Making Community Building More Than a Catchphrase to Unlock Growth – Jonathan Mildenhall Shares Lessons from Airbnb and More for Companies of All Sizes

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

Brands like Airbnb and Peloton that have been able to build a loyal community around their products, may seem to have cultivated that community size through an alchemical mix of marketing spend, timing, and luck. But it doesn’t have to be so opaque — especially not for businesses that make community building an essential part of their blueprint to growth, even from the early days. 

In this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja talk to Jonathan Mildenhall, former CMO of Airbnb and founder and Chairman of strategic branding firm, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, about ways to articulate the narrative of a modern brand – with community building as a key element. Jonathan walks us through a four-pillar process for creating strategic blueprints to build brand narrative, and tips for B2B brands to elicit the sort of emotional resonance that B2C brands have found with customers. 

Key Takeaways:

  • The four pillars of a modern 21st century brand that’s built to scale. Community isn’t just something that comes once a brand has been built. In fact, having a vocal, loyal community is one of the four core pillars of building a modern-day company. In addition to community building, the other three pillars for twenty-first century brands are being purpose driven, making sure your technology is well-designed and human, and focusing on storytelling.
  • How to perform a deep analysis on your own company and create a strategic blueprint to activate on each pillar. One of the first things Jonathan and his team at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand do when building out a new brand is to sit down with the founders and leaders of the company to do what they call a deep extraction. The purpose is to get a better understanding of the brand’s potential size and aspirations. “I don’t just mean in total numbers and size of revenue, but in terms of its cultural impact. We like to say we’re revealing the soul and purpose of the company back to the founding team,” Jonathan says.
  • Specific strategies on building a community that can meaningfully drive growth and brand perception. When Jonathan was the CMO of Airbnb, they had to get creative about how to use their marketing spend, which was a fraction of their competitors’ budgets. Jonathan’s team decided to activate Airbnb’s community of hosts to tell stories, by providing them photographers to take photos of their rentals and turn that into marketing collateral. Those community stories helped drive Airbnb’s initial brand narrative and turned those same hosts into vocal advocates for Airbnb with cities and potential users. Per Jonathan, “if you get community right, you can reduce acquisition costs, content creation costs, and you can drive referrals, word of mouth, and the brand narrative in ways that are unprecedented for marketers.” 
  • Why strategic community building has to come from the C-suite. Community building is an ongoing process and a two-way conversation; not just when a brand needs the community to telegraph its approval. It’s why Jonathan believes that community engagement should come from company leadership, who can maintain that dialog with followers of the brand and the wider community: “The chief executive’s voice and presence needs to be heard.”
  • Lessons B2B marketers can take from B2C campaigns when it comes to eliciting an emotional connection. Whether you’re a B2B company or a B2C company, Jonathan urges marketing teams to think about more than selling a product, and instead focus on the human being receiving the message, and whether that message moves them emotionally. His advice for B2B marketers? “I would love it if B2B businesses made a greater effort to move audiences emotionally and treat them as human beings, as opposed to somebody on the other side of a business transaction,” says Jonathan.

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: Elevating Community Building to Drive Meaningful Growth


The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Product, People, and Employee Engagement: How Zillow’s Path to Growth Eschewed the Traditional Marketing Playbook

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

Nowadays, growth minded leaders know that a strong corporate culture and engaged employees are a central part of any company’s growth playbook. Yet when Zillow first launched, placing people on the same level as product innovation was an audacious move. Still, Zillow took the time to invest in improving its employee engagement, knowing that engaged employees were the bedrock for a company’s long-term success.

On this episode of Growth Hacks, Kunal and Katja talk to TCV Venture Partner and former CMO, COO, and current Zillow board member, Amy Bohutinsky. We discuss Amy’s perspective on C-suite leadership and bucking the traditional marketing and operational playbooks in order to drive growth and create better company cohesion. As board member of various technology companies, Amy also walks us through what boards are discussing now more than ever.

Key Takeaways

  • Why Zillow focused on product over marketing to drive early growth. When Zillow launched in 2004, they’d seen many of their startup peers spend lots of money on brand marketing without a proven revenue model. Rather than tread the same path, Amy says the Zillow team “saw an opportunity to build a company in a really different way, which was to focus deeply on product. Product was absolutely the best marketing we could have.” By adopting a no budget marketing budget, the team was further incentivized to create products, like Zillow’s Zestimate, that customers would truly love using.
  • Strategies for successfully merging companies post-acquisition. As Zillow has grown, it’s acquired companies of all sizes, including its $2.5 billion acquisition of fellow real estate juggernaut Trulia. To navigate a smoother post-acquisition merger after she became COO, Amy took a page from her former CMO playbook when considering how to best scale Zillow’s employee base while retaining what was special about its culture. During the Trulia acquisition, the companies combined their individual sets of values to create a new shared set of driving core values. “That gave a nod to what was great about both, but also showed that we were bridging two companies together and two different cultures together and creating something new,” says Amy.
  • How shared values in a shared language build connective tissue between disparate teams. One of Amy’s goals during her time as Zillow’s COO was to drive better cohesion between sales, marketing, and product. Though each team had its own values in addition to Zillow’s shared corporate values, everyone across the company bought into what Zillow called its “product personas” — mental sketches of the people they built for. “They had names, they had photos, they had a whole life…And these are individual personas that everyone across every department at the company understands deeply,” says Amy.
  • The most important metrics all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to. When Amy shifted her role from CMO to COO, she viewed Zillow employees the same way she did end consumers; what did they have to say, what were their concerns, and what could Zillow do to make sure they retained the workforce that made them successful. Even now, Amy says all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to a key metric: employee engagement. “If you get that right, it’s a whole lot easier to meet all of the business-related metrics you need.”
  • What corporate boards are most concerned with currently. In addition to the board of Zillow, Amy sits on the boards of Modsy and Duolingo, and has sat on the boards of companies including Gap and HotelTonight. She says that in the last seven to ten years, the conversation on boards has shifted away from growth at all costs to an emphasis on people and how to keep and retain a healthy workforce.

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: Treating Employees Like End Consumers: How Zillow Scaled Successfully While Reinventing the Traditional Growth Playbook


The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Treating Employees Like End Consumers: How Zillow Scaled Successfully While Reinventing the Traditional Growth Playbook

As home buying juggernaut and TCV portfolio company Zillow grew, it placed employee engagement and company culture at the forefront of its operations — even as it scaled and acquired large companies with their own cultures and moda operandi. While improving hiring and retention is a key part of any leader’s growth strategy, Zillow took it a step further by treating employee engagement as a central component to future growth.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal are joined by TCV Venture Partner Amy Bohutinsky, who worked at Zillow as CMO and later became COO, before joining the company’s board. Amy discusses why Zillow focused on employee engagement and treating employees like other companies do end customers as a driver for growth. She also walks us through her unique perspective on navigating operational challenges such as successful corporate mergers, and the metric she thinks more C-suite leaders should be paying attention to. In addition to Zillow, Amy serves on the boards of Modsy and Duolingo, and tells listeners about the issues that are top of mind in the boardroom.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Why Zillow focused on product over marketing to drive early growth
  • Strategies for successfully merging companies post-acquisition
  • How shared values in a shared language build connective tissue between disparate teams
  • The most important metrics all C-suite leaders should be paying attention to
  • What corporate boards are most concerned with today

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: I’m thrilled to have Amy Bohutinsky with me today. Former CMO and COO of Zillow, a venture partner at TCV, and board member of Zillow, Duolingo, Modsy and many others. Amy your career has been highly unusual. You went from journalist to CMO, to COO reporting to boards, and now being on multiple boards yourself. We’re so excited to have you today. Welcome to Growth Hacks.

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Kunal Mehta: Well, thanks, Amy. Thanks for joining us. Where does this podcast find you today?

Amy Bohutinsky: It finds me in Seattle, hiding in my bedroom, which is the quietest place in the house right now, hoping my dog doesn’t bark in the middle of this.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in tech.

Amy Bohutinsky: Sure. I started my career as a broadcast journalist. And within a couple of years the first big tech boom was happening in San Francisco. I transitioned over to doing PR for tech companies and within a number of years, that broadened to a couple of different tech companies. From PR into marketing, I was on the ground floor at Zillow when it first started and over the next 14 years, went from PR to CMO to COO. Today I’m on the board of Zillow and a couple of other awesome companies.

Katja Gagen: And at Zillow, which is also a TCV company, you started with zero marketing budget. Tell us how you made things work.

Amy Bohutinsky: When we started Zillow, we started with let’s see if we can build a household name off of organic traffic. You know, here it was in 2005, we had all been in tech to see this first round of internet companies kind of boom and bust, many of them blowing a lot of money on expensive brand marketing before they had a fully proven out revenue model.

It was a point in time where we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted our venture capital dollars to stretch, but we also saw an opportunity to build a company in a really different way, which was to focus deeply on product. Product as the absolute best marketing we could have. So yeah, for many years there wasn’t a marketing budget. It was focused on product, and when I was CMO, we probably didn’t start spending significantly on the brand until about seven or eight years in and after we’d become a public company.

Kunal Mehta: I think the scrappiness and the growth hack of no budget is amazing. You know, a lot of our companies want to use PR and brand to generate demand, but they struggle with it. How did you guys make that successful?

Amy Bohutinsky: We were constantly asking ourselves not just is this what we think people want but is this something that we think people will talk about. Real estate is such a stress driven transaction. How do we make this fun and provocative and visual and exciting, and actually draw out some of the fun of looking into homes and dreaming about homes?

Acouple of key decisions we made. One was, we decided in the early days, instead of just putting a whole bunch of data about individual homes on a page about that home to empower people, what if we boil it down to one number? And we give it a snappy name and call it the Zestimate. We visually put that on top of every rooftop in America so that you can come on our site, and you can fly over rooftops and get an idea. And pop into any single home and say, what’s that home worth? This was pretty revolutionary back in 2005, when before that, nothing had been online at all about homes and real estate.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And as you evolved as a company, what were some of your biggest learnings?

Amy Bohutinsky: We did a lot of things well. One thing we did not do well in the early days is we didn’t pay enough attention to SEO and the big impact that could have on our business in a category where people are constantly searching in the category of real estate.

It was probably not until about four years in that we started getting serious about it. Others in our category had been serious about it for a couple of years and we had a lot of years of catching up to do. I see companies make that mistake all the time.

Katja Gagen: After you became CMO that you then transition to COO, which is a little unusual. So what were some of the skills that you carried over from your CMO role and what surprised you?

Amy Bohutinsky: A big part of that role was internally looking at our employees and understanding how we hire the absolute best people we can, but also how do we retain those people. How do we create company where people really want to work and feel like they can do the best work of their career and that they belong. And a big part of that is skills that are really relevant to marketing.

Number one, it’s understanding your end consumer, your employees and really listening to what they have to say as you make decisions throughout the company, and as you scale and grow the company and build teams. So, I actually found that a lot of my skills within marketing were pretty transferable into the COO role, which for me was all about helping to scale our employee base, helping to retain what was so special about our culture from the early years. And as we made various acquisitions, focusing on a lot of the people sides of those acquisitions as well.

Katja Gagen: That’s a good segue, Amy, because Zillow has been very active in the M&A space, acquiring more than a dozen companies in less than a decade. And that included Trulia, which was a 2.5 billion acquisition. Tell us about how you made this unusual marriage between the two companies work.

Amy Bohutinsky: One of the things we found in many of the acquisitions we made is that culture and core values really matter in the post-acquisition stage and those really should be a part of the due diligence. With Trulia in particular, right around the time I became COO, we had just acquired Trulia and our employee base at the time went from I think, 1,200 to 2,400 overnight. Two companies that had been rivals for many years.

Something that was really important frankly, was just listening to what was important to Trulia employees. And then moving forward, how do we combine what’s great about the two companies? One example was each company had a different set of driving core values. We came out with a new set for the combined company the next year that combined both sets. That gave a nod to what was great about both, but also showed that we were bringing two companies together and two different cultures together and creating something new.

The small things really matter too. And I’ll give you an example of this. When Zillow acquired Trulia, Trulia had had a tradition in the 10 years it had been around that whenever a new employee joins Trulia, they get a Trulia backpack. That was something that was actually very culturally important to the company. People walked around the streets of San Francisco with their Trulia backpacks. Everybody loved these backpacks.

Within the HR department, a decision was made at Zillow of, okay, well, we have this other package of stuff we give people, let’s just make that universal across the company. And that really upset people, the kind of taking away of the backpack. It may seem from a numbers basis or efficiency basis to be a very small thing, but from a cultural basis, it was meaningful. It was something that after a couple months of it, we brought it back and we said, you know what? All our different brands can have different ways that they welcome people. Let’s let the local teams make this decision and let’s not have this be something that comes from corporate. Because sometimes something small like that can do much more harm than good. It can be bruising to people who are already feeling some uncertainty around all of the newness with being a part of a new company.

Kunal Mehta: I think that’s so important to bring that up. And as you moved into your COO role, you had this obligation almost to drive more connective tissue with sales, marketing, products. Three groups that often work in silos. Maybe you can talk a little bit about your playbook.

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, one thing that we always believed in very strongly were shared values across all departments. While different departments may operate under different leaders and different constructs, they all share a common set of core values, which are ultimately how work gets done. The other thing were our product personas or the people we build for. This is another thing that, a lot of companies talk about personas or demographics, but at Zillow, we actually had a set of personas. They had names, they had photos, they had a whole life construct. And if you walked into any meeting at Zillow, and if you walk into any meeting at Zillow today, you will hear people talking about Beth and about Allen and about Susan.

These are individual personas that everyone across every department at the company understands deeply as to who are the people that we build for? Who are the people that we communicate with? Who are the people that we sell to? Who are the people that we market to? And how do we see them as actual individuals? When you have those shared values in that shared language, and frankly that shared north star, it makes it a lot easier for collaboration and decisions across different areas of the company.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. If I shift your lens over to being on boards, what do the executive team ask you about the most?

Amy Bohutinsky: In recent years, there has definitely been more of an emphasis in the boards I’m on, on the people side of the business. It used to be in many boards that boards talked about financials and business and strategy and the business side, but never really got into the people. And a really important shift that I’ve seen happening in the last, 7, 8, 9 years that I’ve been on boards, is much more conversation about employees, employee mental health, about equity and belonging within the company and looking deeply at diversity stats.

These are conversations that used to be relegated to an HR department that are now, across leadership teams, and I’m happy to say, across boardrooms too. Because this is an incredibly important emphasis that frankly should have been there all along, but I’m happy to see, on all the boards I’m on certainly, we spend quite a bit of time on that. But I’m hearing from other board members it’s happening in a lot of places as well.

Katja Gagen: And that’s so important, Amy. I’m glad you are also a catalyst for these conversations. I do hope we’ll see more of them across the board. We always finish with a quick fire. So we’re gonna shoot a few at you.

Kunal Mehta: Hey, what’s your go-to book? The one that provides you the most value.

Amy Bohutinsky: I read a book a couple of years ago. It was called The Second Mountain by David Brooks. At its core, it was talking about the human journey of, so much of what you want in life is ego-driven and we all drive up this first mountain. A lot of it has to do with career, things we want in our career that are frankly driven by our ego. Not necessarily driven by our curiosity or what we’d like to learn or what fulfills us the most. And the crux of the book is about getting to this second mountain.

So everyone kind of climbed the ego-driven first, but how do you get to the second mountain where you’re work and your home life and how you spend your time ultimately becomes more fulfilling and less about the ego and more about what you offer to the world outside of you. I found this book super compelling and it’s something that just on a very frequent basis, I think back on in decisions I make and in people I come into contact with, and I find application in the business world all the time.

Katja Gagen: I love that. I read the book as well. And what really struck me, Amy is what you’re saying is you go from that ego-driven mountain to a life that is in service of others. And that probably ties into the current conversations you have in board meetings that are also aimed at how can you make a team feel healthy and happy?

Amy Bohutinsky: That’s right. And it ties into, the broad practice of marketing, which is so much about understanding the customer or the consumer at the other end, having empathy for that person and then doing your work in service of that north star and that customer. And I found out there’s a lot of parallels in that as well.

Katja Gagen: Right. What are some fun facts about Zillow?

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, one fun fact is that there is meaning behind the name. It may sound like a nonsensical word. But early days when we were trying to figure out what we would call this. We were looking at two categories of words that were evocative of what we were trying to build. And Zillow comes from the word zillions, as in zillions of data points, and pillow, where you lay your head to rest at night.

It was this combination of data to empower you to make smarter decisions about this important emotional place — where you have your family and your life, and you lay your head to rest at night. And how do we combine the two? So zillions of pillows.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. When you were a CMO, what was the most critical metric you followed?

Amy Bohutinsky: Well, I’m going to say this in retrospect, with some wisdom, many years past being CMO. What I think the most important metric CMOs and leaders should follow is employee engagement. The absolute best work you can do comes from hiring and retaining the absolute best people you can. And that data point of employee engagement at your organization, being able to look at that both broadly across the organization, but by team and understand which teams of people and which individuals are happy and likely to stay and satisfied.

When they’re not understanding why, that is, I think, the most important metric you can follow any day. And if you get that right. Then it’s a whole lot easier to meet all of the business-related metrics that you need.

Katja Gagen: And speaking of hiring and employee engagement, what’s your favorite question that you ask during an interview?

Amy Bohutinsky: As an interviewer, I like to get people to tell stories. And I like to ask open-ended “tell me about the situation” type questions, where they have to walk me through a story. It helps me to understand their curiosity, their different decision points and why they made the decisions they did. What I want to hear from people is, do they approach problems in their career with, the question of what can I learn in this? Not what can I achieve in this? Sort of going back to The Second Mountain, the book we talked about, is trying to understand, do they make decisions when it’s about them or do they make decisions when it’s about broadening their scope of learning, being curious about others.

Do they see that as a core foundation of leading them to sort of their ultimate goals. Another question kind of like that, that I like to ask, is just tell me the story of your career. And then as they go through it, I’ll ask some questions and there’s a lot you can learn just from how people approach that story, what lens they approach it with and how they summarize the different decision points and the decisions they made.

Katja Gagen: Well, thank you so much, Amy. It was wonderful to have you on the podcast today. Thanks for being on Growth Hacks.

Amy Bohutinsky: Thank you for having me this was fun.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

TCV 2020 Summer Newsletter

Keeping our team members safe and helping our companies navigate COVID-19 and prepare for the rebound has been our main focus at TCV. Our Portfolio Operations group, along with our Investment, Legal, Marketing and Capital Markets teams, are providing a surge of support for our companies. The takeaways of these efforts are the main themes of this newsletter. We hope that you will find nuggets you can apply in your business, in areas such as talent, sales and marketing, systems and technology, and more.

Brands with a Purpose

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.



The statements, views, and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

Hiring for Leaders: Your Company Won’t Scale if the Leaders Can’t

By Jonathan Shottan

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


Jonathan Shottan is an Executive-in-Residence at TCV.

The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This blog post is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at


Leaning Into Brand: Capturing Whitespace and Category Leadership the Zillow Way

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.

In this exclusive podcast, Jeremy Wacksman discusses with TCV’s David Yuan how marketing shaped Zillow’s trajectory and lessons learned along the way:

  • Zillow’s evolution from organic to paid awareness
  • Pattern recognition: What opportunity did Zillow see, why did the team decide to “really lean into brand?”
  • Performance TV 101:
    • Getting started
    • Creative
    • Testing/ Measuring
    • 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, 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.



The views and opinions expressed in the transcript above are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). This transcript is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified above are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit  For additional important disclaimers regarding this document, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at

The Rise of Augmented Marketing: Q&A with Michelle Peluso

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.


The views and opinions expressed in this Q&A are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of TCV or its personnel. Executive Advisors are typically independent consultants who are not employees of TCV but have a strategic relationship with TCV and/or provide valuable advice or services to TCV and/or its portfolio companies. For additional important information regarding this post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” under the Terms of Use section of TCV’s website, available at