How a single Facebook post made me take stock of my (new) life

For most people, it’s usually a milestone moment – the start of a new year, a special birthday, a life-changing event – that makes them stop and take stock of their life.

For me, it was a single Facebook post.

Or to be more specific, one of those algorithmically-generated “see your memories” posts.

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This week Facebook resurfaced a post from four years ago when, well…let’s just say I was doing very, very different things.

It was a stark reminder how much my career – and life – have changed. Since joining a Jewish non profit in Atlanta just over a year ago, I’ve gone from flying business class and staying in five star LA hotels to hang out with Emmy and Academy award winners, to getting the middle seat on Spirit Airlines, staying at the Holiday Inn Express and visiting local Rabbis and Jewish community leaders throughout the southeast. On the surface, my “then and now” could not look any more different.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t miss my old life. Not one bit.

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THEN: Going to parties with two super talented guys.  NOW: Hanging out in the mountains with a group of smart and committed staff and Board members.

That may come as a surprise since, admittedly, I was incredibly fortunate to spend more than two decades in the entertainment industry. (Yes, we did do some actual work between  going to parties and generally living the high life.)

What did I do this past week as the CEO of Ramah Darom? I spent my time reviewing the program schedule for our PJ Library Weekend…discussing ideas for some brand new retreats…and helping families with scholarship applications so they can send their kids to Jewish summer camp.

And what were my old Viacom colleagues (sorry, ViacomCBS – BTW, wouldn’t it have been easier to say CBSViacom?) dealing with? Just fun corporate stuff like merger layoffs and integration synergies.

I’ll stick with my new life, thank you.

While my day-to-day work has clearly changed, surprisingly I’ve found there are actually many similarities between the corporate life and the not-for-profit world. The main one? People are people.

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THEN: In Hollywood on the Emmys Red Carpet.  NOW: In Clayton dressed for our Roaring ’20s Party at Winter Break Family Camp.

As a leader, there’s really little difference leading a team of media marketers or a team of Jewish professionals. My role is to provide direction, motivate the team, help get rid of roadblocks, make sure everyone is working together effectively and yes, be a referee when conflict arises. The work has changed; the day-to-day realities of leading a team are remarkably similar.

And as it relates to the team, what’s super cool in this role is that I’ve seen the same level of commitment from many of our hourly dining room staff as I used to see from very-well-paid senior vice presidents. I’ve learned first-hand that motivation for ones’s job isn’t driven by the money one earns; it’s driven by a genuine commitment to the mission of the organization (and the effectiveness of one’s direct manager). Loving your job is possible even if you’re making minimum wage.

 

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THEN: Hanging out with a guy with cute dimples.  NOW: Having fun at camp with a super cute 3 year old.

At the core, though, what I’m really loving about my new career is that after all is said and done, the work we’re doing is actually changing lives. That’s a pretty good thing to know as you go to work every day. In fact, we’ve just completed a new Strategic Plan and one of the key priorities is to broaden and strengthen our inclusion and vocational education programs. Very different from making TV shows and trying to convince people to watch them.

So as I take stock of the last year of my life, am I happy with my change? Absolutely. Do I miss the glamour of entertainment industry? If I’m being honest: not at all.

 

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When your passion becomes your profession

Well, it finally happened – government shutdown be damned!

Homeland Security has approved my work visa and I am now officially a full time employee of Ramah Darom. My transition from corporate-type to charitable-type is complete. And you know it’s real because I’ve actually updated my LinkedIn and Twitter bio (not gonna lie – I’m pretty pleased with myself for finding a way to connect my disparate careers):

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So why did I make the move to the non profit world – and in Atlanta, no less? Is it a soft spot for the south? A bias for bare-boned budgets? A lifelong longing to listen to lay leaders? An affection for alliteration that could only be satisfied with a blog post about a new job?

Umm…yes?

The truth is that after more than 25 years in the working world, I now have an incredible opportunity to combine my passion and my profession.

It’s not that I don’t have a love for the entertainment industry. Quite the opposite; I  dreamed of a career in media from the time I was knee high to a grasshopper. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue that passion in two countries, for several great companies and with countless high profile brands.

But I also really, really love being Jewish.dsc_2944

I’ve always been fiercely proud of my heritage and feel a deep responsibility to ensure our many amazing (and sometimes unusual – see the picture to the right) traditions are passed along to the next generation. Along with my wife Beth, we’ve worked hard to instill that same strong sense of Jewish pride in our three kids. Many families are more observant than us, but I do think we’ve succeeded in creating a home with Jewish values at its core and where we all live meaningful Jewish lives.

One of the most important contributors to our kids’ Jewish identities – and, by extension, ours – is the many months they’ve each spent on Ramah programs: various summer camps, high school semesters in Israel, family Passovers, trips to historic Jewish sites in Poland, leadership training programs…the list goes on. This organization excels at creating exceptional Jewish experiences.

In my new job as CEO of Ramah Darom, I have the chance to spend my days making sure we instill that same sense of pride in the thousands of Jewish children, teens and img_9574.jpgfamilies we serve every year at our gorgeous facility in the North Georgia mountains. At its core, Ramah is all about ensuring joyful Judaism – and there’s nothing more meaningful than seeing parents and their kids laughing and singing together during an amazing Shabbat experience at one of our family retreats, or hearing a summer camper describe Ramah Darom as their “happy place”

This is, as they say, my second career. And I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

In an upcoming post, I’ll recap some of the ways I’m finding working for a small non profit is different – and yet, not so different – from working for a billion dollar corporation. As I used to say in my old job: stay tuned!

 

BY THE WAY – I know it makes NO SENSE for my Twitter handle to still be @MediaMktgGuy. But if I change my handle I will lose my lovely blue “verified” dot! I’ve tried reaching out to the Verification account at Twitter but it’s no longer being monitored, so any advice/help most appreciated!

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This Shabbat, go to synagogue. And take your kids with you.

Like many North American Jews, I don’t go to synagogue nearly as often as I should.

That may not be the smartest thing to admit as the incoming CEO of a Jewish organization, but it’s the truth.44932355_10161197390565226_4890308552737947648_n

But this Shabbat, I was in shul – visiting Atlanta’s Shearith Israel for its annual Ramah Shabbat. It was inspiring to see so many Ramah Darom campers and staff leading davening from the bima, sharing the incredible power of communal prayer.

While we were together as a community singing joyously, eleven of our fellow Jews were being murdered in a synagogue n Pittsburgh.

It’s incomprehensible. 73 years after the Holocaust, 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, how can Jews not be safe in their own house of worship? In America?

This weekend’s tragedy is a sad reminder that we can never take being Jewish for granted. As parents and grandparents, we have a responsibility: to teach our kids and grandkids where they’ve come from. To teach them what it means to be Jewish. We need to ensure they feel proud of their heritage. We need to ensure they stay connected, to their Judaism and to their fellow Jews. We have a responsibility to ensure a strong Jewish future.

There are lots of ways to share your love for Judaism with your kids and grandkids. But in this piece from the Times of Israel, Betsalel Steinhart had a great, simple idea:

This Shabbat, go to synagogue.

AJC has also launched a campaign called #ShowUpForShabbat.

I would add: this Shabbat, take your kids and grandkids to synagogue.

Remind them why being Jewish is important. Why being part of a strong community is critical. Why they need to stand in solidarity with their fellows Jews around the world.

Let’s pack every synagogue around the world. We owe it to the memory of the eleven who were murdered in Pittsburgh.

And we owe it to our children. And their children. And their children.

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Taking a sharp left turn

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It’s long been my view that one’s career should not follow a straight line…that we should all be open to trying new things, to taking some sharp left turns…because those turns often lead to the most interesting places.

I’ve twice taken left turns in my career.

The first time was when I left Alliance Atlantis in Toronto – at the height of its success – for Canwest, a struggling company I’d previously vowed I’d never work for. That turned out to be the most interesting, most challenging and most fulfilling role of my career.

Then, several years later, I decided to take the phone call that led to a job at Comedy Central. New York City was never in the plans, but it was a fun and memorable six years that provided tons of amazing experiences (and lots of frequent flier miles, thanks to my weekly commute home to Toronto).

But later this year, I’ll be taking my sharpest left turn yet.

Pending Homeland Security’s approval of my visa, I’ll be moving to Atlanta to become CEO of a Jewish not-for-profit.

Atlanta? Not for profit? Have I lost my mind?

Here’s a bit of backstory:

I’ve been running my own business, CMOish Inc., in Toronto for about a year now and it’s been a fun and interesting experience working with several great clients. But I’ve long felt that at some point I’d make the transition into the not-for-profit space. I assumed that might be in 5 or 10 or 15 years. You know, an “ease into retirement”-type job.

Then I got a phone call from Ramah Darom.

Ramah Darom is part of the National Ramah Commission, an organization that’s very close to my family’s heart. For over 70 years, the NRC has overseen Jewish camps, programs and facilities around the world. Their mission is simple: to develop the next generation of Jewish leaders. And I’ve seen its success first hand: all three of our kids have attended Ramah camps and programs across North America and in Israel, and my wife and I have been actively involved in the organization. Ramah does amazing work.

Ramah Darom is unique in the Ramah world in that it’s much more than just a summer camp. It operates a gorgeousScreen Shot 2018-08-20 at 4.23.18 PM year-round facility in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, two hours north of Atlanta. During the summer, it’s home to Camp Ramah Darom and 900+ campers and staff. During the rest of the year, the retreat center hosts countless southern Jewish groups and events (and is occasionally rented out for corporate retreats). It’s a busy place!

When I was approached about the CEO role, I didn’t hesitate for a minute. Ramah is an organization I genuinely believe in, with a mission I care deeply about, and a Board that is committed to its continued growth. And the strange coincidence? Our middle son is starting college at Emory in Atlanta this fall. So the pull to the south is clearly very strong.

And since a few people have asked: the first 20 months will be a sort-of commute situation again – probably a couple of times a month – as my daughter finishes high school in Toronto and my wife stays there with her (but hopefully with lots of visits to Atlanta). But when my daughter goes off to university, we intend to fully relocate to Atlanta…but still keep a place in Toronto. Because we will always be Canadian.

A sharp left turn? For sure.

Am I excited? Absolutely.

A bit nervous? Strangely, not really.

As I’ve learned, sometimes life takes you in unexpected directions. When new opportunities present themselves you can either dismiss them or embrace them. I’ve consciously taken a few sharp lefts turns – and I’ve never been disappointed.

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The gift of getting older

​I only met Dave once.

It was at my wife’s college reunion in 2014. I’d heard his name mentioned fondly for many years; he and Beth lived in the same dorm and often sat together during Friday night dinner at Hillel. When I finally met Dave, he was as warm and friendly as I had expected. He introduced me to his wife Sheryl, and we joked about our roles as “the spouse of” for the weekend.

A few months later, Dave died tragically at the age of 47.

Sheryl has written and spoken extensively about her loss. She has inspired many, and helped us all better understand how to support friends and family in their darkest hours. Her willingness to share her deepest, most personal thoughts – and always in the most incredibly articulate way – is truly a gift to us all.

One of the things Sheryl has said repeatedly is that she will never make another joke about growing old. As she has said repeatedly in interviews, “growing old is a gift.”

That line has really stuck with me.

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 12.38.35 PMThere’s been a lot of press recently around the issue of ageism. Jane Fonda confirmed that ageism is “alive and well in Hollywood.” Pink shut down a troll with a single perfect tweet. The Globe and Mail ran this headline a couple of weeks ago: Ageism is becoming a major issue for corporations.

For years I worked in an industry dominated by (and some might say, obsessed with) youth. Media/entertainment/marketing are creative businesses at their core, and success is measured largely by your ability to generate new ideas. Experience is seen as helpful, but not critical; witness how many companies in these industries are run by 30-somethings. I was one of the fortunate ones, rising into senior management roles early. I distinctly remember the feeling of walking into a meeting room knowing many were looking at me thinking, “wow, he looks so young to be in his position.”

I often led teams filled with people barely out of school; the average age of the marketing group at Comedy Central was probably 27 or 28. And even as the years passed and I was well beyond the life stage of many of my co-workers, I somehow always still felt like I was one of them. The birthdate on my passport be damned: I was still young!

But since returning home to Canada and starting my own business, for the first time I’ve really started to feel my age. Not because of newfound aches and pains (although I won’t deny I have some of those), but because I’ve discovered that I am now viewed by many people as an “industry veteran.” Code word for “old guy.” To some, that’s clearly been an issue…although no one would ever admit it, of course. In a couple of recent situations, I’ve walked in a room and it was clear that people were looking at me thinking, “wow, he looks much older than I was expecting.”

Oh, the irony.

So the core question, I guess, is this: can a guy with greying hair and a middle-aged belly possibly be forward-thinking? Can he be on top of the latest marketing trends? Can he bring innovation, energy, new ideas?

My answer: the grey doesn’t signify I’m out of ideas. It’s actually a sign that I’ve been around long enough to discern the truly good ideas from the truly bad ones.

While sure, there’s value in youthfulness – seeing things with fresh eyes, not being bogged down by pre-existing biases – I’m discovering there’s even more value in experience. Value in having been there before. Value in having made mistakes. Value in having an informed perspective. Value in being able to quickly cut through the noise and get to what really matters.

That’s the value I’m now finding I can offer to clients. When I work with a tech company’s marketing head – a millennial, of course – the combination of her on-the-ground understanding of their product and core audience and my years of experience developing successful marketing strategies is very powerful. When I sit with the VP Marketing for a financial services firm, she appreciates my deep experience distilling reams of information into manageable (and relevant) chunks – not to mention the many templates I’ve been able to provide to communicate the information to her boss and the organization. When the Executive Director of a not-for-profit needs help focusing his super complicated message I can easily guide him because, well, I’ve done it before – like, dozens of times.

Would I love to go back to the days when I walk in a room and people react to my youthfulness? I’m not gonna lie: sure, that would be nice.

But then I stop myself, smile through my greying beard, and remind myself what Sheryl said. And I’m thankful for this amazing gift of getting older.

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CMOish Update (Warning: Some may consider this a Sponsored Post. Or Fake News.)

As I blogged about here, this fall I decided to start my own company. I’ve approached every corporate job with an entrepreneurial spirit, but the last time I actually owned my own business was when I was a teenager: Symphony DJs was a big player on the Montreal Bar Mitzvah and Sweet 16 scene (feel free to insert snarky remark here – specially you, Shawn Silverman).

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CMOish.com home page. Fancy!

My new company, CMOish, is obviously very different – and not just because it doesn’t involve me on a microphone (you’re welcome, world). The focus is helping organizations that need senior marketing perspective, but aren’t ready to hire a full time Chief Marketing Officer.

Said another way, CMOish is the next best thing to hiring your own CMO. Hence the “ish”.

I thought this might be a relevant need, specially for small and mid-sized companies and not-for-profits. But to my (somewhat) surprise, I’ve discovered that lots of organizations – of varying sizes and across diverse industries – are in search of senior marketing perspective. After just a few weeks of networking (read: lots of coffees, lunches, and drinks) I found myself booking my first client, a NY-based not-for-profit. Since then, I’ve also started working with a tech company, a financial services company and a large multinational, among several others. It’s been exciting to see a small, untested idea quickly grow into a real business.

Even more exciting: to enable the company’s continued growth, I’m thrilled that two highly respected marketing industry colleagues – Susan Schaefer and Muriel Solomon – have agreed to become Associates. Susan and Muriel are available to work with CMOish clients, bringing their deep expertise and experience. I’m truly honoured to have them as part of the team.

After many years working mainly for large companies, I’m loving the experience of exploring new industries and working with diverse organizations and interesting new people. It’s been fascinating and professionally fulfilling – even more so than I had expected.

I’m also quickly learning that the skills I’ve developed over 20+ years as a media marketer clearly apply across industries. People are people, no matter what you are trying to sell them. More on that in my next blog post.

Yes, I’m loving being an entrepreneur and am excited to tackle the next set of CMOish clients. So bring ’em on! My email is Walter@CMOish.com.

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Yes, brands still matter. Even in tech. Specially in tech.

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A few months ago, I was talking with the outgoing CMO of a large global tech company. She was staying with the organization but had decided to leave the CMO role to move back into product development, her real passion. It wasn’t long into our conversation when she made this declaration: “I don’t believe in brand building. In tech, brands don’t matter.”

For one of the first times in my life, I was genuinely speechless. Stunned into silence. How could a CMO – the person personally responsible for building her company’s brand – make such a sweeping and misguided declaration?

So I took a breath and did what any self-respecting marketer would do: I challenged her.

I gave my passionate speech about the continuing importance of brands to consumer decision-making, particularly as the world gets more complicated and confusing. I talked about Apple and how its core brand promise is the driver of its product decision making process, and one of the cornerstones of its 40+ years of success. I gave examples of companies like Starbucks – companies in largely undifferentiated product categories who have built their entire businesses (and premium pricing) on the backs of their distinctive brands. I reminded her about all the research showing that when facing an abundance of choice, consumers invariably turn to brands they know and trust.

It was all in vain.

This CMO-ish was clear: it’s all about the product.

You make a good product, you do a good job telling people about the product, and they will buy it. Period. The end. Your brand doesn’t matter.

Hard to argue with that first sentence. But that doesn’t, in my view, cause the last sentence to be true. Marketing your product and building your brand are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive.

So you can imagine the smirk on my face when, just a few short weeks later, I read an extended interview with the CEO of her company where he talked openly about one of their biggest challenges: that so many people don’t really understand what the company stands for. The CEO was clear: the company needs to spend the next couple of years focused on explaining their business to people.

Wait…you mean the company needs to BUILD ITS BRAND?

Like many other things, brand building is often misunderstood. It’s assumed to be frivolous, a cost center. The first expense to be cut when times are tough. Many senior executives still believe brand building is done via a series of beautiful TV spots – a “brand campaign” that gets the marketing team excited, but doesn’t actually move the dial on sales.

The reality – as every marketer knows – is that brands are built not by a single campaign or tactic, but in many, many ways over time. Via every touch point, every piece of communication, every design decision, every CSR interaction, every CEO interview. And yes, every tactical marketing experience.

In some ways, this lack of understanding is a failure of marketers – a failure to quantify the business impact of our branding strategies. In our data-heavy world, where we can show the immediate results of our tactical marketing activity, I understand why we focus on short-term results…and why what’s viewed as a longer term strategy might be seen as expendable.

But the truth is that short term selling and longer term brand building are not mutually exclusive. Smart organizations have determined a clear and distinct position for their brand, and can – and do – build short-term sales AND build their brand at the same time.

Because both are hugely important.

Yes, even for tech companies.

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