Julie Plake McMinn and I crossed paths under the humblest of circumstances. Self-promotion played no role in our happenstance meeting in an orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica. We each had a friend who had separately talked us into joining a group of young adults to volunteer for a week with orphans.
I had never met another Julie before, so I immediately latched on and forced her to be my friend (this is my secret to an exciting social network, in case you were wondering). I remember sitting in the back of the bus with her, dirty and smelly after a day of manual labor (so tough for us city folk!), and she told me her story of meeting Bethenny Frankel… how Bethenny had encouraged her to take a break and go on this service trip… what her life was like on TV… and how she was struggling with the question: “Am I ready to leave NYC?” But we were just young 20-something friends exchanging stories. At the time, I had no idea how much strategic and intentional work was at play in Julie’s mind.
In 2011 I ran into Julie in a Starbucks in New Jersey, where neither of us lived. It was one of those moments where the Universe is telling you: “Listen to me: This person belongs in your life.” I was living in Boston at the time but had driven to New Jersey for the day to interview for my dream job. I was freakishly early (as you are when you desperately want something and are nervous), so I was getting a coffee near the office and re-preparing for the 50th time. And there she was - my Julie #2! She had, in fact, decided to leave NYC, and she and her then-boyfriend were road-tripping back to Pittsburgh.
We’ve continued to lightly keep in touch over the years. No pressure, no weekly or even monthly phone calls - but an occasional note after engagements, weddings, a baby… Then, fast forward to October this year. I've always respected Julie professionally, so I knew I had to share my blog launch with her. She quickly volunteered to help in whatever way she could, and I am never one to turn down help. Here, she offers us her expert advice on self-branding and promotion...
Tell us a bit about your background. How have you gotten to where you are professionally?
I graduated with a degree in Advertising, Communications, and PR from Penn State. I never had “the dream” of living in New York, but I was offered a job that sounded fun, so I decided to give it a try on a whim!
The job was with a small, boutique publishing company called Niche Media. I worked on luxury sales, ads, marketing, and events, and spent my summers working in the Hamptons. That’s how I originally met Bethenny Frankel. At the time, she wasn’t well known, and we stayed in touch for years. This point is really important: I met her through networking, and I was diligent about staying in touch. I knew she was going to be famous, and that’s what I said to her. She said, “Great. When I am [famous], I’ll have enough money to hire you.”
A few years later, she asked me to come work for her. It took a lot of strength, but I knew I wasn’t ready; I had just gotten a promotion and knew that I had more learning to do in my current job. I realize in hindsight how well I knew myself at the time and how right it was to trust my gut. You’ve got to listen to your gut; it knows. Even though the temptation was there, there was something inside me that said, “Not yet.” But in the meantime I kept in touch and did various things for free to help her. Then 18 months later, I was ready.
I worked for Bethenny for three years. When I started, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. But I knew I was working for someone who worked hard and was determined to build her own brand. Quickly, I was dubbed the “Organizer of Chaos” and was proud to help build the Skinnygirl and Bethenny Frankel brands. Eventually, it was personally time to move on from my NYC life. I married my high school sweetheart and moved back to our hometown of Pittsburgh, where I got a job with Marc USA.
Working at Marc really rounded out my skillset, but I had always had the itch to work for myself. I love connecting people, and I found myself working for free- constantly coaching friends and family about branding and promoting themselves. I couldn’t get enough of it. So I finally got the next wave of courage for another big change - to leave MarcUSA and set up JPM Branding and get paid for what I loved doing.
What did you learn about self-promotion and personal branding from Bethenny?
When I started working for Bethenny, Skinnygirl wasn’t in stores yet, so we were trying to get the product placed from scratch and sourcing TV spots for Bethenny. Even though we were starting from ground-up, we refused to be all things to all people. Bethenny knew very precisely who she was and what her brand was. Every product placement and interview had a purpose. She never went on TV and just answered questions. She always had a plan: “What product am I going to promote? What am I going to talk about? How am I going to collect people that listen to this interview and make them my followers?” This is important, especially if you’re an individual or small business owner building your brand: Your resources and time are limited. Everything you do should be strategic and have a clear purpose.
Working for Bethenny was not just your job. You were on TV and part of that lifestyle. How did you make the transition to life after Bethenny?
Leaving NYC felt like a huge risk, and people were telling me how hard it’d be to find a job and that moving without having a job lined up was a mistake. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to find Marc, and it was mutually a good fit. The job at Marc was so important for me because I experienced the corporate side of things for the first time. I’d had experience at a small, niche business and then a multi-million-dollar three person show. But working at the ad agency gave me another angle into marketing.
Tell us about JPM Branding and why your clients hire you.
Clients hire me because with my experiences at Niche Media, Bethenny, and MarcUSA, I really have a 360 view of the marketing process: Brand → Influencer → Target Audience. I’ve been on all sides of the business, so I can see the client from every angle and connect the dots. When you’re a personal brand or a small business, you need to be thinking about all the facets of your marketing: advertising, website, digital, social, PR… you need to own all these things and realize what you’re good at and where you need help.
I specialize in helping smaller brands, businesses, and personalities find their niche and branding. Clients come to me to get organized in setting up this foundation or for help prioritizing all the promotion efforts they know they should be doing - it’s all easier said than done. Especially when someone’s just starting a business or project, they’re typically all over the place.
Personal branding - What is it? Who's it for? What's the purpose?
Personal branding is defining what you are and what you stand for. It’s so important because people try to be and do everything, and it’s just not possible. The key is to understand what you want to be. For example, Bethenny’s brand was Skinnygirl. As she developed her brand, everything pointed back to Skinnygirl. To the contrary, you see other reality stars putting their name on everything. Bethenny knew that she was Skinnygirl and she owned it.
I work with a lot of Mom-bloggers, and “lifestyle blogging” is the new buzzword. What does that mean? If you’re a lifestyle blogger, what am I coming to you for? It’s too broad. Be intentional about who you are and why you want people to come to you. If you’re a food-blogger, I’m coming to you for a recipe, not for home decorating tips. Own what you are.
How do I establish my personal brand? What if I’m not an entrepreneur or blogger... Should I still do this?
Having a personal brand is for everyone. A good place to start is knowing what you want. If you know what you want or who you want to be, you can start your branding process by playing the part. In an office, maybe this looks like dressing a certain way or always being the person to volunteer for a specific task that’s aligned what you want to do. Brand yourself as that person everyday.
If you’re in college, breaking into a new industry, or getting back into work after a hiatus, you’re starting with a clean slate and may not know what you want. That’s fine and a fun place to be! You start with doing the research. Who has a job you want? Who’s in an industry that interests you? Research may include some web-surfing, but you really need to get out there and network. Find someone you want to emulate in some way, and experiment with developing similar qualities (but don’t be creepy).
Another way to start your personal brand creation is by asking yourself: “What am I good at? What are other people saying about me?” Better yet, find out what other people think you’re good at. Pick five people: a mix colleagues, clients, and friends is a good idea. Say to them something like: “I’m trying something new… If you could describe me with two qualities, what would you say?” Even I got nervous the first time I tried this, but people described things that I never would’ve thought of myself; one client told me that I’m great at customizing talent. I am, but I never would’ve thought of that as a quality.
Once I know what I want my personal brand to be, what do I do with it? Putting it into action is uncomfortable.
People’s descriptions of you can start to be the foundation of your personal brand. This is your meat. The trick is knowing the right time to use your meat. Is it at that client cocktail party? Is it in your upcoming year-end review? And this can be uncomfortable. I tell my clients: Self-promote at your natural comfort level, then take it about four steps past your comfort zone.
What does good and bad self-promotion look and sound like?
The litmus test for good self promotion is: Am I using / publicizing what I’m really good at to help other people? The inverse of this is called “being obnoxious.” :) People immediately know if you’re helping or being obnoxious.
You have to tell your story in a way that makes someone feel like, “I am like you. That means I can do it too.” Relatability is key. If your audience cannot relate to your story or example, you’re just talking about yourself. If they can relate, you’re helping, which equals good self-promotion.
So, here’s something I’ve been struggling with: social media heightens everything. Any of us can promote ourselves on a number of platforms that can reach thousands of people with the click of a button. What’s the right way to self-promote online? How much is too much?
You have to be an active participant for people besides yourself in the platforms you’re using. For example, if Facebook is your main promotion platform, spend 20 minutes a day commenting on and liking others’ posts too. Remember though - authenticity is important; people can immediately tell what your intention is.
And look, this should be quite natural. People’s social media personalities are not that different from their real-life personalities. People who are good at promoting others and asking about others in real life are good at this online. Just be a normal person. No one wants to hear from someone they can’t relate to.
What’s the most important message about self-promotion that you want to leave us with?
Once you decide what your personal brand is, go with it. Just own it. Don’t be wishy-washy. Commit! If it doesn’t work, no big deal - you can change it. If it doesn’t work, it’s better than the nothing that you were doing before.
Lastly, 4 fun questions to help us get to know you better:
What's your preferred method of communication?
Telephone. We need to bring back the telephone! No one’s ever told me that they don’t have time for a call. Picking up the phone is a competitive advantage; no one’s doing it anymore.
What's the first thing that pops into your head when you wake up in the morning?
It’s so different than it was a couple years ago. These days it’s: “Is my kid up yet? What am I making for breakfast? Can I go back to sleep?” I want to be a morning person - I’m trying so hard! But it’s just not me...
What's your best professional moment so far?
Having the courage to start JPM Branding. I’d talked about it for so long, and my husband said: “Please stop talking about this and just do it.”
What's your mantra?
I love that you asked this! I was just talking to a friend about it the other day. My mantra is, “The only way out is through.” We used to say it in college in a really light way - about hangovers, exams... you know, the important college stuff :) Over time, we’ve realized that it applies to our grown-up lives - having babies, cleaning the house, work assignments… It’s so true! You just have to work through something to get out of it.
Thank you so much, Julie!