How to be a Great Assistant Brand Manager…and of course, get Promoted

Brand Leadership
In my 20 years of CPG marketing, I must have interviewed 1,000 potential Assistant Brand Managers.  I was lucky to have hired some of the best, who have gone on to have very strong marketing careers.  I became notorious for asking for some of the toughest questions, some even bizarre.  I always asked an analytical question to see if they could piece together lots of data and tell a story that made sense.  I’d ask a creative question to see if they had a certain flare and pride in the output.   I’d ask a problem solving question, some very hard, no real right answer, but I wanted to see how they actually think.   And finally, I wanted to know that they had done something at a very high level–it didn’t matter what–but I wanted to know they could make it happen, whatever it was in.  Getting that first ABM job is NOT EASY!   I had many failed interviews over the years that I began to wonder if it would ever happen.  I remember one interview ended after about 8 minutes when she found out I didn’t have any experience.  Thank god, I stuck with it.

But even after gruelling interviews, only about 50% of Assistant Brand Managers get promoted to Brand Manager.  So what separates the ok ABM from the great ABM that gets promoted?  There are two factors that I have seen in a consistent manner:  #1:  They get what they need and #2:  What they need is the right thing to do.   Very simply put, great ABMs get both.   The rest either fail on #1 or #2.    

Keep in mind there are some core marketing values you want to adopt over the years as an ABM that will serve you well in your career.

  • Hit the Deadlines:  Don’t Look Out of Control.  We have enough to do, that things will just stockpile on each other.  Missing deadlines makes you look sloppy.
  • Know Your Business:  Don’t Get Caught Off-Guard. Make sure you are asking the questions and carrying forward the knowledge.
  • Open Communication:  No Surprises. Make sure you keep your team informed  and involved.   Don’t hide information, present it upwards with an action plan of what to do with it.
  • Control Our Destiny:  We run the brands, they do not run us.  When we don’t know something, speak in an “asking way”, but when we know, speak in a “telling way”.  While it’s crucial that we seek to understand, it’s equally important that we know our role as leaders is to give direction or push towards the end path.
  • Let’s Celebrate Our Wins:  Love What You Do.  These are tough jobs.  It has to be the passion for what we do that keeps us going. Passion that separates great from “ok”.
  • Everything Can use Process:  It should enable us, not hinder us.  A good process can force your thinking towards a solution.  If it restricts your thinking, it’s not a good process.  But if it means, you free up your time for strategic thinking, instead of format thinking, we’ll move much faster.
  • Continuous Ideas:  We Implement 1 in 100 ideas we have. There is a need for more ideas so the ideas we implement are the best we have.  Never be afraid of an idea, but always be willing to say “what a crap idea”.
  • Regular Feedback for Growth:  That’s the only way we get better. You should always take feedback, good or bad, as a lesson for you.  Not a personal attack or setback.  Seek it, embrace it and build on it for your future.

The Five Factors that Separate Ok ABMs from the Great ABMs are:

  1. A great ABM is able to tell stories, where others just see data:  There is tons of data all over—share results, tracking, test scores, etc.  One of the most critical skill an ABM can work on is developing stories with the data.  It’s one thing to have the data point, but another to have thought it through and know what it means, and what action you will take on this data. When you come across data, the best thing you can do is look for patterns or data breaks, try to twist the data in different ways to see if you keep getting the same story, ask questions to find back up, start putting together stories and challenge the stories.  Never give a data point without a story or action. You risk letting someone else take your data and run with it.  Never fear bad data, as long as you have an action plan.   Never twist the data to tell a story, because if it’s challenged, the whole story crumbles with it.  This skill is one that you carry with you as you move upwards in marketing.  In fact, the more practice you have, the faster you’ll become.
  2. A great ABM takes action and moves before being asked:  Most of the projects are already set for an ABM, so many times, it’s comfortable to wait, ask the right questions and proceed.  That’s good for learning, but a bit too cautious.  Some of the best ideas come with a fresh set of eyes.  We need a continual influx of new ideas and even new ways of seeing things.  You need to push your ideas into the system. While it’s still key to communicate to the right stakeholders, you should be pushing your ideas into the system, which almost creates new projects.  Don’t get into the mode of waiting or figuring that’s not within your job scope.
  3. A great ABM can get what they want:  It’s obvious that project management is a big part of being an ABM.  But, instead of just functionally managing the steps of the project, you need to make it happen, faster, bigger and better.  In terms of speed, you need to understand what are the important milestones that need to be hit.  Always think in terms of key bottle necks.  Bottle necks are simply the task that has the longest completion time, which then impacts the entire project.  If you let this slip, the entire project slips.  This has to be managed in detail, but also many times with an inflexible fist to getting it done.  Bigger means you want to do more then is required.  Make the work zing, find the wow factor, and make it have a bigger impact then was  expected.  Better means you have to take the same people and get them to give their best ideas or their best effort or their best work. Guaranteed you will meet many points of resistance.  Every project will.  Solving these and still getting the most you can, is the separation of good from great.
  4. A great ABM puts their strategic thoughts forward.  All great ideas must flow upwards.  Most people tend to think they are “strategic”…and they tell me that all the time.  After all these years, I’m still not even sure what that means.  But I do know there is a big difference between thinking strategically, and contributing strategically. You need to be in the frame to challenge thinking, whether it comes from your agency, cross functional peers or me.  It’s important that you speak up and represent your thinking.  Standing up for your thoughts shows that you are in the game, that you are thinking, and that you believe in your strategic thoughts.  If you don’t stand up for your thoughts, then it doesn’t really matter does it? Also, it’s so easy to get lost in the daily executions, but you have to be constantly thinking.  Keeping things aligned to the strategic is just as important as being strategic.
  5. A great ABM is accountable in the ownership of their work:  Accountability is the stepping stone to ownership.  And ownership is what being a Brand Manager is all about.  You cannot let things slip or miss.  Many times, the devil is in the details.  You have to stay on top of the timelines and lead those on your project teams.  If you have to step in, and work hand in hand with an expert then jump in.  You have to be action oriented, and solution focused.  You can never allow your team to get stuck.  They will be looking to you for the ingenuity to help solve the problem.  Maintain the composure, ask questions and learn to revel in the ambiguity. You have to be the hub of communication to all team members, and to key stakeholders, including upwards.

If you can do those better than your peers, then you’ll get promoted.  Conversely, if you’re missing any one of these, you might not get there.  I hope your boss gives you a quarterly review because I believe ABMs can grow so fast that you need those regular check-ins.   If you just get an annual review, you won’t go as fast.  Ask for feedback, cherish it, and use the next 90 days to build on a strength or eliminate a gap.

One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve.  The basic rule is: You get dumber before you get smarter.     When you first land the ABM job, there’s just so much to learn, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day.  It’s over-whelming at first, and yet you see all these other ABMs doing it so that’s even more intimidating.  But the idiot curve is inevitable.   It just shows up differently for each person.  No matter how hard you fight it, you have to ride the curve.  (But, please fight through the curve, you have to for your survival)  The idiot curve.  normally lasts up to 3 months, and then things just start to click.   And you’ll experience it in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict.  

Here’s a presentation on Successful Marketing Careers:  

Other Roles You May Be Interested In
  • Brand Manager:  It becomes about ownership and strategic thinking within your brand plan.  Most Brand Managers are honestly a disaster with their first direct report, and get better around the fifth report.  The good ones let the ABM do their job; the bad ones jump in too much, frustrated and impatient rather than acting as a teacher.  To read about being a successful Brand Manager, read:  How to be a Successful Brand Manager
  • Marketing Director:  It’s more about managing and leading than it does about thinking and doing.  Your role is to set the standard and then hold everyone to that standard.  To be great, you need to motivate the greatness from your team and let your best players to do their absolute best.  Let your best people shine, grow and push you.  Follow this hyper link to read more:   How to be a Successful Marketing Director
  • VP Marketing or CMO:  It’s about leadership, vision and getting the most from people.  If you are good at it, you won’t need to do any marketing, other than challenging and guiding your people to do their best work. You have to deliver the results, and very few figure out the equation that the better the people means the better the work and in the end the better the results. Invest in training as a way to motivate your team and keep them engaged.  Use teaching moments to share your wisdom. Read the following article for how to be a success:  How to be a Successful VP of Marketing
Other Stories You Might Like
  1. How to Write a Monthly Report: One of the first tasks they assign the ABM is writing the monthly sales and share report.  Not only is a necessity of the business, but it’s your best training ground for doing a deep dive on analytics and strategic writing.   To read how to write a Monthly Report, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write a Monthly Report
  2. How to Write a Brand Positioning Statement.  Before you even get into the creative brief, you should be looking at target, benefits and reason to believe.   To read how to write a Brand Positioning Statement, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write an Effective Brand Positioning Statement
  3. Turning Brand Love into Power and Profits:  The positioning statement sets up the promise that kick starts the connection between the brand and consumer.  There are four other factors that connect:  brand strategy, communication, innovation and experience.   The connectivity is a source of power that can be leveraged into deeper profitability.  To read more click on the hyper link:  Love = Power = Profits 

Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center

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About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at so we can stay connected.


16 thoughts on “How to be a Great Assistant Brand Manager…and of course, get Promoted

  1. That is a fantastic article and i would like to congratulate you Graham for sharing your experience. all what is said inside this article is very important and shall be take in consideration by all those who aspired to be a great BM. My only contribution is that, Find solution and being entrepeneurship are capabilities that could rapidly give you a promotion to a BM position .

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  4. This was a very timely article for me. I graduated with an MBA in marketing and have been trying to break into brand marketing after a career as a retail manager. I’m having a difficult time because most positions require experience, which I do not have. Can you point me to a resource that would help me overcome this hurdle. thanks.

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  7. This article is PERFECT!… I am a young college gradate with a Business Marketing Degree and have DREAMS of working my way up to being a Brand Manager. I know I have ways to go, but reading this put a Smile on my face. Thank you very much Graham Robertson. – Alton St.Rose

  8. Pingback: How to get an Assistant Brand Manager job | Beloved Brands

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