Updated: Dec 10, 2020
It’s my last blog of the year and I’m more reflective than usual as 2020 comes to a close. Like all of us, I didn’t see the events of this year coming.
Few words do it justice, but how about this: deeply unsettling.
I don’t know about your journey, but this was the year three core pillars in my life were disrupted. My faith remained solid, but my home, work and health were all shaken by the pandemic and related forces.
I hasten to add, I’m sailing off into the holiday season with an optimistic and hopeful mindset. I’ve come full circle, in part because I realised something really important I’d like to share.
But first, the drama.
Wind back the clock a few months. I'm at the gym, working out my frustrations on the treadmill, and the final chorus from Powderfinger’s award-winning and haunting anthem of 1999, These Days blares out how I was feeling:
This life well it's slipping right through my hands
These days turned out nothing like I had planned
Control well it's slipping right through my hands
I really was in a pretty dark place. And as a middle-aged man facing all the things we blokes face at this time of life, it really wasn’t a good thing.
Stay with me as I connect a few dots and then we’ll land on a note of optimism that attempts to drag my story back into our marketing and storytelling wheelhouse.
I’ve rarely, if ever, written about my own journey. I’m told I should, by some, that I shouldn’t by others. But I always pause for thought. I marvel at the likes of Brenè Brown and Donald Miller who champion vulnerability and authenticity.
So here it is, a risky moment of vulnerability.
I turned 46 this year and it sailed past in a blur. Only now have I realised what’s bugged me ever since turning 40.
Guitarist John Mayer put it well in a doco on his life. He described waking up one day and realising he had a plan for the first half of his life, but not the second. The idea hit home.
Then we’ve got an inspiring man by the name of Gordon MacDonald, an 80 year old Christian pastor and Chancellor at Denver Seminary. He’s still doing his thing, and by all accounts an inspiring leader.
Driving to work one day I heard him on a podcast describe his life decade by decade. The ambition and growth of his 20s and 30s had given way to a realisation in his 40s that he wasn’t in a place he expected. Like a kind of grand existential awakening - how did I get here - and it resonated for reasons I’m still processing.
The events I experienced were tough. Our family of four kids and two dogs endured the stresses and uncertainty associated with selling our home and moving to a new area during a pandemic.
In addition, I endured mental and physical health issues that almost got the better of me. Sleepless nights, an unfamiliar sense of hopelessness, overwhelmed by sights and sounds, and a constant state of edginess. Channeling Mayer, it was hard to imagine the next 40 years. Then we had the stresses of lockdown and homeschooling life, like all other families.
Just one of those issues would be enough for me, not all at once!
Next, we’ve got work. Many of you will know I self-published my first book, Beliefonomics, in March this year. We had grand plans, a launch event booked at Boutique Event Cinemas in George Street, guest speakers, Square payment mobile POS set up, and a humbling number of endorsements from leaders who’d agreed to review preview copies of my book.
I love Peanuts, thanks to the BBC.com for this one:
Like most of you, we took it all online and adapted. We did OK ... but the lack of direct audience engagement and feedback (validation?) was deafening to me, and I couldn't help wondering could we have done it differently? What if...?
Likewise, I harbored ambitions for more paid speaking gigs at real-world events following the book launch. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen! Thankfully, we dived headlong into virtual events and to a large extent it was a great experience (right, guys!).
Kudos to the Filtered Media team for their trust and agility in doing the switch to virtual events with me! Pictured with Daniel Marr, Tom Henderson and Paula Cowan.
The bigger issue was that from March our agency, Filtered Media, took a revenue hit as marketing budgets suddenly went into a pandemic-powered deep freeze. Client after client started calling to regretfully tell me they needed to stop work. Like every small business, we’ve got a payroll, rent and ongoing commitments. Harrowing is a word that comes to mind to describe this season.
Yet, here we are in December and the phones are ringing again. It’s a strange feeling, daring to hope that things really are getting better.
Despite all these issues, I’ve also been mindful of our clients and industry friends. Through it all we kept recording and publishing episodes of The CMO Show podcast, keeping me tapped into the marketing zeitgeist.
I marveled at how marketers, other working professionals like you and I, were coping with the year’s series of rolling events.
While preparing for our final podcast, I went back and listened to our shows to catch a few snapshots of life as a marketer during a pandemic. Check out these stories:
Louise Cummins, Marketing and Digital Innovations Director at H&R Block said the company shifted from advertising spend to a content strategy so they could better help customers by answering their tax and business questions.
That is, lead generation took a back seat while they dialed up empathy and usefulness.
“One thing that really resonated for me this year has been questions. That's the thing that every single person's got about everything in their life at the moment is, ‘what are the big questions?’”
Ashley Killeen, Head of Impact at OzHarvest, echoed this sentiment. Imagine working at a charity primed to help feed people at a time such as this, but donations are hard to find.
“It's more difficult than ever to tell the [OzHarvest] story and to appeal to people's sense of empathy when everyone is also struggling on a personal level, whether that be financially or emotionally.”
Nicole McInnes, Director of Marketing and Commercial at WW (formerly Weight Watchers), was another professional who had to think quickly. The company switched from in-person workouts to virtual workouts with Zoom integration into the WW app within just five days. It was heart stopping, thrilling and ultimately rewarding.
Joining the dots
As is my habit, all this got me thinking. How do you make sense of all these experiences?
Is there a golden thread that connects my somewhat dramatic personal experiences with the intensity experienced by marketing communications professionals?
To my great delight, I realised the marketing trade press and industry people have done my homework. Even a casual observer of marketing trends could see that one issue has risen above it all this year - purpose.
For example, Mumbrella360 Reconnected dedicated its first day to the topic of purpose. The word was peppered throughout our podcast transcripts, and it’s rarely a breath away in client conversations.
And McKinsey wrote a useful article noting, “People who have a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and exhibit better recovery from negative events.”
Looking ahead, it argues purpose will be top of mind for employees in the “subsequent phases of the ‘next normal’.”
“People seek psychological fulfillment from work, and, as the crisis recedes and companies ramp up new ways of working, some people will experience friction, and even dissonance, around issues of purpose.”
It’s a good point, and echoes something that’s bothered me for a while. It’s not a new idea, so what does purpose mean in the current/post COVID-19 era?
Here’s my take.
COVID-19 has forced us to realise we want something more than tokenism and kind words about doing good stuff.
For too long in business we’ve accepted purpose as a nominal idea giving us social license to operate. It easily becomes an internal feel-good soundtrack for internal communications.
Here’s how Kantar takes it up a level, mapping out four progressive steps toward a purposeful brand for organisations. I’ve taken the liberty of adding (my interpretation):
Purpose is seen as an isolated tactic (tokenism)
Purpose becomes infused with a societal brand promise (vision)
Purpose is amplified and aligned with a company-wide strategy (authenticity)
Purpose becomes a business-led movement (impact)
I like the way they have called out the maturity that’s needed by leaders throughout an organisation to bring the notion of purpose to life.
Yet, as I’ve mused on this model, something was missing. The gap, it seems, is the ‘so what’ factor. What’s in it for me? What if I don’t like my employer’s purpose? After all, that purpose could simply be profit, and for some that’s motivating enough, but what if I want, no, need, more?
I believe purpose needs a companion. And its name is Meaning. We all want to live and work in meaningful ways. It could be overcoming personal challenges, helping family, building community, or contributing to a noble cause championed by your employer.
Whatever it is, it should be meaningful. Why? Because that’s what we’re hoping will fill the COVID-shaped hole - which is the same shape as our humanity-shaped hole, but COVID cleared away some of the roughage that used to be at its outline.
One last thought
Let’s wrap up with a return to Powderfinger lyrics. My Happiness is a fantastic song from the album Odyssey Number Five. Bernard Fanning sings:
My happiness is slowly creeping back
Now you're at home
I’m taking him out of context because this song is about the loneliness of life on the road. But the sentiment still works for me.
My happiness is slowly creeping back for multiple reasons. We found a new house. Life feels more stable. My mental and physical health is recovering. Our clients and team are happy. My faith gives me strength. I’m grateful.
All these things are meaningful, and the end result is this year feels redeemed.
You see, I’m a big believer in excellence, not perfection. I define excellence as, “doing the best you can with the resources you have in the time available.”
On this score, I did pretty well in 2020. It wasn’t easy, or fun most of the time. But that’s not the point. I’m better for pursuing excellence - enduring, listening, learning and staying the course.
In other words, my deeply unsettling year morphed into a meaningful one.
What about you?
P.S. Thank you to everyone who subscribed, bought a book, posted a review, supported and cheered me on this year - you’re awesome. I’ll be back in the New Year. Until then, stay safe and enjoy the holiday season.
MARK JONES is a brand strategist, author, keynote speaker and father of four. His purpose is to inspire more people to use the power of storytelling to change their world for good, and has created a world-first storytelling framework for leaders to do so called Beliefonomics. Find out more at markhjones.net and subscribe to receive his weekly blog that restarts January 2021.