead and think about the ads that you saw, for which you are a target customer.  Which ones were the best?