A Candid Conversation with Lillian Brown: Managing $1B Budgets & How To Get Promoted!

Lillian Brown the Cofounder of Current Forward speaks on career advice
Lillian Brown, Cofounder of Current Forward. PHOTO: COURTESY LILLIAN BROWN

Meet Lillian Brown, the brand strategist who has done it all. 

Brown is the co-founder of Current Forward and a brand strategist with 15 years of experience in the media industry. This remarkable woman was already a director by 27 and has also managed a $1 billion media budget in her career. She has worked on campaigns with Rihanna, Vice, Refinery 29, Oscars, and many more. 

After working at Samsung and finally finding her passion, she launched one of the most successful consumer insights firms in Austin, Texas. We had the privilege of sitting down with her to delve into her career journey, discover her sources of motivation, and much more. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Can you tell us more about your journey? How did you get started in your career? What inspires you?

I typically talk about my career in three chapters. My first chapter was all about understanding humans, how they think, and how they behave. Essentially, I was working with brands in order to provide the most relevant message at the most relevant time. That was mostly about digging into data, developing audience profiles, and basically telling brands: this is what you should do. That was my media career and a good seven to eight years of my life. 

In chapter two, I shifted from being on what is called the agency side to the brand side. I was brought in-house to work at Samsung. Everyone knows them. So my second chapter at Samsung was a business arc, like, how do all of the different departments in a large organization work together to ultimately drive growth, revenue, business, and brand?

Lillian Brown the Cofounder of Current Forward speaks on career advice
Lillian Brown and the Current Forward Team. PHOTO: COURTESY LILLIAN BROWN

That led me into chapter three, where I put those things together and said, “Okay, I have a ton of consumer insight background. I really love understanding humans and making brands that are relevant to them.” And so I started my own consumer insights firm, where we partner with brands like Tinder, WeightWatchers, Pepsi, MailChimp, etc. to help brands identify fresh ways to be relevant through primary research.

You mentioned working in the media industry for eight years, even though it wasn't your passion. What motivated you to excel in this field?

What motivated me, if I'm really, really honest, is money. I graduated from college in 2009. The Great Recession was happening. Everyone around me was going back to school to get advanced degrees and going into deeper debt. I was like, that's not for me. So that was part of it: don't go into debt; get assets early in life. I also feel like I have toddler energy, where I wake up in the morning and I'm ready to go. That was part of it too.

I was young, and I had that type of go-getter, early energy. And I was ready to tackle the day every single day. So that kind of goes back to that intrinsic motivation. I would say I was motivated to succeed - to build something, to make it matter, and to make it count. And if you are working in an industry that you're not super passionate about, you have to find another passion [within that industry]. For me, my passion in that environment was to build a great team, do great work, and be really proud every day.  Regardless of the topic or the industry that you’re working in, you've got to find a passion.

What lessons did you learn during that time?

What did I learn from that point in time? I got promoted fairly quickly in almost every role I was in. I was promoted to director by the age of 27. It was awesome at the time, but it also felt scary. Because when you get to the boss role, you feel like you are too young and have the least amount of experience compared to all your peers. So a kind of impostor syndrome starts to set in. One piece of advice is to fight imposter syndrome as much as you can. Because it led me to a place where I felt everyone around me was better. And so I was like, let me just keep repeating things that I've been doing because they worked. Eventually, I got to a point where I stopped challenging myself as much because I was afraid of failing. And so fighting that [ imposter syndrome] really hard in all stages of your career is really important.

What are some key strategies or actions that individuals can take early in their careers to position themselves for upward mobility within a company?

Working hard at the beginning of your career. It's one of those moments in time where you don't realize it, but you have the least amount of responsibilities and the most amount of time. So utilizing those years to explore your passions, do good work, and work on good teams. The other thing that I would say is to underpromise and over-deliver. Because ultimately, what you really want to do is build a track record, right? You want to build a track record that says, “I'm a proactive worker. I go beyond, and I'm curious about my job.”

Lillian Brown speaks on career advice
Lillian Brown, Cofounder at Current Forward. PHOTO: COURTESY LILLIAN BROWN

You [also] have to be explicit and say out loud that you love to be there. And those are the folks who, at least in my experience, I've witnessed get promoted more quickly and more often. At the same time, you also really want to be reliable, right? So there's kind of this formula of proactivity, curiosity, and reliability, and all those things together help you gain trust within an organization, within a team, and with your boss.

You mentioned that moving out of media was the "great unlock." What strategies or insights can you share with our audience about making successful career transitions?

When you make a career transition, it is really easy to get into this mental place - Should I be doing this? What am I doing? I don't know a lot about this new thing. This feels scary. It goes back to imposter syndrome and confidence. If you have low confidence, making a career transition is going to be that much harder.  So protect your confidence and work on it. I have gone to therapy to rebuild my confidence after points in my career. It's always going to be scary, uncomfortable, and ambiguous, but you need to be that much more resilient to get through it. 

The other thing I would say in terms of making transitions is to learn how to brand yourself. You have to recreate your personal brand. You can answer questions like, what are the commonalities between your current industry and the one you want to go into? Why did your last role lead you to this one? You have to thread that needle in terms of creating the narrative of your career for people because they will not do it themselves. You have to essentially create that story. 

What do you believe are the most important qualities or skills that young professionals need to cultivate in order to succeed and stay competitive?

I would say be action-oriented. Or, basically, get sh*t done. Take work off of your boss's plate. I found that some people are better at delegating and managing than others. If you have a boss who is not great at either of those things, ask very simply, almost every day:

Lillian Brown from Current Fwd speaks on career advice

So almost forcefully and indirectly taking things from your manager or your boss. [This] will be phenomenal for you. Because you get to work on what you want. The other thing is to realize that you don't know everything, and that is absolutely fine. I think there's a huge fear of admitting to that, but only later in your life will you really understand what you know and what you don't know. Eventually, you get to the point where you realize that everyone's in the same boat, and if you can realize that and say, “I don't know, but I'll give it a shot, and I'll figure it out. Or I'll go ask for help. I'll ask for feedback,” it's going to help you stay successful and get you ahead.

What are three books or podcasts you’d recommend, and why?

Ultimately, I go to Blinkist which is a service that has a ton of books, like business books, self help books, and mental health books. They essentially distill the book into a 15-minute audio overview. It's like cliff notes for those types of books, and it's great because there's all these amazing books, but the core concept is pretty simple. You get so much knowledge in a short amount of time. 

And then, I would say I also really like listening to Kara Swisher. She's a fantastic journalist who works basically at the intersection of big tech and politics. And she always has a good take. She gets great interviews. She puts on a conference called Code Conference. It's just gold if you're thinking about where the world is headed.

Explore more of Lillian's insights on her LinkedIn profile and dive deeper into the world of consumer insights with Current Forward.

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