PHASE 1- Why marketing is BS

Alternate titles:

  • How to get promoted

  • How to advance your career

  • How to earn $1MM/year the traditional way

  • TITLE: "How to get to a $1MM/year role in marketing"

  • How to advance your marketing career to get to $1MM annual compensation or more

How to accelerate your marketing career to $1MM annual compensation

Lessons from my path to seven figures


This week’s newsletter is a little different. I have written a detailed essay on how to manage a marketing career and the path to get to $1MM in annual compensation. It is very long - far too long to be sent to gmail email addresses. So here is what I had to do:

This email contains the table of contents for the essay and a link to read the entire thing. Well almost the entire thing. The last section of the essay is on how to negotiate an offer. It contains some content that I am not comfortable sharing publicly. You will get an email immediately after this one with part six of the essay. I recommend reading the first five parts first but you are obviously free to do whatever you want. You could read it immediately while gorging on a quart of ice cream. I don’t recommend you do that either.

Thank you for being a subscriber, and I hope you find this useful. If you do, please share it with other people you know who are looking to accelerate their careers. 


Table of Contents:

  1. My Journey

  2. Why did I write this?

    1. Why a good career guide does not yet exist (until now)

    2. Opportunity cost

    3. Three types of career guides and incentive problems

  3. Which job do you want?

    1. Vices and Virtues

    2. The problem with “Purpose” (or “Ikigai”)

    3. Why Money Matters

      1. Money as a signal of responsibility and opportunity

      2. Compounding effect of money on your NEXT job

      3. How money gives you flexibility and leverage

    4. Co-branding yourself

      1. Why co-branding your career is better than “Personal Branding”

      2. How to co-brand your career and “partner with the best”

    5. Breadth not depth

      1. Marketing Standards Board

      2. Why all jobs become the same job

      3. Power of excess capacity

  4. When to switch jobs?

    1. 2year rule

    2. Be opportunistic and have patience

    3. Working with recruiters

      1. Two types of recruiters

      2. ALWAYS respond

      3. Be helpful

  5. Getting the job

    1. Deserve the job

      1. Solve the problem

      2. Do the important work

      3. Be a monopoly

    2. Earn the job

      1. Build the plan

      2. You are not a consultant

      3. How interviews work

  6. Negotiating the offer

    1. The hardest part for a reason

    2. Know what you are worth

    3. What if you don’t have a job?

    4. The change risk premium

    5. Rejecting offers

    6. Counter offer

    7. Negotiating equity

  7. Summary




  1. My Journey:


I grew up a middle-class kid in Canada. I went to a Canadian college and started my career as an Account Manager at P&G selling soap to restaurants. Somehow I managed to go to a top-tier US business school, get a job at McKinsey and fumble my way to becoming CMO at multiple Private Equity and venture-backed companies. For the last few years of my career, my annual compensation was over $1MM. After my last “exit” I realized our family had enough of a nest egg that I did not need to work again to maintain our relatively modest lifestyle. I went through a bit of an existential crisis trying to figure out how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Among other other things, I started spending more time writing. I now have a reasonably successful newsletter and a book coming out later this year. I also spend time helping friends and acquaintances manage their careers — especially during times of transition.


This article shares my advice on how to pursue an extraordinary marketing career (and hopefully most of these comments can transfer to other careers, as well). The biggest risk from this type of advice is the advisor simply explains how THEY were successful. There are two big problems with that approach:


  1. What works for one person does not work for all people. Knowing Einstein worked in a patent office is not going to help you develop the next theory of general relativity.


  1. Individuals tend to attribute too much of their success to their choices. Career success (and success in general) is based on a combination of (1) choices, (2) in-born (or long-developed) skills and talents, (3) effort, (4) opportunities, and (5) luck. Humans are primed to see things as cause and effect, and most successful people KNOW they worked hard and BELIEVE they made the right choices. Consciously or unconsciously, then, they underweight the luck and random opportunities that were outside their control. This is NOT to say choices and effort do not matter. It is too easy for people who are NOT as successful as they would like to look at those more successful and attribute it ALL to luck. The truth is it is a mix of all four drivers, but it means you need to look at all advice with a large grain of salt.


II. Why write this?


I’ve heard many people ask, “Why aren’t there more Ben Thompsons?” (author of Stratechery, and possibly the most successful newsletter written by an individual in the world). Ben writes brilliant analysis. He has accumulated somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60,000 subscribers paying $120/year each. After paying for his expenses and assistant, Ben is likely bringing home more than $7MM/year. Why aren’t more brilliant people following that path? There are 7 billion people in the world. There must be more people with the abilities and mindset of someone like Ben. Why aren’t there more Ben’s?


I think the answer is opportunity cost. If you have the ability to do what Ben did, you also have the ability to advance up most corporate ladders. You do not need to get to the top of the ladder to earn high six figures or even seven figures per year. To leave that a job paying $1MM/year to slowly build an audience feels impossible for anyone who cares about their compensation. As a result, most of the people writing about business on the internet are people who are trying to self-promote their own products (“shucksters” is the less complementary term) or people who have never held senior positions, have much lower opportunity cost, and are writing about business as outsiders.


Most career management guides that fall into three buckets:

  1. Guides written by human resources professionals on “how to manage your career”

  2. “Get rich” guides written by internet hustlers

  3. Cynical guides like “Career Warfare” that teach you how to play office politics


What is missing is a guide for traditional employees who want to accelerate their career to the executive ranks quickly AND ethically — and then continue to advance once in the executive suite. The people who could have written a book like that are too busy “doing the work” to spend the time and effort to create the guide. They have better things to do with their time.


I am a sucker for a gap in the marketplace. And it turns out that while I enjoy writing even more than I enjoy growing companies, I somehow managed to grow enough companies well enough for long enough that I have the financial flexibility to walk away from that opportunity cost and spend time doing the things I like. Like writing this document and giving it away for free.


I LIKE helping people grow their careers in ethical ways. And I have the financial flexibility now that I can do whatever I like doing. This is it.


III. Which job do you want?

When Charlie Songhurst (former head of strategy for Microsoft) was interviewed on “Invest Like the Best” he described three “vices” and three “virtues” that motivated people in their careers:


  • Money

  • Power

  • Fame


  • Impact

  • Intellectual interest

  • Working with people

Songhurst probes for the true motivations in everyone he interviews and even asks them to “stack rank” their vices. Until these options are articulated, most people tend to assume that other people share their own personal ranking, but different stack ranks naturally lend themselves to different jobs and careers.

There is a type of advice that says, “do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but advice like that is dangerous. For many people what they LOVE is not going to pay the bills and allow them do to other things that they LIKE (or avoid doing the things they DISLIKE). Taken to the extreme, “doing what you love” may result in someone spending their days painting, but then spending their evenings shoveling manure. To solve this dilemma, other advisors have created Venn diagrams like this:



The world would be great if everyone could find their “purpose” or “reason to get up in the morning” (a concept sometimes made more high brow by using the Japanese term “Ikigai”). For most of us, though, there will always be trade offs between the four drivers. And besides: what if you found something you love, that fit your strengths, that impacted the world, but you didn’t really like spending time with the people who were willing to pay you to do it? Or more cynically, what if your driving vices had more to do with power or fame than with money?

Here is my point: you need to decide what is important to you AND understand what the unspoken importance assumptions are for the people you are seeking advice from. If you care about becoming famous it doesn’t help to get advice on how to make more money working in a support role.

But I am also not the type to say, “all choices are equally valid.” Let me try and make the case that even if your motivations are the vices of power and fame, along with the virtues of people and impact, you should seriously consider increasing your weighting on the vice of money and the virtue of intellectual stimulation.


Why money matters, and not just for the money

I spent four summers in high school working at summer camps. Working at summer camps, even when you are sixteen, is NOT a way to maximize your monetary compensation. I believe in that first summer I was paid $40/week for a 24h/day job overseeing, entertaining and educating young people. After graduating from college, instead of spending a summer touring Europe, I decided I wanted to have one last experience working at a camp. I reached out to dozens of camps in the Northeastern United States looking for roles overseeing activities or running “counselor-in-training” programs. When it came time to commit, I negotiated hard for more money. That may seem like a funny thing to do. The difference between a “highly paid” role at camp and a “lowly paid” role is maybe $1000 over an entire summer, and I was about to enter a full-time professional job where, even at my entry level, I would be making that much in a week. Why argue for more pay?

(Aside: for many of you, the idea that I need to articulate the reasons why you should want to be paid more will seem insane. For many, “having more money is better than having less money” is the only reason you need. But, as crazy as it sounds, I think many people UNDERVALUE the benefits that come from having higher compensation)

I knew even then that what an organization was willing to pay for a role is a strong signal of the importance the organization sees for the role. WITHIN an organization, roles with more responsibility, authority, and opportunity for impact tend to pay more. In my experience, WITHIN an organization, the three vices (and to some extent the three virtues) are CORRELATED. The roles in an organization that are highest paid are also the roles that have the most authority (power), the most visible (fame), the most opportunity to have impact, be intellectually stimulating, and have control over who you spend your time with (“working with good people”). This is not always true, nor is the correlation 100%. But given the difficulty of understanding the dynamics of an organization from the outside, and given that any promises made with respect to authority, visibility, impact, intellectual stimulation and people are easily broken (or overstated), the one promise that you can be relatively guaranteed will be followed through on is how much they are going to pay you. If an organization is not willing to pay you more than the average of their other employees, there is a good chance your impact in the organization will be below the average of the other employees. The employee who is highest paid is often in the role that is best placed to influence the CEO and the entire organization. If you are being hired to be the #2 to the CEO and you are not the highest paid (other than the CEO) in the company, you may not be getting the role you are hoping for.

The second reason you want to be paid more is that compensation COMPOUNDS. Once you are making a given amount of money it is very rare for an organization to pay you less — and most organizations are set up to increase your pay each year by specific percentages for “given performance.” I was once in a situation where I had two employees with significantly different base compensations. One had a base of $180K and the other had a base of $110K. Both were at the same “level” and the lower paid manager had much stronger performance. So when it came time for compensation reviews the lower paid manager was given a 15% pay increase and the higher paid manager was given a 3% pay increase. Their new compensation was: $185K and $126K. Very few organizations like to give more than about a 15% pay increase in a given year (it often causes problems when they do — employees begin to think they were underpaid BEFORE, so sometimes higher pay increases result in INCREASED employee churn). Giving less than 3% for solid performance is often a signal of company issues rather than specific to the employee. So if the compensation of these two employees continued to increase at those rates, it would take five years for the lower paid, “higher performing” manager to overtake the middling “higher paid” manager.

More commonly you will leave a company before you catch up to a gap of that size. But when that happens the most common way companies set pay for new employees is to base pay off of the compensation of those employees in their old roles at their previous companies (with some sort of increase, say +20%). So whatever pay you get at any point in your career, that pay tends to be STICKY. Any time you can find a way to take a step-change in your pay, you are driving not just that year’s annual compensation, but a compound effect for the rest of your working life. Rapidly accelerating career compensation at +20%/year means $1000 today could mean $30K/year or more twenty years from now (Note the path from $100K to $1MM/year at +20% pay/year for 14 years).

But the most important reason you want to be paid more is for leverage and flexibility. Financial freedom is a function of spending less than you earn, and there are two obvious ways to make that happen. Assuming you are able to control your spending, each additional dollar you earn gives you more flexibility on what you do NEXT. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck you do not have the luxury of taking time off between jobs. The ability to take time off between jobs is the best leverage you have to ensure your next job ends up being the right job.

If you can’t afford to take any time off, you need to look for your next job while you are in your current job. This leads to two problems:

  1. You can’t afford to lose your job. If you do lose your job, you will need to find a new job quickly. Any time you are rushed you are likely to take something less than ideal. Because you can’t afford to lose your job, you will be under pressure to “play things safe” in your current role. Playing safe protects you from the downside (losing your job), but dramatically limits your upside

  2. When you are looking for a new role you can’t afford to have patience. If a new job comes along that is better than your current job, you will face strong internal pressure to take it at whatever terms you are offered (Assuming it is better than your current role). This reduces your leverage in future negotiations

The longer you are able to go maintaining your current lifestyle without the need for more income, the more leverage you have to take risks, and to negotiate harder to better roles, responsibilities — and income.


Co-branding yourself

A lot has been written about building a “personal brand,” and I strongly support the idea. Unfortunately, building a brand is HARD — much harder than most people, even brand marketers, realize. In addition to long-term consistency, it takes huge investments in driving awareness and getting attention to ensure your message is received. Most people who have a “personal brand,” just have a handful of people they know personally who understand what they are about. This is less “personal branding” and more “having a good reputation.” It is less similar to brand marketing and more similar to being good at sales.

Because of the difficulty building a brand, few people, even CEOs of large organizations, will ever really have one. Instead, the marketing lesson people should take from “branding” is to leverage bigger brands for your own benefit.

When I was a VP at Expedia, I could reach out to almost any organization and get a meeting. The Expedia brand was large and powerful, so many organizations were happy to discuss the idea of how we could work together. Most brands were smaller and less well known than Expedia, so linking their brand to ours gave them significant benefits. Deals succeeded or failed based on how much each side was willing to share in the value (potentially) created.

When I became CMO of A Place for Mom, things got a lot harder. Especially early on when no one had heard of us. It was difficult to get a call back. Any value in partnering with us was very transactional. There was no “halo” associated with our brand. The lack of perceived benefit is the biggest challenge with growing co-brand partnerships. If you don’t have a brand, no one is interested in co-branding with you. If you already have a brand, you are more likely to help the other brand more than you are being helped yourself. The best co-brand relationships happen when both brands are strong in different areas and they are combining to create something new (like say, Nacho Cheese Doritos at Taco Bell). But that does not help someone with no brand equity gain brand equity through partnerships. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “it’s not worth joining any club that will have you as a member.”

But INDIVIDUALS have a unique ability to co-brand that companies do not have. There are ample opportunities to co-brand yourself with powerful brands. The first place that happens in education.

A lot has been written about how schools and colleges create value (I recommend “The Case Against Education” by Bryan Caplan, and this piece by yours truly). There is much debate about the relative value of human capital creation, signalling and selection effect in driving graduate outcomes, but for this discussion I want to focus on “signalling”

In education theory, “signalling” means that by getting into, and graduating from, a school you have “signalled” to the market that you have what it takes to get into and graduate from that school — regardless of what you learned (or didn’t) while at the school. It explains a lot of the education dynamics in the world today, like why students are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend schools, but then get excited when a class is cancelled. They are paying largely for the signal their education is sending, rather than the skills they are developing at the school. In other words, they are “co-branding” their personal brand with that of the school.

If the only thing you knew about three job candidates was the school they graduated from (which, given the limited work experiences of most 22 year olds is mostly what you have), then you should not be faulted for assuming the candidate from the “better branded” school is the better choice for your organization. OBVIOUSLY this is not the final answer for your staffing challenges. You will want to interview the candidates, assess their intelligence for yourself, determine their passion for your company’s mission, figure out if they will fit in with your company culture, and maybe even assess their skills and temperament for the role you specifically are looking to fill. But having a great school on your resume is VERY HELPFUL early in your career — and it is one of the few things you can do when you are 18 years old that will still be on your resume when you are a 60 year old CEO of a publicly traded company.

So far that advice is fairly banal: “Go to the best school you can get into,” is neither particularly insightful nor counter-intuitive. But the important idea is that going to as good a school as possible is your first step in “co-branding” your personal brand. The next opportunity is your first job. Every job you take you are co-branding yourself with the organization you join.

It would be difficult for A Place for Mom (a small brand) to co-brand itself with Expedia (a large brand), but it is a lot easier for Edward Nevraumont (a small “personal brand”) to co-brand himself with Expedia. Last time I checked, there were over 24,000 “personal brands” currently co-branding themselves with Expedia.

Obviously not every co-brand is created equal. Dean’s list at Harvard is a better “co-brand” than “attended Harvard.” CMO at Expedia is a better “co-brand” than “assistant to the local marketing manager in Portland, Maine.” For entry-level roles, the company you are co-branding with usually matters more than your particular role.

So what makes a good company to co-brand with? In many ways it is the same as the criteria for a good school to co-brand with: The more exclusive the better. While there are lots of rankings of schools, at the end of the day, the value of the co-brand is, assuming a minimum size of school, really a function of the acceptance rate of the school. Here are the top 10 schools in America by lowest acceptance rate:

School Name

2018-2019 Acceptance Rate

Harvard University


Columbia University


Duke University


Princeton University


University of Chicago


Yale University


Vanderbilt University


Massachusetts Institute of Technology




University of Pennsylvania



That list is as good as any ranking system from Forbes or US News and World Report. Where it does not match our intuition (Should MIT really be below Vanderbuilt? Where is Stanford?), there are usually good explanations (MIT and CalTech have much lower application rates — people who know they are not going to get in do not apply, so their “exclusivity” is higher than the acceptance rate suggests; Stanford is missing because they do not disclose their acceptance rate). Exclusivity is a very good proxy for the power of a brand. Exclusivity explains why so many of these elite schools have not caved to criticism that they should be letting in more students — that would defeat the entire point of the brand they have spent decades or centuries building.


I don’t know of any media publication that ranks companies the same way US News ranks universities, but you could get a rough idea of the co-brand value of a company by considering how hard it is to get a job there. The best example of that comes from the teaching profession.

In 2011, McKinsey did a worldwide study of education systems and tried to determine the drivers of a top-performing system. They found four important “themes” which drove success: decentralization, a focus on under-performing pupils, school choice, and “high standard for teachers.” The last theme is particularly relevant to the concept of co-branding careers. Teachers in America tend to be both respected and disrespected at the same