In The Pulse's Mea Culpa series, marketing leaders share their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them. In this edition, general manager Lisa Papli, reflects on how a big mistake early in her career reframed her approach to leadership.
When you’re forging a career in marketing, mistakes come with the territory. Some are minor while others change us. Lisa Papli knows this all too well. Over a career spanning 25 years, Lisa has accumulated some memorable mistakes, although she prefers to call them “learnings”. The one that still makes her shudder happened early in her career and has helped shape her into the supportive, organized, and strategic leader she is today.
The big mistake
After starting her career in sales, Lisa was enjoying her first marketing coordinator role for a household brand. The business had a big marketing spend across TV, radio, and outdoor so Lisa was excited when asked to join a meeting with their advertising agency. She had no idea she was about to set in motion a budget blowout.
“I hadn’t been briefed before the meeting. There was no agenda, no background, no guidance on the approval process so I thought I would just be observing. When I arrived, my boss wasn’t there. It was just me and the agency team. The account manager was flustered because it was coming into peak buying season and things had to be signed off quickly. She showed me the artwork for the outdoor advertising campaign which was in 3D over multiple proposed sites. I felt the blood drain from my face because I had no idea how to respond and I felt pressured to make decisions.”
As a “very green” marketer, Lisa nervously nodded as she was bombarded with radio and TV production schedules, media buying sign-off dates, multiple deadlines, artwork, and potential outdoor sites. While overwhelmed, she summoned her confidence.
“I thought my boss must trust me if she’s put me in this position. I wanted to prove myself so I said, ‘Yes, I love that artwork’. While I had no clue about the proposed sites, I knew a lot of cars were on those freeways so I said, ‘Well, that’s a good choice’. I thought I was just sharing my opinion. At no point was I told how much it would all cost.”
A week later, Lisa’s boss showed her an approved contract for the outdoor advertising component of the campaign, furious that Lisa had “approved” it with no authority. The horse had bolted and the outdoor campaign had to go ahead at a financial risk to the company.
Lisa managed to keep her job but her confidence was in tatters and her relationship with her boss never fully recovered. While the campaign ended up performing extremely well, Lisa still shudders when she recalls that pressure-cooker meeting and the soul-destroying fallout. The experience completely reframed her approach to marketing and leadership.
The (many) lessons in marketing and leadership
Lesson #1: Don’t let imposter syndrome drive your behavior
In retrospect, Lisa acknowledges that the imbalance of power in the meeting made her want to appear more experienced and confident than she felt. These days, she is comfortable acknowledging when she doesn’t have all the answers and encourages her team to do the same.
“If you feel out of your depth, speak up. When you’re surrounded by people who have more experience, remember you always have the right to be heard. It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that’ or ‘I need to follow up on that’. No one is expected to have all the answers, not senior leadership, not anyone.”
Lesson #2: Ensure your processes are clear and your objectives are measurable
Since moving into senior leadership positions, Lisa says she continually highlights the importance of robust processes and measurable strategies.
“You have to view things from a whole of business perspective, not just your marketing department because your decisions affect others and can cost jobs if they result in a financial hit. My mistake taught me the importance of having strict processes in place, especially when it comes to financial management and sign-offs. I also learned the importance of measuring a campaign’s return on investment. You can’t just focus on vanity metrics. You need a true attribution of what the campaign delivered to the bottom line.”
Lesson #3: Lead with empathy
When you’re dealing with people, it’s important to tailor your approach to different personality types and levels of experience. Lisa says this becomes especially vital when managing a high-performing team.
“You always need to consider the individual. Some people need a detailed 90-day training plan and daily support while others don’t. As a leader, I let people fail but I don’t let them sink. It’s about being supportive and making sure they have a solid foundation and the right training. Individual needs vary but everyone needs a manager that supports them and empathises with them when things go wrong.”
Lesson #4: Take charge of your agency relationships.
“Agencies aren’t there to take the lead. We are there to take the lead. That’s our role as in-house marketing professionals. We need to be very transparent when it comes to our budgets and our deadlines.”
Lisa says she’s also moved away from working with one agency and now partners with multiple agencies that specialize in different areas of marketing.
“I don’t work with agencies on an ad hoc basis, it’s about building a partnership. These days, I also tend to work with smaller agencies in different specializations because I’ve found when you put all your money into one agency, costs start to go up and quality can diminish. It took a lot of confidence building over the years to take charge and bring in different experts to deliver campaigns. Yes, it creates more work for you to manage but you get a better outcome.”
Lesson #5: Own your mistakes and own the solution.
Lisa advises marketers at all levels to stop being afraid of making mistakes and instead reframe them as learnings that forge pathways to future success. While it’s okay to make mistakes, you should always acknowledge them and propose a considered solution.
“As soon as a mistake happens, own it. If you try to bury it, it will usually resurface a lot bigger. When I walk into the CEO’s office with a problem, I always have a solution or an idea for how we can fix it. Even if that solution isn’t the one we run with, it shows that I’ve thought about how to fix things, I’m not just dropping my bundle.”
Lisa admits that while unpleasant at the time, the mistakes she has made throughout her career have helped shape her into the respected marketing leader she is today – someone who fosters a culture of empathy, transparency, innovation, and accountability.
“People make mistakes. People fail. As a leader, I like to think I’ve created a safe space for people to fail – to take calculated risks and know they have my support if things don’t go to plan. By showing my own vulnerability, I hope people feel they can be vulnerable as well. Early in my career, I did see them as failures and mistakes. Now I just see them as learnings, a vital part of life experience."