Exeleon Magazine

Robin Albin: The Brash and Bold Entrepreneur

Robin Albin insurgents

Entrepreneurship is a journey full of twists and turns, and for some, like Robin Albin, it’s the thrill of unpredictability that drives them to be better.

For Robin, unpredictability is a catalyst for creativity. She thrives on the unknown, using it as a driving force to push her business to new heights.

From her love-hate relationship in the corporate space to her falling in love with branding, from building her own brand to becoming a globally recognized entrepreneur, Robin Albin’s journey has been anything but predictable.

In this Interview, Robin discusses her journey, the highs, and the lows, and how instead of resisting on unpredictability, she leaned on it to thrive as an entrepreneur.

What according to you makes one a powerful woman? How do you integrate the same thought into your leadership?

A powerful woman – or for that matter, a powerful man – is someone who is comfortable in her or his own skin. She – or he – doesn’t need to be the hero of the story.

That’s why I chose the title “Brand Sherpa”. A Sherpa is someone with terrific experience. A Sherpa not only charts your path up the mountain, but knows the logistics, tools and resources needed to scale.

Sherpas are focused, resilient, and tough, yet possess a great deal of empathy. A Sherpa is a caretaker – who understands the abilities – and limitations of the entire team.

The role of a Sherpa is to empower and inspire people through courageous and thoughtful leadership. They define success by how many climbers they help reach the summit. Supporting and challenging the team so they become the best. In business, that means having the patience to pause when conditions seem unfavorable. And having the clarity and perspective to keep everyone on-mission.

Talk to us about your growing up years. What is your earliest memory as a leader / entrepreneur?

Leadership came late to me. I struggled with Imposter’s Syndrome for a good part of my early career. Constantly believing that someone – or everyone – would find out that I was a fraud who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag.

I came into my own when I became a Creative Director and head of both women’s accounts and new biz at a medium size agency. By that time, I was in my 30s.

What prompted your interest and subsequently your foray into the branding space?

I have always been something of a MissFit. A square peg in a round hole. And for many years, I struggled trying to follow the rules versus trusting my instincts and ideals.

I’ve since learned that being an outsider can actually be a huge creative advantage and an inspired form of leadership. It’s been my secret sauce and a key ingredient in my personal happiness, creativity, and success.

As a consequence, my entire career has been a series of detours and unpredictable disruptions followed by moments of incredible serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time and open to opportunities that some seem risky. I’ve become a master of the jig and jag.

For instance, I quit a toxic agency job where I was a VP Creative Director managing a team of 12 with no idea what was next. It turned out great and changed my life.

Less than 2 weeks later, I landed a sweet engagement to form a Skunk Works for a former client which morphed into my first agency BRASH (an acronym of By Robin Albin and Susan Hunter). We created a virtual model long before the idea existed. Our job was to once a month bring our client white space business opportunities.

For three years, we brought them ideas for new products, new brands, promotions, and retail store concepts. When the company was bought by P&G, the gig was up. But we had built our agency and reputation. And wherever our former clients went afterwards, they called us. As a result, we worked for a who’s-who of brands for many years.

During that time, I was fired from one account for being too outspoken aka BRASH.

Which led to an introduction to another Skunk Works project this time at Estée Lauder where I became one of the Founders of the Origins Brand. This role led to tremendous visibility and again changed my life and my career.

Through these experiences I fell madly in love with branding. I love finding the needle in the haystack. The kernel of creativity that will stand out of the sea of sameness. I love solving big hairy challenges, the stumpers and head scratchers that keep clients up at night. And I love inspiring and challenging teams to go beyond their comfort zones.

Talk to us about your agency – Insurgents. What was the idea that led to its start?

After BRASH disbanded (my partner chose to retire), I accepted the “perfect job on paper” as SVP of Conceptual Innovation on the Estée Lauder brand. Essentially an in-house entrepreneur charged with creating the future expression of the mothership brand. I knew the players and the politics. I’d been a consultant there for over 25 years. I figured I had less than a 10% chance of succeeding. But what did I have to lose? While I definitely did not succeed, I learned a ton.

After I left Estée Lauder, I thought I’d just be a “gun for hire”. But soon found myself competing for projects against some pretty cool and established boutique agencies. I decided to form a band of pirates, essentially BRASH 2.0. And named it INSURGENTS.

I wanted to do an agency my way. I only work on projects I believe in. There has to be there, there. I only work on brands that do something good for the world. And I will only work with nice people.

As a serial entrepreneur, what have been some of the biggest learnings for you in this journey?

I believe the messed-up things that happen in life – the stuff you think is going to sink you forever – actually present moments of incredible opportunity.

Here what I learned along the way.

  • Don’t be afraid to take a baseball bat to the piñata. There are some wonderful surprises inside ready to shower you.
  • Fitting in is overrated. It makes a nice corporate PDP (Professional Development Plan) that may get you a small raise and bonus. But having a strong point of view makes you interesting. It creates conversation and causes people to feel something. Beige is boring and it rarely looks good on anyone.
  • Above all, give a shit! Being passionate about your work is the only way to make it successful. If you don’t give a shit about the product or the service – the work will likely be shitty. When you fall in love with the work, you develop high standards and will fight for what’s right – down to the last detail – even if everyone else thinks that you’re absolutely nuts.

Looking at this journey, what would you have done differently if you were to start again?

I never had a five-year plan that said, “travel up this corporate ladder and with the goal of becoming an Executive Creative Director at some advertising agency. And given my 3-year stint in Corporate America, I doubt I would have succeeded.

Despite the relative autonomy my particular role at Estée Lauder afforded me, I felt stifled. The structure, the politics, the slow pace, the endless meetings, and never-ending No’s frustrated me. And my grumpiness became obvious. So much so that my boss told me in my semi-annual review, “Robin you are not corporate.”

She was 100% right. I am definitely not corporate. Give me freedom to call my own shots. Make my own hours. Binge work then take a break.

I thrive on the networking and the ability to meet new people and do something different every day. The unpredictability excites me.

My greatest accomplishments, insights, and creative efforts have come as a direct result of a disruption to the status quo, of being pushed to think out of the box, quite simply, because the box suddenly disappeared into thin air. So, I definitely would not do anything differently.

What does a day in the life of Robin Albin look like? How do you ensure worklife balance?

I am a workaholic. I’m up and at my desk generally by 5:00 a.m. 7 days a week with 8 shots of expresso to get me going. That’s when I do my best thinking and writing.

But, when an idea strikes – no matter time of day – or situation, it demands immediate attention. I often awaken in the middle of the night with some random epiphany that I must attend to.

As master of my own schedule, and because I frequently work for clients in different time zones, I can duck out 3-4 days a week to do my Cross-Fit class. I’m addicted to it. And when I can, I sneak in a short afternoon power nap with my 3 dogs.

What would be your advice for aspiring and emerging women entrepreneurs in the beauty and lifestyle space?

The world is not waiting for another beauty brand. Today, beauty brands are a dime a dozen. With each new one a slight variation on the previous one. Copycats. Who cares!

Your brand value must go beyond what you do – or make – or sell.

Have an authentic idea and point of view that you are willing to go to the mat for. Ask yourself: “What’s not good enough about the status quo?” Then tell us how you will fix it.

Be able to answer these 5 whys. Why is this a great idea. Why is it unique. Why is now the perfect time for it. Why do you understand the problem better than anyone. And why will it succeed.

Make an emotional connection with your audience. What you stand for is what makes you stand out. It drives customer loyalty and trust.

Then execute the bejesus out of it. Vividly. And consistently. At every touch point. In product development, brand experiences, PR, services, web, and store design.

Develop a culture, customs, gestures, behaviors, and idiosyncrasies that are distinctive and truly unique to your brand.

The result will be a beloved brand with the power to burn its way into the hearts and minds of your teams, stakeholders, partners, and customers so they believe what you believe and become diehard evangelists.

Finally, what does the future look like for you and your brand?

I want to keep doing what I’m doing. The way I’m doing it. I’m having a great time. I’m meeting fabulous people. I keep moving forward. I’m a big believer in serendipity. I try to always keep myself open to possibilities. Especially for projects that would seem out of my wheelhouse.

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