Marketing Disruption

Ask The CMO: David Rubin On Marketing As Critical Player in Helping Define An Industry’s Disruption

Marketing is being asked to reimagine itself daily as the world continues to go through a period of transformation perhaps not seen since the days of the Industrial Revolution. As entire industries continue to be upended, change emerges less as an activity and more as a necessary course of action in today’s business environment. As a result, agility, disruption and vision in the world of marketing, has never been more vital, nor has the need for the marketing function to emerge as a powerful driver of increased revenue.

In a year defined by “fake news,” the media sector has emerged as among the most embattled. With that in mind, I felt that speaking to a visionary marketer within the media sector would be a great way to end my column for the year, as well as provide some behind-the-scenes insights for leveraging marketing as a catalyst of disruption, growth and competitive edge.

For my most recent piece, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Rubin, formerly in charge of brand at Pinterest and currently in charge of shepherding The New York Times into our new age of engagement-driven experiences. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee: A lot of what I have been focusing on lately is the changing face of the marketing function inside of the world’s leading organizations. There used to be a tremendous amount of uniformity across the discipline, and now, there is a lot more nuance and customization by company. I know you’re the Chief Brand Officer and that you work closely with your Chief Revenue Officer, so this paradigm has apparently played out at The Times. Can you discuss how these two disciplines now comprise the marketing function at the company and what your specific role is?

David: I’m the Head of Brand and then we’ve got a Head of Consumer Revenue. The two of us collaborate closely and our teams work together very closely. We both need each other and our teams need each other in order to be effective. Our team on the brand side is really responsible for all of our messaging up and down the funnel and the revenue team is responsible for delivering those messages in a way that impacts the business. What we get out of that synergy is really powerful. We get a consistent message and a healthy tension that pushes us to optimize the reader experience through both performance and delivery. We are constantly challenging ourselves to make sure that we’re really driving our business success and getting people to subscribe in ever-increasing numbers. We also want to make sure that we’re building the right brand connection at the same time, so we’re constantly trying to do our best at both.

If you go back two or so years ago, before my arrival, the marketing function was very much performative coming out of a of a classic subscription, circulation, direct mail kind of approach. What we’ve done is really tried to make sure that even when we’re doing subscription-driven work, that we’re leading with the brand and the quality of journalism that happens here.

Billee: Super interesting. Thanks for that overview. What I’m trying to get at in these conversations in my column is how increasingly important a marketing, branding, or revenue officer has become to the overall future growth of the business overall. To me, that’s what you’re describing, much more of a focus on creating revenue driving brand experience that people can buy into as opposed to just selling subscriptions? 

David: The thing that’s really changed for The Times since 2013, but really has been a slow process over the digital era, is moving from a business being an ad model to being a subscription model. We always had subscriptions, but historically we’re talking sixty percent plus of the revenue coming in from advertising. Now it’s flipped and this is what really led to rethinking a decision about building the reader and customer experience as we go to market. We want to think with the subscriber first mindset and what the big difference is in a media company is you must shift your mindset from total audience to one of engagement. You’re not going to pay for a subscription for something you use only occasionally. You’re going to pay for subscription if it’s really a part of your life, and if you feel a real connection to it. So it’s really shifted our mindset and as a result of that shift, we have built our largest audience ever.

In some ways, it’s pushed us further in creating quality journalism that allows people to understand the world in its full context. Our customer’s demand for quality news and quality reporting has led us to make more investments in the quality of our reporting and the breadth of formats we use to deliver it, which I think is healthier for our business.

Billee: A new critical mandate is to make storytelling more effective and a part of business strategy, regardless of what type of business you lead. So, how does a storytelling company, if not one of the top media brands in the world, approach storytelling and content on behalf of itself?

David: We certainly keep the creation of journalism in the journalism side of the house. The journalistic editorial decision-making is entirely separate from the business side. However, what we’ve learned is people appreciate the difference in the process you’ve gone through to do the work. That’s where marketing comes in. In essence, it’s the story behind the story. Not so much about an individual story, but as it rolls up into a philosophy or a commitment that might be interesting to the reader.

If you look at the advertising work we did with (ad agency) Droga5 and Director Darren Aranofsky last Spring, we did a series of videos that looked at some of our journalists and some of the big stories we had told. All that was driven by marketing. For us it’s about the thing that matters to making you want to subscribe, which is, you’ve got to believe that you’re getting a quality of understanding at The Times that you can’t get somewhere else; that it’s worth paying for and is so vital. Particularly because I think one thing that is unique to our industry, is that the lion’s share of our competitors are not charging. So, the question becomes how do you address that? I used to work in traditional personal care consumer products and you had to make everyone understand your point of difference. We need to do that here too, but we need to do that against someone who’s not even charging a dime. That’s really the core of both our challenge and opportunity.

Billee: It sounds like, if I’m hearing you correctly, that the ‘story behind the story’ process kind of gets to the issue of what real journalism is and is not and a focus on delivering the truth. Did that grander purpose play a role in how you’ve worked to reposition yourself?

David: We titled the Oscars ad and the related campaign that’s pretty much permeated the whole year, “The Truth Is Hard.” And the reason that we think it’s important to say that, is that there are lots of sources of the truth and The Times doesn’t profess to be the only source or even the source that always get it right. What we strive to do is go to greater lengths to help you determine the truth and know what is true. “The Truth Is Hard” campaign is not about what is true and what isn’t. It’s about the process to get there. We believe that journalism plays a big role in that process for people and we think it plays a big enough role that everybody should be subscribing to a quality publication. We hope it’s ours, but we actually believe more strongly in the idea that people believe journalism plays a role in their understanding of the world.

Billee: The campaign seems to be part of a larger rebranding effort. Do you want to talk about the overall brand pivot and the before, during and after of that process?

David: Yes, absolutely it’s been a big part of how we set our thoughts for ourselves and the continued stories that we were trying to tell people. We found that just having the campaign has been really helpful for trying to be a part of the conversation about the role of the independent press today and why it is so important. Obviously, we think it is, so we needed to figure out how that matters to the reader. I think a large question we ask ourselves is, there are probably 15 million people paying for a digital news source in the United States, while there are 175 million people reading news online. So, why is that gap so large and why are other industries like digital music and digital entertainment not feeling that gap as acutely? As a market leader, we see it as our responsibility to define the essence of paid news as a category; one that we have helped create and build.

We are very happy with the way we’ve been able to get our story out there. I think there was the thesis going into the end of last year, that not only were we on this long journey to try to get people to understand they need to pay for the news, but that something had changed around the time of the election both with the change in administration, as well as the prevalence of the conversation about fake news. Public consciousness around the issue has really helped change the dialogue. The question became what is an independent free press? How can we be a part of that conversation and can we start to say what we think our role in that is? So that’s what we did, and “The Truth Is Hard” is our way of talking about the importance of journalism to an individual’s quest to understand the world.

Billee:  I’ve looked a lot recently at the increasing need for marketers to create some type of an emotional connection beyond just a rational one. With that said, I would assume emotional intelligence played a significant role in your campaign as the subject matter is so visceral?

David: Totally, totally. Certainly, there’s a rational side of helping people understand the work we’re doing, but a large part that we know from our research is that people want to know that this type of stuff matters in the world. However, recently the idea of an independent free press has become more than just a concept for some people. It’s an important idea that goes back hundreds of years in our country — free speech and freedom of the press. There’s nothing more emotional than that. Today we are in a place where that emotional connection is not as widely understood, so I think part of our campaign was aimed at working to help people understand that emotional connection and what we think we stand for, which is helping people understand the world.

Billee: Right. A lot of people don’t realize that for a brand pivot to play out well externally and connect emotionally, it has to first start at home. Can you talk to me about that and perhaps some of the challenges of marketing internally, or selling a narrative inside a media company?

David: Sure. We’ve got a reasonably large team. A few thousand people work at The Times. Many of them have pretty big personal presences, with large social media followings. We wanted to engage our employees in our mission as they are our greatest brand ambassadors and can vouch for the brand and its authenticity in ways that advertising alone just can’t.

A great example I can share with you is a story about Jodi Kantor, who, as you likely know, did some of the incredible reporting about Harvey Weinstein and other stories in our sexual harassment coverage. Jodi decided to put a picture out on social media of the moment right before the Weinstein article was released. In the foreground fastened to the desk is a button with our “The Truth Is Hard” slogan. Someone had actually amended the button to read “The truth is really hard.” My guess is that years from now that photo will be among the legends of The New York Times, and on it will be that button from the campaign, capturing our purpose and all we stand for. I think there’s perhaps no better statement to the impact the campaign’s had internally for energizing and uniting everyone who works here.

Billee: Something else that seems to be a common thread with folks that I talk to is that while a lot of people say it’s one of the most challenging times to be a marketer, those who are doing it well, are really having a lot of fun and enjoying themselves. So, just curious as to what you enjoy most about your job right now?

David: The New York Times is one of the best journalistic enterprises in the world. The people who are doing our reporting are unparalleled in their skills, their strength, and their commitment. The output that they give people, I think, really makes a difference to the world. The marketer’s job here is to get people to subscribe so that we can continue to produce the type of world-changing work that we do. To be able to help do that is really rewarding and there’s nothing more fun than that. The small part I have in it all is really, really rewarding.

 Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog

Workplace Communication

The Future Of Workplace Communication And The Growing Need For Collaborative Technology

In the WE-Conomy, it is more important than ever to harness the power of the “collective we over the singular me” to drive competitive advantage. Following is a Q+A with Dave Rathmann Founder and VP of Product, Umuse discussing the future of workplace communication and the growing need for collaborative technology.

Billee: Tell me a little bit about Umuse and the problem that you’re solving. 

Dave: The road to Umuse stemmed from a personal problem. At our last company, my co-founders and I were receiving hundreds of messages a day across multiple apps. We tried everything to make it work. We downloaded the latest tools. We tried all the email and chat management tips and tricks, but it still felt like we were spinning our wheels. Looking around, it wasn’t hard to see why.  Now, the average business workers receives over 125 emails a day and it’s growing. They’ve likely also started to adopt chat which means more messages and notifications. We wanted to fix this and our approach was to build Umuse.

Umuse is a universal inbox for the enterprise. Working with existing services like Gmail and Slack, Umuse is designed to combine the power and flexibility of email, with the speed and intimacy of chat, together in one Facebook-like feed. The goal is to give you one view into your digital conversations at work so you can efficiently manage the message volume and take back control of your work day.

Billee: How would you categorize the state of workplace communication today and its effect on the employee experience?

Dave: I think workplace communication is in a state of flux. We’re spending large amounts of time managing communication and not enough time actually communicating. One of the biggest things we’ve seen in the past 4-5 years in this space is the proliferation of tools and channels. In some ways, these new tools and technologies have made things worse as much as they’ve made things better. I’m constantly juggling between email, chat, and text and I don’t have a single place to look for those important messages. The question we have to ask ourselves is what affect this context shifting is having on the employee. With email alone taking up about 23 percent of the average business worker’s day, employees are distracted, overwhelmed and it’s not just the employee’s work product that’s taking a hit – it’s their well-being.

Workplace Communication Dave

Billee: What will it take to reduce communication distraction?

Dave: Right now, we’re battling too many messages with too many notifications across too many tools. I think it starts by putting everything in one place. You’re a lot better off when you have one place to read, search, and save all of your messages. Not only is there a lot less context switching, but also a huge opportunity to apply a deeper level of intelligence to your workplace communication. This universal place for all of your messages also allows for the creation of a personal social graph that learns over time so you can prioritize those important conversations and respond to them quickly. You can also leverage things like contextual search so you can find exactly what you’re looking for and other topics that may be of interest based on your behavior. The last 10 years were all about being able to communicate quickly. I think the next 10 years will be all about being able to communicate intelligently.

Billee: Bringing all of your communications (email, chat, text) together in one place seems interesting, but will that just contribute to the noise? How will users be able to sift through everything?

Dave: With Umuse, you’re not getting any more messages than you were previously. Instead, you now have a single pane of glass to manage everything and one place to manage the disruptions. Over the years, with all of these tools spread out across our phones and desktops, we’ve gained accessibility, but lost context. You have to remember where you had these conversations, where those files were sent, where those conversations took place – just to get to the results you want. The ability to leverage these tools the way they were intended has diminished. We give you that back.

Billee: How will Umuse help the marketer?

Dave: The marketing role has changed significantly over the past decade. As we’ve added more channels it’s become even more challenging for the marketer to go where their customers are. There’s more complexity, things move faster, and attention spans are limited. We think that marketers have squarely felt the Umuse problem – too many channels, too many messages, and not enough time to process it all. Umuse was designed with the overall marketing experience in mind so we can help ease their burden so they have more time to focus on their actual day-to-day responsibilities. Our Inner Circle technology for example, will help them pinpoint what’s important quickly and which stakeholders and customers to respond to first. The experience is all about embracing volume with a hyper focus on scanning, zooming, responding, and searching to help them find what they need when they need it and get results faster.

Billee: What are some of the more perplexing trends in the employee collaboration space today that you’re hoping to change?

Dave: We’re in the midst of this convergence of a new generation coming into the workplace, Millennials for example, with a new set of expectations about how to work. Whether we’ve realized it or not, employees have always been a customer that we need to reach, understand, and listen to. And now, they’re much more vocal about how they want to communicate and collaborate. I think that’s a disruptive force in itself but there’s also this battle with existing business infrastructure. How do we balance that? With Umuse, we know we’re doing something a little crazy by blending the old way with the new way. Our solution is not to kill email – we’re embracing it. Our solution is not to move strictly to chat – we’re adding some structure to it. Ultimately we want to create one cohesive experience for all types of employees.

Billee: Look out 10 years from now. Umuse is a huge success. What do you think is different about the way employees communicate at work?

Dave: Ultimately, I think we’ll see that the tools we use each day in the workplace have become much more intelligent, helping employees everywhere communicate more efficiently. Our tools will not only help us understand who is important to us, but why they’re important to us and the contextual relevance of the conversations that we’re having with our coworkers. Filing, for example, will become a thing of the past and your conversations will automatically be categorized by topic for you. Our tools will also have a greater understanding of our communication as it relates to specific projects. We may get notified if we haven’t responded to a question in a timely way but even further, our tools will help us understand the significance of that question, and how it impacts a broader project or task that you’re working on. This level of intelligence will reduce the communication friction we feel with today’s tools. Channels will matter less. Actually communicating will matter more. To the degree that we can accomplish that and reduce the headache, distraction, and the noise – we’re ensuring employees everywhere are much more productive and happier with their jobs overall.

H&M’s Mistake Could Have Been Avoided By Using Centiment

Throughout the ages, some of the worst parts of humanity have been seen because people could not understand, empathize and agree with one another. Societal unrest stems from an inability to understand others point of view.

Today, this is more evident than ever across all walks of society, and the marketing and advertising sectors are not immune. This week’s H+M brand crisis, along with the Pepsi and Dove debacles from last year, punctuate the paramount importance of this issue.

As empathy and inclusion continue to emerge as two of the most important guideposts for brands in the year ahead, marketers emotionally responsibility has never been more important. As talk of using AI and other technologies to further automate the marketing and advertising functions ensues at a frenetic pace, maybe this week’s latest misstep should encourage us all to take a beat—one which allows us to reflect on how such an insensitive brand expression by H+M could have been avoided entirely.

The following images reflect the response that would have been gleaned by the H+M marketing team if they had used Centiment’s neurodata insights to guide their content creation process, as opposed to just AI, or other technology alone. Centiment is neuro-powered advertising and marketing technology built to do good. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to quantify, measure and understand human thought.

H&M Monkey

It is clear by the visual above that one of the missing components brands are lacking today is the emotional literacy required to compete effectively in today’s market. As such, agencies and marketers must enable solutions that place emotional intelligence at the beginning of the creative process of invention. The age of empathy has clearly arrived.

Jackson Jeyanayagam

Ask the CMO: Boxed CMO Jackson Jeyanayagam On Marketing As A Mix Of Heart + Science To Drive Growth

We are in a period of significant business change that has made it a more challenging time than ever to be a marketer. Whether you are a marketer at an incumbent brand or a start-up, the playing field has become rapidly leveled as technology has become the great equalizer. With this in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” series where I talk to some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.

For my third piece in this series, I had the privilege of speaking with Jackson Jeyanayagam, marketing veteran, former head of digital at Chipotle and current CMO of Boxeda digital wholesaler that’s created a smarter way to shop, stock up and save. We discussed his thoughts on the changing face of marketing and the winning combination of heart + science that he feels is imperative to success in today’s environment. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee: You have had a career with a lot of varied experience on both the agency side and big brand side and now you are at Boxed, a start up. That said, based on your wealth of knowledge, how do you feel the landscape is treating marketers right now? Everybody seems to feel it’s a very complex and difficult time to be a marketer. What’s your perspective?

Jackson: I think it’s an interesting time to be a marketer.  There is a crazy amount of access to data that’s presented itself to marketers whether it’s retailers or third party marketer’s data. In one way, it’s been really great because we have so much information about the customer and their background and the share of wallet – where they’re shopping and what drives them. But on the other hand, it’s also a lot to swim through and lots of figure out. So, despite all the data, what I’ve noticed is the days of the brand creative leading marketers is still relevant, you know those old Mad Men Don Draper days.  But, now you’re starting to see movement to much more of a balance. Yes, I understand the creative role and know how to put together a wonderful storyboard or overseeing a great creative production of a TV spot or to get a digital video. But if I don’t have that data that gives me some insight into my customer – where I should target this video and how I should spend my money, then it’s kind of pointless.   I think there’s a balance of that data with that creative piece which is not really traditional with marketers right now. Marketers have always been just the big creative thinkers that know how to put the brand on the map. But it seems like they’re shifting quite a bit.

Billee: That’s exactly spot on with what I’ve been seeing and talking to people about, whether it’s for this column or with a client. From what I can tell, a large reason for this shift, is that marketing is becoming more and more responsible for the overall success of the enterprise as opposed to just responsible for the brand. What are your thoughts on that?

Jackson: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a great call. I think the big brands are seeing the successful startups and how they operate and how they staff and then I think marketing is a big part of where you’ve seen that trend. Where the smaller or late stage startups are staffing marketers with heavy data and analytics experience that understand that bridging the gap of creative and data are responsible for margin bottom-line growth. This idea that they understand that my dollar spent needs to come back as dollars earned somehow. And I think startups have to live like that there’s no way around it, but it’s nice to see a big CPG and big apparel brands do the exact same thing.   Whether it’s a tech focus or it’s a retail focus, it doesn’t really matter. The expectation is that you know you how you can drive bottom-line growth and that $500,000 spent on this or that needs to deliver sales. It’s more at the end of the year, or at the end of the quarter that if you spent X amount you have clear goals to building and establishing the brand one-to-one, but there is going to be a lot more focus on goals around the quarterly earnings and the end of year revenue.  As a result, our marketers have been asked to step up and do a lot more. I think that’s going to continue to influence how the big brands also staff their marketing function, starting at the top.

 Billee: You know I think that’s a great point. If you look at the CPG giants, who most would think of as infallible, like Procter + Gamble, they have been stumbling a bit as of late, and I think that that probably goes to a bit of what you’re talking about.  They don’t have the ability to be as transformative as they’d like be because they’re too big. That being said, it seems that in a startup environment you do push yourself to be even more agile than you were before. You know everyone’s trying to copy you, so you need to stay continually agile to always stay ahead?

Jackson: Yeah.  It’s in our DNA at Boxed, right. In a startup, you move much quicker and you move faster and you make decisions where people have autonomy, and then they go execute. So, no matter what the bigger brands do, from my experience, it’s going to be hard for them to downsize that approval process and make sure that things move as quickly and as nimbly as they need to.  Startups will always have their evangelism meeting, but big brands are going to go through many many many layers of conversation and many layers of discussion to make a real impact no matter how creatively or data-driven your marketing team is. I think the second piece is ensuring as we grow in scale and we do get bigger that we’re able to maintain that, and that is hard to do. But that’s the truth. I think one the biggest differences is a start ups ability to make quick decisions and have them implemented right away.

Billee: So, everyone’s talking about AI whether it’s artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, whatever you want to call it. It makes a lot of sense as a natural extension on the data side. That’s not that big of a leap to understand, but a lot of people are trying to imagine how to push AI into creativity. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jackson: I think not so much in the creative side yet. I think that it is more right now from a functionality standpoint. I think in an e-commerce brand, everything we do is rooted in what’s best for the customer and how we create a better experience for them. That involves our team working closely together to develop new technologies that create an awesome experience for our customer and that includes getting ahead of their needs, being predictive in what we can offer them and being really smart and creative with where we push ourselves. So, for instance we’re leveraging machine learning that allows us to better predict what you’re going to order before you run out because our DNA is ‘stock up, don’t run out.’ So, we’ve created an AI and predictive technology called Smart StockUp and Concierge that help us deliver a better experience right to your door before you even have to order from us. So, for us, being innovative in the creation of experiences is actually already part of our DNA. We already think about that.

Note: We have designed a platform to help businesses catalyze their growth through a unique blend of AI, neuro-based technology, business and creative consulting services. You can learn more about our Emotional Intelligence Accelerator Platform right here

Billee: What are your thoughts on best practices for fusing content with commerce to heighten experiences? A lot of people thought of those things in silos in the past but if you look at a brand like Casper,that’s a home run because they fuse the two together very strategically and it’s not just content for content sake. What are your thoughts on that? 

Jackson: Yeah, I think Warby (Parker) does it really well as well.  Their content matches back to what people are doing on their site.  They don’t give you content all of a sudden that doesn’t make sense. So, for us it’s really about how do we deliver content we create content that’s tied into our value prop is a big part of getting it right. So, we offer a lot of snacks. We do a lot of recipe content like here’s something you could plan for your family’s meals for the next few days or few weeks.  Looking at hosting occasions is a big part of our what we do as well.  So, content has to be really smart and creative around hosting Super Bowl party, hosting graduation party or hosting a bachelor party. Those really make sense for our core audience and what we offer. So, every time we think about content it has to be strictly be connected to what we offer our customer and what’s the value or the benefit for them shopping with us. If it’s not valuable, then to your point is it’s just for the sake of it. Right?

Billee: Right, and clearly your brand has an identity, but do you feel that it’s important to focus on having a grander purpose, something that is more aspirational, or are you just focused on what it is that you’re doing transactionally?

Jackson: Yeah I’m glad you asked because if you look at e-commerce it is a very soulless category. Everyone from the big players to the smaller players it is very much a race to the bottom-line.  It’s very much about the best deals. It’s very much about who has the best prices. So, for us if we don’t compete there then it is all a moot point. We have to be competitive there. However, I would say on top of that it is about building a corporate ethos and building a brand that people can relate to. So, what we’ve done is we’ve done things that we think people care about. One example is that we pay the pink tax on feminine hygiene products because they’re actually taxed like luxury items in 30 plus states. We take that cost and that’s on us.

We’ve also done things for employees where we have a college and wedding plan in particular for the warehouse employees because we understand that it’s a big stressful, financial burden for them and a big life event We realized that was a big concern for a lot of employees and we created a wedding fund that allows employees to get married and get paid for up to $20,000 and we also created a college fund for anyone’s kids in college.  So, that’s a big part of the corporate ethos that we’re doing something for the betterment of our people and our team.

I have a personal tagline. I always tell people marketing is half heart and half science – I actually say the art in science is not about the arts but actually how are you doing the right thing. It means something to you and your brand as a company if your vision is a part of your values and you trust your heart. As a marketer, you have the science and data maybe to back it up and you can’t go wrong. I think the creative comes if you have the heart, and it the science is data driven. So, I love the quote: ‘It’s the ‘heart and the science’.

Billee: How do you feel about the growing need for CEOs and CMOs to collaborate more closely to be successful?

Jackson: I mean I think it’s critical. So, I think you know our founder Chieh Huang. He’s a marketer or he loves marketing.  He thinks that he gets the value of it. That’s why he hired someone like me who comes from brand so am not a traditional startup e-commerce guy. He also understands that he needs to give me and my team autonomy to do what we need to so we Slack each other we talk every day. I mean, essentially two or three times a day, about marketing and kind of what the priorities are. So, it’s a balance of how do we address the short term needs of a startup which is you know quarter by quarter or month by month week by week sometimes from a performance standpoint. Now part of my role is actually driving growth.

I think in the past, I mean, I’ve seen other brands where the CEO and CMO might not talk for like a month until there’s a quarterly monthly meeting.  And that’s absurd.   it’s kind of awesome our founder likes to talk because I get to get inside that what he’s thinking of the discussions he’s having with investors and potential investors and how he’s thinking about the company over the next quarter and one year to two years. So even though I know what the clear goals are for the year, things change very quickly in our space, especially in e-commerce and he and I need to just be in constant communication. So, it’s almost like I’m an extension of him and he’s an extension of me in a lot of ways because we have to be in each other’s heads for this to work.

Billee: That’s it for me unless you have anything that you wanted to leave the readers with that they should be aware of during these challenging times?

Jackson: For me, I just think it’s a new age for marketing and I think it’s a really interesting and fun time. I would say the one thing I think is different than when I came out of marketing is you have to have a much broader perspective to be successful. And, you might need to do a little bit of everything to achieve results. I actually think that up-and-coming marketers aren’t just going to come from one or two tracks, they’re going to be much, much more wholly rounded and I think kids will come out with a little bit coding experience for instance, while also understanding the basics of PR and content.  They’re the ones who will be better off and will be the ones who help define the future of what marketing will look like.

Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.

Ask-The-CMO-Alan-Gellman

Ask The CMO: A Conversation With Alan Gellman On Marketing As A Lever of Innovation And Growth

Marketing is rapidly moving from a siloed communications activity to a powerful driver of business strategy, innovation, growth and experience. We are in a period of significant business change, catalyzed by the digital transformation that is upon us. This is requiring leading brands to reimagine the marketing function in ways that embrace an emphasis on both brand and performance. No longer is an either-or option viable.  With this in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” series where I talk to some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.

For my second piece in this series, I had the privilege of speaking with Alan Gellman, digital trailblazer, marketing visionary, former CMO of Esurance and current Future of Money Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. We discussed his thoughts on harnessing marketing as a lever to drive innovation, and growth through a lens of brand purpose and winning experiences. Below is a recap of our conversation:

Billee: Digital transformation is new to some, but it’s something you have been doing for years at brands like Kraft, Wells Fargo and Esurance. With that said, what are the key things that people should be aware of as digital goes from a siloed function to more of a critical driver of day-to-day business?

Alan:  I have a pretty strong view around what marketing needs to be in terms of driving growth inside organizations. It’s not just about generating traffic or building a brand, and yet those things are classically critical and always will be. Today, it also has to be about why are you in business. What’s your purpose as a company? Guiding companies to achieve that purpose and to create value for consumers is critical to marketing today and an important part of achieving that is through digitally driven transformation. That means helping to guide, if not owning directly, what the value exchange with the customer is. Marketing isn’t strictly the communication side; I am equally focused on the product and the experiences that we create. So, the starting point on framing for me is building the type of business that will create value for customers. And, then how do you tell them about it and reach the right ones in innovative and compelling ways and make sure they know the value proposition, understand what you’re bringing to them, including through targeting and compellingly creative.

Billee: I couldn’t agree more. But, I find that in speaking to many clients and executives in general, a lot of people seem generally confused about what purpose is and how a company should find it. Do you have any thoughts on top things marketers should consider as they try to pivot their organizations to the bigger picture to provide a grander value than just a product or service?

Alan: So, there are a few things. First, as customer champions, marketers need to lead the organization in clarifying why it exists and how it adds value. In addition, marketers are often quite siloed in their training and in their thinking and in what they choose to tackle. And so, the starting point has to be you’ve got to get out of your own box. And nearly all of us are in our own box. So, start by organizing marketers and teams so that they know their accountability and realize it isn’t just “oh I’m a performance marketer who does search engine marketing work.”  Rather it needs to be about working daily, in an integrative fashion to be impacting positively on the brand as well as performance. We have to change how we develop people so that they have the skills and toolkit and even more important the mental models that say this is about a holistic way of understanding our customers and reaching them and delivering for them.

Billee: Based off of that insight, my instinct is that a variety of things that I am seeing and hearing about are not truly done through an integrative lens. Most notably, as highlighted at Cannes, content experiences don’t seem to have a creative through line that ladders up to a bigger or more purposeful brand voice. So how can marketers have a more holistic view to connect the creative in ways that generate purposeful and authentic experiences?

Alan: I think the first thing is really determining how do you have an overarching storyline and creative approach that works its way through all of the marketing regardless of what type it is. What we developed at Esurance for example, was a very clear purpose. But it was really heavy lifting where we debated every word, as we should have. We did this because without debating it and changing it, it’s not a living and breathing organism. As we engaged with it, we realized it couldn’t be a marketing tagline, but rather what the company was working toward. At Esurance we said it can’t just be about insurance. “Insurance for the modern world” is a great tagline and very much about the DNA of the company. But, what we did instead was say how do you turn that into an aspiration or a why? Where we netted out with our purpose was the direction we wanted to push the company toward: “modernize protection and help people thrive in the modern world.”

Billee: There are many changes taking place like the ones you have just touched upon making it a very difficult time to be a marketer. Can you address the disconnect between the ability for corporate infrastructures to pivot in lockstep with the evolution of the marketing function and how marketing leadership should address these chasms?

Alan: Yes of course. I look at it as integrative marketing as we have been discussing. I have seen in my experience that people have to be developed to be truly integrated marketers. Few offline people deeply know digital and vice versa frankly. Performance and brand need to be approached through an integrative lens to truly drive performance and build the right infrastructure. The key to success is to develop an integrated perspective connecting product, marketing and experience with full and deep C-suite engagement. Understanding and developing that purpose together. And it requires thought leadership coming from marketing as it relates first to purpose and ultimately to how you drive growth.

Billee: So, I think what you are saying is that people need to take charge of their own destiny in the top marketing role. Many people are failing to do this as CMO turnover has never been higher. Any tips on best practices for achieving success in today’s environment?

Alan: I think there are ways where marketers need to evolve. First of all, every marketer needs to be thinking of themselves as a general manager. Many marketers out there just say they’re trying to get budget. Their objective should first be to ask themselves am I efficiently driving growth and innovation for my organization. Think of yourself as owning the P&L. Think of yourself as being accountable for both the top line and the bottom line ; it should never just be about the budget.

Billee: Do you have any thoughts on the best ways that marketers should look at artificial intelligence strategically through a more holistic lens, meaning both creatively and data technology wise. Less shiny new object, more driver of business strategy, growth and experience? 

Alan: There’s not one way, but there’s definitely a way not to, which is it’s not a new toy. And I think that’s part of your point. Artificial intelligence has actually been around a long time and it’s really about ways of being smarter. How can machine learning help you understand how you’re optimizing your creative for a given delivery?  How do you deliver the right message at the right time in the right sequence? It’s about learning and using that speed and use of modeling. All marketers should be experimenting with that now.  These are critical capabilities that are evolving but it’s not one magic bullet and it’s not a panacea at all.

Billee: In conclusion, what’s next for you?

Alan: First, as noted earlier, I’ve agreed to become a Future of Money Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. I’m excited to work with the team to explore all the many ways money and financial services will evolve to help consumers and society.  In addition, I am exploring how I can help companies in the fintech and healthtech spaces scale their growth, possibly as an advisor. Between the rapid and inevitable move to mobile, the increased expectations of consumers who have experienced disruption in most other categories, and the potential to create value, Fintech is an exciting place to be right now.

Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.