Going. Ahead. With Gage: Interview with David Fossas, Senior Director of Brand at WP Engine

It’s time for another Going. Ahead. With Gage (#GAWG) featuring someone who has not only been my mentor for the past few years, but who is also one of my close friends – David Fossas, Senior Director of Brand at WP Engine. This one is a bit longer, but is well worth the read. Enjoy!

You’re a marketer, a teacher, and a mentor to many, myself included. What are 5 things you’ve learned throughout your career that you take with you in each challenge?

  1. The first would be a quote from greek philosopher Seneca, that an old friend’s dad and mentor shared with me: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” When I think about the last three companies that I’ve worked with, and the many roles I’ve played within them, my success was primarily driven by the preparation—the reading, research, studying, developing of my own points of view and testing them. This has been critical in reinventing my own career three times and growing as a person and professional.
  2. The second would be a wonderful insight from an executive coach: “Leaders speak from the future about how you got there.” I love that. Many of the most iconic inventors and leaders envisioned a future that didn’t yet exist—a future that they wanted to create—and they saw the path to getting there when most others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Leaders place themselves in that future, paint a picture of how amazing that world is, and share the path to how s/he and the organization arrived there.
  3. The third would be a quote from Sir Richard Branson: “What you’re bad at actually doesn’t interest people, and it certainly shouldn’t interest you.” The reality is that you can’t be great at everything, so stop worrying about what you’re bad at. Stop holding yourself back. Stop telling yourself you’re not good enough or experienced enough. You have one, maybe two superpowers. Figure out what those are, and then build a community of people around you that fill the areas that aren’t your strengths. With every new challenge you take on, you have to understand how you can use your superpower(s) to uniquely tackle that challenge, and then build up that community around you to achieve the goal. No meaningful, complex challenge is overcome by yourself.
  4. The fourth would be to assume you’re not the smartest person in the room. Expect that someone in the room thinks faster than you, has a higher IQ, or has more experience. So, prepare. Prepare like crazy. Never go into a room without knowing how the person or people you’re meeting with think. Anticipate questions and know the answers. Expect that you have to work harder than everyone else, develop a point of view and be ready and willing to share it. Maybe most importantly, learn to ask great questions that lead to insight. Remember, you don’t have to have all the answers if you know what questions to ask.
  5. The fifth would be that leadership is not about the pursuit of power or money. Those are generally empty pursuits. Leadership is the decision to use your skills and knowledge for the betterment of others—whether that’s your company, your team, your family or your friends. You can be a leader in every dimension of your life. So, when you take on a new challenge, remember that it’s not about you. Take yourself out of the center.

You started your career in the entertainment industry (so cool!) – What made you switch to a path in social media and marketing?

I call myself “the accidental marketer.” I never intended to go into marketing. In the mid-late 2000s when I was early in my entertainment career, digital media started to take off. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were growing like crazy (Facebook and YouTube still are). It was becoming easier to create your own site and publish content. Some artists and creators were starting to experiment with this new media. Funny or Die, for example, was founded in 2007. Then the iPhone came out, then the iPad. In a span of less than 5 years consumers went from coveting large TV screens and early releases of DVDs, to watching and sharing short content online on a phone. Mobile bandwidth was making the online video experience better and better. The jump from 3G to 4G in 2010 was the great enabler of video streaming and making the business models for Netflix, Hulu and other video streaming companies a reality from a consumer adoption perspective. So, I was seeing all this rapid change and knew that’s where I had to go. No one had figured out how to make profitable businesses yet, and since I love to figure these things out, I knew I needed to make a change.

At the time, I was working for the CEO of a film production company, splitting my time between creative development (working with screenwriters and directors to develop stories and scripts we had licensed to get them ready for production) and corporate development (negotiating co-financing and distribution deals for our films, doing due diligence on M&A candidates, building out the deck for a new fundraise or board meetings, etc.). So, in 2010, what I initially wanted to do was move to a social media or content tech company in a corporate development role. But, every VC backed startup wanted a more traditional resume—MBA from a top 10 school, prior tech experience, etc. Through networking, I got introduced to Avi Savar, the founder of Big Fuel—a social media agency. I got a meeting with him. He looked at my resume, and said, “Well, looks like you could work in our creative department, strategy or distribution. What do you want to do?” Big Fuel produced great content for their clients, and Avi’s vision was to build out a distribution network to get all the content out—essentially building out the online version of what a cable TV network does. I picked the distribution role. I knew the traditional media distribution models, and thought if I could figure this out, the experience and knowledge would be invaluable. That was my start in marketing.

We landed social media agency of record for General Motors, and launched $5 – 10 million campaigns centered around online content and social experiences. We created a content and publishing engine for their social media channels that was modeled after TV network programming. At one point we were producing 6 online shows, each with multiple episodes per week. And, it was my job to figure out how to get more views organically (unpaid) than the media agency spending many millions of dollars in advertising. Fuck. We made a lot of mistakes during that period, but I learned a lot. And, while we were early in exploring how to do branded content online, social media and influencer engagement at scale—too early to succeed—a lot of our insights and practices have now become common practice in the marketing industry. After Big Fuel, I went to W2O Group—a PR firm—but still had the mindset of wanting to move into a corporate development role. I took on more and more roles at W2O, expanding my marketing experience, and I did my MBA. I took corporate strategy, new venture creation, marketing and innovation classes. One day, I woke up and realized these are all just different ways to look at marketing. I thought, “Shit, I’m a marketer. And, I love what I do.”

What do you think is the most challenging part of working in marketing?

The most challenging part of marketing is managing the complexity and noise. Yes, we have more technology, channels, and data. But, the fundamentals of marketing are still the same. Human behavior hasn’t changed. It’s just been amplified. I think that there has been an overspecialization in marketing—people that, for example, only know SEO and SEM, or only know social, or only know marketing automation. Fundamentals like customer research and segmentation is increasingly becoming a lost art. A strong marketing leader today has to be a good teacher. It’s the leader’s job to know enough to fill the knowledge gaps across the teams and specializations to execute a coherent, effective marketing plan that grows the business.

You’re an avid writer and blogger – What’s one of your favorite topics to write about and why?

Admittedly, I need to make the time to write more regularly again. I tend to write about business and marketing. So much of what I’ve learned has been through trial by fire—taking on completely new challenges in new industries with steep learning curves and just figuring it out. And, I’ve been blessed to work with phenomenal executives, leaders and coaches that have taught me along the way. I feel responsible for sharing that wisdom forward. More and more, though, I expect I’ll write about family life. Being a husband. Being a dad. There are a lot of parallels between leading a family and leading a team. You can learn a lot from one area and apply it to the other. Both take focus and hard work. And, let’s face it. There is no real separation between the two. There’s no work/life balance. There’s just life.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from who?

“Figure it out!” My first boss was a top talent agent at ICM, and the best in the industry at what he does. He was also one of the toughest executives in Hollywood to work for. When I started working for him, I was a 22-year-old, completely inexperienced, incompetent introvert. He kicked the shit out of me. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, or didn’t know how to do something, or I couldn’t get someone else to do something, he’d yell, “Figure it out!” (usually in between a string of expletives). I was so passionate about film though that I didn’t want to quit. I used to drive to work every morning, and tell myself, “You might get fired today, but you sure as hell aren’t going to quit.”

Eventually, I got my feet under me. I became resourceful. I gained confidence. I could anticipate his and others’ thoughts and moves. There wasn’t anything he could throw at me that I couldn’t figure out how to figure out. Every job since has been easy by comparison. Sure, there have been times since when I had a meaty challenge and a steep learning curve. But, when you’ve learned to be resourceful, and know that you can generally figure anything out with enough focus and attention, most challenges aren’t that intimidating. I love that boss. We became friends. And, fourteen years later, we still email each other on birthdays, share holiday cards and update each other on the family. Never underestimate the value of having a coach in your life. Everyone needs a kick in the ass every once in a while, and someone that pushes them to be better.

How do you encourage innovative and creative thinking on the teams you lead and work with?

The first thing to understand is thateveryone is creative, and great ideas can come from anywhere or anyone. In fact, it comes from networks of thought. The problem is that most business environments and situations are not conducive to creativity. Open seating is a recipe for distraction. Free for all brainstorms are completely worthless for a variety of reasons. Structured brainstorms are much more productive (read Gamestorming if you want to learn more on this subject). So, I encourage people to block time throughout the day to get away from their desk and focus. Close your email and chat apps. Put on some headphones. And, get to work. Write out all your ideas. The more seemingly bad ideas you have, the closer you are to the great ones. Then, bring your ideas to the table, and we can have a productive debate about what to pursue. And, seriously, let’s debate them. Play out scenarios. Build off of each other, and then align on a decision.

The second thing would be to read and learn about topics outside of your direct function. Learn about other industries, other companies, and read fiction. Build up the strong and weak ties in your mental network. To learn more about this, read Smart WorldWhere Great Ideas Come From, and The Innovator’s DNA.

What advice do you have for junior level employees wanting to make it to the C-Suite one day?

The first piece of advice I would offer is to become a continuous learner. Technology is driving change in our business models, economy, and job market. It’s not nearly enough anymore to graduate with a degree and think you can stop learning, just work and last a whole career’s lifetime. There is no safe career track. Instead, take some interest in where your functional role and business are going. If you’re a marketer, what are the changes that technology is driving? How are brands shifting the way they work with agencies? What’s the impact of that? What new roles and skill sets are arising that need leaders? What are roles and skill sets that are becoming obsolete or modified? Read. Read A LOT. Books, publications, trades. And, take advantage of technology to make you faster at it. Listen to an industry or business related podcast or audiobook while you work out, during your commute, when you’re working in the yard on weekends. Become a sponge. Because every 3 – 5 years, you’re going to have to reinvent yourself. And, if you want to get to the C-Suite, you’re going need to know where the market is moving to. It goes back to that insight earlier: leaders speak from the future about how they got there.

The second piece of advice is related to what I call “the hourglass of your career.” Early in your career, you have the opportunity to experiment and test different jobs, roles and functions. Take advantage of this, and don’t just restrict yourself to different roles within marketing. Try sales or customer service or project management. Soak up as much knowledge as possible and learn what you’re great at. Then, focus on that. In order to truly grow to the C-Level, you’ll need to specialize and focus. For me, it was realizing that I am a marketer, and I’m particularly great at brand marketing. That’s where I’m focused now, and I’m probably in the most productive and impactful stage of my career so far. As you grow within the organization, you start to take on horizontal responsibilities. In other words, you take on accountability for areas outside your core expertise. First within the function. Then, outside your function. A great CEO isn’t great at executing every role within the company, just as a CMO isn’t great at executing every role within marketing. But, you’re given the accountability because you’ve learned to inspire action, build trust and make sound decisions when the team is stuck. I call it the hourglass of your career because, like an hourglass, you start broad at the bottom (early stage of your career), then go thin and focused to advance in the middle of your career, and then broaden back up the closer you get to CEO.

What is one of the most difficult decisions you’ve made in your career and what did you learn from it?

Probably leaving W2O Group. The decision that it was time to move on wasn’t so hard. I hadn’t been learning for some time, and though my last role there was seen as a step up in the company, I quickly realized it was actually a step back for me personally in my own learning and development. I wrestled with the decision for some time, mainly out of loyalty to the people there. But, the real hard part was deciding how to leave. I could have started job searching, interviewing and eventually gotten a job all while continuing to do good work at W2O Group. But, we had just closed on our first outside investment.

When I looked back and did the math, I realized I had directly contributed significant revenue growth to the company during my tenure and started several new practices and capabilities for the firm. When I looked forward, I couldn’t see a new challenge to take on that excited me. So, I let them know I was ready to move on. I gave them two months notice (it didn’t shake out that way, but that’s a story for another time). And, then I launched myself into what turned out to be 7 months of self reflection about what I wanted to do next, where I truly wanted to focus, what I wanted for my life and my family. There was a lot of anxiety, and it took a lot of faith, prayer, support, and networking. But, I landed at WP Engine with the opportunity to lead brand. And, I’m having the time of my life now. My family and career are flourishing. Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith.

I love book recommendations to help me grow in my career and challenge my thinking. What books would you recommend as a must-read for career growth and just for fictional fun?

So many to choose from! But, if I had to pick five, they would be:

  1. The Essays of Warren Buffett by Warren Buffett and Lawrence A. Cunningham. This is a gem. Learn how the best investor of the last half century thinks. There are invaluable insights here not only on the financial markets, but also management and how to align a team’s incentives.
  2. Zero to One by Peter Thiel. In this book Thiel, one of the most prolific entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of our time, introduces several new distinctions that shift the way you think about business and competition.
  3. The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross. Ross is the former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. During his tenure, he traveled the world meeting with technologists, executives and policymakers. In this book, he codifies his observations on what emerging technologies will drive innovation and change markets over the next 10 years.
  4. Call Me Ted by Ted Turner and Bill Burke. This is just a damn fun book about a swashbuckling entrepreneur that drove innovation and a new era in the media and entertainment industry. I’ve read this a couple times, and always find enjoyment in it.
  5. Smart World by Richard Ogle. My executive coach shared this with me. Admittedly, it’s a bit dense to get through. But, there are some true insights in here. Want to learn how achieve a breakthrough? Here’s a hint: let the space of ideas think for you.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next #GAWG next month!

— Gage Grammer

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