Insights

My Journey to ECS: Michelle Cheney

Michelle recently joined the ECS team. She is an avid believer in giving yourself permission to just trust the journey and embrace all of the things that life has in store – making the title of this series especially apropos for her introduction.

Heading In My Own Direction
Anyone who has ever met me would likely describe me in the same way. Unconventional. Unafraid. Unconstrained by rules that simply don’t make sense – for me.

I’ve always been a creative thinker. I started out as an art major and long had a vision of being a “starving artist” living in Paris…somewhere along the Seine River perhaps. Eventually, I did live in Paris along the Seine, but not as a starving artist. I’ll get to that later in the story.

Back in the day … way, way in the beginning … I applied to the major art schools and … The University of Texas. Why? Because my father bleeds burnt orange. The day after high school graduation, I decided on a whim to head to Austin instead of Chicago.

Art led to advertising. Advertising led to marketing. One BBA and two MBAs later, here I am. And my brand of marketing very much combines art and science, emotion and logic. And I love every minute of it.

To this day, I still consider myself an artist of sorts. As a marketer, I see my role very simply. To catch someone else’s dreams and bring those dreams to life. It doesn’t matter if it’s a large company, a start-up, or something in between.

And just how do I do that? By solving marketing problems creatively to find new ways to grow brands. By solving consumer problems creatively to find new ways to connect with them. By solving competitive and category problems to find new ways to create innovation…maybe even a little disruption.

I very much see the world as a canvas. One that is waiting for the color and composition of new ideas, fresh ways of looking at things, and brand stories yet to be told.

The Road Less Traveled
Shortly after getting my Bachelor of Business Administration in marketing from the University of Texas, I worked in retail. That was not for me. So, I applied for the dual Masters program between the University of Texas at Austin and Ecole Superieure de Commerce in France (now EMLyon). Why France? Candidly, because I never did shake the desire to live along the Seine.

The UT graduate program has always been difficult to get into, and I had to be certified as fluent in French by the government of France – and somehow, despite my terrible French, I was accepted to both programs. I’ll admit, diversity likely played a role in my opportunity – but I am grateful for the experience nonetheless.

For three years, I lived in France. Learned the language. Immersed myself in the culture. Paid attention to the politics. Walked along the Seine. Did my internship in a traditionally, classically French company vs working in a large US company with an office overseas. Wrote my masters thesis (in French) on the economic and cultural implications of the US film industry on the rest of the world vs something much more expected.

These are choices most people would not have made. But they were valuable opportunities to develop the art of empathy when it comes to how people think, and how they consume both communications and products. The ability to step outside of my own beliefs, values, and culture is what made me a better strategist. A better consumer insights planner. And a better marketer.

After returning to the US, I went into the agency world instead of working for one of the consulting firms. My peers thought that was an odd choice. Regardless, I’ve always been a consultant of sorts, but the creative expression of a brand is often its most important asset. Goodwill on the balance sheet is where the heart and soul of a brand lives financially – and done properly, it’s a big number and a big multiplier for anyone looking to sell. And bringing brands to life is the thing I love doing.

And like so many of my peers, I too have a “side gig.” But it isn’t anything related to my day job. My sister and I bought a farm for our retired horses.

Over time, it’s turned into a fully functional training facility – one that runs itself these days. Buying the barn and growing it into something special has made me hyper-aware of the things that my clients think about. Marketing is just one part of the equation. Operations, sales, customer service, etc…are all important too.

All of those areas are opportunities to either reinforce or dilute the brand, depending on how well they’re done. That, and sometimes marketing problems are not marketing problems at all, but perhaps something else altogether. But the barn has helped me see a picture that’s much bigger than my marketing silo.

The Open Highway, Speed Bumps, Twists & Turns, and Everything In Between
Except for one outstanding goal on my bucket list, I’ve achieved everything I’ve ever wanted to.

• Got an education. And then got even more education.
• Learned to speak another language (albeit it with a strong Texas accent)
• Lived in France and traveled most of Europe
• Earned a Masters in International Marketing and European Management from a business school in France when the European Union was just starting to form (my timing was fortunate)
• Met the man of my dreams
• Started my own company (technically, two)
• Finished the half Ironman in Kona, Hawaii
• Qualified for the American Eventing Championships several times
• Worked on a political campaign (several actually, the most meaningful was my younger brother’s bid for Mayor of Frisco, TX)
• Bought a horse farm and built a training facility
• Helped a lot of people…and a lot of animals…along the way

I’m sure there’s more. But that’s the stuff that comes to mind now.

I’ve had great mentors, great peers, and great opportunities to hone my skills. I’m very lucky in that regard.

I’ve worked for the largest agencies in the world, small independents, and everything in between. The same is true for the brands with which I’ve had the pleasure of working.

Traditional, digital, experiential, events, promotions, installations, etc. You name it, there likely isn’t a marketing channel I haven’t touched at some point in my career.

Business-to-consumer, direct-to-consumer, business-to-business. Consumer packaged goods, non-profit, government, technology, SaaS, fintech, durables, industrials, etc. The same goes for industries.

I think all of these things make me a better marketer. Why? Because a simple idea in one area may lead to an innovative or disruptive idea in another. And because my experience has given me a lot of data points from which to draw.

It’s also made my career a lot more interesting.

Lessons Learned Along The Way
The most important lessons that I’ve learned along this journey called life can be summed up with the title of four of my favorite books: The Secret, The No Asshole Rule, The Screwtape Letters, and There Are No Horse Problems, Only Horses With People Problems. If you haven’t read them, you should (or at least the first two anyway). And if not, here are the key takeaways from each in my mind.

The Secret: We are what we think. This means if we think positively, we get positive. Manifestation, attitude, and energy are powerful tools at our disposal. We should use them for good.

The No Asshole Rule: This one is self-explanatory. Don’t be a jerk. Additionally, don’t let anyone be a jerk to you. Life is simply too short for bad behavior.

The Screwtape Letters: Nothing is as it seems. Ask why and why not…even about your own opinions and beliefs. And be brave enough to consider the possibility that your beliefs might be wrong.

There Are No Horse Problems, Only Horses With People Problems: Fair enough that a book about horses seems like an odd choice for a business blog post. However, all too often we blame someone or something else when things go wrong – when in fact, our behaviors, attitudes, opinions, and approach likely played a greater role than we’d like to admit. And then there’s that whole people-will-rise-to-the-level-you-see-in-them leadership principle that you can learn from horses. Believe they can succeed, and they will. Expect them to fail, and they will.

Unchartered Territories and What Lies Ahead
I have no idea what lies ahead. But I’m thankful for the road that’s led me here. That said, there will always be dogs, horses, and the people I love along the way.

Last But Certainly Not Least, The Co-Pilots And Passengers That Make Life An Adventure
My journey to ECS is not my journey alone, but rather the people and things that make me…me.

My evil twin sister Kimberly. Of course, she’s the evil one. She’s left-handed. I’m right-handed. We’re mirror twins. By default, I’m the good one. We’ve shared a lot of laughs, dangers, dumb moments, tears, fights, and whatever else you can think of.

My younger brother, Jeff, and younger sister, Christie (known as CLee). Everything Jeff touches turns to gold. And everything my baby sister interacts with turns to magic. They inspire me every day.

My parents, Jeff and Vickie, who raised us to be individuals.

My husband, Charles, who has the patience of a saint, and thankfully cooks, cleans, and keeps me grounded. Because I can’t do any of those things. Oh, and he’s a brilliant marketer, and even more amazing person, who makes me a better consultant. He was once a client (or marketing partner), now a life partner and role model. But I get to see a different side of marketing and that makes me a more empathetic, thoughtful, and compassionate consultant.

Be sure to connect with Michelle on LinkedIn – and feel free to drop her an email (mcheney@thinkempirical.com).  She’d love to connect with you!