We are in a period of significant business change that has made it a more challenging time than ever to be a marketer. Whether you are a marketer at an incumbent brand or a start-up, the playing field has become rapidly leveled as technology has become the great equalizer. With this in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” series where I talk to some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.
For my third piece in this series, I had the privilege of speaking with Jackson Jeyanayagam, marketing veteran, former head of digital at Chipotle and current CMO of Boxed, a digital wholesaler that’s created a smarter way to shop, stock up and save. We discussed his thoughts on the changing face of marketing and the winning combination of heart + science that he feels is imperative to success in today’s environment. Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: You have had a career with a lot of varied experience on both the agency side and big brand side and now you are at Boxed, a start up. That said, based on your wealth of knowledge, how do you feel the landscape is treating marketers right now? Everybody seems to feel it’s a very complex and difficult time to be a marketer. What’s your perspective?
Jackson: I think it’s an interesting time to be a marketer. There is a crazy amount of access to data that’s presented itself to marketers whether it’s retailers or third party marketer’s data. In one way, it’s been really great because we have so much information about the customer and their background and the share of wallet – where they’re shopping and what drives them. But on the other hand, it’s also a lot to swim through and lots of figure out. So, despite all the data, what I’ve noticed is the days of the brand creative leading marketers is still relevant, you know those old Mad Men Don Draper days. But, now you’re starting to see movement to much more of a balance. Yes, I understand the creative role and know how to put together a wonderful storyboard or overseeing a great creative production of a TV spot or to get a digital video. But if I don’t have that data that gives me some insight into my customer – where I should target this video and how I should spend my money, then it’s kind of pointless. I think there’s a balance of that data with that creative piece which is not really traditional with marketers right now. Marketers have always been just the big creative thinkers that know how to put the brand on the map. But it seems like they’re shifting quite a bit.
Billee: That’s exactly spot on with what I’ve been seeing and talking to people about, whether it’s for this column or with a client. From what I can tell, a large reason for this shift, is that marketing is becoming more and more responsible for the overall success of the enterprise as opposed to just responsible for the brand. What are your thoughts on that?
Jackson: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a great call. I think the big brands are seeing the successful startups and how they operate and how they staff and then I think marketing is a big part of where you’ve seen that trend. Where the smaller or late stage startups are staffing marketers with heavy data and analytics experience that understand that bridging the gap of creative and data are responsible for margin bottom-line growth. This idea that they understand that my dollar spent needs to come back as dollars earned somehow. And I think startups have to live like that there’s no way around it, but it’s nice to see a big CPG and big apparel brands do the exact same thing. Whether it’s a tech focus or it’s a retail focus, it doesn’t really matter. The expectation is that you know you how you can drive bottom-line growth and that $500,000 spent on this or that needs to deliver sales. It’s more at the end of the year, or at the end of the quarter that if you spent X amount you have clear goals to building and establishing the brand one-to-one, but there is going to be a lot more focus on goals around the quarterly earnings and the end of year revenue. As a result, our marketers have been asked to step up and do a lot more. I think that’s going to continue to influence how the big brands also staff their marketing function, starting at the top.
Billee: You know I think that’s a great point. If you look at the CPG giants, who most would think of as infallible, like Procter + Gamble, they have been stumbling a bit as of late, and I think that that probably goes to a bit of what you’re talking about. They don’t have the ability to be as transformative as they’d like be because they’re too big. That being said, it seems that in a startup environment you do push yourself to be even more agile than you were before. You know everyone’s trying to copy you, so you need to stay continually agile to always stay ahead?
Jackson: Yeah. It’s in our DNA at Boxed, right. In a startup, you move much quicker and you move faster and you make decisions where people have autonomy, and then they go execute. So, no matter what the bigger brands do, from my experience, it’s going to be hard for them to downsize that approval process and make sure that things move as quickly and as nimbly as they need to. Startups will always have their evangelism meeting, but big brands are going to go through many many many layers of conversation and many layers of discussion to make a real impact no matter how creatively or data-driven your marketing team is. I think the second piece is ensuring as we grow in scale and we do get bigger that we’re able to maintain that, and that is hard to do. But that’s the truth. I think one the biggest differences is a start ups ability to make quick decisions and have them implemented right away.
Billee: So, everyone’s talking about AI whether it’s artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, whatever you want to call it. It makes a lot of sense as a natural extension on the data side. That’s not that big of a leap to understand, but a lot of people are trying to imagine how to push AI into creativity. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Jackson: I think not so much in the creative side yet. I think that it is more right now from a functionality standpoint. I think in an e-commerce brand, everything we do is rooted in what’s best for the customer and how we create a better experience for them. That involves our team working closely together to develop new technologies that create an awesome experience for our customer and that includes getting ahead of their needs, being predictive in what we can offer them and being really smart and creative with where we push ourselves. So, for instance we’re leveraging machine learning that allows us to better predict what you’re going to order before you run out because our DNA is ‘stock up, don’t run out.’ So, we’ve created an AI and predictive technology called Smart StockUp and Concierge that help us deliver a better experience right to your door before you even have to order from us. So, for us, being innovative in the creation of experiences is actually already part of our DNA. We already think about that.
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Billee: What are your thoughts on best practices for fusing content with commerce to heighten experiences? A lot of people thought of those things in silos in the past but if you look at a brand like Casper,that’s a home run because they fuse the two together very strategically and it’s not just content for content sake. What are your thoughts on that?
Jackson: Yeah, I think Warby (Parker) does it really well as well. Their content matches back to what people are doing on their site. They don’t give you content all of a sudden that doesn’t make sense. So, for us it’s really about how do we deliver content we create content that’s tied into our value prop is a big part of getting it right. So, we offer a lot of snacks. We do a lot of recipe content like here’s something you could plan for your family’s meals for the next few days or few weeks. Looking at hosting occasions is a big part of our what we do as well. So, content has to be really smart and creative around hosting Super Bowl party, hosting graduation party or hosting a bachelor party. Those really make sense for our core audience and what we offer. So, every time we think about content it has to be strictly be connected to what we offer our customer and what’s the value or the benefit for them shopping with us. If it’s not valuable, then to your point is it’s just for the sake of it. Right?
Billee: Right, and clearly your brand has an identity, but do you feel that it’s important to focus on having a grander purpose, something that is more aspirational, or are you just focused on what it is that you’re doing transactionally?
Jackson: Yeah I’m glad you asked because if you look at e-commerce it is a very soulless category. Everyone from the big players to the smaller players it is very much a race to the bottom-line. It’s very much about the best deals. It’s very much about who has the best prices. So, for us if we don’t compete there then it is all a moot point. We have to be competitive there. However, I would say on top of that it is about building a corporate ethos and building a brand that people can relate to. So, what we’ve done is we’ve done things that we think people care about. One example is that we pay the pink tax on feminine hygiene products because they’re actually taxed like luxury items in 30 plus states. We take that cost and that’s on us.
We’ve also done things for employees where we have a college and wedding plan in particular for the warehouse employees because we understand that it’s a big stressful, financial burden for them and a big life event We realized that was a big concern for a lot of employees and we created a wedding fund that allows employees to get married and get paid for up to $20,000 and we also created a college fund for anyone’s kids in college. So, that’s a big part of the corporate ethos that we’re doing something for the betterment of our people and our team.
I have a personal tagline. I always tell people marketing is half heart and half science – I actually say the art in science is not about the arts but actually how are you doing the right thing. It means something to you and your brand as a company if your vision is a part of your values and you trust your heart. As a marketer, you have the science and data maybe to back it up and you can’t go wrong. I think the creative comes if you have the heart, and it the science is data driven. So, I love the quote: ‘It’s the ‘heart and the science’.
Billee: How do you feel about the growing need for CEOs and CMOs to collaborate more closely to be successful?
Jackson: I mean I think it’s critical. So, I think you know our founder Chieh Huang. He’s a marketer or he loves marketing. He thinks that he gets the value of it. That’s why he hired someone like me who comes from brand so am not a traditional startup e-commerce guy. He also understands that he needs to give me and my team autonomy to do what we need to so we Slack each other we talk every day. I mean, essentially two or three times a day, about marketing and kind of what the priorities are. So, it’s a balance of how do we address the short term needs of a startup which is you know quarter by quarter or month by month week by week sometimes from a performance standpoint. Now part of my role is actually driving growth.
I think in the past, I mean, I’ve seen other brands where the CEO and CMO might not talk for like a month until there’s a quarterly monthly meeting. And that’s absurd. it’s kind of awesome our founder likes to talk because I get to get inside that what he’s thinking of the discussions he’s having with investors and potential investors and how he’s thinking about the company over the next quarter and one year to two years. So even though I know what the clear goals are for the year, things change very quickly in our space, especially in e-commerce and he and I need to just be in constant communication. So, it’s almost like I’m an extension of him and he’s an extension of me in a lot of ways because we have to be in each other’s heads for this to work.
Billee: That’s it for me unless you have anything that you wanted to leave the readers with that they should be aware of during these challenging times?
Jackson: For me, I just think it’s a new age for marketing and I think it’s a really interesting and fun time. I would say the one thing I think is different than when I came out of marketing is you have to have a much broader perspective to be successful. And, you might need to do a little bit of everything to achieve results. I actually think that up-and-coming marketers aren’t just going to come from one or two tracks, they’re going to be much, much more wholly rounded and I think kids will come out with a little bit coding experience for instance, while also understanding the basics of PR and content. They’re the ones who will be better off and will be the ones who help define the future of what marketing will look like.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.