Survival tips from the front lines of legal marketing

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By Roy Sexton

I never really understood what a mid-life crisis was. It seemed like a made-up thing to rationalize men acting super-self-indulgent, throwing over any prior obligations, and buying a stupid yellow sports car. The kind of thing Neil Simon would write about, starring George Segal or Donald Sutherland, rocking plaid bell bottoms and a silky shirt unbuttoned to their navels. (If you aren’t a child of the 1970s, I’m seriously dating myself.)

I still think it is a false construct, existing not so much in reality as in the minds of perpetually adolescent, commitment phobic men and Hollywood screenwriters. However, as I near the mid-century mark, I do understand that crushing, clammy feeling of why am I here, what have I accomplished, have I made a difference?

Every time I read my Wabash College alumni magazine, featuring tales of people my age (and younger) who have found cures for cancer while traversing the Congo as CEOs of major, multinational conglomerates with their beautiful, sartorially-gifted, well-read, blended families in tow, I think, “Why am I sitting here in my sweatpants eating a bowl of Froot Loops and reading comic books?”

Compound all of that with the immediacy of starting a (relatively) new job, leading marketing at an amazing firm in Detroit – a firm that never has had someone in a lead marketing role, a firm that, while open to learning and to change is also a firm (as they all are to some degree) residually agnostic about the long-term impacts of marketing and of the voodoo that I do so well.

Things move slowly in this kind of environment.

There are a lot of conversations. Every expenditure is scrutinized. You have to take as many victory laps as your colleagues can stand without falling past the tipping point of shameless showboating. You have to demonstrate results when there aren’t really any results yet to demonstrate.

A seasoned marketer (or at least I think I am … some days) knows what their new organization needs, but, when said organization is unfamiliar with those needs and how costly they can be and that there is a good 12-to-18-month lead time to get the business development machinery settled and operational, said marketer finds him/herself in the tricky position of being internal salesperson, educator, executor, and judge. It’s exhilarating and exhausting to wear all of those hats simultaneously.

“We need to spend XXX on YYY. Trust me. We need it. What will be the return? Well. Why can’t I just do this myself with my laptop and some popsicle sticks? Um. Do we need additional outside support? Er. Isn’t that why I was hired? Yes …”

It’s very easy to lose your rudder.

If you are a solo marketer (with apologies, I rather hate the term “unicorn,” but I get why people use it), you are a peculiar and intriguing presence. Attorneys need you, especially if you get them some ink or some love; attorneys want to understand what it is you do; attorneys don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs; and, ultimately, you are an island with no one necessarily in your immediate reach who understands the context through which you think and approach the work. Consequently, you may feel perpetually defensive and isolated and alone.

Don’t succumb to the dark side of the Force: self-doubt and loathing.

That’s why, no matter the stage of your career or the self-confidence you possess, it is crucial to remember that, yes, in fact you do know what you are doing and that there are good reasons for the recommendations you are making. Furthermore, be patient. Education takes time, and trust the process. I live in fear in any job I’ve had that a few months or a year will go, and I will be summoned with a cold question of “what has actually been accomplished?” followed by “while we really like you, we are going to try something else.”

(As we know, statistically, the first marketer in any organization doesn’t always last, often immediately replaced by someone who tells the firm all the same things and suggests all the same steps, but now the firm is even further behind in their timeline as a result of the transition.)

How do you stay vibrant? How do you stay true to yourself and not show up one day driving a Lamborghini and sporting an ascot? To quote The Beatles (of whom I’m one of the few who has never been that enamored), “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Build your internal constituency. Find your early adopters and turn them into marketing fanatics. Leverage any and all successes they have by celebrating them (not yourself). Encourage your attorneys to feel like these are their ideas, not yours.

Hold your professional and personal consiglieres as tight as you can. But don’t drain their emotional well or try their patience by only talking about your issues. Find out what they are facing, support their wins, share their work, and learn from what they’ve experienced and accomplished.

I don’t believe that you should never show weakness. I know that may be anathema in our industry, but your vulnerability connects you with others who are most assuredly feeling the same way. Be honest with yourself and others about what you do and don’t do well.

Activate yourself in your professional association of choice. Mine is the Legal Marketing Association. Volunteering, mentoring, speaking, writing, attending all keeps my energy up, informs me, keeps me smart(-ish), and makes me feel like I have significance.

Maintain a manageable clutch of go-to industry resources which keep you abreast of trends and concerns and issues.

Find those external markers that help you remain validated. Is there a community or professional board of which you can be a part? Is there a volunteer activity where your intelligence and agency and autonomy are valued and appreciated?

Remember what is actually important in your life. Our jobs define us and occupy far too much of our time. Our family and our friends are why we are here on this planet. Take care of the people who bring meaning to your life. Take time for the hobbies and shared activities that keep you sane. Otherwise, you are no good to yourself, your network, or your job.

That’s it. That’s what I’m thinking and feeling right now. I’m grateful to have a fabulous life that engages me, pushes me, stretches me too thin, but I need to be realistic about what can and can’t be accomplished in any given moment. I need to learn patience and to be more satisfied with the here and now.

I am a work-in-progress. I suspect you are too.

—————

Director of Marketing for Kerr Russell in Detroit, Roy Sexton has led strategic planning and marketing efforts for nearly twenty years in a number of industries, including health care, legal services, and fund raising. 
 

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