Practicing Ruthless Prioritization

Episode #047: Jon Falker, Director of Marketing at Prime Data Centers

A lot of us talk about wanting to narrow down our to-do list. But actually implementing it? That’s another story…until now.

In this episode, we chat with Jon Falker, Director of Marketing for Prime Data Centers. Jon brings over a decade of B2B and B2C marketing leadership to Prime, from small SaaS startups to Fortune 100 tech bellwethers like Intel. As a serial marketing team of one, Jon has experience leading all aspects of marketing, including branding, messaging, strategic positioning, profitable revenue growth, customer feedback, CRO, PR, SEO, and much more.

We’re talking about how to actually start prioritizing your workload, how to justify getting more resources, what makes a good boss, and so much more.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. Take a look at your priorities and see where you can make cuts…and be ruthless about it.
  2. Writing a 50-page report every time you need more budget isn’t feasible. That’s why it’s crucial to have trust between you and your senior leaders.
  3. You should be able to look back on the early years of your career and be slightly terrified with the projects you were able to lead. That’s the mark of a good boss.

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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. Have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries, share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. So, first question, tell me something about yourself that few people know.

Jon Falker: So, I would say I’m a huge nerd about sustainability. I spent a few years working in the residential solar space, but I was a nerd long before that and I continue to be. So, really anything related to sustainability and specifically climate tech. So, how do we put tech to work on solving our sustainability challenges? All of that stuff, I love to nerd out on, whether it’s transitioning your gas- fired home heating system to an electric heat pump, which a lot of people don’t realize also provides AC, or really anything else. I can’t get enough nerdy wonkiness.

Stephanie Cox: Oh, I love that. I could probably nerd out with you too. I have a background in environmental management and sustainability. Gosh, this was early on in my career, let’s just say that. Earlier on in my career, rather than how many years ago that was. It’s like when lead certification was a big deal for buildings. Getting created. I could probably even still pull this from memory one day, but what was the difference between being silver certified, gold certified These are things that I cared passionately about.

Jon Falker: Yep. Yep. And that still touches my world today a little bit, in data center real estate development. Our customers, which tend to be very large companies, tech, but also banking and health insurance. When they deploy a new data center, they want to make sure that it is as sustainably run as possible. So, the lead certification process, as well as some sister certification processes, is something that’s very germane to my current role as well.

Stephanie Cox: Well, the other thing I know about you is you’ve done a lot in the startup world, too.

Jon Falker: Yes.

Stephanie Cox: Right. I have history in startups as well. Transitioning over to my favorite topic, marketing, how do you think about being a marketer in a startup where resources are lean and there is an overwhelming amount of what to do? How have you handled that in the past?

Jon Falker: Yeah. So, I’ve done, depending on how you count them, five or six startups. One of which was a nonprofit where I served on the board, the others were all for- profit startups, where I was typically the first marketing hire. And they spanned B2B and B2C. And to answer your question, it comes down to ruthless as prioritization. That was really my mantra and continues to be. And I think a lot of, not just marketers, but a lot of people across the business world talk about ruthless prioritization, but putting it into practice is very difficult, and the larger the organization gets, the more difficult it gets. But it’s very difficult to look at your list of priorities, whether they’re 10, or 100, or 1, 000, and say,” Look, we’re just not going to realistically be able to do justice to the bottom half or the bottom two third of this list. And so, we’re just going to cut it off and maybe one day in the future we’ll have time to address it properly, but not now, not in the near future.” And having that conviction and that courage to make that decision, it’s rare.

Stephanie Cox: So, why do you think larger companies struggle with that? Like what is it that, in a startup, it’s hard to do, but you feel like you can do easier than in a larger organization?

Jon Falker: Well, human organizations get complicated as they scale and people are complicated. So, the more people you have in the mix, the more complicated it becomes. And I worked for about six years, for Intel. That was the largest company I ever worked for, over 100, 000 employees throughout the world. Very, very global. And it was very difficult to ruthlessly prioritize there, because you’re talking about decisions, important decisions across huge departments or across multiple departments, that touch the daily working lives of thousands of people, and not just thousands of people, but thousands of people across cultures, and time zones, and languages, and perspectives, and levels of seniority. And everyone has their own idea of what the right prioritization is, because at the end of the day, prioritization is pretty subjective. And that’s a whole podcast for another day is, how do you make prioritization more objective and less subjective? But suffice it to say that, I would say 95% of companies, large and small, it remains a largely subjective process. And obviously, when you’re dealing with a very large subjective process, you’re going to have competing opinions and competing opinions at different pay grades.

Stephanie Cox: I cannot echo that enough.

Jon Falker: Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s sort of doomed to not work, to not open itself up to quantified, ruthless prioritization.

Stephanie Cox: Well, if you figure out how to do ruthless prioritization, you need to share it with the rest of the world. Because I think that’s one thing, not just marketers, but all people in this startup, scale up world, really struggle with. And oftentimes when you’re in a larger company, this is why I always tell people, if you want to get a ton of experience, go to a smaller company, because you’re the person, you’re the marketer, right? If you go to a large company, you are the marketer for Google Ads. Right? Not all ads, just Google Ads in the United States. So, how do you help people start to think about prioritization and when there is so much to do, and you have those competing voices in the conversation, which sometimes, may or may not even really understand the reality of the world that you live in.

Jon Falker: Yeah, it can be done. This is pretty meta, but one of my past startups was a product management software startup. And so, one of the capabilities we tried to build into our software was the quantified prioritization for product managers, largely software product managers. They were our real audience. And so, we wanted to do things, if you were say a product manager at Spotify, we wanted to help that product manager make prioritization more of a quantifiable process. And in product management, there are a few scoring mechanisms and people have their favorites, but a lot of product teams will pick their favorite scoring mechanism and then run all of their roadmap decisions through this scoring mechanism, which spits out a score for each initiative. And then, they can stack them and draw a line through where they think their bandwidth max is for that sprint. And it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a very admirable effort. It gets pretty darn close to the desired outcome, which is, taking some of the subjectivity out of this. And it’s interesting, I’ve not seen that approach taken in marketing. I think that could be a really cool little marketing experiment, if a small marketing team started to really take that quantification approach. And I’m sure it could be done.

Stephanie Cox: When you were talking about it, the first thing I thought of was the dreaded line for those people that have used Pivotal Tracker back in the day, where you’re like,” Oh, it’s not getting in the sprint. It’s moving it into the ice box. Bye- bye.”

Jon Falker: Yep.

Stephanie Cox: That’s the same thing, but no, I’ve never thought about doing it that way as a marketer. Instead, I think what happens is it didn’t get done today, it gets on the list for tomorrow.

Jon Falker: Right.

Stephanie Cox: Right? And it’s like, the list never ends or never stops growing and things don’t go off the list unless they’re done.

Jon Falker: Yes.

Stephanie Cox: Otherwise, they permanently stay on the list.

Jon Falker: Yes. And this is where everybody, there’s a near universal pain point, which is when somebody who is several pay grades above you and in the startup world, that’s usually the CEO, or maybe even somebody from the board of directors, they get an idea about what the company should be doing or what the marketing team should be doing. And they give you a call and they say,” Hey, John, how come you guys aren’t doing programmatic advertising? I think you should really be doing a lot of programmatic advertising.” And then all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, that has to become one of your priorities, either that or you have to very diplomatically explain why you’re not going to run that down. And I think if marketing teams did a better job of adopting a transparent scoring process that helped guide their marketing roadmaps, I think you’d be able to approach those VIPs and say,” Listen, respect your opinion, obviously, but we’re not going to tackle your idea this quarter because here’s how we scored it and there’s 10 things that scored higher above it.”

Stephanie Cox: Well, and when you were talking about the programmatic advertising example, all I thought of was, did they see a competitor that did this and then immediately thought that we must in fact, do this, regardless of whether or not we have the budget or the people to do it?

Jon Falker: Yes. Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: Right?

Jon Falker: Or, you never know what sparks the idea. It could be, if it’s a board member, maybe they sit on the board of a different company and they’re trying to find synergy between their various portfolio companies. You never know.

Stephanie Cox: Well, and I would say one thing, because you mentioned that it’s very common, right? Especially if you have board members that sit on a lot of other boards, to bring back ideas, thoughts, examples from the other companies they were a part of.

Jon Falker: Mm-hmm(affirmative).

Stephanie Cox: And the one thing I think, it took me a while at first, or especially early on in my career to realize, is that not everything they bring to you, as something that’s working somewhere else or something that they ask you, if we’ve thought about it or why aren’t we doing, they don’t always mean that we need to do it.

Jon Falker: Right.

Stephanie Cox: Right? Sometimes it’s a legitimate question, but I think sometimes as marketers we take it all as,” Well, they saw this and why aren’t we doing this? And now I need to go do this.”

Jon Falker: Right.

Stephanie Cox: And that might be of the case sometimes, but oftentimes it’s not. So, how do you think about handling those situations when people bring things to you and you don’t have resources, it’s a thing that you’re going to cut from the list, but they’re adamant that it needs to get done, how do you think about handling those situations?

Jon Falker: Well, I think you’re exactly right. And I think that those people, more often than not, they mean well, and maybe they just want to see that you’ve thought it through, that it has passed through your radar screen at some point, and you have some sort of an educated, in the trenches response. And so I think, just showing them, certainly never dismissing it out of hand, maintaining an open mind. Because some things maybe you’ve visited in the past… I mean, we all know this to be true, some things you’ve visited in the past, you made a decision either to pursue it or not to pursue it, but maybe that was six months ago or longer. And maybe now it makes a heck of a lot more sense. So, I think it’s always worth it, with a fresh mind, to revisit it and tell that person, if you’ve run the analysis before and made a decision either to pursue or not pursue, and certainly if you decided to pursue and you have results from that experiment, hold their hand through that narrative and get them to understand your perspective. And this also happens, obviously, not just with board members, but with venture capitalists too. I mean, that’s a large part of their value prop when they pitch startup founders for rounds of funding is they say,” Well, look, we’ve gathered up all this expertise because we’ve advised a hundred companies just like yours.” That’s super valuable insight, but you need to show that VC why you have or have not pursued that idea in the past.

Stephanie Cox: So, one of the other things that I know you’ve had to do in the past is persuade CEOs to get more marketing budget.

Jon Falker: Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: And sometimes even justify the cost of yourself. How do you tackle that situation, where you’re asking for more money to either scale your efforts, test something out that you haven’t been able to test out before, what’s been your MO around that?

Jon Falker: Yeah. I mean, it’s the billion dollar question and there’s no clean answer because all marketers readily understand that there’s a lot of value creation in building a brand for the long- term, that happens in the trenches and it’s not sexy and it’s not easily attributable, but it’s crucial, and marketers understand that it’s crucial. And often, we do those things because we know it’s crucial, even though we can’t demonstrate an ROI on that activity, or at least not easily, but we do it anyway. And that could be something like improving the user experience on your website or I don’t know, increasing the load speed on the mobile version of your site. It’s difficult to say to a CEO, to come to them with a crisp study that says,” Look, I invested$10, 000 making the website easier to navigate and as a result, we’ve gotten more than$ 10,000 worth of attributable revenue.” It can be done, people smarter than I have done that. That’s a perfect example though of, that ROI, it would take me longer to produce that ROI case, just to show to the CEO, then it would to go generate more revenue on new initiatives. And so, I would just say to the CEO, again, respectfully,” But I don’t have time to build a Harvard case study on why making our website easier to navigate is ROI positive. You’re just going to have to trust me.” And some of this does come down to trust as well. If you have a low trust environment in your company, certainly, if you have one between the marketing leadership and the CEO, it’s going to be an uphill battle the entire time.

Stephanie Cox: Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like… You mentioned the Harvard business case study, right? Where they feel like they need that and you’ve went to bat for an idea and then it maybe didn’t work out as anticipated. It didn’t have the results that you wanted. Or even the flip side, it completely exceeded expectations. How have you reacted to those situations where you’ve either had to say,” Okay, I know you gave me this money, I did not deliver the ROI on it. I need more.” Or,” Hey, you gave me this money, it worked, now I need more.”

Jon Falker: Yeah. It depends on the environment. And I will give a major hat tip to my first boss at Intel. She’s still with the company. She’s awesome. When I first got there, I was fresh out of business school, still pretty young and really didn’t know much about anything. I thought I did. And she intentionally, I think, put me in one of these situations. She gave me a budget, it was relatively small by Intel standards, but it was still sizable. It was tens of thousands. And she said,” Okay, we’ve got a niche product coming out for a niche audience. I want you to pick an agency, a creative agency, and I want you to film a piece of creative that speaks to our target audience about this product.” And I was like,” Cool.” And I led the whole thing myself and I was quite confident that I could come out with a piece of creative that would do the job, especially since the target audience for this particular product and campaign was people that were like me, relatively young, relatively had some disposable income, were nerdy and techy. And so, I was like,” Great. I’m speaking to myself, no problem, this is a slam dunk.” And I hired a really cool agency in LA to do this really bootleg digital video of a couple minutes for me. And I thought it was pretty darn cool. And when I showed it to my team, they were like,” Nope, no way this is going to fly. It’s too edgy for Intel.” And I was kind of embarrassed and I pulled my boss over, but she was cool, I pulled my boss over in the hallway after that meeting and I said,” We just spent a sizable chunk of dough on this. What are we going to do?” And she’s like,” Well, it’s never going to see the light of day, so put it to bed and move on and learn from it.” And I think that’s an extreme example. I think at most companies, most bosses would not be that cool about it, but she was, and it was a hell of a learning experience for me.

Stephanie Cox: But you know what? They should be.

Jon Falker: Yes.

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s one thing that I wish that, especially to marketing talent that’s coming up and will eventually, in the next five to 10 years plus, take over leadership roles. You’ve got to embrace failure.

Jon Falker: Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: And you’ve got to embrace failure for your team because here’s what’s crazy, I get so frustrated by social media, around marketing sometimes because it all sounds like everyone’s just absolutely killing it all the time, which is not reality. No one talks about,” Yeah, I launched this new campaign. We spent six weeks on it and it generated crap.”

Jon Falker: Right.

Stephanie Cox: Right? No one talks about that, but every one has been there. And I think part of it is this culture that’s been created within marketing of, everything has to work all the time, which is not true.

Jon Falker: Yes.

Stephanie Cox: And I can’t tell you how… Like your example that you were talking about, where she was like,” Well, it just dies. We don’t do anything with it.” I’ve seen so many companies just launch things that they know aren’t going to work or a change in direction because they’ve spent time and money working on it.

Jon Falker: Right. Yep. I mean, that’s part of ruthless prioritization is that instinct to say,” Look, I’m going to make tough decisions and I’m going to stand by them, and they may not always be right, but we’re going to stand by them.” And if a piece of creative doesn’t fit your brand, and she had that expertise and that perspective, and I didn’t, I hadn’t been at the company long enough. And I thought, as a young person who had too much confidence, I thought that Intel was a dinosaur brand and it needed to be shaken up. And I didn’t have the self- awareness to realize how silly it was, that myself as a recent B- School graduate, that I wasn’t the person to single- handedly shake up that brand.

Stephanie Cox: Do you ever look back earlier on your career and go,” Why did I do or think what I did?” Or,” Oh my God, why did they let me do that? When I was so young, why did they give me that authority?”

Jon Falker: Yeah, all the time. All the time. It is so important in marketing and in any discipline, across business and in life, it’s so important to mentor young people along the way, because it is brutal when you’re just getting into an industry, it’s really hard. And having a good mentor, either a formal mentor or informal mentor, is so important. And it’s rare to find somebody who has been around the block enough, who is willing to spare their time and just really be a friend at the end of the day, and a sounding board. It doesn’t have to be anything super formal, just basic friendship. It’s really rare to find people who are willing to do that. And I’m trying to remind myself to do that for others, as often as I can.

Stephanie Cox: That’s what I would tell you is the definition of good leadership. If you can’t look back on early parts of your career and be impressed and slightly terrified… I look back and I remember I was probably, gosh, two years out of college. And the company I was at was a mid- size business, about 50 million in revenue at the time. And I’m not joking you, they let me redo their entire brand, their messaging, positioning, train the entire company. And I look back and I’m like,” Holy crap, I was like 24 doing that. What the hell?”

Jon Falker: Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: I mean, of course at 24, I thought I was clearly qualified to do this.

Jon Falker: Right.

Stephanie Cox: But looking back now, I’m like,” I had no idea what I was doing. Why did they let me do that?” But that’s how you know you had a great boss, is when you look back and you go,” They gave me opportunities that were bigger than maybe I was ready for. And whether I succeeded or failed, they were supporting me and behind me.” That’s how great leaders are made, is because they’ve been trained to do that because they went through it themselves.

Jon Falker: Yeah.

Stephanie Cox: Right? I think sometimes people go,” Oh, what training did you do? Leadership training.” Leadership training, I’ve done pretty much every different one that’s out there, because every company feels like they need to train their leaders on their method. But the best leadership I’ve ever learned was in the first three to five years of my career, based on how I was managed. I had some exceptional leaders that I reported up through and got to see how they let 24- year- old Stephanie do these things that looking back now, I’m like,” Oh my God.”

Jon Falker: Yep.

Stephanie Cox: And that’s how I’ve been, because that’s the type of leader I want to be. You don’t learn that in school and you don’t learn that in any leadership program.

Jon Falker: Yeah. And that’s become one of my biggest pieces of advice for young people getting started in whatever discipline, whether it’s marketing or anything else, is go work for good bosses. They don’t have to be perfect bosses, don’t even bother looking for a perfect boss, but go work for people you respect and people who respect you, and the rest is just details. The rest will really work itself out.

Stephanie Cox: Completely agree. And that’s why sometimes I think it matters less what your title is, it matters less what industry you’re in, it matters who you work for, more than anything else. And not based on what their name is, but based on what they will teach you and how they will treat you.

Jon Falker: Yep.

Stephanie Cox: We just got really deep here. Some of my favorite parts about this show is when the conversation goes into an unexpected way. So, now that we’ve talked so much about marketing, prioritization, budget, if you had to leave a marketer today with one piece of advice, what would that be?

Jon Falker: I always talk about the golden rule in all aspects of life, and I apply it to inaudible. The golden rule is such cliche that inaudible deserves, especially not in marketing. And so the golden rule, right, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you apply that to marketing, I think it will get you really far. It has really helped me… Not to say that I’ve reached the highest height, but it has really helped me on decisions big and small. So, what I mean is, for every campaign you run, let’s say, you’re going to do an email blast or you’re going to put out a banner ad or you’re going to do anything related to the customer experience, ask yourself,” Would I want to receive this email? Would I want to receive this phone call, this text message. If I saw this ad on my phone, what would I think of this brand?” And while you certainly don’t want to be a focus group of one for your brand, it is always useful to ask yourself as a gut check,” Would I be mad if a brand sent me this text message?” And if the answer is yes, if you even hesitate about the answer, it’s probably not the right idea.

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.