September 13, 2018

Core Story 08: Overcoming The Monster

After two years at university I decided to work again for a year. My course didn’t include this as an option, so I just took a leave of absence and left Sheffield for a year.

I found a marketing role for a small CRM (Customer Relationship Management) company near London. During interviews I asked some questions of my own, to assess how much I could learn from the role.

“We follow Seth Godin’s model of permission marketing,” my interviewer Daniel told me over the phone. I would later find out that even though he sounded 35, Daniel was a current placement student. By the end of my year there, I realised that under-paid placement students did everything and mostly ran the place. Appearances can be deceptive.

“We follow direct marketing principles,” Daniel continued. “We code each mailer that goes out, and log all responses in the CRM system to track the effectiveness of our marketing spend.”

This, as you might imagine, was music to my ears. I accepted an invitation to attend a second round interview and ‘assessment day’.

To date this is the only assessment day I’ve ever attended. The day consisted of an interview, a presentation, some practical tasks and a range of group exercises.

I hate group exercises…

The first group exercise we did was the hot air balloon scenario. You and the other candidates are in a sinking hot air balloon, and somebody needs to be thrown overboard. You have to state your case and ‘sell yourself’ on staying in. Everyone then votes for who they think should go.

I was thrown overboard, twice. Which will come as no shock if you recall my failures in unstructured sales situations. I must have quietly impressed at other stages in the day though, as by late afternoon only myself and one other candidate were offered jobs.

At the end of the day the marketing manager Jon reiterated how seriously they took direct marketing. We shook hands, and said “see you in six months.”

It turns out a lot can change in six months…

By the time I started work, Jon had ominously moved on to another department. We were told not to worry; a new marketing manager was starting in two weeks.

Two weeks later a dented Toyota Corolla pulled up at the office and Imran* stepped out. He introduced himself with a limp handshake, and we walked around the office.

“Where have you come from, Imran?” I asked.

“Oh, from Microsoft,” he replied vaguely. He actually pronounced it “Mihrosof”.

Getting specifics from Imran was like nailing jelly to the wall. Much later on I got hold of a copy of his cliché-laden CV. My marketing colleague at the time was PK, another placement student.

“I don’t like him man, he gives me a bad feeling,” complained PK that night.

“It’ll be okay,” I reassured. “It’s only day one…”

For a few weeks, things were okay. Imran spent the first week presenting his devious plans to top management. PK and I were left mostly alone, to get on with implementing the previous marketing plan.

We quickly realised the only work Imran was interested in was nervously watching the shared email inbox where enquiries would arrive. Whenever he was nervous or didn’t understand something, which was all the time, he would shake his legs.

One morning I was drafting an email to go to our customer list, when Imran suddenly spun around on his chair.

“Rob,” he began, “how many leads do we have?”

“I don’t know Imran,” I replied without turning round. I could feel his beady eyes staring into the back of my head. ‘I haven’t looked in the last four seconds,’ I added in my head.

Later that week I called one of our print designers. We had a few designers we worked with who specialised in different media. Sometimes we would ask them for a better price, sometimes not. Imran wasn’t interested in this.

“We get three quotes, three quotes every time!” he told me firmly. “And we choose the cheapest!”

One day I broke Imran’s ‘three quotes’ rule, and told a supplier to proceed with a piece of work. A deadline was approaching, and we didn’t have time.

“I am your manager!” he screamed incredulously at me from across the room, “you do as I say!” The whole office hushed to a shocked silence, and I walked out of the room.

Shortly afterwards, Imran asked me to BCC him in to every email I sent. (I did not). He also insisted that every marketing email we sent out went via him for ‘proofreading’.

I would draft a perfectly good email (or ‘eshot’, as he called it). Imran would read it for a while, and shake his legs in confusion. Eventually he would pull out a red pen and delete random essential passages.

As a writer, nothing is more infuriating.

Both Imran and I reported each other’s behaviour to senior management. He obviously wanted to work with someone more ‘pliable’. And I wasn’t willing to be yelled at by someone I viewed as an incompetent control freak.

After that I started to keep an ‘Imran diary’. Imran decided it was amusing to forward emails to me from the spam folder about penis extension. That went in the diary. I kept a record of how often he was late to work, which was most days. I even kept a loose record of how much time he spent shaking his legs in perplexity at the leads inbox.

Imran won the battle about my emails. Every email I sent would be automatically CC’d to him. Which meant that every time I sent an email his laptop would ‘ding’! He’d stop shaking his legs for a few seconds while he snooped on what I had sent.

Six months into the job, I’d had enough. Even at 21, I believed that life was too short to work with poisonous people. I liked the company and I liked the people, but I couldn’t work any longer with Imran. Somewhat annoyingly, his monthly marketing numbers had been good.

I shared a whisky with PK one evening, and drafted my letter of resignation. The letter was short and to the point, but it stated my reasons clearly. In my slightly intoxicated state I had planned to go in the next morning and staple it to Imran’s face.

The sun rose the following morning on a crisp, sunny winters day. I walked through the door at work with butterflies in my stomach. Imran, of course, was late. As soon as he arrived, Imran’s boss Stuart approached. “Imran, I’d like a word please,” he said in a deep clear voice. By now my notice letter was burning a hole in my pocket.

Stuart and Imran disappeared into a meeting room. From inside, I could hear animated voices. After a full hour, Imran emerged from the meeting room. He picked up his bag, shot me a death-stare, and stormed quickly out of the office.

Stuart later told me that Imran had been fabricating his numbers. In the meeting Imran had first tried to pin the blame on me, and then argued they should fire the previous marketing manager Jon, instead.

A month later he also tried to sue the company for commissions owed from leads generated. He thought he was on a £100 per lead commission, which explained his daily paranoia about the leads count.

PK and I were left in charge of the marketing for the rest of the year. My resignation letter stayed firmly in my pocket.

This story is an example of the ‘overcoming the monster’ plot from my Simple Story Selling book. I’ve trimmed the story from the book slightly, but it’s mostly the same. Any time you engage in a battle of wits with someone at work, that’s an ‘overcoming the monster’ story.

I have a huge repertoire of colourful stories from that year. The challenge with these things is to pick the most significant thread which illustrates the point you want to make.

I chose to focus on my battle with Imran, because it illustrates that marketing problems are often interpersonal rather than technical.

We’ll touch on that again later this series.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.