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Lean into Change

By Cole Friedman

“There is an opportunity for everyone as you’re jumping into new companies to lean in and acknowledge that things will be different.” At a recent FUTURE NOW Leadership Talk on November 17th, 2021, with FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO Peggy Kim, Donna Sharp advised attendees to lean into change throughout their careers, as it’s been something that’s served her well. And as the Managing Director of MediaLink, a leading consulting firm for major marketing and media companies, Sharp knows what she’s talking about.

Graduating from college in 2006, Sharp originally investigated marketing as a career because it seemed exciting to her, having learned about this possible path from her college career center. Joining Starcom, a media and marketing agency based in Chicago, right out of school, she remembers feeling immediately valued for her social media knowledge. “I was the only person on the [digital media] team who had a Facebook account at the time,” Sharp recalled proudly. Her initial experiences in the industry taught her that she, along with any other young person starting out, had something to add to the conversation.

Additionally, she found that working within a media agency gave her an outstanding education about the complex ecosystem of media. She learned that “about 75% of the people doing that marketing work [at large companies such as Coca-Cola or Apple]…sit at agencies, they don’t sit within the brands themselves.” Compiling research, developing resources, and negotiating for clients in Sharp’s entry-level role exposed her to the real work required for a company to be heard in a crowded marketplace.

As she navigated the industry, Sharp developed a love for connecting companies with the right people and technologies, as well as helping large brands tackle problems from multiple angles, which is what ultimately drew her to consulting. She found that investigating brands from an outsider perspective revealed to her the trends and issues many media organizations engage with daily. Sharp notes that, as a consultant, “you actually find that there are similar challenges being attacked within different companies.”

Sharp’s hunger to learn and expand her experience in the global marketplace led her to a life- and career-changing three-year stint in China. She took advantage of her then-company’s international connections to transfer to China, seeing the move as the biggest possible challenge with the biggest possible reward. She didn’t know the language or the culture, but she was eager to learn and was driven to meet any challenge.

Sharp discovered that the cultural shock and linguistic barrier forced her “out of being a micro-manager.” She had to completely trust her local team members since she couldn’t read their work, which was in Mandarin Chinese. Leaning into this trust and team-focused mentality made the experience rewarding for her as a manager, and she took the lessons of empathy and understanding into her next roles.

Drawing on her experience abroad, Sharp advised the audience of young professionals to stay curious, both about their work and the future of the industry. She encouraged the attendees to value their consumption of media. “We’re all content creators and we’re all consumers of media, and so, your ability to not only be savvy on the platforms…but being able to take a step back and recognize…[how to translate] your participation in this trend for a brand or advertiser [will help you go far in your career].

Additionally, when asked about what lies ahead for marketing and media, Sharp noted two big disruptions in media sales: the rise of subscription-based models over ad-supported mediums; and the role of influencers reaching consumers, a trend that Sharp saw happening in China back in 2013. “Understanding that business models are going to change” is key for young professionals, Sharp emphasized. Change is a constant. Embrace it!


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