How I Out-Heisenberg’d Heisenberg

by Jeff Ebbing
Southeastern Community College
West Burlington, IA

Time for a confession. I am an addict. Hardcore, too. Been hooked since my first taste. I am a Breaking Bad junkie.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Breaking Bad is a TV show that chronicles mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher-turned-ruthless drug kingpin Walter White.

After learning he has terminal cancer, Walter needs a money-making opportunity so he can provide a nest egg for his wife and kids. Secretly, Walt teams up with small-time drug dealer and former student, Jesse Pinkman. They use his mastery of chemistry and Jesse’s connections to peddle Walt’s uber-pure crystal meth to very interested, very ruthless drug dealers.

The two are successful in spite of themselves. Walt’s cancer goes into remission but he chooses to stay in the business. Before long, he outwits the drug kingpin to reign supreme, his family none the wiser.

Over the course of five seasons, viewers watched Mr. White slowly dismantle his entire belief system as he metamorphoses into the black hat wearing, deplorable puppet master, Heisenberg.

This 21st-century Machiavelli’s hubris knows no bounds, and it’s only a matter of time until his world comes crashing down.

So what does a chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord have to do with community college marketing?

This phrase is taped to the top of my monitor as a constant reminder that no matter how sexy-smooth I think I am, I’m more George Costanza and less George Clooney.We’ve all had a point in our careers when we knew we could do better than the then-current marketing guy. Our perspective was fresh, our ideas new, and we were full of energy. Only, the man kept us down by marginalizing us and maintaining the status quo.So with nothing to lose and everything to gain, we jumped in headfirst with our bold plan. We were gonna set the world on fire.And you know what? We did. People took notice. The buzz was out. We moved the needle.

Fast forward to today.

The coin has flipped. Now meetings, committees, salespeople and email rule our lives. Plus, nearly everyone else on campus thinks they’re a marketer, or worse, our boss.

How many conversations have you labored through that start like this?

You know what you should do?

I read this article …

This other college does this thing …

We smile and nod and think, “Awww. That’s nice dear. Look at you with your cute little marketing idea.”

We reply that we have the facts and we vote “no.” Minding the mint, we say. Stewarding the brand, we say.

It’s like diving on a grenade every time someone comes through the door. There are the well-wishers, the pie-in-the-sky-ers, the “it’s-all-about-me-ers, and the how-can-you-not-see-that-this-is-the-greatest-idea-since-my-last-great-idea-ers” and they all want something.


After years of struggling to bank some hard-earned marketing street cred, it’s dangerously easy to get complacent or to buy into some delusional marketing rock star status.

Saying “ok” is effortless. It becomes our go-to response.

Sometimes though, just as you mentally write someone off, they say something so profound that it freaks you right out.

“Why didn’t I see that? Have I lost my marketing mojo?” you gasp.  You’re at a crossroads: Do you breeze past the revelation and keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you swallow your ego, extract the truth, and size to fit?

It’s a classic Pete Townsend corollary: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Ignore at your own peril.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not your job to have all the good ideas. Other people can have good ideas, too. But regardless of whose ideas they are, it’s your job as a marketer to objectively scrutinize them.

Can you own it? Does it fit your strategy? Can you sustain it?

Now go one step further. It’s one thing to assess others’ ideas, but how about your own? Are you able to put your pet projects and longstanding beliefs under the microscope? And if they no longer measure up, are you willing to slay your own sacred cows?

It’s never easy, yet oddly enough, it’s often quite liberating. As a matter of fact, I’ve done some of my best work right after burning the house down. Turns out sacred cows make for damn good barbecue.

Thanks to a tiny strip of paper with scribbles in faded ink, I’ve found the courage to challenge my own assumptions, open my eyes to possibilities, pull the plug on comfy work, and talk myself down from more than a few marketing ledges.

It’s the best advice I’ve ever given myself.

Jeff Ebbing is director of marketing and communications (a.k.a. the marketing guy) at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. He likes music, mustard and a good laugh. Oh, and testing the editorial boundaries of NCMPR blog editor Debbie Halsey.

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