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WPP Career Marketing

Karen Blackett OBE on building a personal brand: 'People need taglines too'

By Karen Blackett

March 5, 2020 | 8 min read

Last week, Facebook's vice-president president for Europe, Nicola Mendelsohn launched Make It Work: Lessons From Life In Business; a book which collates advice from 14 women leaders on everything from staying sane to building your brand. Here, The Drum publishes a chapter penned by Group M's recently appointed UK chief executive Karen Blackett OBE.

Karen Blackett

Karen Blackett OBE: the importance of having a personal brand

The importance of hard work was a lesson that was instilled in my sister and I by our parents from an early age. They had emigrated from Barbados and my dad started working as a bus conductor in London, before getting an apprenticeship to retrain as an electrical engineer. Working hard at school and university and then later in work was expected of us, which I’ve always done. I still think talent plus hard work is key to success.

But that’s not all you need. When I started out in my career, I just assumed that if I worked hard then someone would magically recognise that and promote me.

It was a real awakening when that didn’t happen. I remember looking around in my early twenties and seeing people who were just not as good as me getting promotions – people who hadn’t worked their socks off like I had. I was working with brands and coming up with strategies about how to communicate them and I realised it was time to work on my own personal brand and use it to take control of my career. When you’re one of few, such as the only woman in a role, or the only ethnic minority, it’s especially important to think about how you communicate who you are and what you are capable of.

I came across the work of the late Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant and author, who wrote about the importance of what he called a personal statement. It’s important to make your personal brand hyper-relevant to you so you need to put quite a lot of work into it. Drucker suggested that there are four questions that are helpful to ask yourself:

• What am I good at?

• How do I tend to work?

• What are my values?

• What is my contribution and how do I plan to be judged?

When I was considering what I was good at, I realised that I had an area of core expertise – media strategy and planning and buying – but I had a lot of supplementary experience too. In my early career, instead of aiming straight for the top of a department, I zig-zagged around in roles and areas to help plug areas of expertise that I felt I needed and learn more. So, that first question for me is that I’m good at trying out different things.

When you’re thinking about your values, you need to make sure they are not just a list of adjectives that could apply to anyone. Lots of people say things like integrity, and that may well be true, but you need to be more specific. It helps to think about a time at work where something bad happened and it caused a really emotive reaction in you; the opposite is probably something that you value.

So, for example I had a situation over 15 years ago that still makes the hairs on my arms stand up when I think about it. I was in a big meeting about a product launch which wasn’t going well. The person leading the meeting started having a go at someone in the team in a really horrible way. I could see how they were being publicly humiliated; it felt dreadful to be there. It felt so wrong, and one of my values is to treat people with respect and coach them to be their best, rather than humiliate them. It can be helpful to discuss this with friends or supportive colleagues. When I talk to other women about experiences that they’ve had in the workplace that give them this kind of reaction, there are a number of overlaps, things like people taking credit for other people’s work, or talking over others in meetings.

When you’ve worked through all the questions, it can lead you towards what we call an ‘endline’ in branding – which is you in a nutshell. I know that I like to be the person in charge, that I like to lead large, diverse teams, and that I like to coach people. I also know that I love the creative industries and that whatever role I choose, as a single mother, I have to have a blend of work and home life in there. So my endline is ‘head performance coach.’

Once you’ve got your personal brand clear in your head, it’s important that you then communicate it effectively. As women, we often find it difficult to talk about ourselves. We don’t like to boast or draw attention to ourselves. But what I know from my day job is that a brand without any marketing stays on the shelf – something I’d been in danger of when I was younger.

You need to get the message out. Obviously, I don’t walk into meetings and say, “Hi, my name is Karen, I’m the head performance coach”, but it’s a way of framing my brand in my mind and making sure I insert it into every single touchpoint of my working day, from how I act in meetings and at conferences to what I share online. These are all ways of demonstrating your personal brand.

The final thing you need is cheerleaders: a bunch of people who can talk about you and your personal brand in rooms that you’re not in. How you get those cheerleaders is through creating connections. You need to make sure that your network is broad and varied and not limited to one industry, because that’s where you get diversity of thought.

Networking can sound a bit grubby and I don’t know anyone who enjoys walking into a room where they don’t know a single person. But it is important to talk to different people at conferences, events or dinners and try to find mutual ground. It’s all about finding a chemistry with someone and then following up by asking them for a coffee. Mentors are important, but you have to go about it in the same, slow way. I have had strangers come up to me and just ask me to be their mentor, which I’ve found a bit weird. You need to start a new relationship with a light touch.

The other area I get help from is professional coaches, which links to my background. When I was younger, I played a lot of sport and so I was used to being coached to get a better performance, and I think it’s just as helpful to do this with your life and career.

I’ve had a life coach for over 15 years and it really helps me personally and professionally to have someone else on my team. The work on your personal branding doesn’t stop. Every year I go back to my personal brand and fine-tune it, based on what I’ve experienced and learned the previous year. Your personal brand is constantly evolving, and I think it’s key to your success.

Karen Blackett is chief executive officer of MediaCom UK. She tweets @Blackett_kt

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