CMOs Should Always Look at the Marketing Org with Fresh Eyes

When David joined The New York Times, he had the opportunity to look at the marketing organization with completely fresh eyes. While this can be relatively easy to do as an incoming CMO, it’s a practice that—through deliberate effort and practice—even tenured CMOs can and should do.

When David joined, the marketing department was still known by some as “circulation,” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, adhered to some relatively old-school approaches to marketing. Even the org’s titling was a signal that the team needed to return to first principles and reimagine their efforts. As a starting point, David renamed teams and updated individuals’ titles (ie: “Client Services” to “Marketing Strategy.”)

We’ve heard a similar story from Craig Miller, the then CMO of FirstMark-backed Shopify (NYSE: SHOP), at our annual CMO Summit in 2017. When he took over Shopify's marketing organization, he updated the entire team’s titles from what he saw as ambiguous language like "Events Marketing,” to clear and outcome-oriented titles like "Growth.” This makes it crystal clear what outcomes a team is supposed to create.

A second area where David strategically revisited The New York Times’ approach was to be thoughtful about what their real competition was. At the time, there was a sense that The New York Times’ competition was other paid publications. But in fact, their biggest competition was free content and platforms. As in, how could the company convince consumers to pay for content, when they could just scroll through social or consume free media?

This insight triggered a very deliberate strategy to communicate to consumers that The New York Times was a premium content business and worth their subscription dollars. One of the most important things David did to reinforce this message was to shore up how The New York Times value prop was conveyed to consumers through its messaging, positioning, and brand. He and the creative team re-envisioned the brand with this end in mind, and then documented it in a formal brand and style guide. Once documented, these guidelines actually enabled marketers to move with more efficiency and autonomy. The ability to regularly return to first principles, and revisit your marketing org, brand, and strategy is an essential skill for CMOs.

Thinking About Marketing as a Lever of Product Development

One of David’s biggest takeaways from leading global brand marketing at Pinterest is that Marketing can be a lever of Product. What this means, essentially, is that because of the ways Product and Marketing are inextricably intertwined, Marketers should approach all of their work with an eye toward reinforcing the efforts of Product.

Marketing is a reductive discipline, in that it’s constantly forced to make tradeoffs in a finite solution space in the face of tactical constraints. Marketers do not have unlimited budget to test messaging and creative against an unlimited number of consumer segments. Product by contrast is more of an expansive discipline; product teams typically work within a much larger solution space. In this framework, Marketing can serve as a reductive force to help guide Product.

Another example of the ways that Marketing and Product are intertwined is that it’s typically Marketing who attaches language and meaning to your product in a way that Product itself typically does not do. It is Marketing who conveys and reinforces that message in all of your public and customer communications, and the mental model that customers have for your product and business will be shaped by that effort.

One concrete example from his own work: The New York Times’ “The Truth is Hard” campaign. The award-winning metaphor communicated to readers the importance of journalism and the necessity of funding and supporting the industry.

For these reasons, David believes that the best Marketing organizations see themselves as a lever of Product development.

How to Balance Investment in Brand vs. Performance Marketing

As companies continue to scale, there is a constant tension between brand and performance marketing. As the former SVP of Marketing at Intercom put it during one of our Guild sessions: Brand can be thought of as how marketers plant seeds, while acquisition marketing is how marketers harvest. Great companies learn how to balance both.

Like any business, The New York Times tracks both performance-and brand-related metrics. Performance metrics capture short-to medium-term business objectives, with KPIs like net subscriber additions. Brand metrics are rooted in medium-to long-term business objectives, like customer surveys.

David emphasized two very concrete ways that CMOs can short-circuit this evergreen tension.

  • Hire “chameleons” who understand both Brand and Performance marketing. If you look for people who have the ability to work in both brand/creative and performance marketing mindsets, they’ll almost naturally gravitate toward the right balance. In David’s experience both at Pinterest and early on at The New York Times, having folks who only work on one side or the other creates misalignment throughout the group. From an interviewing perspective, the way to find chameleons is to ask open-ended questions and see if they can address the question from both perspectives.

  • Run Brand and Performance efforts concurrently. One learning David took from running TV advertising is that you can actually measure the incremental impact of brand work by running it concurrently with direct response. If your brand marketing is working correctly, you’ll see a direct lift (in real time) of the effectiveness of your performance efforts. This also gives you a metrics-driven method to evaluate your brand and performance budgets.

Be Intentional About New Features and Products

Fast-growing companies continuously expand the feature set of existing products, and introduce entirely new products. The decision-making process around such launches is a topic widely discussed, and ultimately decisions are rooted in common sense company-wide goals, like “generate more revenue from existing users” or “boost the retention of our current user base.” The New York Times is no exception, as they constantly build and release new features and products.

But one non-obvious framework they’ve employed for product launches? Thinking about how the company can expand the top of the funnel through the deployment of new products. More specifically, by launching adjacent products that speak to new audiences (as well as to existing users), who perhaps aren’t ready for the core NYT product.

NYT Cooking is a great example of this; the primary goal of the product launch was not to drive more revenue from existing news subscribers, but to attract large swaths of new users who weren’t yet ready to pay for news. Then, once a user has a great experience in the adjacent product, and samples the free aspects of the core news product, the NYT can cross-sell after winning the user’s trust.