How To Survive The Marketing Department of One

Today, I’m excited to present to you a rare guest post at Help Everybody Everyday. It’s on a topic that I have been asked to write about, time and time again, by various readers.

I’m happy to call Bernie Siben, CPSM, a mentor and a friend. Bernie has been more instrumental to the success of Help Everybody Everyday than many realize. He served as the primary editor of Proposal Development Secrets and peer reviewer for Proposal Management Mastery.

He is also one of our industry’s top proposal consultants. I find myself referring people who need assistance on proposal pursuits to Bernie quite often. He is also author of the book, A Horse Of A Different Color: Marketing In The Federal Sector; wrote the “go/no go” chapter for the Marketing Handbook For the Design And Construction Professional; is a prolific commenter and helper of people on LinkedIn, and freely shares his advice at But most important for this article, he spent over a decade as a marketing department of one.

I’m very pleased that Bernie agreed to contribute this post to help all the marketing departments of one out there.

Enter Bernie…

marketing department of one

I was stunned, laying in a hospital bed. The doctor on duty had just asked if I was ever told I had a heart attack.

I was only 48. I never had the “pain in the chest radiating into the left arm” that every man is warned about. Yet, tests identified three blocked arteries.

The doctor identified some probable causes…one of which was stress.

A few hours after they moved me out of ICU, after my triple-bypass, the owner of my company walked into my hospital room. At the end of her visit, she asked me to make her a promise.

The Marketing Department of One

Very often, marketers in our industry serve as a department of one. I have been a one-person marketing department at two firms. One instance was as the sole marketer at a small firm, the other was as the sole marketer for a branch office of a large firm. In this article, I want to:

  1. Explain how these situations were different.
  2. Help you understand the plight of the marketing department of one.
  3. Give those in these situations advice so they can avoid some of the problems I had.

Branch Office Of A Large Firm

The first instance was a 60-person branch office of a 1,000-person firm, providing full-service engineering, surveying, planning and landscape architecture. I was the marketing coordinator in that office. My supervisor, that office’s senior principal, discouraged my going for help to the marketing staff at the firm’s headquarters. So I was definitely a one-person department.

My work consisted of developing SOQs and proposals, plus an occasional brochure, trade show handout, or event signage.

This was the less stressful of the two experiences. My supervisor made or confirmed every assignment, but let me juggle the multiple concurrent commitments (priorities) for myself. He understood the important and often complicated nature of my work. On one critical effort, he instructed that I not work on anything else for 30 days until that submittal was completed. Because of that focused effort, our SOQ scored 400 points higher than any other submittal. In fact, the client cancelled the proposal and interview stages and selected us solely on our SOQ.

My supervisor kept my workload at a semblance of “reasonable” and I worked the hours required. Luckily, my supervisor was careful not to overburden me with too many concurrent deadlines, to protect me from burn-out. Every time he brought a new assignment, we looked at my schedule together. More than once, he cancelled an effort already begun to make time for a more likely winner.

My supervisor was aware that RFPs were often left on someone’s desk until they became emergencies, so when I asked about seeking billable work, he forbid that. He said that if I had billable work with hard deadlines, I might not be available for the emergencies he and his senior people manufactured so easily. (Yes, he actually said that!)

When that office grew to about 120 people, I was allowed to hire a second coordinator. I was with that firm for six years.

Small Firm

The second instance was at a small, but growing, A/E/CM/Environmental firm, where I was their first Marketing Manager. Right around the time I joined the firm, the HR manager got marketing reclassified as “professional,” so I was treated as an equal staff professional from my first day with the firm.

For the first month, I collected marketing information and saved it to a separate drive. Information was scattered throughout the network, and some was only in hard copy. I pulled firm introductions and project descriptions out of SOQs and proposals. I took the many duplicates and created hybrid text, and then corrected, revised, updated and expanded those write-ups. Basically, I created the firm’s marketing database.

Fortunately, resumes had all been in one place. I distributed them, and provided specific guidelines for updates and blanks to fill in. Then I visited with or called each person, developing relationships to secure the collaboration and cooperation I would need for the firm’s overall marketing efforts.

In this situation, I had more responsibilities than I had with the other firm. I had some input on what we pursued—what I worked on—participating in brainstorming for strategic issues and the occasional Go/No Go decision, as well as efforts like market research, service brochures, our first website, trade shows, and presentations. I even got some billable hours: editing project reports and helping with materials for public meetings/hearings, etc.

In the actual proposal efforts, I served as proposal manager. In addition to writing non-technical text, I led proposal teams, including senior technical folks. I made technical writing and graphic design assignments (at first, the CAD folks helped with this) and set deadlines. I also ran Red Team Reviews and developed and coached short-list presentations.

I was with that firm for seven years. It was a busy and crazy time, and we grew from 50 to 160 people. I had some great moments, such as when a department head was publicly congratulated on a winning proposal for a multi-year ID/IQ contract and he said, “Congratulate Bernie—he wrote most of it.”

On the other hand, I also worked myself into a very mild heart attack, after which the owner—one of my main hospital visitors—made me promise that I would not have another on her account. I didn’t.

What Marketing Departments Of One Can Do

Here are the main take-aways from my own experience as a marketing department of one:

Get Agreement About Your Priorities.

Firmly establish your job description—in writing, if possible, to delineate your major and secondary responsibilities, as well as those things your boss DOESN’T want you to do.

Establish Guidelines To Ensure Decisions About Your Priorities Are Made By The Right Person.

The agreement about priorities is between you and your supervisor. The guidelines are so that there is an answer when someone else comes directly to you and you have to say, “I can’t do that” or refer them your boss.

Communicate Your Schedule With Your Boss

Many people assume that their boss knows what is on their schedule. But in truth, the boss helps you set priorities and then his/her focus is elsewhere. If you don’t remind your boss what’s on your plate every time he/she brings you a new assignment, he/she might not realize how overcommitted you are until that first hospital visit.

Address Your Stress

You must have a few good stress relievers for during the work day, in the evening, on a weekend, and on vacation, so you don’t work yourself into a hospital stay. Stress relieving activities include getting outside for some fresh air or going to the break room for coffee — and leaving your cell phone on your desk. They also include any hobby or activity that requires your full concentration so you stop thinking about work. It’s not enough to leave your desk if you carry the work with you.

Properly Record Your Time

Recording your time over 40 hours does two things, one for the firm and the second for you. First of all, if the firm’s bookkeeping system can handle it, whether you get paid for the hours or not, it gives the firm a much better feel for the cost of proposing, which is an important part of an A/E firm’s cost of doing business.

Second, if your system doesn’t allow recording of hours past 40, knowing how many such hours you have worked could be an important part of your annual review, possibly leading to a better bonus or a bigger salary increase.

Take On New Responsibilities Strategically

I was very lucky with every one of my employers. If I could think of something to try that they felt would benefit the firm, I was allowed to try. If I proved that I could do it well, it was added to my job description. That allowed me to create the job I wanted one piece at a time.

However, you have to know how these new responsibilities will fit into your week. If they take you from 40 hours to an occasional 48 or 50 and you are willing, then that’s OK. But if they take you to 50+ every week, you may have to track things for a few months and then negotiate with your supervisor about what you can shift to administrative staff or when you can consider splitting the job description with a new hire.

You don’t want to be putting in 20+ overtime hours, especially unpaid, every week for months on end.

Using these strategies, you should have no problem surviving the marketing department of one. At the very least, you’ll avoid a heart attack. 🙂

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner/principal consultant of The Siben Consult, LLC, in Austin, TX, providing strategic and marketing services to A/E/C and environmental firms nationwide. Contact him at 559-901-9596 or [email protected].


  1. Barry Morris says

    Well documented. I’ve worked with Bernie when I was a part of large construction firm as a Proposal Manager and he truly knows his stuff. Now that I’m my own one-person shop, the suggestions Bernie makes for one-person departments are still valid. Goodonya, Bernie!

  2. Great post – thanks! Great reminder to create the marketing database I want to improve my efficiency and reduce stress!

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