How to Fail as an Assistant Brand Manager

Every year, CPG companies hire thousands of the best and brightest to become Assistant Brand Managers.  Usually, there are big recruiting events that generate hundreds of resumes or companies use recruiters to send the best resumes they have.  The process for screening can be intense with  5+ interviews, including senior people, sometimes a test or a presentation to a group.   And yet, about 50% of ABMs won’t even make it to Brand Manager within the 2-3 years and out they go.  It’s a tough up or out process.

Here are the top 10 reasons why ABMs fail:
  1. They can’t do the analytical story tell.  They fail to turn monthly share reports into stories that can travel up the organization.  Their deep dive analysis is either too complicated that no one can follow the story or too shallow that they only do the “surface cleaning” type analysis that never really finds the real insight, just what we already know.
  2. They struggle to deal with the ambiguity of marketing.  The ambiguity boxes them in where they can’t think differently about a problem or it causes them personal stress.  They come up with solutions to get out of ambiguity rather than reveling in the ambiguity to find the best solution.  I once asked a candidate “how do you deal with ambiguity”.   Her answer was “I try to organize it because no one likes ambiguity”.   She asked me how I deal with ambiguity and I said “I revel in it.  I love it.  I struggle with it.  And let the ambiguity eat away at me until I find that great answer, not just settling for an answer because it gets me out of the ambiguity faster.”
  3. They are slow at moving projects through.  They struggle to make it happen:  could be that they are indecisive, not productive, disorganized or can’t work through others.  They are frustratingly slow for others.  They keep missing the small milestones causing the team to miss the deadlines.   In some cases, it’s not whether you are slow or fast, but really are you slower than your peers?
  4. They selfishly think about themselves.  This becomes the leadership derailer.  It’s about ego, gossip, over-stepping their role, going above heads politically.  Highly political, but not really politically astute.  Not a team player with peers or cross functional players.  The system has a way of isolating these people.  This raises a red flag for future leadership roles.
  5. They don’t work well through others.   Conflicts, teamwork issues, communication.  The odd thing about an ABM is you must work through a group of subject matter experts (SME’s) who know what they are doing, and you’re relying on these same people to teach you how to be a good ABM.   Your supply manager will teach you about forecasting, packaging approvals and even design tricks.  Your finance manager can teach you about accounting and the key indicators management looks for.  Your promo manager or trade marketers will teach you about customers, sales people etc.   If you don’t use these people to enhance your skill, you’ll eventually crash and burn. The collection of SME’s will likely teach you more about marketing than your boss will.  And if they can’t work with you, they’ll also be the first to destroy your career.
  6. They miss answers by not being flexible.  They fail to find the balance between what the head thinks, what your heart feels or even what the gut tells you.  When an ABM is questioned, a senior manager can tell if they have struggled enough with a problem to get to the rich solution or whether they just did the adequate thinking to get to an “ok” solution.   The style of a good senior manager’s questions is not always information gathering but rather designed to poke holes in the story to see that the deep rich thinking and even the appropriate struggling has gone on.
  7. They fall for tactical programs that are off strategy.  This becomes a tell-tale sign that they won’t make it to Brand Manager, where you will own the strategy.  They deviate from the strategy to choose the coolest tactic that has nothing to do with the goals or strategy.  You become the great executor, but not the thinker needed.  Marketing is a balance of strategy and execution.
  8. They hold back from making contributions to the team strategy.  Just a do-er.  They don’t proactively provide a point of view on strategy.   They don’t show the ownership needed to become a brand manager and people start to wonder if it’s in there or not.
  9. They settle for “good” rather than pushing for “great”.  While  of ABM jobs are executional, if there becomes a pattern where they just take the “ok” ideas, it begins to look as they don’t care enough.  If they aren’t passionate enough to push back, will they be able to do so later in their career.
  10. They are poor communicators, with manager, senior management or partners.  They fail to adequately warn when there’s potential problems.   They leave their manager in the dark.  They confuse partners because they don’t keep them aware of what’s going on.

The big question is what do you do about it.  On day 1, everyone has all ten of these derailers, some that you can easily over-come but others will take the full two to three years to really fix.  What really separates “great” from the “ok” is what you’re willing to do with these.  Those who seek out feedback, welcome it and act on it will be the successful ones.  I hope that your company has a process of giving feedback or that you get lucky to have a manager that cares about your career and is willing to give you the tough feedback.  But if not, seek it.  Be honest with yourself and try to fix one of these per quarter.   And grow into the role of Brand Manager before you get promoted.   

Best of luck to you.  I do hope you get promoted to Brand Manager. 

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.


9 thoughts on “How to Fail as an Assistant Brand Manager

  1. Graham this is so true! Do they have a “Love” button? I’m going to make your blog posts required reading for my Brand Management class! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Graham I loved your insight on Marketing Directors and although “Failing as an Assistant Brand Manager rings true I do ask myself what was their line manager doing during all of this? Which rewinds to your insights on Brand Managers taking 7 attempts (?) to be a succesful manager! Hence we need flatter marketing structures with more direct report to greater marketing leaders. Only issue is that the ABM ego of being 1 of 7 reporting to a Marketing Manager may get in the way!!

    • Mark, I always insisted on quarterly performance reviews with ABMs and BMs, because they were potentially growing so fast that annual reviews were not keeping pace. It forces the discussion on what you’re doing well….but even more importantly, what are the gaps to focus on. Once identified and worked on, I think a great abm should be able to close one of these gaps in the next quarter…and then identify another one from there. People that want to grow, will listen…and want someone to identify these gaps. A manager that just sits there is worthless to the process.

  3. Thought this was going to be a spoof article when I saw the headline! Great read…not just for ABM’s but all managers in the marketing field. Perhaps those in charge will do some soul-searching as well.

  4. You hit the nail on the head on several points. They settle for good, not “great”. They are poor communicators. They are slow at hitting the small deadlines that affect an overall project.
    I have one to add–they stop thinking when the clock hits 5pm. I want my BM and ABMs to keep churning away at a problem and identify possibilities after they go home for the day. I’m not asking them to actually do work and catch up on the laptop (although G-d knows they would benefit by doing some after hours work)…I’m asking them to THINK and mull things over. The next day, they have a head start on a potential solution.

    • Mik, I agree with you….it’s not the hours you put in….but for this profession, it should consume you. And that’s not a mandate, but just a reality because there are so many of us. I remember being out for a walk one night with my wife, and i was going on and on, when she said “I’m starting to think YOU are Listerine”.

      I believe that if you let it consume you, you’d never put out work that was less than amazing. You have to love what you do for the consumer to love your brand.

  5. Great read! Should be mandatory reading for all new ABMs – it is such an exciting time when starting in the business – this would help with long term goals and training strategies.

  6. I am not an “ABM” per se, and certainly not in CPG, but I can see how the principles of these apply in my new marketing role in a leading FI. I will certainly revisit as the months go on to see how I am progressing. And yes, I think the ambiguity will be a strong focus for me. 🙂

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