what’s top of mind for the CMO: November 2019

a discussion with Fathom's Steve Kessen + Jim Kohl

As you begin to have conversations with marketing leaders, trends emerge. One of the clearest trends: chief marketers, regardless of industry or responsibility, sometimes feel like they’re on an island. That’s one of the main reasons I sat down with Steve Kessen, our CEO, and Jim Kohl, our EVP of sales and marketing, to record a conversation recently.

You see, aside from supporting a variety of Fathom’s clients as Account Partners and leading our own go to market strategy, Steve and Jim have spent the last few months traveling to events that connect partners like us with brand-side marketing leaders for 1:1 conversation about real challenges and potential solutions. With so many discussions in recent memory, I was curious to hear their perspective on what keeps chief marketers up at night.

Over the course of our 22-minute conversation, we discussed a variety of theme from their recent exchanges with marketing leaders, including:

  • What to make of organizational change (0:00-5:30)
  • The prevalent marketing leader mindset (5:31-9:40)
  • Why global CMOs travel to Schaumburg, IL (9:41-13:44)
  • What to expect from 1:1 marketing events (13:45-22:00)

If you’d like to read along with portions of the conversation, expand the corresponding section below. If you’d prefer to listen to the discussion, you’ll find the audio following the four expandable sections.

What to Make of Organizational Change
Steve Kessen: When you asked me, “what did you hear, what are you surprised by?” those sorts of things, I have a hard time remembering the individual conversations. One theme that I would say has been more so with our clients, but something I’ve certainly felt when we were at our show in Chicago is how much organizational change is influencing the marketer. We have a large client who just went through a huge marketing organizational internal shift. That is a significant change that creates opportunity for us and creates opportunity for them, but also some risk and changes.

Steve Kessen: I think of another client that’s going through an integration of two businesses coming together in an M&A standpoint. That’s creating great opportunity, and uncertainty, and so on. It just feels like that is a conversation I’m in more and more recently around how organizational shifts, be it acquisition, merger, re-org, and the way the marketing organization is influenced by it. Our level of conversation around that is something that I’m feeling very distinctly lately.

Joe Adams: You mentioned opportunity in the context of those two specific examples. What sort of opportunity does it create for the marketers at that institution who’s recently experienced reorganization?

Steve Kessen: Yeah. As I think about organizational change, and just change as a whole… change often brings fear, and that’s how some people choose to look at it. But it also brings great opportunity, which is the way that I generally look at it. Anytime there’s change, there’s an opportunity for new precedent to be set. What I’m seeing in both instances, the marketing leaders that are still there, and maybe have just a bit more responsibility than they had the day before the change, are seeing this as an opportunity to advance their organization in a bigger and more impactful way than they felt before.

Steve Kessen: There’s almost an empowerment dynamic that is being created through change happening. It’s creating an opportunity for our client and the marketing leader to be a bit more creative, to be a bit more open-minded, and to dream about what’s the art of possible as opposed to live in the reality of what’s been.

Steve Kessen: Marketing folks, marketing leaders are generally known to be of the creative type and so on. I would say creativity’s a lot more than colors, and imagery, and flowery language. Creative is understanding the opportunity ahead of you, the challenges that are around you, and how do you create solutions to that?

Steve Kessen: I think marketers don’t get enough credit for that. It’s something that I see some of our marketing leader clients really stepping into and it’s giving them a big energy boost during a time of uncertainty for the team that they support, because change becomes and brings challenge for people. It’s pretty interesting.

Joe Adams: It’s an opportunity to realize a vision.

Steve Kessen: Yep.

Joe Adams: In simplest terms. But that’s not exactly an opportunity you can plan for. Someone suddenly is thrust into a new situation created by the absence of someone else that maybe they reported to in the past.

Steve Kessen: Sure.

Joe Adams: How are those individuals, or how aren’t they, setting themselves up for success? What makes someone successful in that situation]? When it’s time, when you had the opportunity to introduce a vision, but maybe you weren’t planning to bring it to life tomorrow?

Steve Kessen: Yeah. You’ve heard me say multiple times, every morning when you get out of bed, you got the opportunity to choose your attitude and choose how you respond to things. One thing is certain is uncertainty and the world around us is going to change. It’s how you respond to that change and your mindset around that.

Steve Kessen: Mindset creates either a huge opportunity ahead of you or creates a huge amount of fear ahead of you. You get to choose how you respond to it. I think those who choose opportunity often open themselves up to a bit more creative thinking, a bit more visioning, and a bit more of thinking beyond themselves. When you think beyond yourself, I think you are most set up to make impact to the world around you.

Joe Adams: So, then it’s less about having a plan on day one and more about having the right mindset on day one.

Steve Kessen: 100%. 100%.

Jim Kohl: I don’t know how this all plays. I mean, this conversation. Especially thinking about the experience that I had in conversations sitting at those tables.

Steve Kessen: Yep. What’s the experience that you had sitting at those tables?

Jim Kohl: I think those are important things to think about for anybody who’s in a leadership role, professionally or otherwise. How do I view opportunity? How do I respond to opportunity? What happens if I’m not ready to? How do I bear the weight of that response? Those are all good things to think about and I think the world would be a better place if leaders of all stripes thought more intentionally about those things.

Steve Kessen: Right.

Jim Kohl: I could talk about them all day. But as I think about the experience of those three dozen conversations that we were a part of, not many of those leaders felt… Not many of those leaders gave a signal that they were in a position to think through those things intentionally. That’s not to take anything away from those leaders as individuals and as people.

Jim Kohl: I was surprised in one sense and relieved in another to meet with a good number of marketing leaders who feel insufficient. It didn’t appear to me that they’re ready to back down from a challenge. It didn’t appear to me that they were giving away responsibility to others and just taking their hands off the wheel. But it did feel like there were a bunch of leaders there who generally had a direction to move and were not certain of the vehicle they were taking on that road and didn’t have a map in their hands to get there.

Steve Kessen: Right.

Jim Kohl: It’s certainly not wishful thinking, that’s not the mindset that they had. But it didn’t seem to me that many of them were operating out of a position of confidence either. There’s a big, wide spectrum in between there and personally that made me feel a little bit better as someone in a marketing role myself. There was a bit of empathizing out of personal experience there. Not every day is a journey of confidence.

Steve Kessen: Right. Yeah, I would agree. Many of the conversations that I had as well were along those lines. I think it’s the reality of marketing today because there are so many things that you can do. But, what do you do? So many more channels, so many more tactics available today than there were in the past, and an increased level of expectation of your ability to measure and get a return out of what you’re doing. Maybe there’s even a little less patience of trying different things from your business partners, the finance leader, the leader of the business, or whatever it may be.

Steve Kessen: I would say I felt the same thing meeting with these marketing leaders, but I also felt beyond maybe the lack of this is 100% what my roadmap is and… I just need somebody to come execute with me. I felt a very strong openness to partnership, learning, collaboration, and I think that’s a powerful mindset that marketing leaders need to take in this ever-changing world around them.

Joe Adams: I wasn’t in Chicago.

Jim Kohl: You were not.

Steve Kessen: It was Schaumburg.

Joe Adams: It’s Chicagoland.

Jim Kohl: Which I think there’s something to talk about there really. To set up, what is this experience? We’re at an event where marketing leaders, roughly 200 of them, are invited to come for two days. It’s trade show minus a lot of the pomp and circumstance and minus the sort of mass tradeshow floor experience.

Jim Kohl: Because the primary mechanism for their attendance is that they agree to these one on one meetings with potential solutions providers. But that right there, the fact that you have 200 plus marketing leaders from a variety of businesses and industries, not only willing, but interested to submit themselves to that experience in exchange for the value they might derive from it, is really telling when that is in a place called Schaumburg, Illinois. We’re not inviting you to Maui to enjoy the beach.

Joe Adams: Right.

Jim Kohl: That’s an easier sell at least in terms of, “Come enjoy one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Joe Adams: Schaumburg.

Jim Kohl: Right. Schaumburg itself doesn’t inspire a lot of interest, and so it tells me something about the actual value of the show and the appetite of these marketing leaders who are in search of something. Maybe some of them are looking for a silver bullet. Maybe some of them are looking for a partner who will pull more than their fair share of weight. But by and large, I would say they, more often than not, are looking for good partners who can help provide solutions to problems they either know about or don’t know about.

Joe Adams: And they didn’t just come from the Midwest, they came from across the country-

Jim Kohl: All over to Schaumburg.

Joe Adams: In pursuit of those partners.

Steve Kessen: Yeah. I would say this is the third event of this year that I have done in this type of format. Very counter to the classic conference, go see a couple of keynotes, walk the trade show floor, pick up some tchotchkes, and have a couple of nice dinners in Las Vegas, or San Francisco, or wherever you may be. This is night and day from them.

Steve Kessen: What I heard from the marketing leaders that attended these is, “I would so much rather go to an event like this where I can get into real solutioning for the problems that I have as opposed to the pomp and circumstance, the, for lack of a better term, the fakeness of this conversation that you have on a trade show floor.” And so on.

Steve Kessen: The nuanced component of this type of setup is the folks that are attending, the marketing leaders that are attending are invited to attend, they are vetted, and they are open about what their challenges are and what they’re trying to solve for even before they go to the show.

Steve Kessen: And then the partners that are participating also are vetted, are made sure that they’re partners that can create solutions to these challenges that the marketing leaders face. And so it creates a really symbiotic benefit to advancing with their causes, what they’re trying to work on.

Joe Adams: I haven’t had the opportunity to attend one of these events, but I do know we’re talking about solutioning and large-scale organizational challenges these marketing leaders are facing. You have 30 minutes to have a conversation. What does that conversation look like? How do you get from “Hi, my name is… Nice to meet you” to “Let’s change the world together.”?

Jim Kohl: The first step is to know yourself so that you can get out of your own way. And I think that’s a journey we’ve been on personally as a business to better understand who we are, what our strengths are, how to communicate them to an audience that’s most interested so that we can actually deemphasize the time necessary in talking about who we are, but we still communicate value. So it’s sort of an exercise in minimizing your narcissism and giving these individuals space to talk about what they’re really thinking.

Jim Kohl: I would say by and large, I think we got a sense of what their internal monologue generally is. I think that that comes out in those conversations, which maybe we should chat about. But to answer your direct question, I think it’s about knowing yourself well enough to get out of the way and invite a conversation to learn about somebody else quickly.

Joe Adams: How often did you know in the first 10 minutes that the meeting wasn’t going anywhere? And when that happens, do you continue talking for the next 20 minutes or is it…

Steve Kessen: I think you can pick up a rough sense in the first four to five minutes. Sometimes you get surprised as you work through a conversation. But I would say an 80% hit rate on what your gut tells you in the first four to five minutes is in fact true. And at the reality of it is is you don’t want to waste their time and they don’t want to waste yours as well. So you don’t want to have a fake or a surface level conversation that’s not creating value. But the reality of the matter is, to Jim’s point, we know who we are at Fathom. We know what our strengths are, we know the unique value that we can provide to our clients and to the marketplace. I might be in a conversation four or five minutes deep and realize that we are likely not going to do business with this person.

Steve Kessen: With that said, it is a fellow marketer that has a challenge that might need help. And even though I don’t see myself potentially doing business with them, I’m slated to chat with them for a half hour. If I can have a fruitful conversation that might spur something in their thought process that’s helpful, I want to do that. And it’s also an opportunity for me to learn on what’s going on inside the minds of different marketers across the board.

Steve Kessen: So, I think if we looked at this scenario, this 30-minute meeting as only a mechanism for how do we bring new business into our organization, I think what we would be doing a disservice to the folks that were attending and ultimately the long-term disservice to ourselves. So even if a conversation was going down a path of “Hey, there’s probably a better partner that is more focused on solutions that serve your unique needs.”, I would continue in the conversation if there was still an exchange of value, be it only ideas, be it only empathizing or connecting on where our worlds did collide.

Jim Kohl: And I think there’s value too, if you’re willing to invest your energy and time in that way and see value in it, not just from an economic or commercial perspective, but there’s value in this conversation inherently. You are often rewarded with something you don’t anticipate.

Jim Kohl: So, I had a conversation with one marketing leader based in the Bay area for sort of an outsourced business operations model, call centers and other sort of business operations support services, growing very quickly, PE backed.

Jim Kohl: This guy came in five minutes late to the meeting and I knew immediately just by his body language and the way he introduced himself that this is a confident guy. This is a really sharp guy and he wants to get right to business. I would agree that within four or five minutes I was pretty confident we probably don’t have an opportunity to work together here in the short term, but I continued on with the conversation and learned about his business and learned about his mindset.

Jim Kohl: There’s value in that, understanding just how do marketing leaders think? That’s valuable to us as we have a next conversation or come across somebody who maybe has the same mindset. But sort of the unanticipated reward that came at the end of that conversation, it was a comment that he provided that he didn’t need to. He was very clear. He said “We have this work that we need to do and these goals we need to achieve, and my first impulse is to work with a boutique agency who I’m aware of that specifically works in our space with firms like ours. So I don’t think there’s an opportunity here.”

Jim Kohl: I was not surprised to hear that. But he said “I’ve had 15 meetings here over the course of these two days and you’ve asked the best questions of anybody.”

Jim Kohl: So, to get that sort of feedback, I can’t translate that into dollars for our business today, but it at least gave me some sort of competitive intelligence that we’re on the right path, and if we create these sorts of experiences for marketing leaders that the market will respond. Maybe not in every conversation, but eventually there will be those who value that and are willing to compensate us for that sort of guidance.

Jim Kohl: We of course are already seeing that, and I’ve seen that over years and years and years. But I think we’re now able to pinpoint and drive with greater clarity the value we bring to market and get some feedback very positively on that.

Joe Adams: There are 36 more marketers in the world who think that Fathom showed up well and could help them solve their problems when the time’s right.

Jim Kohl: And in fact, it wasn’t, I don’t know that it was a line. I believe it was not a line from him.

Joe Adams: You don’t just say that.

Jim Kohl: No. There was no reason to. We did correspond and I just thanked him for his time probably a week after the fact, just in the course of follow-up. And he again responded to that email with the same comment. I didn’t forget our conversation. You asked the best questions of the show. I am moving forward with the boutique agency, but Fathom is in my mind. That’s a win.

Steve Kessen: And we’ve seen some of our largest client relationships come two years following an event where we made an initial impression on the individual. And at that time we weren’t the right partner for their need of that day, but we obviously created value in the conversation, left a positive impression. It = gets back to just core principles of interacting with human beings, of try to create value to the people around you.

Steve Kessen: Be professional. Just treat people like people. It’s just not that complicated. If you bring your best every day and you try to help the people around you, good things will come out of it. But it’s not, to Jim’s point, it’s not all about doing that as economic benefit. It’s doing that because that’s just the right thing to do.

If you’re interested in conversations with digital marketing leaders like this one, I encourage you to check out our discussion with Claire Abraham and Stephen Epple about their experience at Google Marketing Live, an exclusive conference where the tech giant shared updates on their product roadmap and the pair gained a clearer understanding of what the increasingly-connected future holds for marketers and consumers.