Wednesday, September 25, 2019

accidental marketer

An application essay (disguised as a blog post) where the author attempts to uncover his career motivations by examining his professional path.

My name is Raman. I’m an accidental marketer.

While this piece may answer what I hope to achieve with The Marketing Academy - the truth is, I’m still figuring it out. “IT” being what I should be doing for a living.  While my professional life has been interesting and rewarding enough (I must be doing something that works?), I increasingly find myself wrestling for ways to make “it” more intentional and meaningful.

The real question: How might I use my “powers” for (more) good?

Let’s start from the beginning.

I was born in Alabama, a child of immigrants. No one could pronounce my name. Outside of going to school, reading lots of comic books, and just being a kid, I snuck in lots of writing, hacking, and art. I wanted to be an architect like Dad - but my (Asian) parents said “doctor or engineer.” The college compromise was Computer Engineering. I got the grades, saw lots of live music, and did web/graphic design on the side. But as most Alabama engineers go into missile defense, I opted to go to south Austria (to minor in German, write for the Uni’s newspaper, and backpack around Eastern Europe), soon returning to get an MBA (as one does). Still unsure of what I was doing, I figured I’d just become a consultant.

A company called “Procter & Gamble” saw my resume. I thought they were a law firm. They flew me up to Cincinnati to interview for a “Digital Marketing” role. After an internship, I fell in love with the work, the company, the people, and the city. In 2003, I started doing what I thought was the coolest job in the world.

Over 8 years working on billion-dollar brands (Tide, Ariel, Pantene, Herbal Essences, Head & Shoulders, Gain, Downy) - living in the US, Europe, and Asia - I picked up more than a few brand/media skills. I even met my future wife, a fellow engineer, but she soon moved to NY. During our distance (2008), I filled my newfound free time volunteering in southern Ohio. First, with a local creative arts non-profit, then field-work for a guy with a funny African name - who had the audacity to run for President. When Hamilton County tipped Ohio, which won the race, we knew we played a big part. A few years prior, I had set a goal of setting foot on all 7 continents. The week after the election I went to Antarctica (#6).

P&G was gracious enough to let me follow the girl to NY - and put my media skills to work. I helped build out our programmatic stack (which I code-named “Hawkeye” because, comic books), and worked on some top-secret eCommerce joint ventures. But eventually, all roads led back to Cinci, and we were making a life in NY. Somehow, Danone came calling, so I made the jump to the yogurt culture (2010), spending 2.5 years building out an integrated marketing team. I learned the ins + outs of traditional media, but remained puzzled by its inherent limitations. On nights and weekends, I took community sailing classes with a non-profit school in our sleepy Hudson River town, soon joining their Board and taking over their marketing efforts.

By 2012, I had fully realized the inherent dilemma (slowness) of big “traditional” companies. I was hitting a mental wall - a professional point of diminishing returns.

On a trip to China visiting my wife’s ancestral village, I had a revelation (as one tends to do when no one is speaking English). After 10+ years accelerating tech/media strategy for brand marketing, my sanity demanded I flip the equation. Why not accelerate marketing strategy for tech brands?

After many conversations (and lots of homework), I found three paths before me: work for a big tech company, start my own thing, or something in-between.

That "something in between” took shape after a chance, in-flight encounter with my longtime mentor Bob - an ex-P&G’er who had just sold his agency to WPP - and was working on his next thing. Having literally written the book on “Marketing with Meaning,” Bob planted the seeds of my becoming employee #7 at Ahalogy, a leading social content/intelligence platform.

My first startup experience was professionally-defining in many ways. More than ever before, I now had to “bet on me,” more than the logo on my business card. Everything was on the line - the company’s survival depended on our success. It was a roller-coaster that taught me how to roll with the punches better than anything else. In that first year (2013), Bob + I wore many hats - we were the only guys doing Sales, Marketing, and Biz Dev  - all while building out a CS function and hacking with the product team on nights and weekends. I probably pitched more Fortune 100s in 6 months than most marketers have visited during a careers’ worth of "doctor’s visits.” I grew with the company - soon leading Ahalogy’s marketing & Pinterest partnerships - scaling our industry presence.

And yet my professional energy was still restless. Along the way I (somehow) landed on 2 more Boards: (1) the P&G Alumni Network - a global non-profit focused on connecting ex-P&G’ers through events and philanthropy, and (2) Ciao Andiamo - a boutique Italian travel firm founded by a former Danoner obsessed with sharing his cultural passions.

Then my daughter was born (2016).

Time stopped, I got off the road, and negotiated an early exit (and vesting). My wife had decent maternity leave, so we spent 3 months full-time parenting. I’ve done some amazing things in my life, but that choice, taking the time to pause and focus on my family? That takes the cake.

But then reality set in. While we had no aspirations (delusions) of being independently wealthy, we didn’t want to be co-dependently broke. After helping my pal Seth think through some of his startup’s challenges, I found myself interviewing with his Co-founders. This led to an exec role heading up Partnerships (and later Marketing) at RevTrax, a leading incentive tech company.  The gig was interesting...enough. I got to work with smart people, and got home (almost) every night for dinner, reading my daughter lots of books before bed.

In 2018, a young marketer I mentored asked for my advice over coffee. Jon was finishing his MBA (I wrote his recommendation letter) and was killing it at an early stage startup (I advised him on joining). But Jon needed some help scaling strategically - “managing up” with the 2 young (and insanely smart) co-founders, to whom I was introduced. I was ultimately recruited to lead marketing at TVision, where I currently work. I’ve been there for ~1.5 years. We’re MIT-born, venture-backed, and revolutionizing how the stagnant TV industry is measured, using cutting edge technology and a decidedly digital approach. It’s cool, and I get to work with really smart ninjas on really hard problems. I’m interested...enough.

This entire ride sounds pretty awesome, so why do I hope to join the Marketing Academy?

I’m seeking a peer group as curious - and maybe even restless - as me. I think my experiences, approach, and world-view could bring something to the table as well.

I do believe Marketing can add value - real value - to the world. But I question every day if I am really approaching it the right way? While the companies I work at are interesting (enough), I’m becoming increasingly less interested - whether it be big B2C brands or fast-moving B2B startups. It’s not the companies, it’s me. I’ve grown from the experiences, skills and results, but they motivate me less and less.

What do I enjoy? Making a real difference with what I’ve picked up as a marketer over the years.

  • That creative arts non-profit from the spring of 2008? We opened a second location in a more working-class neighborhood, and got savvier about our digital content strategies. Enrollment skyrocketed.
  • That aspiring politician in the summer/fall of 2008? We won Ohio (and the country) - in part by knocking on doors in Hamilton County and making the compelling case for economic and social change to our local community.
  • That non-profit sailing school? By my second year involved (2013), I 10x’ed enrollment and revenue (to $50k), helping more locals experience the beauty of the water.
  • That alumni org I joined in 2015? I led a sponsorship team that raised $500k, much of which went to funding economic empowerment initiatives in 7+ countries annually.
  • That little girl born in 2016? We have read her 3-6 books every night since she was born, have done countless weekend art projects, and are there to honestly answer her every “why?” (she usually stops when I get down to quantum physics). She continues to become as curious, restless (and precocious) as her father. For her I was inspired to write, draw and self-publish a book about my grandparents’ refugee journey, and am currently working on a second book about the migrant journey of my wife’s family.
  • All those people I mentioned along the way? Before I turned 40 (~two weeks ago), I interviewed 50 of them and am privately publishing an oral history of our conversations - for only us in 20 years. I’m currently working on 2 more (public-facing) podcast concepts to launch in 2020.
I’m not going anywhere. I’m keeping my day job. I’m good at it, but know I can be a better marketer and leader. But it’s the things that I find more compelling that quench my restlessness. Things like  Cortico (Deb Roy), Solving for “Echo Chambers” (Glenn Otis Brown),  Fair Fight 2020 (Stacey Abrams), or Humor That Works (Drew Tarvin). This is the direction I will one day take my marketing career.

Whether it’s someone else’s brand (big or small) or my own, my increasingly intentional career experiences demand that marketing be at the core. But I know I have more to learn before I’m ready to take the real leap.

I’ve long since accepted that my career journey won’t follow a straight line. So I don’t worry (anymore) about how I get where I’m going. But while I’ve led many colleagues, peers, and mentees, I find myself continuing to follow others’ journey, VS leading my own.

From what I’ve heard, the Marketing Academy might be a good place to start learning how to lead - myself.

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