From dishwasher to B2B titan: One marketer's journey to the top

As one of the most respected and unapologetically outspoken content marketers in the field, Ignite 2017 keynote speaker Doug Kessler can make even the most stoic professional sit up and take notice. We hear how he went from scrubbing dishes in America’s north-east to running one of the fastest-growing marketing agencies in the UK.

The fact that Doug Kessler started out doing a psychology major in college wasn’t, he assures us, a vocational thing – he was just really interested in what made people tick. (It also turned out to be great preparation for a career in marketing.) Plus, advertising also happened to be the only industry that didn’t laugh at his liberal arts degree (no one who interviewed him had a degree that was particularly relevant either).

Doug’s very first job was as a dishwasher in a pretentious Connecticut restaurant. Three key lessons learned here were: 

1) Avoid restaurant work (he failed at that for his next four jobs).

2) Avoid pretension – it’s just too much like hard work and everyone sees through it anyway.

3) Be sceptical – just because they serve you your bread roll with tongs doesn’t mean the waiters weren’t playing keepy-uppy with it in the kitchen 20 seconds ago.

Lesson 1: Believe

Success didn’t come easily, and Doug went on to have some pretty horrible career experiences.

“The worst feeling in the world is presenting something you don’t believe in – and realising it mid-presentation. This wasn’t just a one-time thing, but probably happened five times, and each one burned itself into my memory.”

As an assistant account manager, he presented the work of a lazy creative team to a client at Lever Brothers on Park Avenue.

”I was furious that I’d had to defend it against some clearly fair criticism.”

This kind of thing catalysed the switch to copywriting and gave Doug added impetus to work hard to avoid that mortifying, mid-presentation feeling of shame.

Lesson 2: Take huge risks; be brash

Along that ever so cracked and uneven road to success, Doug offers some wisdom that he received in his career: go to work every day with a true willingness to be fired.

“Scott Marshall, a maverick at O&M New York, told me this when I was struggling. As a result, he promptly did something that almost got him fired (circulated a memo that hadn’t been checked by his boss!)”

As it happens, Doug has only been employed for less than five years in his entire career. So now he interprets the advice as: “Go to work every day with a true willingness to lose the client. Doing a smart thing is so much more fun than doing a stupid thing someone powerful happens to want.”

Lesson 3: Listen to your mentor

Though he’s had very few bosses, there have been two terrific ones: June Blocklin and Peter Liguori at O&M.

“Both were inspirational examples of how to bring your whole self to work. And both later proved that this was the fast road to success — they've had awesome careers.”

Moving to London from the US was a complete re-start. Luckily, at 29, he was young enough to take the hit; Doug was a freelance copywriter for years before running into Stan Woods and starting Velocity.

Want to hear Doug in person? 

Doug Kessler is the closing keynote speaker at Ignite 2017, the world's biggest B2B marketing, learning and networking experience. Don't miss out, as he'll be 'Smashing the conventions of B2B content marketing.' You can snag £50 off your Ignite ticket with our early bird offer. But hurry, it ends Wednesday 3 May.

Book now and save £50


Lesson 4: Be proud, be humble

Okay, this might sound corny, but Doug’s proudest accomplishment is watching the Velocity team grow and do amazing things.

“These are awesome, smart, talented, motivated people doing great work — with no help from me! There’s a Yiddish word for this. Kvell. Look it up.”

If you’d have told a young, arrogant, Doug about what the old, feeble, grey-haired Doug would be doing today – helping run a 50-person, two-office B2B agency that was just voted Content Marketing Agency of the Year, he’d have been thrilled. 

Lesson 5: Stay grounded

And finally, the importance of good family values.

“Having two delightful daughters taught me patience, perspective, humility — and reminded me to enjoy the hell out of the ride I’m on. Or change it.”

Doug jokes that if he wasn’t a marketer, he’d probably be a terrible, second-rate screenwriter toiling away on some nine-part series starring that guy from ‘Mr Robot’ (no, the other guy… yeah, him). Or a lawyer preparing a class action suit against the bewilderingly malicious Trump administration.

“In fact, maybe I actually should quit and do that...”