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As the industry kicks off 2023 under a cloud of economic uncertainty, no one is affected more directly than marketers. They are not only tasked with deciding what and where to spend under decreased budgets—which will impact the rest of the advertising ecosystem—but must also determine how to best guide their brands to grow their respective businesses.
To hear directly from those marketing leaders and learn how, where and why they will be making strategy decisions in the new year, Adweek assembled a cross-section of CMOs from big and small companies, upstarts and legacy organizations, and a mix of b-to-b and b-to-c brands for a spirited roundtable to share their insights about everything from tackling productivity amid economic uncertainty to collaborating with C-suite peers to their biggest challenges and opportunities in 2023.
Joining the wide-ranging conversation were CMOs Orlando Baeza (Flock Freight), Soyoung Kang (eos Products), Denise Karkos (SiriusXM), Karin Timpone (Major League Baseball), Dara Treseder (Autodesk) and Tiffany Xingyu Wang (OpenWeb). They talked about utilizing the skills they honed during the pandemic as they navigate the year’s economic headwinds—and why, even now, it’s essential to take risks—and the importance of building trust among both consumers and the C-suite.
Here are edited highlights from their roundtable discussion with Adweek, which was moderated by Jenny Rooney, chief experience officer, and Jason Lynch, senior managing editor, TV and features.
Adweek: As we go into the new year, seeing that we might be going into a recession, and certainly inflation is high, how do you think about this inflection point? As business leaders within your organizations, how are you resetting your focus to move productively into next year?
Orlando Baeza: What will be critically important to us at Flock will be to focus on what we can control because there are going to be a myriad of external factors that will be out of our hands. In response to the current environment, I’m standing up an inbound-only portion of our commercial organization. Historically in this industry, how you achieve growth is you hire more salespeople and make more phone calls in order to move more freight and create growth. But what we can build here is a real transition from the historical outbound approach into a significantly more efficient inbound approach. But that requires a big behavior change for our commercial team. This new inbound commercial team includes SDRs, AEs, AMs and all the way through dedicated customer success managers, and that team will only work the accounts and contacts that we drive from marketing initiatives. This allows us to control the entirety of the life cycle, from the moment businesses become leads all the way through post-acquisition, business expansion; and if they churn, reengagement and bringing them back into the fold.
Tiffany Xingyu Wang: Many of the greatest companies that we know today were built during the last recession. What’s happening right now, during a moment of recession, is rebalancing the portfolio of investments. For context, OpenWeb is a b-to-b business that helps all publishers and brands build their communities and first-party data. We already have a large market share in the publishing business. During the period of recession, what I’m thinking about is how to rebalance investments between demand generation and product marketing as well as the brand. In a recession, with more access to talent and more cautious spending, it is indispensable to focus on the most important product innovations that drive customer value. It is also a moment to introspect and invest in the brand for its relevance and longevity.
Denise Karkos: We all need to be nimble in rebalancing our spend based on our priorities. But in a downturn, we all know brand spend is usually the thing that’s attacked first. People can’t quantify it, and they’re looking for short-term return. I’ve tried to help manage my team to say, “Yes, your traditional brand spend from a mass media standpoint may be getting diminished in this environment. But how else can we think about bringing the brand to life through owned content and really leaning in?” In our case, it’s our SiriusXM talent, our DJs who can do some heavy lifting and represent the brand for us. We need to rethink brand spend and how can we bring brands to life through less green dollars and maybe more owned and earned.
Karin Timpone: Major League Baseball has been around for more than 100 years and has experienced many eras of change in that time. In marketing this chapter, we have set a plan that looks to new ways to grow our fan base. A few things we are focused on include reinvigorating our brand, not just from our heritage but also what’s relevant today in the way people are experiencing culture. In addition, we are focused on storytelling, leveraging our social media and the great story of our players on the field. And importantly, we also are focused on driving KPIs using more targeted, digitally focused marketing. For example, recently we completed a segmentation that has guided ways that we can drive more fan growth with both avid fans and more casual ones. For MLB’s marketing, it is important to have elements work together: brand, storytelling, digitally driven performance marketing. For us, these marketing capabilities work together to drive both long- and short-term growth.
“Focus on your North Star. I think you get in trouble when you lose sight of where you’re going, chase shiny objects and then end up in a ditch.”
—Dara Treseder, CMO, Autodesk
Dara Treseder: I’d say three things. The first thing is reimagining what’s possible. Because when there’s uncertainty, it’s a time where you can actually drive outsized impact if you’re able to do something that’s different than what everybody else is doing. When people are fearful is when you should be greedy—and as marketers, there’s an opportunity for us to do that. The second thing is around having the courage to take some risks and really being able to think about how we deepen the relationship with our customers in unique and different ways. Finding those areas where you can create engaging experiences with the customers across all stages of the life cycle is really important. And then the third thing I focus on is audience centricity. Audience centricity enables you to have a competitive advantage and greater ROI on all your marketing activities. And it’s not just segmentation; [it’s answering] how do we go deeper and really figure out who is the audience I’m targeting, and how do I speak to that audience in a way that they can hear me so it doesn’t feel like an interruption but it really feels like a conversation?
Soyoung Kang: I agree wholeheartedly with so much of what’s been said at this table. If I were to write an article about my forward-looking approach, it would probably be titled, “Everything I Learned About Marketing in a Recession I Learned During the Pandemic” because so many of the things that we, unfortunately, were forced to do without much of a lead time and preparation period—which, frankly, we have right now—are skills that are going to serve us really well during a more uncertain macroeconomic climate. Things like ensuring that you scale things appropriately so you are a business leader, not simply a marketing leader. That means that you’re part of the C-suite, which means you have to make some tough decisions about what you divest in order to invest and where you believe your marketing investments aren’t working as hard. But [it’s] also making sure we’re retaining all of the components of your strategy in place, whether it’s what we call “brand,” what we call “performance,” what we call “test and learning experimentation.” All of those things need to continue to be a part of our marketing strategy. Those are all really important lessons that we learned in the last couple of years that will serve us well going forward.
When you think about risk—as you said, Dara—your C-suite peers are probably going to be very reticent to embrace the concept of risk at a time like this. Is it a harder ask now, given the circumstances? And if so, how do you negotiate that?
Treseder: Remembering that you’re a business leader first is really important so you’re not speaking marketing-speak, but you’re speaking business-speak. You’re engaging and talking about the gross margin, what’s gonna happen with revenue and growth. When you can position the risks that you want to take in line with the business objectives and goals, people are listening. Actually, this is where, as marketers, we have a unique opportunity because we’re the business leaders around the table that have the ability to bring that voice of the customer in and shine a spotlight on creativity. Where we earn credibility is when we say, “OK, here’s the business reason for why I’m going to take this [risk]. Here’s how I’m going to measure this.” Taking that test-and-learn approach is really welcomed and well received.
When I talk to other CMOs—who may be struggling in their organizations—what I hear from them is, “Oh, I wasn’t talking in the right metrics. The things I was coming to my CFO with, she’s like, ‘Here I am, trying to report on our growth numbers, our gross margin. How is that going to help me with that?’ And the minute I was able to reshape those metrics, and actually focus on the business metrics and translate my marketing mix and the risks I’m taking in line with that, there was a lot more receptivity.”
Baeza: I love where Dara’s going with this. Those of you that know me know that I’m not shy about taking risks. (For example, my last brand campaign featured dozens of curse words.) I really think it all comes back to measurement. How do you, the marketer, put your engineer hat on when you’re launching something by engineering everything to be measured on each and every channel and be able to analyze and articulate the outcomes of that after the fact? When you get into that habit of that perpetual cycle of risk, measurement, analysis, repeat, you essentially de-risk your future risks because you can build guardrails around them with what you already know and what you’ve learned from past campaigns and initiatives. You’re in a great position to identify which distribution channel to leverage, which creative concept, who’s the right talent to cast, etc. It all comes down to putting on the engineer hat as a marketer and making sure that you can tell that story full funnel.
“I’m inspired to be game-ready and then also stay flexible. Keeping the possibility open can lead us to magical parts of marketing.”
—Karin Timpone, CMO, Major League Baseball
Timpone: In my experience both with Major League Baseball and throughout my career, I’ve seen benefits from building a coalition with colleagues to build new opportunities and address challenges. Ideally, that coalition takes root in a strategic agenda that is aligned throughout the organization, not just a marketing initiative. I’ve also seen momentum when a coalition is focused on growth. Seeing a growth through both the longer-term brand-building lens and more targeted performance initiatives requires us to bring together perspectives that mix both art and science—a sweet spot for marketers. The power of a coalition comes from taking it to the next level by integrating more areas to collaborate on a goal. I’ve seen that work time and time again.
Kang: Part of what’s so important for marketers from a buy-in and credibility perspective is trust. Oftentimes, when I talk to colleagues who are struggling with the buy-in from the C-suite is because they may not have focused as much on that trust as their fellow C-suite colleagues. Recently, I was having a conversation with somebody who said it’s as important to talk about your failures and the things that didn’t work as the things that worked. Because, as marketers, I do think that our tendency is to create the story and create the positive spin. But as a business leader, it’s just as important to create a transparent view into the things that are working within your function, things that are not working and what you’re learning from them, and to demonstrate that you are a member of the C-suite as a business leader, not just serving a specific purpose as a marketer.
How do you balance risk-tasking versus a steady approach as you go into the new year?
Treseder: The way I think about it is looking at the proportion. Every time I have my top 10 list, 10 is always the unexpected. The one thing we know is there’s something we don’t know that’s going to happen, and preparing for that is part of it. Making sure that I’ve carved out budget, resources, space to be able to thrive in the unexpected is really important. Each business will look different. I like to do 20% because usually what I find is there’s 5%-10% that is coming at me. And I have to play offense and defense really well. But then there’s the other 10% that I want to drive because I’m proactively looking at what’s going on and seeing opportunity amid what might be a challenging environment, where there’s a chance for us to step in and be a leader or capture competitive advantage in a particular area.
Timpone: I’m really inspired listening to this conversation, and it makes me think a lot about the dynamic nature of our game on the field. Our season is 162 games, which is longer comparatively to other leagues. Baseball mixes a time-honored tradition with the unexpected aspects of what can happen on the field, which is a testament to the skill of amazing athletes that play the game. A great example of being game-ready as a marketer was having our team capture [Houston Astros shortstop] Jeremy Peña’s first at-bat from his parents’ point of view, there in the stands cheering him on. We then leveraged that clip in our ad campaign when the season started, and then also were able to continue the story when in the postseason during his spectacular World Series performance. Another example we saw during [New York Yankees star] Aaron Judge chasing his 62nd home run, where it opened up a huge opportunity for us to share his inspirational achievement with the wider fan base on social media, which in turn inspired others to amplify Judge’s story. I’m inspired to be game-ready and then also stay flexible. Keeping the possibility open can lead us to magical parts of marketing.
“True effectiveness comes when you can get your whole organization aligned and swimming in the same direction. That requires constant communication and embedding priorities into all your messaging.”
—Denise Karkos, CMO, SiriusXM
There’s so many buzzwords—metaverse, Web3, crypto, blockchain. How are you thinking about those things as we move into the new year, vis-à-vis your marketing strategy?
Timpone: I am attracted to the possibilities of blockchain. It may seem early to say this, but in some ways blockchain is poised to be among the most significant inventions of our day. Considering simply the possibility of what it can unlock in connections between people and communities at large, it can be transformative. I believe that blockchain—leaving current news in the crypto space to the side—can do for transaction between communities what the internet did for communication between communities. There still hasn’t been a mainstream use case to demonstrate to people what it can actually do. What’s going on in crypto does not necessarily illustrate the full potential of blockchain technology, which may take time to mature.
Treseder: I’m a big believer in [not chasing] shiny objects. Focus on your North Star. You get in trouble when you lose sight of where you’re going, chase shiny objects and then end up in a ditch. It’s really important that you’re like, “What’s my North Star? Why do we exist? What are we here to do?” And focus on that, versus starting from the “Oh my god, what’s cool?”
That’s how marketers get a bad rap, to be honest. Because then you’re not seen as a serious business leader. Here we are, trying to navigate a different kind of environment. Here you are, chasing random shiny objects, and you’re not bringing something to the table. And what happens with marketers is not only do you lose credibility with the C-suite, but you lose credibility with your teams. And that’s where you’re not able to motivate or push people forward. Focus on your North Star, figure out where you need to go. And be willing to try things, if they make sense for your business. But don’t chase shiny objects because, otherwise, you’re going to get lost.
Karkos: We’ve talked a lot about how we, as individuals in our positions as CMOs, show up and earn that credibility around the leadership table. Another important facet of this is true alignment and focus toward business goals. That only starts with the CMO. True effectiveness comes when you can get your whole organization aligned and swimming in the same direction. That requires constant communication and embedding priorities into all your messaging. It’s not easy because our teams are naturally creative and innovative, and it’s tempting to chase shiny objects. Our jobs as leaders is to encourage that but ensure innovation is tied to the priorities.
Wang: Personally, I’m very excited about these technologies. We get a bad rap when we chase the shining stars without understanding them. The [first] way for us to have credibility and trust is for us as CMOs to truly understand those technologies from the ground just as well as a CTO, so when we are in conversation we can actually present the use cases in a very knowledgeable way. The second is we are at the inflection point for those technologies to make catalytic differences. We see how much 3D graphics and metaverse can work for Autodesk, and we can see how generative AI can work for agencies and brands in advertising.
“In times of uncertainty, arbitrage opportunities appear. And I always like to think that, as a smaller brand, we win when we can spot and take advantage of marketing arbitrage opportunities.”
—Soyoung Kang, CMO, eos Products
The last thing I will say is do not make the mistakes that we made 15 years ago when Web2 first started. Back then, so-called social media didn’t think about online safety, didn’t think about privacy issues, didn’t think about content diversity. And we landed into this place where more than 40% of U.S. internet users are exposed to online hate speech; every 39 seconds, there’s a data breach; and AI recognizes white-skinned males 34% better than dark-skinned females. When we start to implement generative AI, the AI will make decisions for all of us, writing articles and generating advertising. If the AI does not have diversity in the content, it will be biased, it will be toxic. Same for blockchain identity information. We actually stand a chance as we open this new chapter [in Web3], that when CMOs are making decisions to use those technologies, it’s our voice and our responsibility to say, “Hey, let’s think about the safety. Are we using the right technologies? Let’s think about privacy. Are we working with the privacy officer?”
Let’s talk about the creative component of all this. What would you like your agency partners (and would-be partners) to know going into 2023? What do you need from them? How do you need to be working with them?
Baeza: I would highlight the importance of our agency partners truly understanding our business. So much of the creative that inspires me is when it’s not just beautiful, not just funny, but when it does the work. There are agency partners out there that do this incredibly well. And, frankly, the longer you have a relationship with an agency, the more they get to understand the business, what works and what doesn’t, it shows off in the ideation that comes in future rounds. But even with new agencies, asking the questions, [such as] where’s the health of the business today? Where does it need to go? What is the work that needs to be done? The work we’re creating actually becomes impactful for the firm. That piece is going to be incredibly important in 2023, operating in a period of economic uncertainty. The work my team does will become that much more important for us as we look to build market share in our space. And we’ll need our agency partners to be hand in hand with us in that effort.
What do you think are your biggest concerns and biggest opportunities in 2023?
Karkos: We’re all facing an expense-constrained environment, and marketers shouldn’t measure their worth on their budget. Instead, lean into your brand’s strengths. At SiriusXM, content is king. Working with the head of programming and making sure we use our own talent to do the marketing for us through their social channels helps us accomplish our goals in times like this. And working with our chief technology officer is a very important relationship to make sure I’m delivering in a frictionless way for our consumers. For me, content, tech and marketing have to be the triage of the go-to market plan in any environment, probably more importantly, in an expense-constrained one.
Wang: Both concern and opportunity lie in one word for me, and that is trust. I’ve said quite a few times that I think trust is the new digital transformation. The companies who are here today did a great job of digital transformation over the past 15 years. In the same way, the companies that don’t do well in trust today won’t be the names we hear about in 10 to 15 years. With everything going on in the media about online privacy and safety and inclusion, in this moment where the world is changing and new generations are caring about ethical design in product delivery, this is the moment for every single company to look into trust. If you do invest in the aspects of digital trust through data integrity and online safety, those are the trends that consumers will follow and are loyal to, and those are the brands that will thrive in generations to come.
“I really think it all comes back to measurement. How do you, the marketer, put your engineer hat on when you’re launching something by engineering everything to be measured on each and every channel and be able to analyze and articulate the outcomes of that after the fact?”
—Orlando Baeza, CMO, Flock Freight
Baeza: Where I’d go with concern is recession and what that means. We’re paying attention to things like PPI and CPI to see what restaurants are paying versus what the consumer is paying, and see what trend lines exist there and how that shakes out by industry. But directly correlated to that is profitable growth. That opportunity has never been more important, especially in the startup landscape. We think about tapping the VC community right now, which was not being deployed because of the overvaluations that were going and the amount of money that was raised, probably to some degree responsibly. That puts more of a light on the firms that can show profitable growth and can show a profitable business that is ready [and able] to scale. In [Flock Freight’s] space, specifically, there’s a lot of room for disruption and innovation, which makes this time really exciting, despite what’s happening in the macro environment.
Kang: I agree with recession. That is a big concern, and ensuring that we’re constantly reading the data so we can react and prepare our business the best that we can is something that’s always top of mind. Now with that said, the opportunity is, that in times of uncertainty, arbitrage opportunities appear. And I always like to think that, as a smaller brand, we win when we can spot and take advantage of marketing arbitrage opportunities. Our team is always on the lookout for places where we can have high impact very efficiently. There is an opportunity; we just have to keep our eyes open for it. And we have to retain some resources so we can take advantage of opportunities when they come up.
What else is top of mind for you that we haven’t talked about yet as you’re navigating the new year?
Karkos: We all have existing customer bases, and this is a great time to make sure that price to value equation is being delivered to them because they’re entering a recession as well, so their pocketbooks are tight. How do we make sure that we’re constantly delivering more and more value in a way that we can hold on to those customers and show them the brand love? We know we’re doing well when our product actually becomes part of a consumer’s daily life. We look at the signals to understand the key indicators for really creating a habit. It’s both adding value, but then looking at the data to see what’s working to really build that relationship that’s deeper, not just transactional.
Baeza: We haven’t talked about social media consumption behavior and the changes that are happening right now. That’s really an interesting one, whether it’s what’s happening on the Twitter side of the equation or what’s happening at Meta [and] Instagram, [and] meanwhile, TikTok continues to grow. Funny enough, we just launched our last campaign with a LinkedIn-first strategy. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that in my entire career. And it paid off. It benefited us in a huge way. I continue to believe there’s a lot of opportunity on that platform, that it’s not been the top of mind lead platform for marketers to go out with. But I think this space is changing. We talked a lot about trust, both with our consumers and with our C-suite, and trust is a huge issue right now with many of the social media platforms. How we consider distribution and how we show up on those channels, that then reflects on us.
Wang: I cannot agree more. We see the historical partners, investors and stakeholders for social media now becoming competitors on social media. The thing about publishers and brands, those who historically relied on social media to form communities and access data, they are now building their own communities and their own data. I know that because OpenWeb helps more than 1,000 of them do that. The key differentiation for brands and publishers will be to access data and communities and to say, “We have the trust, we have the data privacy, etc.”
“In a recession, with more access to talent and more cautious spending, it is indispensable to focus on the most important product innovations that drive customer value. It is also a moment to introspect and invest in the brand for its relevance and longevity.”
—Tiffany Xingyu Wang, CMO, OpenWeb
Related to that, there is a data war going on between the walled gardens, which is social media versus the decentralized landscape (publishers, brands, ecommerce). During a recession, there’s a moment to seize, and the reason why companies are here today, like these walled gardens, is because they somehow found a business model to grab so much data and monetize it so brilliantly over the last 15 years. There’s a reshuffling of cards going on right now, and the brands and publishers suddenly are exposed to these new possibilities to bring those communities back into their own territories and view their own data. And it’s very, very important to think about how to ingest, process and use data in an ethical way, because in the previous model, the ethical world of trust was an afterthought or something that was maybe nice to have. But today it has become a must-have.
Kang: We talked a lot about recession, but we haven’t explicitly had a conversation around the impact of constrained resources and more difficult economic times on social responsibility and sustainability. With the rise of the importance of corporate social responsibility happening all during a time when we haven’t been in a recession, what is the impact going to be as everyone is looking at their performance? And where will companies start to pull back on efforts, initiatives and investments? And what impact will that have on having us take a step back in some of the progress we’ve made in this time?
Do you think that’s a real threat?
Kang: I do, and you can already see the conversations happening in places like diverse-owned agencies and media. As marketers have to pull back, there are difficult decisions that marketers are making that aren’t necessarily in favor of a diverse supplier base. So that’s one example. But this question of the rise of ESG, and what impact the recessionary environment will have in terms of backsliding on progress [is much broader].
Treseder: Polarization. We live in a very polarized world, a very polarized environment. It’s tricky for brands to navigate that because in today’s world, many things that a brand may not have ever expected to have to weigh in on or comment on, you’re pulled into. That’s something that we’re facing with our employees, it’s something we face with our partners or our customers, with what we choose to stand up for or against or not get involved [with]. That polarization is something that is going to continue to be a factor when you have that in the face of a challenging economic environment. How you navigate that is tricky, because when people are stressed, everything is heightened.