Flashes of Brilliance: In Conversation With Amber Skinner-Jozefson

Flashes of Brilliance: In Conversation With Amber Skinner-Jozefson

In Conversation with Amber Skinner-Jozefson, CEO, Co-Founder and Fractional CMO.

1. Many view the CMO role as the pinnacle of a marketing career, yet you’ve held both CMO and CEO positions. What qualities define a great CMO, and why should more CMOs be considered for CEO roles?

That’s a good question, and I have strong opinions about this. I think CMOs make great CEOs because, especially today, I have experience in the startup and fintech space, so smaller organisations that are very, very fast-moving. If you’ve gotten to the CMO level, you’ve probably been doing marketing for a long time. There are some things you’ve learned to deal with and work through successfully as a CEO if you’ve made it there. Some of those things are really important for being a CEO and the first one is learning how to make decisions, being really decisive with not a lot to work with.

It has been a long time, like 5-7 years, since I’ve heard things like “oh gosh, marketing budget is not a problem. We can pay for that”. “Bring whatever agency on board, you need to, don’t worry, we can fund that”. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anything like that around marketing or in any marketing conversation, which means CMOs and marketing leaders in general know how to work with tremendous uncertainty in their budget.

Often you will hear things like “this quarter, actually, we’ve shuffled things around last minute, and we haven’t consulted you, and we’re going to put this towards X” or, “the executives at the top have decided that they are gung-ho about this one particular initiative. It may fall within marketing, it may not. Anyway, the budget has been allocated and sorry, we didn’t consult you”. If you’ve made it to a CMO level, you’re used to hearing something like that, dealing with it, and then driving results anyway.

This is important as a skill set for CEOs to make decisions, act decisively with not a lot (budget or context or the full scope of information), and not being able to allocate and partition resources in a way you thought. This is really not ideal. Operating as a CEO is almost always dealing with non-ideal situations. That’s really important and something that CMOs have really mastered. 

2. Marketing departments often face the first budget cuts. How do you market the value of marketing itself and measure the ROI of marketing initiatives?

One thing that I see as really difficult for a lot of new CMOs is when they get into the position, they want to make some big initiatives without first doing some internal stakeholdering. And by that, I mean, just as we do for campaigns—when we’re mapping audiences and doing our legwork for marketing externally—we do this naturally, which is figuring out who our decision-makers are, who are the influencers to those decision makers, and where the matrix of power lies.

What I see CMOs not always doing systematically, which is a mistake in my opinion, is not doing that internally for their counterparts and the folks who are going to be making important judgements of their performance.  

The first thing that I recommend for CMOs when you land is to figure out the internal matrix of how decisions are made. Usually, diametrically opposite to the CMO is the CFO. It’s not the same in every organisation, but you need to figure out what matters to that particular organisation. If you’re coming in and you want to do a whole rebrand and you know in your heart of hearts that that’s what needs to be done, but you haven’t done the internal stakeholdering to get that buy-in, it’s going to land flat. If that’s not important to the organisation or the decision-makers in that organisation, it’s going to land flat. That’s one important thing that all CMOs should do, which is internal mapping of your audiences, stakeholders, and those influencers and then work to that. 

Regarding measurement and metrics, which are really important and there are loads of metrics that you could throw up there. Again, I would come back to what is important to the business. The first six months are crucial. Being a CMO in that first six months is as much an internal campaign as it is anything external facing. 

When you get in there, you want to figure out quickly what is important to the organisation and it’s not necessarily what is in the strategy or the plan. You need to figure that out quickly. You need to figure out which areas are no-go as well, and you need to figure out how you’re going to influence and put your agenda across and how it’s going to support the larger organisational goals. It’s as much an internal campaign as it is an external campaign.

You mentioned CMOs are often the first role from the C-Suite to be axed and it’s true; the CMO has the shortest tenure of any of the C-Suite positions. You need to shape your metrics and measurement against what’s important to the business stakeholders. You could start by aligning your metrics with what’s critical for the business and establish a scope that suits your needs. You can choose to keep it broad, focusing on overall marketing ROI, for instance, or you can go into more granular detail focusing on channel content and specific campaigns. If you’re going all in on something like thought leadership and it’s not producing what the business needs because their expectation of marketing is that it’s going to contribute to the revenue generation engine in a very tangible way, then you know some adjustments need to be made.

There are tons of metrics that you could put up there. I would say cherry-pick and choose the ones that you really champion as your North Star, the ones that you put on the CXO dashboard, ones that really align to what the business needs and wants.  

3. As a fractional leader with deep expertise, do you tend to stick to proven methods, or do you experiment with new ideas and approaches? 

Not to be cliché, but it all depends. It depends on the business, the mission, and how long you’re there for. One of the benefits of going with a fractional leader is that they’ve seen many things, experienced a lot, and hopefully have failed along the way. You’re not getting somebody who’s done only one thing in one kind of organisation with one kind of mission unless that aligns perfectly with what you’re trying to do. Otherwise, there are going to be gaps and probably misalignments.

That’s one of the benefits of going with a fractional leader: you can expect that they have a rich body of experience to draw from. Even if they are replicating something they’ve seen work in the past, it will have been varied and pulled from a library that’s varied enough that it is applicable. When I get in there, I really like working as a fractional leader because you can usually get a very clear brief. And if it’s not clear, you’re in a position to say, “Look, I am here for a limited amount of time. I’m not here every day, it’s a couple of months, or six months, or 12 months. I want to get as much done as possible. This is what I need to succeed,” and you can shape and hone what you need to fast-track that in a way that I’ve found is more efficient than if you’re embedding as a long-term permanent CMO. Not to say that it’s not possible, but there is an understanding with going in as a fractional leader that this stuff needs to be done quickly and so it needs to be made available.

Regarding experimentation, that’s something I always like to test when I’m doing stakeholder landscape scanning and audience mapping. Internally, I like to scan the appetite for experimentation. So if you’ve got one exec who’s gung-ho about experimentation, fantastic. That’s something that you can lean into as long as that person is in a position to influence the Executive Committee’s decision-making or is not seen as a maverick, which is not appreciated by the Executive Committee.

Again, it takes you back to those first six months when you’ve really got to assess who you’re working with, who are the decision-makers, who are the influencers, and what does the business really need? Do they need experimentation? Do they need something that’s a bit more bold, different, a departure? Then it’s working backwards to make sure that everyone understands along the way why it is needed, tagged to the objectives that have been set for you. These are the business’s objectives. This is how we’re going to get there, and one of the options might be a huge departure from what you’re doing right now.

4. Many businesses offer similar products and target similar groups. How do you craft a marketing strategy that stands out from the competition?

I would say overall you’re right, there’s just a lot more out there. The volume of things you can buy and who you can buy them from has exploded with the proliferation of micro companies and brands, which is fantastic for consumers. However, it’s also confusing for consumers and a headache if you’re an emerging brand, or even an established one. I would suggest that this is a conversation that needs to happen not just at a marketing level but also at a product and strategy level. The goal is to figure out what you do well that does not put you most of the time in direct opposition to an already crowded space of players. 

If you’re going head-to-head against folks who are already there and established, that’s tough. If you’re competing against other players who are at a similar stage of maturation in terms of your product, brand, offering, or services, that’s another challenge. So this is a larger question for the organisation: how do we avoid going head-to-head with an incumbent? Then, you work backward from there and ask the same question of your marketing team—strategy, design, comms. How do we avoid going head-to-head with an incumbent? That might be in the topics, subjects, or themes that you choose to address and that you really put a stake in the ground in terms of your opinion, your voice, or your position around, for instance, climate change, ethical production practices, or civil rights. 

 It should be something that is already baked into your DNA that’s not a departure from what your company actually is and cares about. It could be in your branding, the content you decide to publish or release, or the channels you choose to own. So with your whole marketing team, you go through that exercise again: How do we avoid going head-to-head with an incumbent and how do we pick a space, theme, or brand that we can own? It’s the same question for the company and that might just be, we decided to do this product differently, deliver it differently, or integrate it differently and that might be the hook. It’s a question for the company and also specifically for the marketing team.     

5. What are the most effective ways for a fractional CMO to make a significant impact when entering a business?

Fractional marketing is unique in that you cannot go in, do something in a corner, and then after 30 days emerge and say, “Wow, look at what I’ve done.” Sometimes, in roles like finance, you can do that, and it’s more expected. But marketing, much like HR and sales, touches so many parts of the company that this approach isn’t feasible. You can’t just receive your marching orders, go sit in a corner, not talk to anyone, and emerge with a strategy that will wow everyone. That’s not really an option. You have to start integrating yourself with different parts of the company immediately. And it’s crucial to consider what parts of the business you’ve been brought in to improve.  

Since marketing touches so much, you’ve got to talk to lots of different people and figure out what’s going on with other teams. That doesn’t mean you need to spend all your time embedding yourself with other teams, but you need to have conversations and be really articulate about explaining to everyone what you’re here to do. This is especially helpful in the first 30 days, the first 60 days when you need to be doing your groundwork, gathering intelligence, and formulating your strategy.

It really helps if, along the way, you can drop hints about what you’re planning to do, what you aim to achieve while you’re there, and what you will be changing, to give people a heads-up and get them on your side so if you’re going to have those really head-to-head, difficult, tense conversations because you’ll be changing something that another team doesn’t like or doesn’t expect, you should have those pretty early. You should try to figure out what those topics of tension will be and figure out how to unwind them. Unless you have the full backing from the Executive Committee to make unilateral decisions. Although, I’ve never been in that situation where the whole Executive Committee was just hands-off, letting marketing do whatever they need to do. I’ve never walked into a situation like that. So, sowing seeds of collaboration and cooperation early on is important.  

Again, this goes back to what I said before, which is that the first six months, especially, is as much an internal campaign as it is an external one. And for all of the marketers, you know what that means. If you’re building an external omni-channel campaign, you should do the same thing internally.   

6. How have you seen the role of marketing shift in recent years, especially from growth-focused to profitability-focused? How do you assist startups in adapting their marketing strategies to this change?

I think for all marketers, it’s really helpful to have done a stint or had an experience where you’re essentially doing guerrilla marketing. You’re trying to get something out the door and deliver results with essentially no money. There are few marketers who really enjoy that space. It’s painful and tense, but it’s such a good experience.

What is tough, I find, is for marketers who have only worked in very well-resourced teams and companies and then come into a situation where the economy dictates a lot of what we have to do, what we focus on, and the resources that we have at our fingertips. If you’ve only come from a well-resourced team with a lot of agency support, with a lot of internal support, and you find yourself in a smaller team that’s really strapped in terms of budget and you’re asked to make changes, build up a team, build up a department and a function, but with very little resource, that’s tough. That’s going to stretch your experience.

Also, when you’re frequently in a position where you have to explain because, inevitably, you’re either moving people out, hiring people, or doing both, you need to be able to explain to the team that you’re reforming what your expectation is with this amount of money. Maybe instead of an agency, we find a couple of freelancers. This is how we vet them. This is what I would expect in terms of output. This is how we need to press this digital agency in terms of their performance SLAs to fit within our budget. This is how I need to explain to the internal stakeholders, the Executive Committee, about what we’re going to be getting for this money. This is how I set expectations. This is how I manage questions and this is how I deal with the sales team, the customer success team, the product team. This is how I can ring-fence what we’re doing, how we can make the case for more budget. And then looking at a holistic picture of how we’re going to allocate resources differently than what was in the plan because we see that this channel, approach, tactic, or campaign is working well. So we’re going to dial this up, dial this down. But it’s all about checks and balances, and if you haven’t done that before, it’s hard to set expectations and make quick decisions yourself because you’re on the back foot.

7. Where do you see the marketing landscape heading in the next three to five years? What trends or technologies will be transformative? 

You know, it’s really interesting. I’m a bit old school in that I’m a big advocate for marketers having a really solid secondary skill. Marketing is a skill in itself, but it’s too varied to just say, “I’m good at marketing.” What other thing do you really master? The scope of mastery is broadening. It used to be that you might be really good at design or you’re a copywriter as well. Now it extends to community management, community engagement, understanding data, running campaigns—there are more and more options for that other thing you master. So when I look at hiring marketers, there has to be another thing that they feel is at the core of what they do really well. It can’t just be, “I’m a marketer”; that can’t be it. What is the part of marketing that you feel like you excel at? 

In terms of the future, the lines between marketing and product, and marketing and sales, are becoming very blurry for all companies—B2C and B2B, SaaS companies, widget companies, consumer goods, everything. I see marketing taking much more of the share in terms of focus for an organisation because marketing’s ability is going upstream significantly. It’s moving into product and customer success by a lot, influencing many pieces of the business. Whereas up to five years ago, marketing was still somewhat in a box, with digital just starting to explode. Now it’s really moving upstream into other territories, which I think is great. There are some things that marketing does super well. For instance, customer discovery—marketing excels at engaging with people and understanding at a core level who our users are, who the influencers within our audience are, how we reach them, what they care about, what they click on, what they read, what they consume. Marketers know that at a deep level. 

Of course, it seems too broad to say digital marketing will become even more important because digital now encompasses so many different segments—it’s a huge umbrella. But digital will become even more front and center. Things like social media are really changing, especially for DTC brands. What it means in terms of a platform is changing. It’s not just a place for communication, community, and engagement anymore. You can buy directly from these platforms, people can sell directly from these platforms. So, it will be super interesting to see how these platforms and communities find ways to innovate and make the shopping experience, the consumer experience, and the communication and engagement experience even more intertwined, and then see where marketing fits in or drives! 


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