A-B-L: Always Be Learning

Article contributed by Matt Prohaska, Principal, Prohaska Consulting

It was a brisk February 11, 1996, in New York City, the Sunday night before my first day as new Regional Sales Manager at CNET. I was fired up as a 24-year-old to start with a territory of the eastern half of the United States for this cool start-up doing wild things at the time like driving audiences from TV shows to websites. As mentioned, it was a brisk night, so I stayed in and watched this rented VHS copy of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” I liked the playwright David Mamet and heard this movie had something to do with sales, so I thought this would be a good job to watch it.

It scared the bejesus out of me.

Most of you know the famous Alec Baldwin scene that I can still do just about word for word. I had worked at two big companies earlier, but was every sales manager really like this? I’ve used the clip over the years as a teaching tool to show how managing teams and motivating people a certain way does not always work. The point though is that there is a famous acronym Alec’s character uses, “A-B-C. Always Be Closing,” that I’d like to alter, without his threatening tone:

A-B-L: Always Be Learning.

I thought about this new acronym as a couple situations have come up recently where I’ve had to balance confidently demonstrating an expertise in a technology or market with avoiding coming across as a know-it-all and being condescending to a current or potential client. More than once this week I’ve had to say to a client, “I don’t actually know that yet, but let me go find out and tell you what I learn in 1-2 days.” Could have made something up, but that’s never a good idea.

One of the 200 reasons why I and many of us love our industry is the constant change and opportunity to learn new things and improve on existing practices/products, ultimately for consumer and marketer benefit.

Dave Levy, co-founder of SocialVibe, said it better to Digiday last month:

“What about working in the digital media industry makes you happy?

What makes me happy is that the knowledge lifecycle is only about two years in digital media. Regardless of whether you have 20 years of experience or not, everyone’s in the same boat. You have to be thirsty to learn and continually reinvent yourself and your perspective on what resonates with consumers in order to be successful.”

Bringing best practices to your clients, not just from your years of experience but from your ability to learn quickly from your clients’ customers, colleagues, and competitors, delivers real value worth paying for. Copy/pasting things that worked back in the day, when you were running whatever, can help to a point but could be dangerous when applying it to a similar-sounding situation.

Here’s one reason why industry veterans like Doug Weaver and Leslie Laredo have developed well-respected businesses over many years – they don’t allow themselves to get stale. I’ve heard them, and others who have heard them, referencing people they’ve talked to in the moment and benchmark what top-tier companies and leaders are doing. Good consultants, or any good employees, value humility in recognizing no one has all the answers all the time. We’re starting a program in July helping those in the industry, and those wanting to get deeper in the industry, learn how to buy digital media through programmatic, real-time bidding methods. Hopefully we’ll help a little to develop existing talent and bring in new talent to one of the fastest-growing areas of digital marketing today.

One last thought about learning. Many of you have heard about the new IAB Digital Media Sales Certification program. While many support the initiative, I’ve heard from a few sales execs downplaying its worth, suggesting there is more to judging a salesperson’s value and performance than knowing some terms and scoring well on a test. Listening to customers and communicating a media property’s real benefits tied to a client’s objectives can be as much, if not more, art than science. Given. But for those rock stars and sales legends out there that think this program might be not necessary for them and/or their teams, let me try an analogy. There is a reason why Derek Jeter, one of baseball’s 25 greatest players of all time (and I’m not a Yankee fan), goes to spring training every year. Working on your fundamentals matters. Imagine if at the start of every season, Major League Baseball decided to change the shape of the ball being pitched. I sometimes feel like that is how we all have to adjust to new companies, innovations, and terminology, at least every year.

As Alec says in Glengarry, “Go and do likewise.” And hopefully more managers like Alec will start offering a little coffee for learners too.