True Leadership and Owning Your Agency’s Narrative with Michael Brenner

leadership michael brenner

Michael Brenner is the kind of person you think of when you think of a “thought leader.” He’s a CMO influencer for Forbes and was named a top business keynote speaker by The Huffington Post. He’s the CEO of the Marketing Insider Group. He’s the bestselling author of three books, including The Content Formula, Digital Marketing Growth Hacks, and Mean People Suck.

He’s also a leader of organizations and a leader devoted to helping other organizations and agencies succeed. Don’t miss this post if you’re hoping to step up your leadership game.

The highlights:

  • [1:25] Michael’s focus over the past 6-12 months.
  • [4:10] Practical steps leaders can take to own the narrative.
  • [6:28] Why marketing agencies aren’t telling their story.
  • [9:14] Teaching agencies to develop a brand narrative.
  • [12:36] The leadership paradox.
  • [16:32] Are we getting better leaders?
  • [18:43] The benefits of focusing on happy, engaged employees.
  • [22:25] Michael’s causes.

The insights:

Focusing on leadership during a pandemic

“I’ve spent 25 years in the corporate marketing world,” Michael muses, “but I’ve always struggled trying to explain to leaders that marketing is a conversation. It’s not ads, and promotion, and your logo on the side of a bus.”

He also talks about thought leadership, and how you’ve got to earn that moniker. You can’t call yourself a thought leader.

So where should people who want to be thought leaders or even just leaders put all of their focus? 

“The businesses’ leaders and companies that led by caring for the people that work for them, by caring for the customers that support them, were the ones that won in the pandemic.

The companies that said: we sent our employees home because we care about their safety. Or: don’t come into our store because we don’t want you to get sick. Those are the companies that actually won because they put concern for others ahead of their profit.”

That’s the message he’s really been focusing on helping leaders emphasize right now.  

“Who are you as a person? What does your company stand for?

I heard a quote yesterday: success without purpose is meaningless. It’s a literal statement. Success without purpose literally has no purpose.”

Practical steps leaders can take to own the narrative

Michael stops to note that 1/3rd of his own client base is agencies like the ones this podcast is aimed at, and he notes: 

“What I love about agencies is they’re the cobbler’s children without any shoes. They have forgotten. They help other companies tell their story, but they don’t tell their stories themselves.”

The advice he gives to leaders is to think about that story.

“Why did you start your firm? What problem inspired you that you were passionate about solving?”

He says when he was in sales he was taught to “Marinate in the pain the customers are feeling.” As such, he encourages marketers to help their customers understand that they feel their pain. 

He reiterates that agency owners really have a problem in this department. 

“They are the worst at it. They help other companies tell their story but don’t tell their stories themselves. I love going on agency websites and I see a beautiful home page, and there’s nothing three pages deep.

You need to have some depth in the stories you tell. That’s how we help agencies, but really any kind of company, do that.”

Why marketing agencies aren't telling their own story

Usually, marketing agencies just get too busy. Michael understands, but says, “at some point, there’s a walk the walk kind of thing.”

He points out he runs his blog, Marketing Insider Group, more like a corporate blog with a few service pages thrown in.

marketing insider group

“Most agencies do the opposite. They may tell their story, but it’s really more like: check out our glossy ability to edit video. It’s not really true storytelling. The story in most cases doesn’t continue because they get busy.”

He points out that his site is only 5 years old and yet ranks in Google for 20,000 keywords. 

“I rank #5 for the word marketing. #3 for what is marketing. I’m not bragging. The only reason I’m bringing this up is it’s because we publish content every single week. We publish content almost every day, three or four times a week. We’re committed to it. We’re walking the walk. That’s what we do for the companies we support.”

Teaching agencies to develop a brand narrative

Garrett asked what process Michael used to walk an agency through the process of becoming storytellers and walking that walk.

“We take two really different approaches,” Michael said. “One is pure storytelling. The other is pure data. You gotta marry the left and the right brain at some point.”

The pure storytelling approach is when he asks the founders for their story. 

“What I’m listening for is when they get really passionate. Examples might be a company that might have done a good or did a bad. Just really start unpacking all the stuff they’re really passionate about. That’s an endless supply of great content.”

They then go out and scrape the web and say, “Firms like yours that are doing a great job, they create content that looks like this. Are you better or not as good as that firm?”

He says the agency’s sense of competition usually drives them to action. 

“When the facts don’t work, move to fear. Fear works every time. A lot of times we can find good examples of storytelling from firms that are lesser firms than the ones we’re working with. That’s usually what we’re working with.”

He notes he was working with an investment bank last week and he was able to point to a better-known but lower market share competitor in the private equity industry. The competitor showed up on the first page of Google but his client didn’t. 

“I was like listen. You’ve got better marketshare, you’ve got more passionate executives, you’ve got better resumes, you’ve got all the things that should get you on the first page, but you’re not there and your competitor is. We can help you solve that problem.” 

The leadership paradox

In Mean People Suck, Michael alluded to a particular paradox in leadership… the fact that many leaders don’t have any empathy.

mean people suck

“The earliest cavemen picked the alpha males to run the tribe. It’s a natural instinct of ours to pick the loudest, most boisterous, ego-driven person to lead us.

The problem is those are usually the worst people to lead us. Typically it’s the caring female that is actually a better leader, and data from various studies, from multiple disciplines, all prove that.”

Nice guys don’t always finish last. 

“In every study I found, the purpose-driven empathy leader wins every single time.

We think that being a jerk is the leadership model to follow because of our natural history, because of myths we should have busted a long time ago, but the fact of the matter is that when we’re authentically ourselves that’s who people want to follow.”

It’s becoming very clear we want to follow people who are concerned about our future. Concerned about us. Michael points back to which companies were winning during the pandemic.

He had a nice example of what not to do, pointing out a Legal Zoom commercial that ran in his local area (that has now been taken down from the Internet entirely) during the first few weeks of the pandemic. “Now is a great time to update your will.”

“How opportunistic and awful was that? This is the perfect example of stuff that turns us off.”

He says, again, it’s very counterintuitive. 

“We need to expose who we are as people, show that we really care and that we do have empathy. Unless you’re a psychopath, you’ve got empathy. Learn that’s actually what helps us get ahead in life, earning the trust and leadership we want to have.”

Are we getting better leaders?

Michael says that this is a big philosophical question. 

“I do believe the path of human progress is upwards, over time. I also believe, and I’ve come to learn even more so recently, it’s not in a straight line. You know for every social cause I agree with there’s a counterprotest against it.”

He says what he will say is we have a long way to go. 

“We don’t see equal representation. We don’t,” by way of example, “see equal representation in places where women are trying to get equal representation.”

This noted as a counter to the people who claim women don’t have equal representation because they’re not showing up and they just don’t want it.

“We don’t see equal representation in certain minority groups. I don’t know. I’m hoping the right thing happens. Over time it will.”

The service profit chain

Employee engagement is tricky. How do you get leaders to focus on it?

“I try to put it in stark business terms for leaders. I can’t take credit for any of this stuff. The first business book I read was The Service Profit Chain

The Service Profit Chain was a bunch of Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford professors who got together with this theory that happy employees create happy customers that spend more and stay longer. 

And where there’s a happy group of employees, there’s a higher stock price. They mathematically mapped that connection. Employees that are happy provide better service to customers who spend more and stay longer, driving up your stock price. 

That’s good for business.”

So why do so many companies treat their employees so poorly?

“You’re scared, of course. You’re fearful for the future. You’re worried that revenues and profits could decline.

Yet when you focus on profit, you lose focus on your employees, who are the main lever of profit because they’re servicing your customers.”

Follow the service profit chain to the conclusion that you need to produce programs, that you need to really buy into those kinds of programs.

“I just saw an agency owner friend of mine. He just bought Ugg slippers for all of his team for working at home now that the weather is starting to turn. It’s simple stuff like that. I want you to be comfortable.”

Another way is through creating programs that help employees grow their careers and livelihoods, that really invest in them. Michael stresses that, again, this is a matter of focus. 

What's your right now cause?

“My right-now cause is to tell people to get out and vote. I believe there are good people on both sides that believe we all share more in common than we don’t. If you believe in something strongly, get out and vote. I think the right thing will happen if more of us do that.”
His other cause?
“There are a lot of people hurting right now. We’ve really increased the number of donations we’re making to local food banks.”
He says if listeners can only do he’d ask them to donate to the food banks, but in the ideal world, they’d donate and vote.

Connect with Michael Brenner

Want to get more insights from Michael? 

Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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