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Leadership Edge: how to avoid burnout with Aflac SVP Shannon Watkins

I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Watkins, senior vice president of Brand and Creative Services at Aflac.

As Aflac’s head of Brand and Creative Services, Shannon Watkins is responsible for driving and leading all aspects of brand strategy, advertising, media, experiential marketing, creative services and event production. With more than 20 years of advertising experience and expertise, Watkins is a recognized brand leader and has served in various management roles at companies including The Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, and Procter and Gamble. Watkins sits on the board of the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Alumni Association, serves as a board advisor for the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing for the Association of National Advertisers, and she is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and Jack and Jill of America.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The path to my current role and career has been a bit nontraditional. I wanted to be a doctor and started as a biology and premed major at Fisk University. However, after a few anatomy classes, I realized I had a weak stomach and needed to pivot.

What I knew for sure is that I loved science and the ability to utilize insights to develop strategy. My “aha moment” was when I realized that I could apply that skill to another industry or field. Soon after, Proctor and Gamble came to Fisk University for a recruiting event, and I was able to join the P&G team as a product research associate.

This is where my passion and love for all things brand and marketing began, and I was fortunate to have great mentors who nurtured my curiosity and provided me with opportunities to learn and grow.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my first job at Kraft, one of my mistakes was not seeing an opportunity where there was one. My MBA hiring class had students from all across the country, and I was thrilled to go to work on the first day, ready for all of the cool projects I imagined working on. My peers were being assigned roles on major brands like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Jell-O, and I learned my project was exiting a business, which was a far cry from fun and exciting brand work.

I was definitely disappointed, but the president of the business unit gave me words of wisdom that I carry with me to this day. She pointed out that a career in brand management is long and winding. In an assignment like a business exit, no one will remember a job well done, because “winning” is a net-neutral impact to the business profit and loss statement (P&L). But when you are not successful, everyone will remember because the business’s P&L will suffer. I put those words into action and made it into an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of business, sharpen my skill set and enhance my business acumen.

That was a big lesson for me as a brand manager: No matter the project or task you are assigned, you can always learn something, deliver results with excellence and grow professionally because every role won’t be sexy or high-profile.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The first “tipping point” came when I was at The Coca-Cola Company helping launch Dasani Sparkling and afterwards working on Powerade and the “Just a Kid” campaign. Both projects taught me to use my experience and background and ultimately trust my judgment to execute with confidence.

When I was tasked with launching Dasani Sparkling water, I was able to launch the line faster than any other project in the history of Coca-Cola (six months from start to finish). Working on other consumer-packaged goods brands and relying on the toolkit of data, analytics and strategy development I built over the years definitely helped shape the success of that launch. It was a full-circle moment because I went from operating in “training mode” to “doing mode.”

For Powerade’s “Just a Kid” campaign, we were taking on Gatorade, the category leader who was outspending us 10 to 1. To address this, I relied heavily on data and insights, along with my intuition and gut. Our target for this campaign was multicultural teens, which is why I relied on my gut feelings, while relying on art and science to drive marketing and make the right calls. I knew this combination would deliver results for my team and agency.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’ve spent the majority of my career working in the consumer-packaged goods world. What makes Aflac unique is the difference the service makes in people’s lives. Aflac helps cover expenses health insurance doesn’t, and our brand promise is to be there when people need us most.

Today, consumers are shouldering the responsibility of covering more costs associated with health care than ever before. Unfortunately, unexpected medical costs are a reality for many. By building brand awareness and knowledge about what Aflac is and connecting with consumers in meaningful ways, my hope is that more people are inspired to buy Aflac. I know our products make a meaningful difference in people’s lives by helping them cover the unexpected costs of medical bills, which may prevent financial ruin for many across the country. I know Aflac can make a meaningful difference in Americans’ lives, which inspires me to work hard each and every day.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Each day, my team works hard to develop tighter and more strategic marketing plans. We are currently focused on connecting with consumers on a deeper level. A key part of this is meeting consumers where they are. My team and I are working on how to crack the code of meaningfully reaching consumers, focusing on reaching them where they are and with what will resonate with them most.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Always look at your career as a long game. If you focus on your career day to day, week to week or even month to month, it becomes very overwhelming. A longer-term perspective allows you to see your career as a whole versus looking at it through a smaller, shorter-term lens. The result is making decisions that support your entire career versus the short-term, emotional decisions.

In this field, we are often pulled in 50 million directions and are trying to navigate uncharted waters with the ever-evolving marketing landscape. It is crucial to ensure you can create a feeling of balance in your life. For me, that is quality time with my husband and daughter, working out, seeing friends and doing my best to make sure I am well rested. This allows me to be my whole, best self at work, which allows me to be a more effective leader.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The first would be my husband, Rashaad Watkins. He and I met while I was working at Kraft Foods, so he has been by my side throughout my career. He is a partner who balances and complements me and enables me to grow professionally. He helps me shift my focus when it is needed and also tells me when I am wrong, which I really value.

Rashaad has worked in sales his whole career, so his perspective has allowed me to better understand how Aflac works as a sales-driven business. It is far different than most of my career spent in consumer packaged goods, so his guidance and support has certainly helped me be successful in my current role.

The second is Valencia Mitchell, vice president of Brand at Aflac. Valencia and I have had similar experiences, working at Kraft and Coke at the same time but never on the same team. While we have the same training, we bring unique skills to the table and complement each other. Valencia joined me at Aflac in 2018, and she has been my difference-maker at Aflac. As my right-hand (wo)man, she pushes me strategically, and allows me to focus on broader organization opportunities while she leads day-to-day brand efforts. She is an excellent leader, confidante and friend, and my success at Aflac is due in large part to her partnership.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

Well, first off, there is the Aflac Duck campaign, which I am proud to be a part of at this point in my career. But one of my favorite ads was a 1994 Coca-Cola spot featuring Tyrese Gibson, where he was walking onto a bus singing “Always Coca-Cola.” The ad spoke to me as a young African American woman because it used music to drive a connection with the brand. Since I am from Atlanta where Coca-Cola is headquartered, this ad spoke to me on another level with their presence. I felt seen and understood by this ad, and I felt as if they wanted my business.

Looking back, I would say this was also my first look into multicultural marketing. This ad ran far before I knew I had an interest in marketing, but in hindsight, I think it sparked this interest within me and my future career.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

Any campaign that I deem successful always starts with a very good understanding of your target. Who are you trying to reach with this message? This is the first step. The second is leveraging a strong insight about this target audience and leading with that. The third step is linking the insight to the brand and a brand’s key message and articulating it in a way that is easily understood by the target audience.

Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies’ market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy.” In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

I think the future of marketing will be user-generated content. The best endorsement a brand can ever earn is delivered by a customer. Having everyday people and ultimately your customer deliver support by the way of testimonials to a brand allows the customer to tell an authentic story. I find this type of endorsement more meaningful and oftentimes more valuable than ad dollars.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Marketing is more data-driven than people recognize. When I am talking to family and friends, people see marketing only as TV advertising. Marketing is strategic, should be integrated in its approach to leverage all tools in marketing, and is scientific and data-driven.

  2. Marketing as a career evolves at lightning speed. You have to have an appetite for change and embrace change. If you are not comfortable with constantly changing and evolving, it is likely not the right career choice.

  3. You have to be a good salesman to be a good marketer. Marketing is part science and technical, but it is also part art. Some of the best campaigns I have led are the best of both. But if you are not able to sell your ideas and garner leadership support to execute, your ideas will never see the light of day. This “selling in” of an idea or concept is an art.

  4. You are only as good as your last campaign. You cannot rest on what you did in your last campaign; you need to think about what is new and what is next.

  5. Be brave and move on from an idea when it is time. Often times, we develop ideas that are strategically sound and should work, but something feels off or simply doesn’t test well with consumers. You need to trust your gut — and science — and pull the plug when you do not think something will work. It is scary, especially when you and your team has put time and effort behind it, but sometimes it’s simply the right thing to do for the business.

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

I just started listening to the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast and began reading “What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture” by Ben Horowitz.

For inspiration, I turn to cinema. I believe what shows up in advertising often shows up first in movies — film first. From cinematography, music and audio, and overall visuals, movies are a form of trend spotting for me.

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

My mom is my hero. The older I get, the more I realize how much she sacrificed for me growing up. She worked secretarial and purchasing roles most of her life. While she didn’t go to college, she made sure to expose me to friends who were successful and college educated to provide a global view of the world. She did everything she could to equip me with the tools I needed to be successful. She has always been my cheerleader on my best and worst days, which is something I hope I am to my own daughter.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Well, thank you for your kind words, though I never feel like I have greater influence than other people. What we do is a team sport. That said, the first area that I am very passionate about is inspiring young people. I am on the board of the Kelley School of Business Alumni Association at Indiana University, which is where I went for my graduate program. At the time, the school took a chance on me, as I applied without a single business class under my belt, but the school and the marketing chair, Jonlee Andrews, saw my grit and believed in my potential. I am on the board because the Kelley School of Business saw something within me before I recognized it myself. There are students who need a little support and someone to take a chance on them, which I hope I can do for others.

The second area I care about is diversity in the broader marketing and advertising industry. I am a board advisor for the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA). As a board member and a brand lead for a company, my goal is to do everything I can to invite more diverse voices into marketing. I want diverse perspectives that represent the diverse points of view in America. I hope to encourage young creatives within marketing and advertising to explore careers in this field, because we need their diverse voices at the table.

How can our readers follow you online?

  • Shannon Watkins LinkedIn

  • Aflac Twitter

  • Aflac Facebook

  • Aflac Duck Facebook

  • Aflac Duck Instagram

The article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a solicitation. Aflac herein refers to American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus and/or American Family Life Assurance Company of New York. Aflac WWHQ | 1932 Wynnton Road | Columbus, GA 31999.

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