6 CMOs Share What's Scaring Them This Halloween

Potential disasters and lurking biases keep CMOs up at night as they plan for 2024

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It’s that time of year when darkness encroaches, all that was once green withers and dies, and veiled horrors lurk around every corner.

Oh, and it’s also Halloween.

The fourth quarter can be a frightening time for marketers up against deadlines, a rush to spend budgets or else risk losing them, and a host of other dilemmas. While 2023 didn’t bring the recession many predicted, continued geopolitical upheaval and rapid advances in technology have marketing departments justifying every dollar spent, wondering what wins look like in a post-pandemic economy, and attempting to master constantly evolving tools and audiences.

Two years ago, Dara Treseder was driving the conversation around Covid-confined home fitness as Peloton’s CMO. Last year around this time, she took that role to do B2B marketing at software firm Autodesk to humanize the company’s message. It’s difficult to say what each ensuing year in marketing will bring, which can be horrifying.

“No matter how great of a planner you are, there are things you can’t plan for,” she told Adweek. “Every year brings us unexpected things—whether it’s a pandemic or it’s war, things show up that we didn’t plan for—and it’s really important that we plan for the unexpected.”

As a result, Treseder and Autodesk’s plan for 2024 involves innovating around tried-and-true known commodities while leaving room for the unexpected. That not only ensures her team remains agile, but it keeps their eyes open for new opportunities.

“Not every unexpected thing is you reacting—some of it is proactively going after stuff,” Treseder said. 

Just before the pandemic, Marisa Thalberg spent nearly half a decade in lead brand and marketing positions at Taco Bell. When Covid-19 hit in 2020, she’d just joined Lowe’s as evp and chief brand and marketing officer. Now in the lead marketing role at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, she’s still haunted by the fluctuating run rate of business after the pandemic.

“Like a lot of marketers, and a lot of other C-suite colleagues, [I have] continuing question marks [around] what the macroeconomic environment is going to be like,” she said.

For many industries, that remains a mystery. Industries that experienced greater success during the pandemic or were nearly flattened by it saw those roles reversed afterward. Thalberg pointed out that devastated travel bookings turned into pent-up demand, while pandemic home projects that buoyed home and hardware stores flattened out as people began going out again. So do year-over-year sales constitute a good comparison anymore? Does “vs. 2019” still apply?

“So what is the new run rate and how do you properly plan and forecast around that?” Thalberg asked. “That is just something that we should all be OK saying, but is a little bit more implicit than explicit right now as everyone’s doing their 2024 planning.”

Hearing things

Paul Suchman took over as CMO at Entercom and Radio.com in September 2019, just before the pandemic. He took the company’s various pieces—news and sports radio stations, podcasts and live concerts—and marketed them under the new umbrella brand Audacy in 2021. 

I really believe it’s imperative that tech companies address digital inclusion.

Emily Ketchen, CMO, Lenovo

Little more that two years into that process, he’s still personally rattled by “loud, scary news cycles” that are just one of the variables driving the one thing that’s actually keeping him up at night: “Converting more advertisers into believers and buyers of the power of audio to drive outcomes for their brands.”

But what if you succeed in making that argument, only to discover that the advertisers you’re wooing either don’t know your audience or can’t relate to them? 

Gayle Troberman, CMO of iHeartMedia, has seen the horrible monster lurking in the shadows—and it’s marketers’ own biases. They conflict with their piles of data and cost companies growth.

“We need to remember that most often WE are not the target,” Troberman said.”We live in our marketer bubbles where Aperol spritzes are abundant and new trends are always in style.”

She noted that where average consumers live, what they value, what they watch, where they shop and how they vacation often starkly contrasts with the life of the average marketer. As a result, those marketers spend 10% of their budgets on audio channels despite consumers spending a third of their time there. 

In a country where half of consumers still haven’t heard of an NFT, but most marketers have crafted an NFT strategy, Troberman hopes research drives away the visual bias haunting her corner of the industry and makes radio and podcasts seem terrifying to marketers.

“If we can help solve that, I will definitely sleep better,” she said.

Tech terrors

Perhaps there’s an audience in the distance that numbers in the billions. You approach it, you wave your arms, you scream at the top of your lungs—but they can’t see you, and you make no noise.

That’s Lenovo CMO Emily Ketchen’s nightmare, and the digital divide is to blame.

More than 2 billion people, or a third of the global population, have never been online despite 95% of the world living within range of a mobile broadband network.

“A lack of physical tech devices and a lack of IT knowledge combine to exclude too many voices from our global conversation,” Ketchen said. “I really believe it’s imperative that tech companies address digital inclusion alongside other facets of accessibility with our tech products and IT solutions so that smarter technology can be used for good, by all.”

But being well-connected doesn’t always assuage a marketer’s fears. HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar said “there’s no shortage” of things that keep him up at night, but noted that AI is on the scale of the internet and online marketing as an order of change, “and the internet changed my life in every way possibly imaginable.” And change is one of the most unsettling experiences of all.

“The thing that keeps me up at night, every night, is ‘Am I learning and doing enough with AI every day?’” Bodnar said. “Am I gonna fall behind? Are we missing an opportunity to grow in so much more of an effective way through this technology shift?”

That worry then yields to fears about data, data privacy and ultimately data regulation. Bodnar spends a lot of time trying to understand how public sentiment and government regulators are going to view AI, especially in light of the European Union’s GDPR that’s little more than five years old.

“AI is putting the spotlight even brighter on data,” he said. “So going forward, I just want to stay very close to that issue.”

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