The Advice Bozoma Saint John Gave her Kindergartener is Key
Want to see a resume that reads like every budding brand strategist’s dream? Head of Global Consumer Marketing, Apple Music and iTunes—check. Chief Brand Officer, Uber—check. Chief Marketing Officer, Endeavor (parent company to talent giants like WME and IMG)—check. That’s Bozoma Saint John’s CV—just since 2014. Put quite simply, the high-powered marketing exec is a total badass (her Instagram handle happens to be @badassboz), and a working mom to boot. No one has it all figured out, but Bozoma sure seems to come close. Here, she shares how good storytelling is at the center of every successful brand, why networking is not the way to get to the top, and other insights that have gotten her to the esteemed position she’s in today.
Photo courtesy of @BADASSBOZ
Photo courtesy of @BADASSBOZ
How did your professional journey begin?
I went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I was pre-med as a freshman and then along the way picked up English and African American Studies. I chose those majors because I was really interested in the arts, but because I had immigrant parents who believe you can only be one of three careers—a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer—I had to keep my pre-med major as the requirement for going to college. During my college experience, I did intern at doctor's offices and thinking that I was going to go to medical school, it never turned into anything creative or anything that has to do with my career now. I had to work my summers and so I did all kinds of jobs too. I worked at Denny's and I worked at Contempo Casuals and I worked at the library—every job that I could find. After graduating I asked my parents for a gap year, not where I was running around the planet on vacation, but where I could explore New York City and try to sow my royal oats before going to medical school. It was in that time that I temped and found a job at Spike Lee's ad agency. He had fired his assistant, so I went in to cover the phones, which in a long story ended up being four years of working in his agency and learning the business of advertising, which led me into the career I have now.
Was it always a goal for you to step into an executive position within a company?
I always thought my ideas were important. Maybe it was the arrogance or maybe it was just confidence, but I felt that I understood what was happening in culture and I could translate that into the work that I was doing better than anyone else. That kind of drive and ambition led me to know that if I could get into the decision-making seat, I'd be able to drive the conversations in a way that I knew could impact culture.
How would you explain brand marketing to someone unfamiliar with its purpose?
It's a narrative. Storytelling is what it feels like to me from a brand marketing standpoint. It’s the ability to essentially structure the perception of a brand to the public, to an audience, that is most intriguing to me. You can shape it into anything that you want to—you can make sugar water feel like something that's going to make you unstoppable on a field or that putting on a particular pair of shoes will help you conquer any room you walk into. It’s that beauty of storytelling that draws me to marketing.
What things are foundational to any successful marketing strategy or campaign?
Whether it is joy or fear or sadness, emotion is the basis of marketing campaign. Every successful campaign begins first with understanding the emotion that you would want to work with in order to get the audience to act. I also pay attention to what's going on in culture. I think it's really important for every marketer, every leader, to really understand what's happening in the community. What are people talking about? What do they care about? What does it predict about tomorrow? Match that intensity with your product or its message. Work with the emotion that is being emulated from the audience and attach to the brand.
Then, keep it simple when explaining the idea. Nobody likes complexity. If you tried to explain anything to your mom when you were young and your story ran on for too long, she’d be like just get to the point and tell me exactly what you're trying to say. It’s the same lesson that we utilize for talking to an audience. The simpler the message, the better. If I can say it in a sentence and get you to understand exactly what I’m talking about, then I’m going to win. That’s why taglines are so important. You need to express the message of the brand or the mission of the brand in a very simple way so that people can feel inspired by it or feel attracted to it in some capacity. Again, that ties back to the emotions. Does it move somebody emotionally when they hear it?
How do you respond when something doesn’t go as planned?
I believe in failing fast. First of all, you should fail, because if you're not failing, you're probably not taking risks enough. You're playing it safe if you win all the time. I don't like to wallow in the failure. I want to be able to push as hard as possible, try to new things which maybe are risky, and if it fails learn quickly. Dust yourself off, figure out what went wrong and try it again differently next time.
Do you have an example of a time when your career wasn’t going the way you wanted it to? How did you respond?
Many—the highs and lows along the way are what make the top awesome. You climbed up the valley, so the win is more magnificent. To me, the valleys are important. I've learned so much while in the valley where sometimes you don't have friends. People will abandon ship when you are sinking, so it's a really great place to take a look at yourself, to look at the things that you've done, and to then figure out how you can make things better and improve.
I've learned a lot of those spaces, and I've had career moves that either didn't work out the way I thought they would. One of the biggest was coming off from a high at Pepsi. Pepsi was really succeeding, I was being promoted quickly, but I left my job to pursue a position at Ashley Stewart, which was a fashion brand for plus women, targeted especially towards women of color. I had just had my baby and I was not in the shape that I used to be, so I really wanted clothes that would fit my new body but couldn't find any that had the same kind of swagger. Ashley Stewart answered that for me, so I thought it was a good idea to leave my job and go there. It was the first time I was going to lead a big marketing team and have real responsibility in driving strategy and vision. I went for all of the right reasons and it was a big deal! I made a lot of noise about it—I even threw myself a going-away party! And within six months of being there, I realized that it was a big mistake. I was not succeeding because I really didn't understand the business that I was in, and I wasn't really getting along with the senior leadership. Our visions were not aligning, and I wasn't able to do the things that I thought I could do. I hadn't yet learned the power of getting support, of getting people to really understand your vision and your idea before you try to bulldoze it over a company. It’s really important to get the alignment and then the encouragement and support of colleagues, even when you’re in a senior position.
Photo courtesy of @BADASSBOZ
Photo courtesy of @BADASSBOZ
How has networking and mentorship played an important role in your career development?
I don't like the terms of networking and mentorship because I think they carry a lot of baggage. I think the same way you would cultivate a new friend is the way you should look at cultivating your network and your mentors or mentees in that. Not everyone is meant for you—not everyone is going to be your friend. Choose a mentor that is not just super successful at his or her job but who can also bond with you in a way that is in the friendship kind of capacity. The most powerful person may not be the most invested in your success. You want to find someone who is actually invested in making that call for you or staying up late because something happened, and you need them to tell you the truth. That person is much more effective as a mentor than anyone else.
In the networking capacity, again it’s not so much about exchanging contact information and getting the biggest Rolodex, but about creating real relationships. It’s really interesting to see the number of people who start looking through their network when they are looking for a new job. Why aren’t you cultivating your network while you're in your job? Go out to lunch with people…have coffee, have a cocktail… because there is always the opportunity to improve in your current job. There may be potential for partnerships that you didn't know about because you didn't take the time to get to know the people around you. And those people will become that much more effective for you once you are searching for a new gig or looking for insight. They will be much more willing to take your call because you've already created that relationship.
How have you learned to work through professional and personal criticism?
Criticism is important. I don't think that we should ignore our critics. There's always some truth in there. Sometimes it’s just them, but there still may be a kernel of truth that allowed them to create the criticism of you. I think it’s really important for self-reflection and seeing if there’s something to be learned. It's hard to separate feelings and not be emotional about it—to not take it personally and to not let it bring you down or make you feel bad about yourself. But still, there is some good that comes from it. I do try to pay attention when I'm criticized to understand what may be true in it, and how I can improve it or what I can do differently the next time.
What is an important lesson you’ve learned in your career that you want to pass on to your daughter?
It’s the same thing I told her when she was going to kindergarten. Be nice to everybody and meet some friends. Make sure you’re not just catering to the C-suite, but you are respectful and kind to everyone along the way. That’s the real secret, because everyone grows up and those folks that were by your side in the trenches will eventually have seats in tables that you'll want access to. I think my openness and my friendliness, being able to walk into a room and looking for eyes and making connections, has been the best asset for me in my career. You know, you don't always need to be the smartest person in the room, but the one with the most friends will help you win.
Your IG handle is BadassBoz. What does being a badass and a boss mean to you?
Be bold. Be fearless. I do a lot of things scared. There are a lot of moves that I make in which I have to sort of close my eyes and jump. But being bold enough to jump is what is actually going to be the difference between me and the other person who thinks she’s a boss but isn’t making any kind of boss moves. You have to able to make the moves even when you're not sure that you're going to be successful at it. That’s boss, and yeah, that's me.
What is driving your professional narrative at the moment?
I was always super ambitious. I wanted to climb as quickly as possible. I want to get the big projects and to do the big things. I wanted to make a lot of noise in the market. I've been able to do all that. Now I am much more interested in making an impact, in having a legacy that will be remembered. I’m interested more in things that are meaningful and purposeful. That will feed my soul more so than anything else. I don’t want to do it just to do it. I want to do it right.