Building a personal brand isn’t always about making yourself look good

This article was originally featured in Fast Company on June 21st 2019

Ten years ago, one of then-leading advertising bloggers called me a “lady douchenozzle.” I am still not sure what that means, but I’m certain it is not a compliment. It’s one of a number of insults I’ve weathered in my 13 years of working first as a strategist in the world’s most renowned advertising agencies and then as a brand executive. The internet isn’t always a great place, particularly if you are a woman.

If you’re just starting out, it’s easy to gloss over the negative sides of the personal branding business. There are more than 346 million “personal branding” search results in Google, and while most of these “how-to” guides are useful and inspiring, they also stay clear of the gritty, sensitive, and uncomfortable aspects of having a personal brand. The truth is, to build a truly sustainable digital presence, you’re going to have to put yourself out there — and develop a thick skin for the feedback you’ll inevitably receive. Basically, you have to be willing to be called a “lady douchenozzle.”

If you decide that you’re up for the task, here’s what you should keep in mind:


With social media, honesty has become somewhat of a veblen good: rare, exquisite, and in high demand. “Young people are not fooled by social media smoke and mirrors. The kids always know a social media poseur when they see one and are just as adept at spotting authenticity online,” says Steve Dool, the head of community partnerships at the social commerce app Depop. Honesty should also be reserved for ideas, not for hurting people’s feelings.


My “lady douchenozzle” label was earned by an AdAge piece where I was critical of something that one of the ad industry legends said. Lesson one: Don’t write only to gain exposure and game search engines; do it because you are passionate about a topic and curious to know more. Good writing is hard. It takes time and focus and research. I have been doing it since the beginning of my career, as a way to clarify my thoughts, explore an idea, and become better at my job.


Too often personal branding articles don’t talk about the difference between being widely known — LinkedIn Top Voice! — and standing for something. If the world of “real” brands is any indicator, it’s those companies that have a strong point of view and consistently deliver (like Patagonia, Nike, Disney, or Apple) that we admire and want to be associated with. It’s the same with people. Having a point of view requires bravery. The clearer your point of view is and the more unapologetic you are in expressing it, the more vitriol you may attract. That doesn’t matter.


Question the established big “truths.” Every industry has them. Too often, across professions, we resort to conformism: “Things have always been done in this way,” and “This worked so well in the past,” and “We invested too much time and money for this not to work.” We listen to the industry elders because they have been around for a long time. If they say something that doesn’t make sense, however, call them out on it. But pick your battles and your audience. It’s better to be a modern version of Robin Hood and punch up rather than to go around on LinkedIn disagreeing with everyone. If you don’t offer a solid, well-thought-out counterargument, you’ll be known but not respected.


The unglamorous and often omitted truth about personal branding is that it takes time. It may take a year; it may take five years; it may take 10 years. “What is often missing from the conversation is that personal brand shouldn’t be something you create in a few months with an Instagram boyfriend and a Valencia filter. It should be something that you strive to refine through the value of your work,” says Dool. It is not just about having a carefully groomed social media presence, commenting on the innumerable LinkedIn posts, or going to the meet-ups. It is about doing your job — be it your professional role or your hobby — day in and day out. “We are slowly chipping away at this fallacy that a personal brand is something you just decide to create,” says Dool. Mere exposure won’t lead you to your dream job. Being good at what you do will — and that takes infinitely more time and effort.