The world has changed rapidly in recent times, and most of those changes have been catalyzed by some form of digital transformation. Many look at marketing driven transformation through two distinct lenses: creative and technology. Few however, have the vision to understand the critical intersection of the two that is required for true success. Even fewer understand the vital role empathy must play in any transformation, and miss the necessary human component required for meaningful growth.
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.
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.
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.
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, nor is a one size fits all approach by company size, region or industry. 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 latest piece in this series, I had the privilege of speaking with Shira Levy Barkan, a citizen of startup nation Israel, a global marketing veteran and current CMO (Central Marketing Operations executive) at Microsoft in charge of the brand’s marketing efforts across fifteen countries in the multi-country region of Central-Eastern Europe. We discussed her thoughts on marketing challenges today related to everything from creativity, to collaboration to geography. Below is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: So, tell me about your CMO role at Microsoft.
Shira: The regional role of CMO at Microsoft is actually called a Central Marketing Operations role. This is reflective of the changes taking place in marketing because it has become such an operational function that has so many platforms and so many tools. So, it’s really evolved into an operational role and Microsoft actually sees it that way. So, I’m not a ‘Chief.’ We have a different kind of structure than most companies, one that I believe is reflective of the changing marketing environment.
Billee: Thank you for explaining that nuance to me. Can you tell me more about your day-to-day?
Shira: I’m located in Israel, yet, I’m responsible for fifteen countries within Microsoft. The Baltics, The Balkans, The Adriatic and the Black Seas which are in the Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. My role needs to be very operationally driven as you can probably understand. It’s a very diverse set of countries, each with very unique environments. I actually manage remotely which is something that I think that any global or regional CMO needs to address because you have a lot of people in different countries and you need to know how to manage the operation, not just from a marketing perspective, but also from people perspective. Also, because each of the four areas are very diverse from a technology perspective. So, the Baltics are the most advanced, while the Balkans are less advanced from a technology standpoint and from penetration of the cloud. All of this of course impacts my marketing execution. I call myself a revenue marketeer but I see my role as ensuring operational marketing excellence as well.
Billee: Got it. So, what is your point of view on where creativity and technology needs to intersect? Obviously, creativity needs to be central in any type of marketing role, but if your focus is more on operations, how does that play out?
Shira: Well this is a great question because since I’m super operational in my marketing execution, everybody asks did you lose your creativity? The thing is that the world is moving so fast, that if you’re not creative, you actually die. It’s not just creativity, I will say it’s actually creativity and productivity. It’s the two activities that you need to be laser focused on. What is creative? Is creative the way that the banners look? I think creativity comes in the engines that you choose, the platforms that you experiment with. It helps define where do you experiment and where not? The role of the CMO today is always to try to be creative in finding new ways to attract customers, drive growth and be very proactive about both.
Billee: Something that I’ve noticed that Microsoft has focused on as part of re-energizing the brand, is viewing collaboration, much like creativity, less as an activity and more as a vital business competency. What are your thoughts?
Shira: If you’re not collaborative, you die. You need to ensure that your vendors are aligned. You need to make sure that your partners are aligning and also make sure that your managers are aligned. To collaborate, as we say it in Hebrew, in marketing, is to say that we are the egg in the meatball. Together we hold everything together. It doesn’t matter what kind of ‘meatball’ it is, but marketing is what makes everything come together. We are the glue.
Billee: I love that. You mentioned that you have to be creative and collaborative or you die, right? Some people in the marketing function are being pulled in different directions and are weighing brand versus performance. Do you have any thoughts on what the best approach is for fusing the two together?
Shira: Well I think that until now a lot of people confuse creativity in marketing for creativity in marketing communication, which is how your brand’s advertising looks and other things like that. I think that creativity is finding new channels, and new ways that create more impact on your customers by using marketing as a lever to drive growth. Microsoft is a place that always keeps you on your toes as we lean into uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, because we know that failure happens along the way to innovation. At Microsoft, we’re insatiably curious and always learning.
Billee. Yes, it leads me to another question. A lot of people I talk to are looking to do something beyond just selling things. They’re looking to do things that matter and make a difference. So, this whole idea of cause and social impact has really migrated to the notion of brand purpose as a true driver of both marketing and business. Do you have thoughts on that and how you employ that type of thinking?
Shira: Yes, I 100 percent agree with you. I know that the reason I work for Microsoft is because it does great stuff for humanity and for communities and for governments, and they really change people. Microsoft works to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. You see that the new generation the millennials are smarter. They are looking for meaning. This has made me change the way that I manage them. Money counts but it’s not enough anymore. They look for meaningful activities in what they do to make an impact and not just for the sake of sales. So, you need to market Microsoft to them, but there must be truth behind it. They are super smart. It’s not about giving them a lot of money or a day off. They will leave in two months if they don’t feel they are leaving a mark. I think that every marketeer has to strive to make a mark in this world. I’m not just selling a computer or software or a tooth brush or whatever. I’m actually changing the world for the better.
Billee: There’s always been discussion for as long as the business world has been global around the act local, think global mantra. How does this translate to conveying a company’s grander purpose in a uniform fashion, but then also making it relevant to the region that you’re operating in?
Shira: First of all, I have very different countries, with very different environments. They vary from their political point of view to their culture point of view to the technology point of view. One of the things that we do at Microsoft, which is a large part of my role, is we have a corporate strategy that is very defined and very clear. But, what we do is we actually localize it for each market and that means that in addition to very defined marketing activities we add a local layer to make sure that it’s relevant for that market. That it’s relevant for our partners and that is relevant for our culture. This formula is actually how we leverage the potential that we have in any market, we give everything a bit of the local flavor. This is what I know of being a global marketeer: you taste a lot of flavors and you try a lot of things.
Billee: That’s a great quote. I would like to wrap up with your thoughts on what lies ahead of us in 2018?
Shira: So, I’ve been a marketeer for more than fifteen years and ever since the digital transformation of marketing began five or six years ago there has never been a dull moment for a marketeer. From my point of view, I think that the exciting thing is that marketing is getting more and more connected to the business and actually impacting the business. As I said, I call myself a revenue marketer, and not just a marketer, which gives me a lot of business responsibility. I think that in this era, marketing has evolved into a much broader discipline. I think that is very good news, for me at least, because I can try more things and stretch my wings. I think that we’re heading into even better times ahead. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.
I sat down to write WE-Commerce five years ago, and it was finally published by Penguin in December of 2015. I cannot tell you how rewarding it is today to see how my vision of a world where “we would do it for the benefit of the many over the few” has actually come to fruition. When I first started to think about the “world of we” that we are living in today, Airbnb was new, and the sharing economy was simply thought of as a wunderkind economic engine focused on democratizing the use of things like luxury lodging and car service globally.
That provincial notion changed overnight after PwC cited it as an economic niche that would potentially drive $335 billion into the global economy by 2025. Now in 2018, it’s hard to imagine a world that isn’t centered on the power of placing the well-being of the collective we over that of the singular me. Illustrative of this idea is a recent profile piece in the New York Times, where David Gelles wrote about the incredible rise of WeWork from a multi-billion-dollar office space provider, to an entity that is projected to be worth hundreds of billions in the not too distant future. The catalyst for this mind-boggling growth: the company’s mission of instilling a sense of the value of purposeful community into society at large-way beyond the walls of just the workplace. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann summated it similarly to how I did in WE-Commerce, stating that we are heading toward a world “where a mindset of we versus me” will most definitely shape our future.
This phenomenon of doing it for the many vs. the few has led us to the much-heralded age of purpose we are living in today. Holly Branson (yes THAT Branson), like Adam, touches on many of these new ideals in her new book WEconomy. I took a similar POV in WE-Commerce, where I called for a new era of “profiting with purpose”—one where brands would place benevolence at the heart of all they do, with an eye toward doing what is right, not just what’s convenient.
Holly perhaps said it best when she noted: “Purpose is the biggest transformation to happen to business since the assembly line,” and I couldn’t agree more. Ironically, I spoke of the Model T in my book and analogized the Industrial Revolution to our present decade. I highlighted the shared ideal of redemptive deconstruction—one where the world tears down what doesn’t work and rebuilds again anew with vigor. I truly believe that we are exiting a period of darkness with corporate leaders taking on a heightened sense of moral responsibility that will help direct us toward a much brighter and better tomorrow.
I am proud to say that my company Brandthropologie is not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. Not only are we helping brands follow the ideals of visionaries like Adam and Holly, but we are also working to grow the technology of our own new parent company Centiment. Centiment, an IBM With Watson company, is neurodata technology built to do good. For the first time in history, we have the ability to quantify, measure + understand human thought. We are at the forefront of this shift and are helping pioneer a new age of marketing + advertising–one that is emotionally-informed, non-biased + purpose-driven.
I predict that the age of We has only just begun. I see a day in the not too distant future, where the line between personal and professional lives will continue to blur as the need to make personal value statements in all actions escalates. I imagine a bright future where the idea of brands isolating CSR and cause into compartmentalized units will evaporate. I see that in the age of collaboration we are living in today, purpose will continue to emerge less as a function of brand aesthetics and more as a vital driver of business strategy and innovation.
Consequently, in order to win in our new world, brands won’t need to just create the best “things”, they will need to embody the best values and ideals, while demonstrating a commitment to extend the notion of profit way beyond their bottom-line. The world of profit with purpose is here stay, and in my humble view, the age of WE-Commerce has only just begun.