As if CMOs don't have enough on their plates, here's one more: Understand how to code. So advises Bob Lord, who recently took the helm as CEO of AOL Networks after leading Razorfish for 14 years.
Why should CMOs know how to create a Web page and what an API is? That's just one of the topics Lord discusses in this exclusive interview with CMO.com. Lord also talks about how his agency experience has prepared him for his new role, the biggest digital opportunities for publishers today, and breaking down silos.
CMO.com: When did you first begin your career in advertising?
Lord: I think I have a unique story. I have an engineering background and did industrial operations research. My first job was at General Motors and then Corning Glass Works, where I focused on tech robots and tech coding on the factory floor. This was 1986 to '89, and I thought I’d be an engineer for life. I never dreamed I would be in the advertising world.
I meandered into advertising and got involved with Razorfish in 1999, when they had just bought a technology company called iCube. Their theory was that advertising and technology would come together. So they needed someone with a technology background. Their value proposition was implementing Oracle systems, and they needed someone who understood what they should be doing in marketing, and, frankly, why they even bought this asset.
If you fast-forward to now, after four or five different acquisitions, I was running this agency with 8,000 people worldwide, in 28 different countries. I headed the two largest digital advertising agencies before AOL, and I believe I ascended that way because of the understanding of the robots on factory floors, coding, APIs, and what marketing can do. Marketing has shifted to use technology and machines to handle inefficient tasks. I’m comfortable in that world, and that gave me the ability to speak today’s marketing language.
CMO.com: What do you know now that you wished you had known then?
Lord: I would have paid more attention in my math classes in college and focused on statistics and pattern recognition. I went through all of this in engineering school, and had I known that the data scientist role would be so critical in marketing, I would have paid better attention. It didn’t occur to me in 1990 that engineering and math rigor would impact marketing today.
The other thing, looking back now, is I would have loved to understand the importance of the consumer voice and the way that two-way communication would dramatically change the craft of marketing. Just think about three years ago. There was still a lot of one-way communication going on, and now you can’t do marketing without listening to the consumer.
CMO.com: You recently moved from Razorfish to AOL. What skills that you acquired on the agency side do you think will prove most useful now that you are with a technology/media company?
Lord: Through my career on the front line running the company, I worked with a lot of marketing leaders and heard firsthand their frustrations about how complex the marketing world has become. I gained an understanding of what it’s like to be in the CMO’s seat and what it’s like being on the agency side, so I think I’m well-prepared for my role here at AOL to try and solve marketing’s problems—globally. I’m focused on simplifying a complex and confusing digital marketing process.
CMOs don’t care about process; they want to know that their marketing will get through to consumers and move their business forward. My mandate is simplifying and building technology and technology platforms to simplify the world for CMOs and CEOs. It’s about using machines to simplify this complex digital landscape. When you look at the elegance of Apple or even Google Search, it’s about simplicity and that their products are easy to use. I’ve been tasked to do that through technology, not through arms and legs.
CMO.com: What was your proudest moment at Razorfish?
Lord: I left Razorfish at the end of July, and I have so many proud moments. But part of it was the survival of the company. In 2001 to 2002, analysts were saying that Razorfish was going to go bankrupt. Anyone I talked to told me that focusing on the intersection of technology and advertising wouldn’t be wise. They told me I needed to pick one. What I was able to do was navigate through turbulent times and live the vision the founders had. And then we were named one of Ad Age’s top 10 agencies in 2012. It was the first time a digital agency was on the list. We continued to operate in the intersection of advertising and technology, regardless of what the industry “experts” said. So when we made that list, that was my proudest moment.
CMO.com: What are your first priorities at AOL Networks?
Lord: Understanding what’s under the covers. I’ve just sat through product reviews in Baltimore and Palo Alto, and realized there are gems of innovation all over the company. My priority is to know all the activities going on and then take the hidden gems and use them to answer the CMO problem of simplification. Tim Armstrong is an unbelievable leader. He said to me, “Bob, I just want you to sit back, learn, and observe.” We are here to create a company that delivers incredible value to its clients. That’s important--to have a boss give me the ability to learn and then think. Sometimes we jump in too quickly into numbers and make shortsighted decisions.
CMO.com: What are the biggest opportunities for publishers today from a digital perspective?
Lord: I think for publishers it is all about programmatic and automatic, and what I mean is making it easy to match what advertisers are looking for to the demand you are supplying. And I don’t mean just unreserved inventory. I’m talking about premium, too. The opportunity for publishers is making premium easier to get to. Then there’s also the real-time component and giving advertisers access to live advertising, so they can react to contextual events in the world right now. That’s a big opportunity for publishers as well. What happened with Oreo during the Super Bowl was just the beginning. How cool would it be for a brewer to be able to offer New Yorkers free beer at their local bar when the Yankees win the World Series?
CMO.com: What, in your opinion, is AOL Networks’ competitive advantage?
Lord: When you take the tech stack and all of the marketing abilities AOL Networks has with regard to media content and distribution, there’s only one other company that has the same capabilities, and that is Google. What I saw was the ability to leverage that tech stack up a level and take more share. There are a lot of different pieces of that tech stack that marketers will soon learn about.
One other thing is if you look at AOL, it reinforces my belief of convergence in marketing. It is an organization that focuses on content, creativity, and technology simultaneously. I wrote a book called “Converge: Transforming Business at the Intersection of Marketing and Technology.” The thesis of the book is that there are three silos that companies oftentimes operate in: content, creativity, and technology. You can’t operate like that anymore. AOL can deliver to all three simultaneously on behalf of clients.
CMO.com: What keeps you up at night?
Lord: The pace of change. There are so many shiny objects. There’s a low cost now to break into the market, and there are some smart people out there doing things. Having a pulse in that world is important for a company. But how do you keep your finger on all these new things? I mean, how do you know Instagram is going to turn into Instagram?
CMO.com: If you could give brand CMOs three pieces of advice, what would they be?
Lord: My first piece of advice is to understand how to code. Understand how you actually create a Web page and what an API is. Understand the basic tech lingo, and not because you’re going to deliver anything. When you understand basic technology logic of bits and bites, you think about things differently and come up with a richer, more effective solution.
The second piece of advice would be to act like a startup with parts of campaigns. A lot of marketers are going through laborious focus groups and testing. Sometimes you need to get it out quickly and change and iterate. The technology world operates under an agile methodology--lots of daily meetings to figure out how to change things fast. Marketers need to start acting like startups.
The last piece of advice is embrace diversity in your organization. The 19-year-old math major at MIT can sometimes come up with a better creative idea because he gets Google mash-up better than an executive. Embrace all types of people to solve a problem, and you will get a better result in the long run.
CMO.com: What's the most important question I did not ask you?
Lord: It is all about CMOs learning what questions to ask. It is interesting. In my career I’ve encountered CMOs who have had a CTO-like education and those CMOs who have a legacy in brand-building and TV spots, and the technology-minded folks are more analytical, more targeted, and much more iterative. They are also asking their partners the right questions. You don’t want to get caught where you’re thinking Google search is best, but your attribution analysis will tell you otherwise. Know what to ask your providers.