The Internet is changing. It’s more social by design. It’s empowering consumers to speak out about the brands they love and those they hate. People have access to information right at their fingertips. As a result, brands are looking for new ways to engage and build relationships with this new breed of consumers. And that means the CMO's role is changing too.
Today's CMO needs to be more flexible than the CMOs of the past. They need to understand a vast array of marketing disciplines. Back in the old days, the CMOs career path might have been to join a company right out of business school and work your way up the corporate ladder. But that's not going to work anymore. John Leeman, CMO of FreshDirect, didn’t take the old-school path to success. In fact, he did quite the opposite. An agency guy at heart (he has been with big agencies including MindShare, BBDO, McCann, and Carat), Leeman has grown a diverse set of skills throughout the years that undoubtedly got him to where he is today.
In an exclusive interview, Leeman spoke to CMO.com senior & strategic editor Giselle Abramovich about the new role of the CMO, and also about digital marketing, in general.
CMO.com: The industry is changing, and that means there's a new skill set that CMOs need to have to keep up in this real-time, data-driven, social world. What are the essential skill sets for today's CMO?
Leeman: To me, the one key skill set is to be able to help data-oriented analytics people think like business people and to get the business people to leverage data and personalization as a natural part of their jobs. You can imagine the enormous amount of data and business operations that an online retailer who makes food and delivers it ourselves has, so for FreshDirect integrated thinking is critical across the company and in marketing.
CMO.com: What are some of the biggest challenges that brands face today in digital?
Leeman: Online retail brands have a different set of challenges. We have a unique opportunity to leverage our competitive advantage of a more personal, customizable, and dynamic online store. E-retailers can use things like search and other services and lists to make shopping even more convenient. Imagine being on a gluten-free diet and being able to take all of the items off the shelves that aren't gluten-free. That would make it much easier to shop. Also, no going to the store, waiting in line, or carrying your groceries into the house.
But online retailers have the challenge of driving engagement without the benefit of physical human interaction, sounds, smells, and tastes. Just think about going into the supermarket, and all the products you see and all the opportunities to sell to someone. That’s hard to do in a digital environment, without being too cluttered or hard to shop. We have to work hard to strike the right balance.
CMO.com: What about CMOs? What are their challenges?
Leeman: Accountability is huge. In many operational areas, accountability is more straightforward (i.e., when our transportation department uses more fuel, that means our trucks have driven more miles). But cause and effect in marketing isn’t always that obvious. If customer loyalty conversion is higher, or if the number of orders is lower than forecasted on a particular day, it’s often hard to point to one simple cause. (Was it the weather that day or a competitive offer emailed to some shared customers? Both? Neither?)
CMO.com: Does social media have an ROI problem?
Leeman: Establishing the value of social media depends on the goals you set for it. Social media is a tool, and you can use it in various ways. We have integrated social media into our customer service operation and that does provide a great deal of satisfaction value to our customers. So for us, Facebook and Twitter serve a utility, but beyond using Facebook as an efficient behavioral-targeting advertising platform we have yet to tie them back to large-scale marketing ROI. We are exploring narrower social platforms than Facebook and Twitter to drive brand equity growth and marketing ROI.
CMO.com: Brands have been producing content forever, so why is it such a huge buzzword all of a sudden?
Leeman: We have not found a silver bullet application for branded content. We do produce videos for PR purposes, and we have a blog, but it’s not driving measurable large-scale awareness. We’ve found that on an e-commerce shopping site, most of our customers are not looking to take the time to consume informational content beyond product ingredients. However, we are testing and learning to find places where consumers and the media will be receptive to content.
CMO.com: With all the focus on content nowadays, would you say the banner ad and direct response are dead? Why or why not?
Leeman: We generally don’t use the banner ad for direct response. We use banners for targeted awareness online. And in that sense, the banner ad is alive and well. In fact, the targeting abilities of online advertising are the strongest that are available today, second only to direct mail. And let’s not forget that it’s very cost-effective to target the right people online (probably due to the challenge of getting high engagement).
CMO.com: The "big idea" was the cornerstone of traditional advertising. Recently, with the advent of social media and mobile, and even the Internet, some marketers have been stepping out and saying that the big idea is dead. What's your take?
Leeman: I think brands need a broad-based idea to position themselves, and the big idea is still a great concept for unifying brand benefits and differentiating equities together. That said, the big idea as a single communication channel prescriptive is rarer today than ever before. For an idea to truly be “big,” it should translate into an array of different communication forms to which a broad range of target consumers are receptive.
Take Apple’s big idea: Think Different. Steve Jobs would bring this to life by being different than every other CEO by walking on stage with blue jeans and a black turtleneck vs. a suit and tie. And the Apple ad campaign would use Albert Einstein and the Beatles or colorful silhouettes of people dancing with an iPod to do that a different way. And the super-simple, feature-free packaging would do it yet a different way. Steve Jobs didn’t walk on stage with a t-shirt that had Albert Einstein’s face on it and a slogan that said, “Think Different.” He just lived Think Different and the Apple brand equity in his own way. A big idea is versatile and powerful like that.
FreshDirect's big idea is the value we bring to our customers through our direct connection with farmers. We have a profile ad campaign on our Web site called "Reliable Sources," and we just finished a corporate social responsibility program called The Green Angel Fund to help urban kids learn how their food grows and eat healthier. And our co-founder David McInerney was a speaker at TEDx Manhattan explaining his taste crusade and how we all need to incent farmers to grow better tasting food. Our trucks and banner advertising showcase farmers and the benefits of FreshDirect in artful, engaging ways that stand out in the city and in the suburbs. All of these build our brand equity in the same way, but with different tactics that fit the receptive environments of our consumers, employees, and community.
CMO.com: If you had the CMOs of all the world's largest brands in one room, what one piece of advice from a leadership perspective would you give them?
Leeman: If I had a room full of those people, I’d be asking for leadership advice, not giving it. I’d be looking for better techniques for representing marketing to nonmarketing people. I’d be looking for innovative ways to support and rationalize marketing from a financial perspective. I’d be looking for ways to quantify brand and company asset value through marketing, and also ways to better forecast medium and long-term outcomes as well as short-term (which we can do very well today).
CMO.com: Any advice on managing Millennials (a.k.a. the me, me, me generation)?
Leeman: The biggest insight I could offer is to understand that they often approach work like school. Many of them crave a set curriculum and expect to progress through job promotions like they progress through a college. So my advice is to first replicate some of that academic advisement and structure, but also slowly help them graduate from an externally directed syllabus mindset to a self-directed, innovation mindset.
CMO.com: From your LinkedIn page, I see you have an agency background. How has that helped you on the brand side?
Leeman: My career strategy has been to let the variety of knowledge areas I believed were important to have in order to be a world-class marketer drive my job choices. I started in a media agency, then learned about positioning, targeting, and creative ideas in ad agencies in the U.S. and China, then digital and multichannel marketing with tech and retail clients, then sophisticated media investment strategy with P&G and American Express, and now e-commerce, analytics, acquisition, and loyalty marketing in a just-in-time online grocer. These different perspectives help me help my team deliver a seamless customer experience that builds brands and grows sales. Helping my team understand how to work productively with media and creative and PR agencies doesn’t hurt either.
CMO.com: What's the most important thing I did not ask you?
Leeman: You haven’t asked me about international trends. I would answer that with: The most fascinating thing to me is how quickly trends are circling the globe today. We are constantly learning about new techniques and products in countries like Sweden, the U.K., Japan, and Australia, then testing and applying best practices from around the world to our own innovation.