Everyone is touting career advice these days, from bloggers to authors to social media pundits. 


But for those of us who’ve worked hard to find success, true nuggets of career wisdom are more than just inspirational platitudes—they’re career-defining mantras.


Marketing News tapped 12 industry leaders, from advertisers to academics, to share the advice that’s guided them throughout their careers. Read on for the indispensable wisdoms and hard-won lessons that have formed the foundation of their success. They might just propel you to make the next big career leap.


Diana Smith, Director of Marketing, Segment


Diana Smith used to comb through customer support call records looking for insights in user frustrations and questions. As a marketer, she knew that customer feedback would be the currency with which she could buy into the user experience conversation. “In marketing you’re always trying to get a certain message to a certain audience, but a lot of people think too much about themselves. […] It’s really important to have empathy.”  


Smith became adept at understanding the interests of her audience when she worked in public relations. Earning media for clients wasn’t a matter of asking for placement in a newspaper, it was about demonstrating value for journalists. The same follows for marketing, she says. “We talk a lot at Segment about how we can write utilitarian content for people.” Smith applied that philosophy when she overhauled the company’s blog. When she found it, the blog was a mixed bag of content, trying to do too many different things at once. She reined it in by figuring out what brought readers to the site, what they wanted to read, and producing more of it.


“Empathy will always come back to interpersonal connections” – Diana Smith


Cathy Davis, Executive Vice President, Leo Burnett

Six years ago, Cathy Davis saw the rise of social media and decided she wanted to learn it, experience it and master it. She didn’t know anyone who was any good at it, so she bought Twitter for Dummies. Today, she has 20,000 followers and has been named on the Forbes Must-follow Marketing Minds list. Although sending her first tweet was scary—“I was horrified. I thought, What if I say something people don’t like? What if I sound stupid?”—Davis followed her own advice and learned by pushing herself to try the things she wasn’t comfortable doing. With the disruption that nearly every industry is facing as the world becomes more mobile, Davis says that stretching your limits will make you better, smarter and more equipped to deal with change.


“Change used to be incremental. It’s exponential now, and you need to get out in front of it.” – Cathy Davis


Chris Wollen, CMO, Droga5


Chris Wollen, a self-professed ski bum who hadn’t yet started climbing the corporate ladder, was working in a Colorado hotel when a guest asked him to fax some advertising storyboards to New York. Wollen followed the revisions and iterations of the story throughout the guest’s stay, and by the end, his interest was piqued. Before the guest checked out, Wollen made him an offer: a beer for some candid conversation about the advertising industry. 


After his chat with the guest, Wollen headed east with a plan to make a profession out of answering the questions that mattered to him: What moves people? What makes them get up in the morning? “I found so interesting the fact that [the answers to those questions] could have a business result,” he says.


At BBH New York, Wollen got the chance to answer those questions in a big way when he took over what was, at the time, a flagship account for the agency. His predecessor, who briefed him on the client, gave him perhaps the simplest but truest advice he’d use in this industry: “In a cheeky way, he said, ‘The only thing that matters is that you do great work,’ ” Wollen recalls. At the time, the guidance seemed nebulous, but Wollen came to appreciate how accurate it was and how it has only become truer as the industry has evolved. “We live in a world now where consumers can fast-forward,” he says. “You have to create a brand that people want to pay attention to. If you think about a lot of the ads we see right now, they might be informative … but do they really speak to you? Do you really care? Or is it just a lot of noise? A lot of what we make doesn’t get attention. If you confront that, you’ll hold your work to a much higher standard.”


“The only thing that matters is that you do great work.” – Chris Wollen



Rohit Bhargava, Founder, Influential Marketing Group


In Australia, where Rohit Bhargava spent two years working for Leo Burnett, it’s common practice to sit in the front seat of a cab—a symbolic way of saying that you and the driver are equals. For Bhargava, this small gesture is just one example of the many daily interactions that can help you build and enforce your ideals, both professional and personal. “Reputation is something you spend a long time building for yourself, and every interaction has the ability to increase it or decrease it,” he says.


Bhargava has earned his reputation as a marketing expert by providing high-level strategy consulting and publishing forward-looking content for business decision making. His 15 Trends book series inspired a workshop, increasing his recognition as a thought leader. After more than 10 years developing the insights and gaining the experience he needed to be a valued advisor, he decided to go into business for himself in 2012. 


Risk-taking is often a practice of the young, but Bhargava says that the older he gets, the more comfortable he’s become with taking smart risks. Influential Marketing Group’s success would have been a lot more precarious had Bhargava not founded it knowing exactly where his first five clients would come from, and that certainty is the direct result of his commitment to a humble reputation. “I heard someone say, ‘If you meet someone who is nice to you but mean to the waiter, they’re not a nice person,’ ” says Bhargava. “I think the way you treat people—no matter how big you get or how many stages you spend time on—is a big part of the reputation you build for yourself.” 


“Reputation is something you spend a long time building for yourself, and every interaction has the ability to increase it or decrease it.” -Rohit Bhargava



Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist, Salesforce


Vala Afshar’s life changed at a Salesforce conference in 2010. Before he was ever tasked with digital evangelism for the CRM powerhouse, Afshar was one of its clients. He had won awards for sales and customer service, but the day he heard CEO Marc Benioff tout the game-changing advantages of social networking for business made him question how effective he really was at converting operational excellence into customer satisfaction. “I realized as much as I was an accessible manager—I would walk around the office and use traditional communication methods—I didn’t have continuous and long-lasting relationships with customers and partners using technologies or social networks,” Afshar says. To best serve the customer, Benioff had said, Afshar needed a deeper understanding of his internal customers. He needed to be knowledgeable and share that knowledge. 


In less than five years, Afshar went from having no digital footprint to recognition as the most influential CMO on Twitter by Venture Beat, one of InformationWeek’s top 10 social business leaders, and the No. 2 most retweeted digital marketer by TopRank Online Marketing. It may seem like a giant leap, but Afshar says the process was incremental. “I consider myself an introvert, and I needed those baby steps before feeling I could add value to folks outside [my business],” Afshar says. “The only way you can score is if you’re in the game, so you have to have the courage to suit up. If you’re in business, you have to go where the conversation is. In this digital era, your customers are connected [online].” 


In this connected-customer revolution, as Afshar calls it, the challenge for marketers is how to be where the customers are and how to intelligently add value to the conversation. According to Pew Research Center, nearly 75% of adults are online daily, almost a quarter of them report being constantly connected. For Afshar, that makes the Web the battleground for customer experience, and the only way to gain ground there is to take the first step and seize it. 


“The only way you can score is if you’re in the game, so you have to have the courage to suit up.” – Vala Afshar


John Young, Senior Vice President of Analytic Consulting, Epsilon


When John Young first interviewed at Epsilon, he was rejected. Coming from an economics background, he foresaw the demand for analytics professionals and knew he could be a valuable part of that. He just had to convince the global marketing company of the same.


What he lacked in a marketing background, he made up for with a clear objective. He made incremental moves to set himself up for his next opportunity with Epsilon, which came in 1994 after he’d spent some time applying quantitative techniques to direct mail campaigns with Digitas (then Bronner Slosberg Humphrey). This time Young got the job, but he found that communicating value would continue to be imperative in his career. “I learned you can’t give up believing in yourself and being your own biggest advocate because no one else will do it for you,” he says.


Young says the ability to tell stories and evangelize your work is a critical enabler that will mean a big difference in marketers’ success, particularly those working in analytics. “Those who thrive in this business can put what they produce in terms customers can understand and get excited about,” he says. “It’s not enough to be a quant jock.”


“You can’t give up believing in yourself and being your own biggest advocate because no one else will do it for you.” – John Young



John Osborn, CEO, BBDO


Growing up, John Osborn—the CEO of BBDO New York—learned responsibility as the man of his three-person household. “[That experience] imprinted on me … what it means to live in an era of responsibility, what your word truly means and living up to it,” Osborn says.


When defining his personal brand as an adult, it’s important that he lives up to his own product description, so to speak. That means tempering his appetite for purpose-driven work in the interest of following through on a few projects rather than scratching the surface of many. “One of my own learnings has been to be honest with myself and make sure I’m keeping my focus on those things I can influence in the most significant way,” he says. “I’ve learned there are things you can really affect, and things you can’t. As an individual, I can’t be a salve for the world economy, but I can focus my limited energy and time on those things I can influence.”


At BBDO, Osborn has focused his energy on learning from every experience, whether that lesson is how to bounce back from adversity (BBDO lost three Proctor & Gamble brands and Bud Light last year but recovered with Toys ‘R’ Us, Subway and Priceline, among others) or that success has no finish line. After nearly 30 years in advertising, Osborn admits he still doesn’t know it all. “Just when you think you’ve wrapped your head around something, the world moves forward,” he says.


“Make sure to be a part of [your] journey in the moment—rather than focusing on the destination—because the journey is everything.” – John Osborn



Gabrielle Martinez, Managing Partner, AgencyEA


Gabrielle Martinez always wanted to find a way to connect with others. She came from a family of entrepreneurs, and whether she was at her grandfather’s cobbler shop or the family restaurant, she learned first-hand to take initiative and write her own success story.


Although her company, AgencyEA, now serves such clients as the Obamas, Target and GE, Martinez’s goals were once less defined and her determination a bit misdirected. She left law school after her first year—an important step that forced her to reaffirm her passions. “Those passions and my natural strengths are the … pillars I have built my business on,” she says. 


Martinez returned to her roots, in a sense. She applied her background in event planning to work as an experiential and event marketer. AgencyEA differentiates itself by pushing the boundaries of creativity, and Martinez reflects that relentless pursuit in her best piece of advice:


“With hard work, grit and a positive mindset, anything can be achieved.” – Gabrielle Martinez




Lauren McCadney, Director of Digital Engagement and Social Media, CDW


Someone said to Lauren McCadney recently, “You really love social media.” A harmless enough comment for CDW’s director of digital engagement and social media, but to McCadney that evaluation was short-sighted. “I don’t love social media,” she thought. “I love marketing and the whole idea of persuasion, and I’m going to go wherever the customer in the market takes me.


“One of the things I haven’t done is define my career by just one aspect of what it means to market or persuade,” she says. “Stay curious, and don’t settle.”


One of McCadney’s mottos is “inspect what you expect,” meaning that every assumption deserves to be proven, and proven again if the proof is dated. When she came to CDW, McCadney led marketing for small businesses and was working with lots of one-person IT teams. What she found when she conducted focus groups with them was that they did not want to talk to the moderator, but rather, they talked to one another. “The lightbulb went on for me,” McCadney says. “It was very clear among small businesses that there was a desire to talk to their peers, share stories, gather learnings and offer their perspective to help someone else along.” McCadney predicted that conversation would eventually live online and that CDW would need to think differently about where and how it engaged with customers.


McCadney continues to inspect not just CDW’s customers and how their needs are changing, but the needs of her profession and how she can adjust to meet them. “The industry has changed so incredibly much since I started, and I’ve tried to change along with it.”


“Stay curious, and don’t settle.” – Lauren McCadney


Deborah Small, Professor of Marketing and Psychology, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania


Deborah Small earned her Ph.D. in behavioral decision sciences after studying the science of decision making as an undergrad, at a time when the field was small and relatively unknown. (Her friends and relatives assumed she was trying to be the next Sigmund Freud.) She was intrigued by the application of decision-making insights. “I never intended to end up in marketing, but as I learned more about the field it became increasingly apparent that it was a logical direction to go in.”


Particularly in business, there is a desire for applying action-oriented insights, but those applications are only as sound as the methodology they are based on, Small says.


“There are a lot of marketing gurus and self-help books purporting to tell you how to be a good marketer. Their ideas might be good, but we don’t know unless we test them.” – Deborah Small



Andy Crestodina, Co-founder and Strategic Director, Orbit Media Studios


At 43, one of Andy Crestodina’s biggest regrets is that he didn’t start Facebook. He was in college when the Internet was born. Had he started earlier, he could have 100,000 Twitter followers by now. “I love what I do, but in hindsight, we all could have begun sooner and grown a larger audience more quickly had we been paying attention,” he says. Generation X has some of the biggest regrets because they were all there when social media was born, and any of them could have started it. At the same time, they’re all self-taught, says Crestodina, so they have the confidence to learn new skills. Crestodina has made a practice of identifying the skills he’ll need tomorrow and learning them today. Or in his own words, “I have 2,400 hours this year. Where will I be after 2,400 hours? Last year doesn’t matter. All that matters are the opportunities in front of you.”


Orbit Media used to be the name of Crestodina’s shuttered comic book business. Today it’s an award-winning Web design and development firm. Initially, Orbit was delivering Web design for clients, but Crestodina realized quickly that he needed to improve SEO and track analytics to truly create value. Half a decade later, he saw his clients’ need for more touchpoints with communication, so he incorporated blogging and newsletters into the business. All these tactics came together as content marketing. “It wasn’t a real plan. I was an early practitioner who … built audiences and evolved as a teacher,” he says. 


A critical element of this evolution has been Crestodina’s willingness to constantly revisit common knowledge, and he recommends that all marketers do the same. “I watch people make decisions based on preference every day without understanding the risk of that,” he says.  


He may not have launched the first great social media platform—admittedly, he showed up late to the social media party even as a user—but Crestodina has built a reputation as a marketing expert and influencer.


“All that matters are opportunities in front of you.” -Andy Crestodina



Kimi Abdullah, Director of Marketing and Operations, Creative Niche


Whenever Kimi Abdullah has stared down a professional risk, she’s always asked herself one question: What’s the worst that could happen? Abdullah began her career with Creative Niche working behind the front desk, and through a series of opportunities she took the chances that landed her in the marketing department.


The company had no marketing function when Abdullah joined, which meant everything from e-newsletters to sales enablement was an experiment. “We’re a small company, so a lot of our growth relies on our team’s ability to be resourceful and their willingness to jump in and try new things,” she says. Being something of a perfectionist, Abdullah initially approached her work with an apprehension for tasks she wasn’t sure she’d excel at. “I think fear of not knowing something or not doing it right really holds us back,” she says. “I really had to train myself out of that.”


In just under 10 years, Abdullah has carved out her place at Creative Niche. Along the way, she may have watched her peers in other businesses and industries chase the same goals down different paths or at different speeds, but she’s also shed her anxiety about her progress along the way. “We have a tendency to compare ourselves to other people, but the truth is that everyone’s on their own journey,” she says. “The most important thing is to serve your brand and company by putting in your best effort, finding solutions and making change happen, and all the rest will follow.”