In a world where people are brands and social media is a personal rooftop equipped with a virtual microphone, how does one balance sensible personal branding with shameless self promotion?
Jeff Bezos famously said that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Building on that, I would say that personal branding is about improving the chances that people say the right things about you—by curating and putting out the appropriate pieces of information about yourself.
If we make our personal brand purely about self-promotion, we will not find too many takers. What we need to be is of value to a relevant group of people out there. And that is where thought leadership, that other buzz term related to personal branding, comes in. When we have insight into or a fresh perspective on a subject, and we share it, we start becoming thought leaders.
One can share one’s expertise through talks, blogs and articles. And, in the case of ad professionals, one can share one’s prowess through the latest work of one’s agency. And once in a while, if there’s an award you’ve won, showcase it. Though please don’t say you’re ‘humbled’ by the award. That is patently fake. What you’re saying is that the award made you feel small—which doesn’t add up. You most likely spent money to enter a competition in the hopes of winning the award. So you must be really proud you won it. Be honest about it. You’re not fooling anyone! We often hear the advice that we should be authentic—which this humble mumble certainly is not.
At a broader level, authenticity is about not having a cookie-cutter social profile. To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ To avoid being one of those people, we need to make sure we have in-depth knowledge about our field. Only then would we be able to offer unique insights into or perspectives on it. Of course, this kind of originality requires hard work.
The other pillar of authenticity is avoiding exaggeration. Many people take personal branding as a licence to inflate their achievements. Like some of resumes that we have come across. Or even written. In the short run it can yield results. But in the long run, if you create a hollow, inflated avatar of yourself, you get caught out.
George Orwell, the author of the novel Nineteen Eighty-four (which many ad professionals know from the reference to it in the classic Apple ad) was a believer in authenticity. He said: The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.’ So keep it simple, keep it honest. Big Brother is watching you!
These days it is almost impossible to talk about personal branding without bringing in social media. But personal branding is not merely about having a social media presence. It is, as mentioned earlier, about the value you offer through it. And that too is merely one dimension of your personal brand.
Using the analogy of on-ground activation and digital amplification, what you do on ground—or in your job—is also a cornerstone of your brand. What you do on social media is its digital amplification. Put another way, your personal brand is the sum total of the online and offline you.
Sometimes, people starting out on the personal branding journey may believe that they have nothing unique to offer. Or that what they have to offer is not relevant or of much value to others. But if you dig deep, you find the worthwhile nuggets to share.
You can also build your brand through obliquity. Obliquity, a concept that British economist John Kay introduced, means that, sometimes, working directly at achieving a goal is less effective than going about things in an indirect manner. Not just any indirect manner, but one that is more holistic and better aligned to who you are and what you love and what you’re good at. One of the things this meant for me was creating The English Nut. I launched this social media avatar of myself because it combined a number of my passions which are not directly linked to advertising, my professional field. The English Nut helped me gain expertise in social media communication, which was expected. But what came as a surprise was that it ended up raising my profile with the marketing community too.
Another personal example of obliquity is getting into theatre. I did it purely because it stimulated me. But it helped me tremendously in my job by making me a more confident presenter. To the introverts out there I would like to say that, at heart, I too am one. I used to die a thousand deaths before addressing strangers or making a presentation. But while I still get ‘stage fright’ when I have a big presentation to make, I am able to overcome it. I also used to fear the word networking. Even now, I do not necessarily love it but I can do it without fear.
One of my oblique practices at work is validated by Abhijit Bhaduri’s book—Don’t Hire The Best. The point of it is to hire for cultural fit. It goes without saying that you need to find people with ability—but I instinctively gravitate towards good, loyal human beings, not slimy office politicians. Put in mathematical terms, my hiring decisions are based on a weighted average of talent and fit—where I might give more importance than others to the latter.
So try the oblique path! When you look back at the past, you may find the dots forming a meaningful pattern—the outline of your brand story. Which leads me to the larger question: What is the ultimate goal of all this? My take: It’s to help you be the lead player in your own story. Not a bit player in someone else’s.
(The author is chairman and chief creative officer, 82.5 Communications)