Even the most hardened left-brain investor can recognize the genius of Jonathan Mildenhall. While leading the marketing organizations at Coca-Cola and Airbnb, Jonathan focused each of these brands on an authentic and emotive purpose that cut through the cynicism of modern consumerism to create connection and change human behavior based on shared values. Jonathan was kind enough to share with TCV GP David Yuan his stories and experiences leading Coca-Cola and Airbnb marketing, as well as his new venture, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.
Key takeaways from this
wide-ranging conversation include:
Energizing an icon, helping Coca-Cola reclaim and extend its emotional core
Authenticity as an enduring and compounding competitive advantage
How aligning brands with core human needs can change consumer behavior
For this and a lot more from one of the most creative and successful marketers of this century, settle back and click play.
Companies that scale quickly share many of the same problems. Institutional knowledge becomes fragmented or lost as people leave. Decision-making authority changes or becomes opaque. New cultural norms are developed. Personality conflicts arise as the old guard and new guard merge. Collaboration becomes even more essential, because almost everyone is involved in creating new functions and establishing new processes.
But if the conditions during scaling are similar, the results vary widely. Some companies thrive through it, while others struggle. I’ve seen both in my career, working at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, and cultural differences don’t explain it. Leadership does. There is universality to the qualities exhibited by the best leaders at successful companies. If you’re hiring or promoting from within during a period of high growth, these are the qualities that you can and should identify. Leaders with these qualities naturally maintain momentum, exceed their objectives, develop and attract top talent, and amplify the best aspects of your culture. They are best suited to thrive on constant change and they are instrumental in driving success for the organization. Colloquially, they are the 10Xers.
From my own personal experiences leading teams through scale at Pinterest, Facebook, and other startups, I’ve identified a set of three attributes to consider when vetting leaders during the hiring or promotion process:
Leaders That Scale Take A Position…
What is it: Leaders who can scale companies successfully know how to take a position. I know it sounds simple, but not everyone can do it – especially during times of pressure. A position is an informed stance amid a swirl of uncertainty, which galvanizes others to understand it, respond to it, and imagine how it would work. As such, it speeds the organization toward decisions and action.
Why is it Important: A position is not an opinion, because everyone has plenty of those. A position is also not a point of view because again, everyone has a perspective from which they view the world. A position is a singular proposal for addressing a particular issue. In taking a position, you may actually diverge from your own opinion or perspective, in order to take a position that’s more provocative and therefore more productive. Taking a position creates urgency and gets the conversation moving toward an agreement on next steps.
This is critical because as organizations grow, people can get stuck in paralysis by analysis. They’re not sure of their status yet. They may be afraid of making the wrong decision, or making the right decision, but in the wrong way for the culture they find themselves in.
Leaders who take a position dissolve all this. Though it may sound like a paradox, taking a strong position at the outset of a meeting is a unifying force, not a divider. Everyone else now shares the same task: testing the position, modifying it, figuring out whether and how it would work. It’s easy to focus because a hodgepodge of opinions and questions has been replaced by a proposed solution. Even if the stance is only a straw man, it sparks a productive conversation. And if the position becomes a North Star that everyone can navigate by, you’ve just taken a great leap forward.
How to Hire or Promote for it: First of all, you want candidates with a wide range of knowledge and interests, not superficially, but down to details. These people tend to be polymaths. They are familiar with a wide range of fields, technologies, cultures, and customers, and they can see the big picture intuitively. They can also explain it from multiple angles. They love to share their data or historical knowledge if it will enlighten or empower others. Typically, they can formulate their position as they walk into a room, because that’s how their minds work: synthesizing many factors into one proposition and pitching that proposition at the right level for others to understand and react to.
During the interview pick a big hairy sector, such as transportation or education, and ask the candidate “How do you think this sector will change in 10 years? In 50 years?” Ask about the candidate’s hobbies, pick the one you’re most familiar with, and ask the candidate to talk about it at length; you’re looking for what it says about them, their passion, and their personality. What was the last book they read? What is the next book they want to read? Do they play a musical instrument or a sport? Ask them to analyze the strategy of the organization they’re working for now, both pro and con, to see how many different perspectives they incorporate into their analysis.
Leaders Don’t Get Stuck On A Position…
What is it: The second trait for leaders who scale is effortlessly moving off their own positions when the time is right. They do this because they understand that the position is a means to an end. If you’re familiar with the expression “strong opinions weakly held,” you understand this trait already. In many ways, it’s the flip side of the first trait. Strong opinions weakly held means that leaders readily evolve their positions in the face of new information or through an ability to read a room. They understand that a stronger position is forming – and this was the reason for taking a position in the first place.
Why is it Important: Why does this matter for scaling an organization? Because you need everyone to share their ideas, even if they’re shy. Being inclusive of thought accomplishes this. It also draws out sharper analysis from bolder or more informed members, because they trust that they’re not going to hit a wall if they voice partial or even complete disagreement with a leader’s opinion. Getting to a new, better, shared position makes everyone feel connected to the outcome. Now it’s time for action.
How to Hire or Promote for it: Testing for the ability to gracefully move off a position can be fun for you and the candidate. Before the interview, pose a real-world business problem within an area where you have lots of data but there are many ways to solve the problem. For example, if you’re at a ride-sharing company you could ask “How would you build a driver loyalty program?” Once the candidate states a position in the interview, begin to challenge it constructively, as if you were colleagues in a meeting. Probe for the thinking behind it. Share new data and see how they change their position. You’re not just looking to see if they’re open to revisiting their conclusions. You also want to see if they can continue to effectively articulate their position in the face of resistance — without getting stuck on it.
Leaders Embrace the Outcome…and Adapt Appropriately
What is it: Unless you’re the CEO you don’t get to make the final decision most of the time. That’s when leaders need to have a third critical trait: they embrace the outcome of the conversation that just concluded. If the board decides to cut marketing hiring by 50%, the leader of the marketing department could respond in a variety of ways. The one you want is understanding and expressing the consequences of that decision to the department, in a constructive way.
Why is it Important: Psychologically, this leader has an innate ability to assume best intent. If a management decision goes against such individuals, or their organizations, they don’t take it personally. Quite the opposite, they default to a position that the people above them or around them share a vision for success and that the decision was necessary. Today is not forever, and marketing will be hiring again in the future. The focus now is making the current strategy succeed, rapidly. A good leader will take a positive, proactive position on how to do that.
This natural aptitude is an invisible bulwark against confusion and fatigue during times of rapid change and growth. Why? Because leaders with this trait are consistent in message, countenance, and style. When the environment is constantly changing, people look to their leaders. If the leaders are showing up as constructively positive in good times and bad, their teams will adapt a similar penchant for consistency and there will be fewer productivity troughs.
How to Hire or Promote for it: There are two approaches that can help you identify candidates who will naturally embrace an outcome, turn it positive, and lead their team to success with it. The first approach is to ask the individual to describe a time they disagreed with a boss or peer, and how they responded. You’re not looking for surface answers like “Of course I had to go along” or “I won.” You’re looking for the ways the candidate turned the adversity into opportunity – graciously.
The second approach is to actually put the candidate through adversity as part of the hiring process. If you gave them a homework assignment before the interview, change the terms before they can present their work. Substitute in an interviewer they didn’t expect to talk with. Pick something on their resume that could potentially be a deal-breaker and ask them to reframe it into a deal-maker instead. Again, you’re not looking for pat answers. You’re looking for the natural inclination to embrace what’s happening and turn it positive.
The Most Important Deliverable You Have
In my own career I came to realize that vetting for and then fostering leadership attributes on my teams was more important than any other deliverable I had. I am also aware that this knowledge can get crowded out when your company is on pace to grow 10X in two years, because you’ve got so many high-priority problems to solve. Fight the tendency. Sure, you don’t want to be distracted. But you still have to get leaders in place who can scale. Making this a priority benefited my teams tremendously. Individuals with the traits described above were resilient culture carriers who instilled confidence, trust, and good-will in the organizations they were involved with. They were best suited to manage constant change and rapid growth, and most responsible for the ultimate success of the organization.
Zillow was launched in 2006 with a simple yet bold idea — to build the world’s largest home-related marketplace and transform the way people bought real estate. The company immediately took off, growing largely through word-of-mouth, but it was paid media and advertising that enabled Zillow to build a nationally recognized brand and fuel the sustained and rapid growth it has experienced for years.
Pattern recognition: What opportunity did Zillow see, why did the team decide to “really lean into brand?”
Performance TV 101:
Linear/ OTT/ Video landscape
For the inside story of Zillow’s epic marketing journey, settle back and click play.
Below is the full transcript.
Dave: This is Dave Yuan, General Partner at TCV. I have today, here, Jeremy Wacksman, CMO of Zillow Group. Jeremy has been a huge friend of the firm. Zillow is a shining star in our portfolio. We were seed investors, late-stage private investors, and more recently, public investors. Every day, every quarter, we’re just amazed with how you guys are executing over there. So, I’m very excited that we’re part of that story.
Jeremy also, as an individual, represents us on the board of Rover.com, a fast growth, super interesting marketplace business up in Seattle. And Jeremy has been an advisor at Dollar Shave Club, which recently exited, and more recently has joined GoFundMe as an advisor. So, a huge friend of the firm, excited to have you today, and grateful for your being in our ecosystem.
Jeremy: Absolutely excited to be here and to talk about it.
Dave: Maybe to get started, for those who are a little less familiar with Zillow, can you tell us the founding story and maybe take it from a marketing lens?
Jeremy: Yeah, happy to. So many people know Zillow, but Zillow was founded in 2006, really on the mission that we’re still on today, which is to build the world’s largest home-related marketplace, help everyone make decisions about home, and about the places they call home. And it was founded by some folks who had done Expedia, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink, who were buying homes and were amazed that there really just wasn’t data transparency on the internet around how to buy and sell homes.
So in 2006 we launched with what we called the Zestimate, our starting point home value on every home in the country, and the sort of marketing lens on the story is it’s been a long journey of just building marketing on top of a great product. So, we launched the site, I think in February 2006, and we crashed the site, because the initial product, the Zestimate, was so provocative and interesting that the traffic was so much bigger than we could have fathomed. And we had millions of users on day one, and that was really the early history of the company and its growth was fantastic, products amplified by PR and word of mouth.
And then, phase two of the company, as social media got going, we were really early pioneers on how to tell our story through social. And, Dave, you love to reference that Spencer is one of the most, avid social media CEOs, and I think that DNA that he brought as our CEO really transformed how we thought about building our brand. And so we grew a lot on word of mouth and on PR, and on social. And then as the company pivoted towards mobile, mobile became our next growth engine. So, right around 2009, 2010, when Steve Jobs was holding up that first iPhone and that first App Store, we were a desktop only company. We had no mobile traffic, we were a search engine that you used on your laptop. And fast forward just a few years, we’re entirely a mobile business, about 75% of our business and our traffic is mobile. We went mobile first a long time ago, and really bet the company to pivot, and that drove a lot of our growth.
So that early phase was really organic, and we got to 10, 20 million users on the backs of really no paid media, and just really a great product, and really great word of mouth, and really great social amplification.
Dave: Yeah, which is stunning, right? Real estate is a super lucrative market, and really competitive online, and you were able to get to, was it number two or number one, in terms of online viewership, with zero paid marketing?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think we did get to number one in the category at the time. The category was obviously a lot smaller, really with no advertising.
Dave: Right, pretty stunning, which brings us to the next topic. You talked to the progression up to 2009, 2010. You went public in 2011, and in that interim period, there was a pretty big inflection point. You took a hard look at the brand landscape and decided to really lean into brand. And it was a big inflection point from a marketing standpoint, in the sense that you did it with TV. And so before we get into TV, which obviously is quite different than some of the channels that you pursued historically, let’s talk about brand for a second. Let’s talk about what you saw in terms of the opportunity to build a brand. What tangibly brand meant to you, what tangibly you were lacking at the point, so what was the opportunity, and why you thought there was a white space?
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny to hear you frame it, and it makes sense that an investor frames it as a pretty big departure or pivot point. But from a marketer’s lens, it was actually a very natural evolution, and the opportunity, I think, which I’ll get into, is why. So that early phase was really amplifying great product through organic channels and through word of mouth and social. The opportunity that presented itself even though we had a lot of traffic to our website, and we had a lot of people who could name us late in the process, we were facing two challenges. One was this is a very episodic category, people are new into it every year, and they couldn’t name anybody. So even though we were number one in the category, when you looked at a brand awareness study, the vast majority of people would say, “Don’t know,” or, “I can’t name one.” Or even a Google or an Amazon, because they just couldn’t come up with a brand to talk about. So the white space was that new category entrance or people starting to shop for homes had no idea who to go to.
Of course, they found us, often through Google or through other means, or from a friend telling them as they got going. But that early category entrance piece was up for grabs. And then, the second piece of that is, we have this great product and this great fast-growing business model, that as soon as you told people about it, they want to check it out. And they checked it out, and they loved it, and they used it more. And so that goes back to that founding principle of the best marketing starts with great product. Over that time, we had built this great product for home shoppers to fall in love with and find a home and, ultimately, find a professional, and we really just needed to tell more of them about it. This combination of the white space for new category entrance that didn’t know who to go to, and this great product if you could get the word out more. I mean, if you ask yourself what problem are you trying to solve? Advertising is the best tool to solve those two problems.
Dave: And the form of advertising that you chose to build this brand was TV, and I think you’re right. As an investor, we do think about TV being very, very different than some of the digital channels you described. TV, can be hard to measure. There’s big upfront cost both with creative and just getting a size of campaign that can show signal from noise. TV is not necessarily the most intuitive channel to go pursue given your history; what got you interested? Why did you think you could make it work?
Jeremy: Two things on why we started with TV. One was back to that question of what problem are you trying to solve? And in our case, we were trying to solve top of mind awareness and we were trying to solve helping introduce people to a brand that could meet the needs they had, these emotional and rational needs around buying a home. Like you said, it’s a big category. And when we looked at, hey, what are the tools in a marketer’s toolbox to solve these problems? Brand building and in mediums in which you can tell a story to help deliver that brand became really important, and TV was then, and is still one of the best mechanisms to do that.
And then the second piece you talked about, a lot of times when folks get tripped up is it’s “hard to measure,” or it’s “hard to get started.” I like to say it’s not hard to measure, it’s just different to measure. You actually can measure it almost precisely as some of your digital efforts, but it’s just a very different muscle inside of the organization. It’s a very different data set and skill set, and so you maybe need to lean more heavily on partners or agencies to get you started, and you need to have a much clearer point of view on exactly what you’re trying to solve. But to me, it’s a different measurement harness than one that you can’t measure.
Dave: I’d love to dive into that in more detail, but at the time, when TV was a new channel to you, how did you ultimately get conviction that you could make it economic? Sight, sounds, and motion are great ways of creating awareness, a great way of communicating brand. How did you solve for the economics piece when you’re just initially thinking through TV?
Jeremy: We tested our way into it. And we did, effectively, A/B test taking a set of markets to learn something, and taking a set of testing controls on message. So I would say the way we got started was design a task, design an experiment, be really clear on what you’re trying to learn and you’re not going to learn everything first. That’s one piece. The other piece was we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to stay, but I think where a lot of folks get tripped up is they actually spend all the time on the question “How are you going to measure it? What are you going to measure? How’s the math going to work? How are you going to gain its profitability?” And you have to answer all that, but you have to spend just as much time answering that question in a medium like TV, where it is sight, sound, and motion. And it is a chance to tell a story. What story are you going to tell, and what message is going to resonate, and both link your brand back to the consumer, and help them think about taking the action you want them to take. And I would say we’d spent as much time on both sides of that. We spent a lot of time building a test, but we also spent a lot of time doing research and getting inside the hearts and minds of consumers to figure out what’s the right benefit and message, because we had never done that before.
Dave: Right, right. It sounds like you had a hunch, you took a risk, and you allocated resources to put initial test budgets to work, and then, validated it. Just give me a sense of the quantum. Like how much are we talking here? How much do you think a brand today if they had a similar hunch on TV, and needed to prove it out to their management team and to their board, how much would that cost? Is it a million, five million, 10 million, or something less?
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, and I’ll give you the “It depends” answer, which is always hard. But the biggest reason it depends, if you’re thinking about why they do this, is it depends on how big the business is that you’re trying to move. So I would say just rough ballpark, it’s the companies that I’ve worked with, it’s typically more in the one to five than the 10 plus, but it gets bigger as you’re on top of a bigger business, where to get that signal and the noise you talked about, you have to create a bigger wave, and you have to be able to be sure, it takes a little bit more money.
Somewhere in that one to five range, and it can be a little less if it’s a smaller business trying to get started, it can be a little more if you’re trying to move a bigger needle, or see a bigger signal. Because back to your point from earlier on about how do you see a signal, when we got started, that was the first question we were trying to answer. It was just, “Can we see a signal or a wave coming through the data?” And let’s leave no doubt that we can definitely see a signal, and then we’ll go to work on the efficacy, and the ROI, and the potential.
Dave: That’s super helpful. So you get your team on board, you get your board on board for one to five million, or whatever the initial upfront is. Let’s talk through the three main components I think you spoke to: What segments are you trying to hit? What’s the message? I think the second piece is creative and the third piece is testing and measurement, and the ROI math. Maybe you can start and give people the Cliffs Notes version of the process around the market research and the message.
Jeremy: Yeah, and what I find interesting as I look across other organizations is this is highly variable based on the DNA of the company, and sort of how mature they are in their customer life cycle, and their understanding of the customer and their value prop, right? Some companies are much further along in terms of really having that clearly articulated and some are not. And, honestly, at Zillow, we were a consumer company from day one, so we were never shy about consumer research and insights and trying to get inside the hearts and minds of consumers, because that’s what drives our product every day. But where we were lacking was actually thinking about how to translate that not just into the value prop – we understood what our value prop was – but in terms of how to communicate that as an effective advertising message. We just had never tried to take all the insights and thoughts we had around what made our product engaging and what people are reacting to, and how do we translate that into a category message? So it can depend, but for us, and if you had never done advertising before, understanding what your users are doing is a little bit different from understanding how your users are going to react to a message.
Dave: Right that’s interesting. So it sounds like you were very tight on the value prop, but you had some learnings in terms of how to communicate it for this medium. What were some of the biggest surprises or the most non-intuitive aspects of communicating through TV? What surprised you about the messaging?
Jeremy: Maybe the way I’ll answer that, is where do I see folks get wrong? One thing is trying to communicate too many things. A 30-second spot is really just one line to people, consumers can really remember kind of one thing, so what is that clear single communication you’re really trying to leave them with. That’s one.
For us, the other piece that was maybe non-intuitive, but is obviously intuitive in hindsight, was that people were looking for a brand to speak to both, the emotional and rational needs in the category, and there wasn’t a brand doing that. And that’s obviously born out as very obvious in hindsight five or six years later, but at the time, there were no brands talking to them. And so they didn’t really know what this category was, so our job was to help introduce what the category was to them, more so than to say, “What made us different or what made us interesting?”
Dave: Right, particularly the emotion of this… I was chatting with my partner, Jay, who’s on your board, and he described when you first walked through the initial creative, apparently in the boardroom there was no dry eye. So you obviously nailed it on the creative. Tell us a little bit about how the process of getting the creative right.
Jeremy: Creative is an art, and it’s an art more than it’s a science. We were fortunate to work with a great team and, frankly, to get it really right the first time, and there’s a lot of folks, I think, that struggle, even the best laid brief and insights can then translate into a creative that either does just an okay job or does a poor job. And so we did everything we could to paint the target, right? The insights you talked about like what you do for research, and how do you figure out what you want to say, that’s really just painting a target for your creative team, and then we were just really fortunate, I think, to nail creative platform early, and we’ve really been able to build on and evolve from it from day one.
Dave: Super tactically, in the creative process, did one spot emerge? Or did it come down to the one of two or one of three candidates?
Jeremy: Yeah. And this is really where I go back to the whole test and learn framework, we could have really been in analysis/paralysis mode around, and I definitely see people get into analysis/paralysis mode around trying to nail that one spot. We treat it like a test and we said, “We have this insight, this is a swing.” We like the swing. We looked at a couple of different directions, and we picked the one we liked. We felt great about it, but if we’re wrong, it’s a test, and we’ll evaluate why it didn’t work, and maybe we’ll evolve the creatives. So it kind of freed us up to take a swing without having to think about, hitting a home run, and then it turns out we ended up hitting a home run, but we weren’t evaluating it that way going in. And I think that freedom of test and learn really, culturally, put us in a good place to get something out.
Dave: Right, one of the things I see… what my companies struggle with is they have two candidates and there’s one candidate that just tugs at the emotional heart strings and is the clear, I guess, intuitive or gut winner. And the other creative is one that does well with market research groups or sampling. If you were in that situation, if you were CMO, which do you go with? You go with the data or you go with your gut?
Jeremy: You have to use both, is kind of the answer. Market research can be helpful, but it is not the end-all be-all. And if you’re a crutch to what users say in a focus group room or a copy test, you can definitely end up with the wrong decision. So we use market research much more to validate kind of hypothesis we already have rather than to drive the decision. And in some cases, one thing that I’ve talked to some companies about is, “Do you do the market research before or after you’ve done a test? If you have a strong enough gut on whether the communication is working, what is market research going to help tell you? Is it going to answer a question for you? Is it going to resolve a concern for you? Or not?” And I think that’s where people really get tripped up, is if they use it as the only input rather than just an input.
Dave: Got it. And then let’s close it out with understanding your testing framework. How did you build the testing framework so that you could really assess lift and incrementality?
Jeremy: Yeah, I would say maybe two high level things to think about there. One is, know what you’re trying to measure and don’t try to measure everything at once, right? So I was a big fan, and I am still a big fan of that cliché of crawl, walk, run. But, see if you can see the major and macro signal, and can you do some math on that, and then overtime, can you refine that versus trying to really get everything perfect. Like kind of celebrate that you’re not going to be able to get it perfect, but can you get it directionally right, and can you improve from there?
And then the other big macro piece is know that the first time in is actually your best time to have kind of a clean read against your organic business. So whether you do an A/B test, whether you do a local/national test, whether you do an on/off test, however you do a test, you have this great pool of data leading up to it, and learn everything you can from that data and build a really good harness to guess what’s going to happen, and then learn from that.
And so once you’ve done the test, don’t only evaluate what happens in the test, but also evaluate how did you set up the evaluation framework, and you go and improve how are you measuring things based on the test itself, not just spending time on what does the test tell you.
Dave: Got it. And your first point about being super intentional about what you’re testing for or what you’re measuring. Are there particular signals that you think are key for people early in the learning process around TV?
Jeremy: Well, I mean it depends on your business, right? But I assume we’re talking mostly to internet brands where you can measure most of the entirety of your business online.
Dave: That’s right.
Jeremy: I think you’re just thinking about how do I measure the user impact and the demand I’ve created and the conversion that I care about, and you’re also trying to measure how do I think about the brand impact that I’m creating, and I think you set up a test to measure both of those things. And for every business, the user impact and the user activity is going to be different, and whether that impact is immediate or takes time to happen is going to be variable. You have to understand what’s happening, organically, in that business and then model out what do you want to have happen.
Dave: Yup. And just to steal a little bit from your years of experience doing this, were there specific false positives or false negatives that people just ought to be aware of as, particularly, early in the process?
Jeremy: We were lucky to not run into this problem. I would say seasonality can be hard, especially, for young businesses. And younger businesses may have an initial view of what seasonality looks like in their kind of, early adopter phase, and that seasonality may not be the same as your business grows.
So we were, I guess, lucky in that we waited until we were a little more matured to do this, so we had a pretty good handle on what our seasonality looked like. But, how your business adapts to seasonality is one of the biggest inputs to the kind of a traffic pattern or a conversion pattern, and if that changes even a little bit, that can really muck with your experimentation. I’ve seen some businesses where seasonality used to look this way, but now that we’re bigger, we’re actually seeing a different behavior. And then, if you’re running an advertising test on top of that, is that because of the advertising or not? So I think that’s one of the big gushes I’ve seen a couple of times, and I think really the only way to solve for things like that is you have to just have multiple tests, you have to have multiple swings at trying to figure it out.
Dave: Awesome. So fast forward to 2017, how big of a channel is TV for you, and are there any major differences from now versus 2011? Has the market changed materially?
Jeremy: We had spent a lot of time in the early days, and maybe this is a good way to answer that question. We intentionally did really just TV plus another channel or two. And now, TV is just brand digital for us. And, yes, linear offline television is still our really big media channel for us, but we think about the campaign as TV in many, many forms, right? The traditional cable, broadcast, over the top video, video inside of Facebook, direct, video inside a publisher, right? We think about it across a mix of channels, and we have built a framework to evaluate the efficacy of both in terms of how we buy and how is that doing across all of that. So TV is still big, but how we think about TV and how we think about the creative we build and where it goes has evolved into just effectively sight, sound, and motion in a bunch of different places.
Dave: Yeah, the size and the opportunity of linear TV has, I think, surprised most digital marketers. Looking forward, do you think that goes away or slows down at any extent? It’s been the market that’s larger than people expect and it’s actually growing (is my understanding) versus shrinking. What’s your take?
Jeremy: I think it’s a popular and fun narrative for media that a channel is dying, right, or the death of X, but the reality is even with the declines that are happening, and I think there is maybe 20% of households are now, “cord-nevers”. 80% are still paying for something and seeing something and the consumption is happening. If you’re trying to reach a massive audience, you have to go with where is that massive audience. And where are they spending their media time? And to your point, regardless of what you think the trend line is, there’s a really big percentage of people that are watching, kind of classic linear television, and they’re watching it for many hours a day. And so that’s still in a media environment that exists for reach and is one of the best environments to tell a story. So it ends up being a really great channel to solve people’s problems. Now, the trend on where it goes over a long period of time I think is what everyone likes to prognosticate about, but today, in the here and now, it’s a great channel.
Dave: Great. Maybe last question, Zillow was obviously incredibly successful across a whole number of fronts, but TV was a big driver in brand awareness and over category leadership. Where does this not make sense? Where are the hallmarks of businesses that should take TV seriously – digital businesses that should take TV seriously and think through some of the same elements that you did in 2011?
Jeremy: You have to ask yourself, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve, right? And I think that the places where I see folks get tripped up is they start with a tactic, right? The tactic is, well, someone else did TV and it worked for them, so it should work for us. And they aren’t asking the question of what’s the problem, and then, therefore, what should the strategy be? And maybe the problem they are trying to solve is not top of mind awareness or increasing reach to a segment of the population that hasn’t heard of them for the right reason, or switching from another competitor, right? Like there’s a set of problems that brand building and brand awareness can solve. And not every business is at a point where that’s the right tool in the toolbox. So I think it always starts with, if you can articulate the problem you are trying to solve, then it becomes a more obvious conversation around, “Is this the right channel or the right tactic to use?”
Dave: Awesome. Thanks so much, Jeremy. Really enjoyed it and super helpful for both our portfolio and other folks who are listening today. So really, really appreciate the time, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Thanks for having me.
Dave: All right. Take care.
Jeremy: You too.
Michelle Peluso has spent the past two decades helping to forge a new relationship between people and technology. She started her first company, Site59, with a group of friends in 1999 and later sold it to Travelocity, where she served as CEO during the “roaming gnome” era. Peluso became an Executive Advisor to TCV before joining Citibank as Global Consumer Chief Marketing and Internet Officer responsible for the digital experience of the bank’s 100 million global customers. Peluso then took the helm at fashion pioneer Gilt, which she later sold to Hudson’s Bay Company. She became IBM’s first Chief Marketing Officer in 2016 — a move that highlights the transformation of marketing into a core corporate capability.
Still an Executive Advisor to TCV, Peluso remains committed to discovering how marketing can redefine relationships with customers, a transformation that requires curiosity, agility, innovation, persistence, and resilience. In this exclusive interview, Peluso discusses:
How the CMO’s role has changed in the last decade
Four trends that continue to revolutionize marketing
How the rise of ‘augmented marketing’ will challenge CMOs as never before
TCV: It’s widely acknowledged that there has never been a more challenging time to be a CMO. How have you seen the role change since you founded Site59 in 1999?
Peluso: It’s no wonder the average CMO tenure is only 2–3 years and has seen a drop over the past two decades. It’s a hard and incredibly dynamic role, as marketing has shifted from a thoughtful, functional discipline around creatively amplifying the company message to a much more dynamic, real-time, analytical — and creative — driver of client experience, revenue, and company performance. Expectations have never been higher for marketers, and the new seat they have at the table is an amazing opportunity for the best of them to grow and lead.
TCV: It’s easy to say all these changes have been driven by the rise of the internet. But there are several distinct trends that are reshaping marketing…
Peluso: Clearly four major shifts have shaped, and are shaping, how we can connect with customers, how we can analyze our effectiveness and drive results, and how we need to lead our respective organizations. First was the era of digital. For me, this was the beginning of the internet, making transactions and content interactive, convenient, and more personal. Then, we entered the era of social, which has been all about engagement and authenticity. Social toppled the notion of hierarchy and forced brands to think differently. Third, we have seen the era of mobile, which began with mastering the art of a smaller screen but evolved into much more as the focus has been about location and real-time and always-on engagement. These three eras have dramatically reshaped every industry while elevating the role of the individual, with far-reaching consequences.
TCV: That’s three…
Peluso: Right. We are now on the cusp of the era of cognitive learning, or as we call it at IBM: Augmented Intelligence (AI). We’re building fast and smart systems that understand vast amounts of unstructured information, such as natural language and imagery, recognize data patterns to create recommendations, continuously learn from these recommendations and many other sources of data, such as books, medical records, and conversations with humans and finally, interact with humans in a natural way. AI lets us better understand and engage with our customers; it enables us to make more precise bids on advertising and improve ROI across every dollar spent, and it will fundamentally shift the paradigm of how consumers interact with websites. Arguably, we are already starting to see this with new AI home devices and natural language interaction.
TCV: This new vision will require an entirely new way of doing things, which is a significant change for any company, much less for a massive organization like IBM. How does a CMO drive these kinds of changes within such an established framework?
Peluso: The cognitive change is no different than any other large-scale change management program. To be a cognitive company, you need to be clear about your mission — what challenges do you want to solve? What decisions do you most want to improve? You need to have the assets, which are all about your data sets but, even more, your team, marketers, developers, and data scientists. And, of course, you need the right tools. Companies new to AI should identify a handful of specific problems they want to address and apply AI tools to solving those problems. Then, repeat the process to address new challenges. This way, a corporation will see meaningful and measurable results as they evolve into a cognitive company. Patience is required. Companies must learn how to use AI, and these systems also require learning, so “training” the system is critical. It’s a classic crawl, walk, run.
TCV: How does this new approach to marketing change the way you look for and hire the right talent for ‘augmented marketing’?
The traditional marketing waterfall process — develop a creative idea, send it to advertising, media, and a CRM team, and then analyze results — can no longer keep up with the pace of the market today. I take a lot of inspiration from the Agile movement, which fundamentally reinvented the technology development process. At IBM, we’re applying Agile to our marketing function, and that means creating small empowered teams with the right skills, clear accountability, sprints, and a constant focus on prioritization. When you adopt Agile, you can see how different marketing becomes, and the emphasis it puts on hiring Agile teams that have a strong mix of creative, process, digital, and data science skills.
TCV: What role will marketers have in identifying and developing new technologies for the augmented marketing era? Or will that function remain within the realm of the IT department?
Peluso: AI is about man (or woman) AND machine. Users of all sorts, not just developers or CIOs, can use AI in small and big ways to help them solve the most difficult problems. That’s the promise, and we’re starting to see this at organizations all over the world. Marketers will play a critical role in how AI is developed and applied. One of the many things I learned while working with the TCV team and their companies is that it’s fundamentally important to be insatiably curious about technology because the most successful marketers are as analytically rigorous as they are creative.