The Evolving Role of a CMO

Episode #037: Lauren Kelly, Chief Marketing Officer at ThoughtExchange

One size does not fit all and neither does the role of a Chief Marketing Officer, especially in today’s rapidly changing world.

In this episode, we chat with Lauren Kelly, Chief Marketing Officer at ThoughtExchange. Lauren is an experienced marketing leader holding previous leadership roles at Dell and PepsiCo.

We’re talking about expectations of the CMO, where to focus your efforts, why more marketers should take on product management, and so much more.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. There is no one role. Sure, you can look to previous leaders for guidance but at the end of the day, you need to make the role your own.
  2. Great strategies fail if you don’t take into account the realities of the customer. Get a wider range of thinking before launching your ideas.
  3. A marketer’s job is to know their customer the best, why wouldn’t marketers help direct the product?

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox: Welcome to Real Marketers where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness, not permission, obsess about driving results and are filled to the brim with crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there’s absolutely no bullshit allowed here. And I’m your host, Stephanie Cox. I have more than 15 years of marketing experience and I’ve pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma, I love Coca- Cola, I have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests, and I will push boundaries and share the real truth about marketing. And empower you to become a real marketer. So, first question, tell me something about yourself that few people really know.

Lauren Kelly: I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and spent the first few years of my life in Israel, and that my first language was Hebrew.

Stephanie Cox: Wow, that is actually really interesting. So, did you pick up English when you were fairly young or how was that transition for you?

Yes, I did. I learned them somewhat side-by-side because my parents were from the US, and they did speak English. But because I was spending most of my time in a Hebrew-speaking preschool in Tel Aviv, I became more proficient in Hebrew than I wasn’t English until a little bit later, until I was probably five or six when I definitely became more English speaking dominant. And then I, of course, completely forgot Hebrew once we moved to the United States and I didn’t have a chance to practice.

Stephanie Cox: That was my next question was, do you remember any of it?

Lauren Kelly: No. It’s funny, I did attempt to relearn it as a teenager. And I would say that I, certainly, adopted and learned a little bit, but I never regained the fluency, which is why I always encourage anyone that will listen that please, please let’s educate our kids in as many different languages as we can early in life, because you’re never as good as when you are a child.

Stephanie Cox: No. And it’s so interesting, so I have three children and we’ve adopted all three of them internationally. And my first two were born in Bulgaria and they came home when they were five. So, they spoke Bulgarian, and I tried for probably nine months to learn Bulgarian. And I was so proud of myself when I went there the first time and I started trying to speak in Bulgarian. And our translator was like,” What are you trying to say? Those are not words.” And I was like,” Oh, okay.”

Lauren Kelly: It is so true. Yes. I have tried to pick up a number of languages in older and later in life. And it never seems to quite turn the corner. But yes, children are so amazingly plastic in that way.

Stephanie Cox: Yeah. And our kids learned English and gosh, they probably were home maybe six or seven weeks when they were speaking in broken English. And it was crazy to me. And I would say fairly fluent within six months. So, crosstalk it’s interesting, like adults, you would think we could learn more than kids can, but not with languages.

Lauren Kelly: Not with languages, yes.

Stephanie Cox: But I know some people that listen to the show know this about me, but I took four years of Spanish, like a lot of people did, growing up and I would say I’m rusty is probably the best way to describe it. But if you give me like two or three glasses of wine, if someone starts speaking Spanish to me, I can transition from English to Spanish and not realize it and carry on a full conversation.

Lauren Kelly: You just need to be relaxed, that’s all.

Stephanie Cox: I just need to be relaxed and not thinking about it, I guess. But my husband, he thinks it’s pretty funny when it happens.

Lauren Kelly: That’s awesome. That’s great.

Stephanie Cox: But we’re not here to talk about all that stuff. We’re here to talk about marketing. And you are a CMO. And I know the role of the CMO has changed a lot in the last 20 to 30 years and will continue to evolve. So, I would love to get your perspective on what is the role of the CMO today, in your opinion?

Lauren Kelly: Well, that is a very loaded question because, on the one hand, the role of the CMO is what the company that is hiring the CMO wants it to be. And it’s also, I always say, it’s really what you as the individual want it to be because, I would say, that the CMO covers so many different components of growing and scaling a business in a differentiated way. I would say that today, more than ever, it’s feeling a lot more like a Chief Growth Officer. So yes, we continue to do amazing promotional work and build brands. And, increasingly, it’s more important that CMOs are in the rooms where conversations around growth strategy are happening because that really is the key enabler to being able to drive the kind of success that you want as a CMO. It has been interesting to me, I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and I’ve worked in marketing roles that were heavily promotional, and really focused on what people often think about as marketing, which is advertising, and ways to create a lot of awareness, and pull for your product. And then, I’ve also worked on marketing roles where you’re spending most of your time thinking about product market fit. And that’s one of the amazing things about marketers is the really good ones are really agile. And then, they’re also very focused on addressing what the company that they’re working with needs at a given time.

Stephanie Cox: So, when you see these titles of like Chief Growth Officer, VP of Growth, and that’s opposite of the CMO or VP of Marketing role, what kind of conflict do you think is going to exist in the organization in that situation?

Lauren Kelly: It’s a great question because yes, we’ve added a lot of roles, Chief Revenue Officers, Chief Growth Officers, Chief Digital Officers, to the plethora of roles within organizations. And in the past, I would say that marketing leaders, or Chief Marketing Officers would pick up a number of those responsibilities. I think it’s important as someone who’s looking at their next opportunity or what whichever opportunity is laying ahead of you to really understand what the vision for the organization is. I don’t think it’s an inherent conflict. I don’t think that there needs to be a corner on growth. And just because there is a Chief Growth Officer doesn’t mean that the marketing leader isn’t also expected to think about ways that the company can increase revenue and profitability. In fact, that’s absolutely part of the job. But it is helpful to understand where is the CMO expected to play? Where is the CMO expected to lead? And where are they potentially expected to follow?

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s a really great point. I would love to hear from you as you’ve taken on CMO roles in different organizations, where do you get started? Because I think sometimes that’s a challenge for, especially someone maybe that this is their first CMO role, or they’re moving into a different industry than what they’re used to is to know there’s so much to tackle, especially when you start talking about revenue, and growth, and optimization, where do you focus and how do you determine what the business needs you to prioritize?

Lauren Kelly: That’s a great question. And it’s changed a lot, frankly, as technology has caught up to our aspirations. So, I started my career as a consultant. I was a management consultant, I guess you could say strategy consultant. But I found that the strategy and marketing projects kind of have a ton of overlap because it really was about how do I help companies solve new and novel business problems? So, I started my career building a capability to get up to speed fast on a business. And I used to do it, 20 plus years ago, the old consulting way, where you would go in and you’d have a whole bunch of meetings. You’d sit down with 100 people and ask them a set of questions, and you would start triangulate around specific insights. You’d start to see patterns. And you’d also start to potentially carry forward experiences that you’d had in prior assignments to start to understand where, I like to call, the biggest rocks are. And not independent of just being a marketing rock, what are the biggest things that this business needs to solve for in order to achieve its vision and its mission? Now, what’s been nice is, as I’ve been on this journey and I’ve done this many, many times now, there is a lot more technology that can help support a more efficient way of getting at those answers. So, a great example of what I did in my most current role, which was at ThoughtExchange is I was trying to figure out what are the needs of our organization as it relates to marketing, as it relates to the product, to the Chief Marketing Officer and the marketing function? I asked the organization and I used our software, which is a platform to essentially generate a scale to discussion with can be 10 people, it can be 10, 000 people. In our case, it was a little under 200. And ask them what are the most important perspectives for me to understand about marketing at ThoughtExchange. And specifically my role as the Chief Marketing Officer? And I would say we had really high participation. And we were able to, using this platform, have 150 people say what they were thinking independently. And then, look at the thoughts that were shared by others anonymously and rate them. And so, coming out of that and, actually before I even started in my role, I had a prioritized list of what the organization felt were the most important things for me to address. Now, again, that is a set of opinions and perspectives, but they’re really important because it is now a statistically significant group of folks who have been in the organization for a while. I was then able to apply looking at, okay, here are the five or six things that the organization believes are most critical for us to address within marketing. And then, I was able to apply my prior experiences seeing patterns in other organizations about what works and what doesn’t to map out an agenda for where to get started. So, again, I was excited because what used to take me at least a couple months now it took me a few minutes. And I was able to jump in much more quickly to start to identify,” Okay, we really need to define and be more front footed on the brand. We really need to clarify the specific business problems to solve.” We were able to really dig in much more quickly.

Stephanie Cox: I love what you said about that because I think one of the things that people often do is when they look at marketing leaders, the data that they have, technology has made that easier for us. And then, they often talk to customers, but a lot of times they don’t talk to everyone in the organization like you have and really get their opinion. They talk to maybe sales, or a couple of other people in connected roles, but not broader, which I think is really unique. I know obviously the software of ThoughtExchange empowers that, but why did you think that was so important to do early on?

Lauren Kelly: I would say a couple things, one was I joined the company about five months ago, so I’m fairly new in this role. And we were in the midst of, and we are still in the midst of one of the most challenging times in the world for everyone because of the pandemic. And then, as it relates to businesses, a time of significant disruption. And for a technology like ThoughtExchange where there’s a potential for the platform to solve for some of that disruption by helping companies and businesses to kind of re- find their footing and to develop more clarity and alignment on a strategy, I thought that, frankly, there just wasn’t a minute to waste. So, I knew that if it took me three or six months to get, what I like to call, that nose for value, which is where is my energy best spent in these first few months? That that would have been three or four months that, frankly, we couldn’t get back. And that there was this really unique time that we’re all living through where people, businesses, organizations are all looking to find their place in this new ecosystem. And so, I felt as a company that seeks to help serve companies and organizations that want to do that, if we spent many more months trying to find our way to the answer in a more traditional way, that would have been fewer companies that we can help, fewer problems we can solve for customers. And, frankly, there’s just opportunity costs. So, I felt like it was really important to get to the really [really-s 00:14:16], as I like to call them, faster. And for me coming into new organizations, there’s always challenges as leaders are coming into organizations because you do want to make sure that people feel like they’ve been heard, that they’ve contributed to the solutions that then they’re going to own and execute. And so, I thought it was a great way also to gain a bit more quick understanding, alignment, and buy- in.

Stephanie Cox: I love that. You’ve had a couple CMO roles today. Is there anything that you wish you would’ve known? Like if you could’ve got gone back 5 years or 7, 10 years ago and told yourself as a marketing leader,” Oh, don’t worry about this, or focus more on this,” what advice do you wish that you had?

Lauren Kelly: That’s a great question. I would probably have told myself that there is no one role. There’s no one definition of a great CMO. And it does need to be a combination of factors that define what it is to be a CMO in a specific role. So, I probably would have encouraged myself to do a couple things. One, is understand, frankly, before you even join the organization, before you accept that role, really encourage the group of folks who are hiring you to define what they think a CMO does. And then, be really clear on what it is and be very clear with yourself in what you’re good at, and, and make sure that there’s some alignment there. So, that would be one thing I would definitely make sure that I told myself. I would say the other thing is dig as deep as you can into, as we talked about with the Chief Growth Officer role, being clear that you understand where marketing fits into the organization because that also can send you some really helpful clues, and cues on what expectations are going to be attached to the CMO and, frankly, maybe what limitations. And then, I would say that the last piece is don’t feel constrained by any type of… and this is for those who maybe haven’t been in a CMO role before, by how others are doing it. The role of the CMO is to be innovative, and to continue to kind of figure out how to do things differently and better. And so, there’s a really amazing opportunity every time you take on a new CMO role to continue to improve upon what it means to be a CMO. It’s a very agile and flexible type of role.

Stephanie Cox: So then, when you think about CMOs and kind of what’s next in your own career, do you ever think about,” I love marketing, I want to stay in marketing”? Or do you also share that belief that I know some people have, including myself, which is sometimes the best CMOs make the best CEOs? Because a lot of what you have to do, to your point, was around agility. You’re constantly having, in some situations, read the tea leaves. What’s the data telling you? What are consumers doing? How do I get ahead of what behaviors they might have to drive my organization down a path it needs to go? So, do you think the CMO role prepares you well for a CEO role in the future or could? And what’s your kind of take on that situation?

Lauren Kelly: I think if you define the CMO role and you create the right environment for learning and exposure to the business, I think it absolutely does. And that’s why I mentioned it’s so critical to ask as many questions as you can, and to really gain some agreement and alignment on what the CMO will be expected to be participate in. And, frankly, what they’ll be invited to participate in. Because absolutely to the extent that you’re thinking about who we should target, what their key needs are, how to best connect with them, how to keep them happy and sustainable customers that’s kind of the lifeblood of a business. So, absolutely if you can then have impact on a number of those different factors it’s great preparation for a bigger, more general management role, whether it’s a divisional president, if you’re in a large company or, potentially, a CEO. For me, my motivation has always been to find business problems that interest me. And I’ve been a little less concerned about the title. I’ve been in a number of roles where my title has been kind of head of strategy. And it has had a heavy marketing emphasis, but I wasn’t necessarily as focused on the late stage execution of marketing, as much as on the earlier upstream definition of the product, the value proposition, the go to market. The other thing that’s interesting, so in my current role, as an example, when I was talking to the leadership team we had a number of conversations about what would be in and out of scope for marketing. And one of the areas where I was really excited to take on was product management. And it’s not that common, but my role as CMO encompasses not just marketing, not just product marketing, but also the product management product organization. So it’s an phenomenal opportunity to gain a level of alignment all the way through the value chain. From what we design and create for our customers to how we deliver it, and to how we keep those customers really healthy, happy, and continuing to stick with us. So, there’s a level of continuity that I was able to create and build in this role that could be a phenomenal model for other companies.

Stephanie Cox: I love that you said that because we must be two peas in a pod then, because I also own product management.

Lauren Kelly: You are kidding? That’s so cool.

Stephanie Cox: And I don’t talk to many other marketers. They’re like,” That’s interesting.” I’m like,” Yeah, but if you think about it, my job is to know the customers the best, and to know what they need, and what they want, what’s going on in the market. So, why wouldn’t I help direct the product?”

Lauren Kelly: That’s exactly the conversations that we had when I was coming on board and, again, there are different seasons for different types of combinations. But, in this case, it’s been really magical because we’ve been able to, as you said, identify unmet, potentially even unarticulated needs that customers, or future customers had. And then, work to not just put a feature into the product, but to really put the outcome and the experience that we understand the customer is looking for into the product and the product experience. So, there’s a level of, as we always say, I think the best marketers are highly empathic people who can put their feet into the shoes of the people that we’re serving. And so, being able to take that and bring that to the product management discipline has been a really incredible unlock for us.

Stephanie Cox: No, I couldn’t agree more. One of the other things I know that you’re really passionate about is, we talked about it earlier, around growth, but how businesses tend to only scratch the surface when they think about driving differentiation for their business, and how that they can turn that into really accelerated growth. So, I’d love to just kind of start to dive into that a little bit. So, when you think about that topic what comes to mind for you?

Lauren Kelly: I think what comes to mind for me is the way it’s a kind of a confluence of different factors. So, large organizations tend to have a phenomenal amount of talent in their company, in their organizations. And my fear always is, and I’ve seen it play out in other places where I’ve worked, that you’re not necessarily hearing all the best ideas, and thoughts, and perspectives from across your organization. And that often, as a leader, you can get fairly isolated and siloed, and you can start to rely on a very small number of perspectives to form a point of view, and to make critical decisions about the direction of your business. Or how to solve a particular problem that is happening in a distributed way around your organization. Then, you add COVID and the way in which we all migrated over night to a remote work environment, where everybody was distributed, and some of the ways in which you gained a level of customer or field intimacy, because I’ve always been of the belief that spending time in the field with people who are on the frontline selling your product, delivering your product, whatever the case may be is where a lot of the best ideas are bubbled up. And now that we were faced, for the past year, with a time where we couldn’t necessarily jump on a plane and go down to Miami and check out a store, and see what’s going on. Or go visit a customer and see how they’re interacting with your product, we’ve been quite limited. And so, what I’ve started to get concerned about, or wanting to figure out how to solve is how do you make sure that you’re not only hearing loud voices that are more kind of forceful about their opinions, and you’re also not hearing too many ivory tower perspectives and missing those who are having those day- to- day interactions with your customers? So that’s kind of, I would say, my overall philosophy on how do we turn the tide and create technology, create processes, and systems that allow us to take these great distributed teams of people who are interacting day- to- day with our customers and make sure we’re hearing their perspectives?

Stephanie Cox: What do you think most businesses are missing? Even when they think about implementing something like you just discussed, what are they missing out on, or where are they starting to fall short in those efforts?

Lauren Kelly: I would say probably two things. So one is, and I can say this because I was a consultant and I did create a lot of strategies that, in hindsight, were probably created a little bit in perfect laboratory environments. Good strategies fail, great strategies fail because they don’t always take into full account the realities of the market, the realities of the teams, the realities of the customers. And they can seem really great on paper, and then when you translate them into execution, they kind of fall apart. And so, I think that that’s one thing is there’s a lot of organic situational factors that you only hear when you’re talking to the frontline salesperson that’s going to have to go implement this big idea. Or the person who is in customer service and is working day- to- day to address problems or challenges that might come out of one of the big initiatives that you’re promoting. And so, that in and of itself, I think, it’s important to get that pressure test early on. The other thing is I started when I was an undergrad, I was a psychology major. And the dynamics of groups are fascinating because depending on the role, or level of persuasion of somebody an idea that probably shouldn’t have risen to the top can actually gain a lot of momentum simply because of group dynamics. And so, any way that you can try to strip out sometimes some of those either hierarchical dynamics, or just the tendency sometimes of groups to hear one idea, and everyone just jumps on it instead of taking a little bit of time to say,” Let’s pull up a wider range of thinking. And then let’s take some time to, in a more methodical way, look at various scenarios and solutions, and decide amongst a broader set of them what’s the best opportunity.” I think that is a huge watch out for a lot of leaders. I know I’ve certainly had those times where I get really motivated, and get a lot of momentum on a solution, or an idea before I’ve really vetted whether it’s the right one. And so, those are ways in which if we can leverage technology to access more perspectives and we can do so in an efficient way, the hope is that you don’t get overly attached to an idea before you’ve given it enough kind of diligence, and compared it to some other potential ways to solve something.

Stephanie Cox: I love what you just said about how bad… Or not only bad strategies, okay strategies can fail and great strategies can fail because it’s so true. And one of the things that I think sometimes as marketers and inaudible as humans, we all don’t like failure, but so much good comes out of failure.

Lauren Kelly: Yes, absolutely. Well, and the other thing that’s interesting is, okay strategies can be wildly successful if everybody gets behind them. And so, that’s the other big piece that as we’ve seen this year, a lot of companies have had to look at the market, identify what does work, and maybe what doesn’t work anymore because of the way in which their customers are living their lives, and the way in which their customers’ needs have changed. And there may be some good or okay strategies that if executed well in a aligned way can be very successful. And so, I’m a very idealistic person, I want to get the best strategy, but I always have to remind myself that sometimes an okay strategy executed really well because everyone’s on board, everybody knows what they need to be doing can be successful and would be more successful than what we think is a brilliant strategy, but didn’t go through the proper vetting and the proper buy- in to get everybody rowing in the same direction.

Stephanie Cox: So true. So, last question for you, if you could think of one thing that all marketers needed to hear from your perspective, what would that be?

Lauren Kelly: It’s a basic thing, but I just feel like I get reminded of it each and every time. As a marketer, you are, first and foremost, the voice of and the channel of your customer. And your current customer, your future desired customer when you’re in meetings it’s very easy to get caught up in KPIs, and specific deals, and specific opportunities. But the more that you can be the one who is asking the challenging questions around, does our customer really need this? Why would our customer care? Is this really the best thing we could do to build that long lasting relationship with our customer? Those types of questions will always get you to a better solution and a better answer.

Stephanie Cox: You’ve been listening to Real Marketers. If you love what you’ve heard, make sure to subscribe, rate, and review our podcast. And don’t forget to tell a friend. All of this marketing goodness, shouldn’t be kept a secret.