For the past five years, I’ve been quietly seething. Bearing witness to self-proclaimed experts in their field who have zero experience doing the thing they’re selling. Writers selling courses on writing when the sum total of their writing experience is comprised of Medium blog posts. Brand strategists who’ve never built a successful brand, which was the impetus for my eight-part brand-building series. People doling out marketing advice when they’ve never planned, executed and managed a campaign when their job depended on it.
For years, these shady charlatans thrived, flexing their monthly income statements, six-figure email lists, and text chats with celebrity “gurus.” Cut them open and you’ll see their insides hallowed out. While you can lie and hustle in a bustling economy, there will come a moment when people recoil from your fiction.
They don’t want the high-wattage online superstar — they want someone who can get the job done.
No more of this metaphorical blind leading the blind — our eyes are wide open and we want to see. People have been spending more time pruning their personal brands at the expense of getting great at what they do. Marketing the thing instead of committing to doing the thing. The real doers, makers, and builders are having their well-deserved moment — no flash social media follower counts required.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m a nobody. I’ve published two books with traditional publishers, but I’m not well-known by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been working in marketing for over two decades and I’m not an Ad Age darling or fronting a $1999 course.
While a partner at a fancy New York agency, I shied away from talks, professional publishing, and networking events — instead, I placed the spotlight on my team and colleagues. Violently shy and unable to be political in social settings because of my polarizing, blunt personality, I’ve deliberately chosen a life where I focused on becoming formidable in my field. Providing exceptional education and customer experience to my clients has been core to my marketing.
In the truly terrible, but delicious movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino’s character tells a young Keanu Reeves,
“Don’t get too cocky my boy. No matter how good you are don’t ever let them see you coming. That’s the gaffe my friend. You gotta keep yourself small. Innocuous. Be the little guy. You know, the nerd… the leper… shit-kickin’ surfer. Look at me…I’m the hand up Mona Lisa’s skirt. I’m a surprise, Kevin. They don’t see me coming. That’s what you’re missing.”
I think about that line sometimes, especially when I see online personalities preening for their socials, practicing authenticity like they’re competing for the Olympics. Sometimes I’m jealous of the writers I came up with, many of whom are publishing in The New Yorker and getting fancier book deals. Their success is well-earned and their name recognition well-deserved, but I’m human and sometimes I wish I would’ve been more socially polished and political. Savvy.
But we all have our places in this world and I think that I’ve been the little guy doing great, sweeping things. You don’t have to be big or known or flash to be successful — you simply have to be really fucking good at what you do and provide tangible value for the people you serve. You can be an actor consistently getting work for twenty years or that ingenuine who flames out when someone younger comes up through the ranks. You can be the badass tortoise issuing a beatdown on the hare. Wrecking the joint.
Now, more than ever, people want something real. Something they can hold onto.
Instead of trying to get famous, I focused on staying curious. I audit and refine my services, approach, and deliverables every year based on client feedback and market shifts and evolutions. I connect with my peers for cross-mentorship because while we all get to the same destination, our routes will be different and there’s much to be learned from people who draw their own maps. I talk to my clients beyond the scope of my assignment to fully understand their company so my work has a practical impact and shelf-life.
Instead of trotting out vanity metrics, I focused on providing superior, above-and-beyond education and service to my clients because I believe an educated client is an empowered one who feels part of the process and asks smart, challenging questions. I embed education in every step of my business development, client onboarding, and brand-building process, and I’ll often buy and share supplemental materials (books, podcasts, articles, and case studies) to provide real-life context, making an academic discipline actionable and practical.
Instead of being available 24/7, I have set boundaries on my office hours, means and method of contact. As a result, my conversations, albeit email or Zoom call, are thoughtful, detailed, and methodic — not reactive.
And it’s paid off. I’m booked out on well-paying projects through September. Working with people I believe in.
Instead of trying to game the Medium algorithm and follow conformist, often baffling, advice, I’m working on a new book project, connecting with new agents after I resigned from my agent in 2017, and have consistently earned four-figures a month on the platform. Ever since I joined Medium in 2013, I’ve always viewed it as a way to share my work and give value to my readers — whether it be through my essays, fiction, or pedagogical marketing tutorials.
My focus has always been — how do I make someone feel something? How do I help them learn something? How do I inspire them to do something? As a result, readers, editors, and top-tier clients have found me — and I’m not one of the “famous” people on this platform and I’ve no wish to be.
You don’t have to be “big” to be impactful. You don’t have to be famous and flash to be successful. You just have to keep showing up for yourself and your customers, do the work, be curious so your expertise doesn’t ossify and your vibe doesn’t flatline.
Because what will emerge from the rubble will be a desire to invest not in people pretending to be pros, but actual pros. People who have been doing the work and have the receipts to prove it. People who are honest about what they know and what they don’t know. People who don’t need to hide behind artifice and manufactured personal brands because they don’t need to. Their work speaks for itself.
So, if you’ve spent all your time focusing on the marketing of the thing instead of being remarkable at doing the thing, you’re in for a rude awakening, friend.
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