Women in Business Q&A: Amani Duncan, VP Brand Marketing, Martin Guitar

Recognized by her peers as one of the most dynamic marketing executives in the music business, Amani Duncan was named Director of Promotional Marketing for C.F. Martin & Co. in January 2011 and was promoted to Vice President of Brand Marketing in April 2012. A 17-year music industry veteran, Duncan was chosen for her contributions to the music industry, with experience that runs the gamut from artist relations to visual marketing, campaign creation and partnership negotiations. Duncan was recently honored with the Vision Award at the 2015 She Rocks Awards and received the 2015 Women of Influence honors.

Duncan's career has included position at some of the most iconic companies in the music industry. Past achievements include serving as Chief Marketing Officer of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Video Production and Content of Capitol Music Group, and at Island Def Jam Music Group.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I recall early in my career my manager said to me, "Did you ever learn to accept the word 'no'?" And to be quite honest, I never have. I firmly believe that you can always find the right business solution to achieve your desired goals. The answer "no" is only a temporary position. This line of thinking has helped me be flexible and open to using alternative measures to achieve positive results.

My dad instilled in me a sense of fearlessness. He would often say to me, "View the unknown as friendly." He led by example and defied many obstacles throughout his life and career. Road blocks were presented across his path, but he maneuvered around them with apparent ease. Life for him was not always easy or convenient, yet he chose to continually rise above and preserve. He made the impossible possible and refused to take "no" as the final answer. My dad would quote parables and recite excerpts to me from various published works that inspired him. He positively challenged me to learn to be as fluid and as persistent as water when it encounters a rock along its path.

Sadly he is no longer with us, but I remember his teachings and hear the words of his advice daily. He was successful, determined and curious. He remains my greatest inspiration and I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for him.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Martin Guitar?
Before joining Martin Guitar I was the Chief Marketing Officer for Sean Combs Enterprises, where every day presented new opportunities and new challenges. It was a play-to-win environment where the impossible had to be viewed as possible. Creative solution-oriented thinking and problem solving was expected. Your point of view was challenged and you had to be prepared to defend your work. You learned quickly that you were playing for the Yankees, so you brought your best game to the field or didn't bother pulling in to the parking lot. I feel that experience, married with my previous roles within the industry, has placed me in the prime position to offer Martin Guitar my very best.

As the oldest American guitar manufacturer in America, Martin Guitar has a rich history of legendary and current musicians that have fallen madly in love with our guitars. The list of famous players could go on for many pages, but includes music's greats such as Gene Autry, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Rosanne Cash, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Sting, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

When I started at Martin, I wanted to create an artist endorsement program (now called the Martin Ambassador program). I modeled the requirements after what I know artists are used to doing promotionally for their record company and album releases. I also believe, from working in the recorded music business for 17 years, I have a keen ability to identify career artists. So we are more open to bringing on board musicians who are just starting out. We secured Warner Nashville recording artist Hunter Hayes very early in his career and look at him now! Over the past three years, we have brought on today's hottest singer/songwriters here in the U.S. and internationally - The Avett Brothers, Ed Sheeran, Jason Isbell, The Milk Carton Kids, Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes, Thomas Rhett, City and Colour, Of Monsters and Men, James Valentine of Maroon 5, Weezer, Ben Howard, to name a few. Our artists feel that joining the Martin Ambassador program is like joining a family and they take it as seriously as we do. I mean, you can't just let anybody into your family.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Martin Guitar?
It is important for us at Martin Guitar to maintain our position as a premiere and ubiquitous lifestyle brand. Over the past four years we have secured partnerships with hotels such as the Ace Hotel (New York, London and Los Angeles with more to come), Turtle Bay Resort in Oahu Hawaii, Burton Snowboards, Lucky Jeans, Porsche, SURFER Magazine, GoPro, and luxury consumer goods brands. Nothing is off the table and all ideas and proposals are seriously considered. Hearing people say "Martin guitars are everywhere in today's popular culture" validates the work we are currently engaged in and simply puts a huge smile on my face.

A company that has been in existence for over 182 years will certainly have a very diverse consumer demographic. We are proud to have Martin guitar enthusiasts ranging in ages from 12 years old to 80 years old. Finding balance in our product offerings and our consumer brand marketing communications is one of our business objectives. When I started at Martin, there were some challenges. But throughout, I continuously encouraged the team to trust the process as much as they did from day one, the freedom to make mistakes we were destined to make, the courage to learn from those mistakes, and the willingness to discover the tools needed to fine-tune the process.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a leadership role?
If you want to be a leader, then act like a leader. When I started out in the recorded music industry after college I interned at a record company in Los Angeles, forgoing the original plan to go to law school. Towards the end of my internship, I set up various meetings with record labels in pursuit of a permanent full-time position. Many of the executives I met with had brief interactions with me while I was interning, yet were shocked when I told them I was indeed an unpaid intern. They all thought I was a staff employee, which surprised me at first but taught me an important lesson. You have to be confident. You have to be determined. You have to be resilient. You need to be discoverable. But most importantly you need to what I call - be the way.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I maintain work/life balance by simply remembering life when I didn't have it. One can't make honest change until the problem is acknowledged and accepted. For more years than I would like to recount, I had absolutely no balance in my life. The industry I worked in blurred the lines between "work" and "life." A typical day entailed working 10-11 hours in the office or on the road, making a wardrobe change for the evening activities which included entertaining clients or artists until the wee hours of the morning, grabbing a few hours of sleep, and doing it all over again the next day. Personal time became secondary or simply non-existent. Not only did I have a PDA, at one point I had three. I was the queen of multi-tasking, while slowly losing my sense of self and happiness with every email I typed. One day on the rare occasion I was able to sit still in my apartment in Manhattan for longer than a few minutes, I realized I couldn't remember the last time I went home to California to visit my family. That was when I committed myself to making a much-needed change.

I am constantly encouraging my team to take vacations and/or personal time. I've shared my experiences with them in hopes they will learn from my journey and take a different path. Making time for oneself is very important, not only to recharge, but also because I want my team to be energized from their outside experiences and come back to the workplace rejuvenated and inspired.

I am glad to say that nowadays I'm living in the suburbs with my adorable husband and two stepsons working for an amazing company that supports and encourages positive work/life balance. Namaste at last.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I've had my fair share of challenges. But I am proud of those challenges because they have shaped the person I am today. "Be bold and the mighty forces will come to your aid" is one of many life mottos that continue to inspire and motivate me.

In my career, I've been fortunate enough to break ground in uncharted territories and I believe I have helped pave the way for others that may have chosen a similar path. Early on in my career, I can recall a time when I questioned why I was compensated less than my male counterpart in the same position yet had a bigger artist roster responsibility. I was told it was different because my colleague worked the rock/pop roster and I worked the urban music roster. This conversation became the catalyst for me to break the industry stereotypes and assume responsibility for the entire artist roster - pop, rock, hip hop, and R&B.

At that time, I was only one of three African Americans in the music business - and the only woman - in my position that was responsible for the management of the entire roster at a major record label in my division.

I believe pushing against the stone of stereotypes that unfortunately still exist in the workplace remains the biggest challenge/issue for women. It's hard to imagine this to be case especially when there are so many incredible business leaders today who are female. I remain encouraged that the paradigm will continue to shift and executives will be judged on the merit of their work not on whether they wear pants or a skirt. Until then, we who happen to wear skirts (and pants at times) must continue to lead by example, not allow our voices to be diminished and continue to be a bold and mighty force!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I believe in mentoring and am lucky to have had good mentors throughout my career. I recall days sitting in my manager's office simply listening to how he communicated to employees and clients. I learned the nuances of persuasive dialogue and how to positively influence others to do something for you, not because they have to, but because they want to. This is a very important skillset in business today, in my opinion, but one that is difficult to master. Through my mentorship, I was able to shadow senior executives in meetings and situations well above my position at the time. All of this gave me a sense of confidence that would have probably taken years to achieve. As I moved up the corporate ladder, I incorporated my on the job training to develop my own management style, eventually earning the affectionate nickname "The Velvet Glove".

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I had the opportunity to work for over ten years with the current Chairwoman of Atlantic Records, Julie Greenwald. Watching her over those years move up the corporate ladder in a predominantly male business environment helped provide me with the skills to be the leader I am today. One characteristic that Julie embodied was ensuring her voice was not minimized. She presented herself as a strong and capable leader from the day I met her and refused to accept or be associated with stereotypes. She stood firmly behind her identity and Julie's savvy business prowess made her a force to be reckoned with back then and today.

What do you want Martin Guitar to accomplish in the next year?
We at Martin Guitar all believe we have the responsibility of being good shepherds and protectors of 182 years of tradition, culture and premiere craftsmanship and we are not driven by short term plans. Our CEO & Chairman Chris Martin IV positively encourages us to do the best work we can for the brand, our customers, and the artists by building the finest guitars, strings and ukuleles possible. Having a clear and focused philosophy makes my responsibility of marketing and promoting Martin guitars and Martin strings a dream.