My career is a head spinner. It’s been thirty-plus years of activity and adventure, of celebrating the victories—or enduring the crisis—on a Friday and turning my shoulder to the next new project on Monday (and given my travel schedule, oftentimes Sunday is the new Monday). There’s also the obsessive learning (I still devour knowledge like SUVs guzzle fuel) and reading (I crave supermarket-quality fiction and read several bad good paperbacks each week). There have been long days/sleepless nights, last-minute flights and millions of air miles and also only a few (but this last was big) career switches: from entrepreneurship to advertising to PR to the Fortune 500. There have been major wins and occasional losses to learn from.
I’ve barely paused for breath (I did take four weeks each time I had a brain tumor removed—that’s recovery, not a recharge), but I wouldn’t change a thing (okay I would happily change my height, the wrinkles, and now even my faltering memory). Been there and got the T-shirt, but my thirst for the challenge, for problem-solving, innovation, transformation and a good belly laugh, remains unquenched.
It’s taught me that business isn’t for the faint-hearted; thick skins are imperative. But with the right mind-set, attitude, work ethic, foresight and heart, you can impart great influence and bring positive change to the world.
Here are 10 key lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Always pack a light bag each morning and never over commit to plans for today or tomorrow
No day in business and especially in marketing is ever the same: the speed at which we operate mirrors the pace the cogs spin in our sector. There’s no telling when you’ll get a call taking you to another city or country. When you’re rushing to make travel connections and managing business on the fly, you don’t want to be rummaging through personal essentials or firing off apologetic messages at midnight. Mobility and a clear head are vital. (For years, I have carried a toothbrush and change of underwear in my computer bag. Better safe than sorry.)
2. Subordinate your brand to the brands you steward
Put bluntly, it’s not all about you. It’s tough to balance the importance of one’s own authority with the authority of the brand you’re promoting, but it’s crucial. It is the brand, the idea, the movement, the trend you’re selling—not yourself. If my visibility doesn’t help my company thrive, I’m not doing my job. For example, popularizing the word “metrosexual” was both a gift and a curse. A gift because it raised my authority, a curse because I often pick up how much it raised expectations of what I can do for a company, and let’s face it, you don’t stumble onto a metrosexual every week or month or find a client bold enough to let you launch one very often. So, keep your mind on optimizing your client’s success, and always think in the we versus the me.
3. Find your unique self in the “third place”
Everyone’s lives are dictated by work and home. They are places we share with others. But the “third place” is a territory you inhabit alone. This is where you make your own choices—what to read, learn, hear, watch and create—in forming your own individual identity. It’s what shapes and fine-tunes your unique brand proposition (UBP). In an industry rife with competition, your UBP is what will propel you above the crowd. This does not contradict my previous tip: subordinate your personal brand but don’t ignore it. Passion makes you interesting. My passion is so darn pedestrian: golden retrievers, big ones, bad ones, sassy ones, even ones like my Harley, who refuse to get into the water.
4. Being different doesn’t mean missing the target
It’s important to challenge and think outside the box. Mixing in a bit of the unconventional commands attention. But beware—most people shy away from the downright odd. The trick is to be unconventional enough to stand out, but not so much as to be left out. Know your audience. What may turn the heads of millennial creatives could turn the backs of the finance crowd. In any group, you need to understand and discover your place among the fringe (true innovators), the alphas (experimental novelty seekers) and the bees (keen to copy and share). This is a long but rewarding voyage. Tactic: Bees typically are the ones to watch most closely.
5. It’s not about rebuilding yourself, it’s about regular renovations
Most people who are established in a career are largely set in their ways. While marketing doesn’t require you to rebuild your personality from the ground up, it does call on its trailblazers to undergo frequent renovations. The world is changing every minute of every day, and you must be part of that transformational dynamic. The past and the present are mere acquaintances—the future is your friend for life. Keep learning new skills, try a new look or adopt a new lifestyle. I’ve renovated my career throughout, adapting to new sectors while keeping my finger on the societal pulse, but there are many days when I find myself quaking like I’m on a nine-foot diving board.
6. Choose your boss wisely and step away from sour situations
As in all lines of work—and all relationships—if the chemistry isn’t right, there will be trouble ahead. If you embark on a job with a boss who’s the chalk to your cheese, it spells danger. (But my chalk and your chalk may differ wildly, so make the time to suss out the match. This is not a Tinder swipe, it’s more like buying a new house in a new ‘hood.) Pick wisely and you’ll reap rich rewards. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the bosses I’ve worked for—but I know others who have paid a heavy price for choosing a job or even a company over the woman or man they would report to.
7. Know the difference between a poor performer and poor strategy
None of us are superhuman. Wonder Woman no doubt had days where she’d rather stay in bed than confront immovable forces. It may be yourself and your boss pulling in different directions or a workforce indifferent to your ambition or methods. The skill is to separate temporary sticking points from a strategy that isn’t working in its current form. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. Recognize a problem, act on it, but with grace. (Hint: Practice chewing on your lip.)
8. Social media is not the only silver bullet when you have a marketing challenge
The internet is an infinite resource of possibilities, but it can also be a trap of endless distractions. One minute you’re firing off a tweet, the next you’re emerging zombie-faced from a three-hour binge of trawling nebulous posts. Money may come and go, but time only ever disappears. Invest in it with purpose. Social media holds indisputable value—but give yourself time limits.
9. Recharge with a personal pursuit or two
Offset your hectic work schedule with some fuel for the soul. Be it sports, music, the arts, community service or any other pastime, pick a hobby or two and give yourself permission to immerse your entire being. Allow these extracurricular activities to feed and strengthen your body and mind, keeping your levels of performance at a premium. Think of this: The Mercedes F1 team allows fashion-mad four-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton to jet off to catwalks around the world between races precisely because he comes back fresher and more focused than ever. If you conquer or outgrow a challenge, move on to the next one. Just as we do in our careers.
10. Never say “no” to the world—”maybe” is a much more exciting answer
If I had made “no” my default response to all life-changing propositions, I’d have never left the U,S. and my career would have been stunted. Saying “no” is easier—but try “maybe” first. You can always change it to “no” after proper thought and consideration. In my case, “maybe” usually ended in “yes—which is how I’ve found myself, at various times in my life, in Rome, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, you name it, I walked there (as a marketer, when I walk, I read and assess signage, compiling a think library on hyperlocalization), and ultimately lived in Amsterdam and now, Switzerland. There is so much of the world to see, so much to learn from it. Yes, there are downsides—discomfort, exhaustion and a challenging work-life balance among them—but the pros kick the daylights out of the cons.
I first left America in 1995 when I headed off to a rented apartment in Amsterdam with only my young golden retriever for company (that one was Morgan, perfectly named for morning since she didn’t sleep the whole first Dutch summer, staring at the sky, which never seemed to get dark). It was a country I barely knew. “No” would have been the easy answer, “maybe” was my curious one, and it led to the “yes” that changed my life forever.