Interview with Russ Klein, CEO, American Marketing Association — Transformational CMO Keynote Speaker

The Millennium Alliance is thrilled to announce the participation of Russ Klein, CEO from the American Marketing Association is joining us at Transformational CMO Assembly as our keynote speaker. In the run-up to the event, we sat down with the “flamethrower” himself and quizzed him a little about his career, what’s next for the marketing industry and what advice he would give to CMOs looking to capitalize on the ‘Digital Industrial Revolution’.

Having held top marketing positions at several of North America’s top brands, how has marketing changed during your career?

RK: I’ll answer that question with a line from Ernest Hemingway’s novel in which a character was asked… “How did you go bankrupt?” ….to which the response was… “Gradually, then suddenly.”

My point is that the field has always been a dynamic one, and change management has always been a factor. More recently, however, there is an abruptness and suddenness to the types of changes we’re experiencing. The “four P’s” have changed significantly. Not Product, life solutions. Not Price, time/knowledge (privacy could become currency too) have emerged as alternate perhaps more valuable currency. Not Place, but context (access/immediacy), not Promotion, but storytelling/co-creation/trust-building. And the 5th P for People is now personalization.

Digital technology has been driving marketing over the past few years. As we head towards what some call a ‘Digital Industrial Revolution’, what advice do you have for CMOs looking to stay ahead of this revolution? What trends are you keeping your eye on?

RK: First, keep your eye on the customer. Keep your eye on the transcendent brands that have set the standard for expected frictionless user experiences across all categories…like it or not those brands are setting the hurdles for customer engagement and satisfaction. No brand lives alone in any space anymore.

Learn about blockchain technology…it is the next seismic tectonic global structural shift getting ready to explode suddenly on the scene. Marketers must not take their eye off strategy and branding. They must embrace the distributed power that sits outside their company’s four walls and not let the mountains of data paralyze them into inaction.

The most valuable learning a CMO can gain is by acting…. learning by doing.

With this ‘industrial revolution’, comes the emergence of numerous technology, giving rise to the term ‘MarTech’. Automation software, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence are just a couple of examples. How do marketers cut through the buzz, understand and become fluent in the language of technology?

RK: Tough, 2017 will be the first year that the CMO’s MarTech budget is now larger than the CIO’s budget! Marketing is requiring a new breed of athlete who starts out as much more of a specialist given the depth and complexity of the platforms and technologies to which you’re referring. A CMO’s job has two very new challenges in their job description.

  1. How do I recruit, train, and develop the right talent for now, but ensure they can acquire broader managerial and leadership skill sets that will eventually be required for their ascension in the organization?
  2. How do I maintain my influence on the branding and strategic issues of the business while also becoming a connector and integrator necessary to bring a systems-thinking approach to the business’s marketing activities and contextual understanding of the world around them?

What ‘MarTech’ do you predict will fuel future digital marketing strategies?

RK: Internally enterprise bots that help democratize access to data in real-time throughout the enterprise. Externally, AI driven marketing automation.

ChatBots and messaging apps are becoming increasingly popular with consumers. Is this indicative of another shift in marketing, one ignited by the rise of individualism, the desire for privacy and the quest for more personal brand experiences? What does this say about how marketers should be targeting millennials?

RK: I wrote a blog on the rise of individualism. It’s a complicated subject. I am concerned there is a Content Marketing bubble. I used to say a brand = the promise + the experience. Marketers spent more than 75 years in the promise-making business with little commitment to the experience. Then brands like SBUX came along and created their brand through experience alone (very little promise-making). Of course, many have now followed. The new equation is that a brand = the story + experience. The story factor isn’t just about storytelling, it’s also a realization that a brand’s story is now co-created, and as a result not entirely in a marketer’s control.

[Tangent] I also think brands should be more careful about playing political cards in the marketplace. Social impact and the broader more noble pursuit of sustainability doesn’t have to be politicized. I am concerned when brands play a role in the political tumult, they fuel division; despite their principled intentions. I don’t understand why we all agree internal office politics is toxic, but don’t see the analogous unintended consequences externally. There’s so much we could get done by focusing on the common ground inside Social and Sustainability agendas instead.

With a wealth of customer data, there has never been a time when a marketer has been more armed with information! How can senior marketers leverage the data to create meaningful connections on an individualized level, and ensure they are delivering powerful experiences?

RK: Of course, everyone is talking about the role of design thinking as part of the marketer’s expanding skillset. We (Bain and BK) created Design Targeting at Burger King back in 2003, which was about fusing Design Thinking approaches to building customer advocacy/promoters. My only advice on experience design is to remember that brands don’t design experiences…. they design for experiences. The “dirt path” a customer is taking is very likely there because it’s now permanently etched into their habits. Stop trying to force them onto a sidewalk when they would prefer you plant flowers along their dirt path.

Are there any brands whose marketing strategy stands out to you?

RK: I love GroupOn’s customer insight in that “you can own stuff or you own experiences”. I love Subaru’s work. Amazon. Massage Envy. LaQuinta. Choice Hotels. Garmin. Lifetime Network. Southwest Airlines. I could go on but these are all brands that have not just experiences that deliver or exceed customer expectations, they have great insight into their customers.

In any company, the culture and leadership often makes or breaks digital transformation. Back in 2016, you spoke at the Leadership Summit, where you said “Positivity and optimism are the stuff of magic. It’s the magician’s elixir and the opening to possibility thinking which is the stuff of transformational creativity.” Can you tell us a little more about why these leadership qualities are so vital to a successful transformation?

RK: This answer could go on forever. I’m a believer in predictive language. That is, what you say and how you say it is predictive of outcomes. I’m not delusional about it, but I know that any transformation is going to hit low points when you simply must “believe to see.” Positivity isn’t just pixie dust…the science and empirical data on the power of positive thinking is abundant. If you can paint a co-created vision in which your team can see themselves playing an epic role…you have a chance.

Positivity is about being willing to think epic.

With only a few weeks until you keynote the Transformational CMO Assembly, can you give our readers a taste of what you’ll be talking about?

RK: Maybe some of these things!

Building the suspense there! What do you see as the benefits of attending an event like ours, that brings together C-Level executives in an intimate setting?

RK: I consider myself a “node” as part of the marketing system out there…and I hope to make more connections and learn from the current network of marketing leaders…perhaps spur or provoke conversation that allows them to connect with one and other. The power of a connected-intelligence that’s possible in today’s network-based world is going to continue to grow geometrically. Every input we generate adds to that increasing value. Hopefully, I’ll tip in something! Then I’ll shut up and listen.

“Blessed is the man who having nothing to say abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact!” — George Eliot.

Thanks so much to Russ for taking the time to chat with us. We look forward to hearing more at the Transformational CMO Assembly, April 2–4, 2017 in Dallas, TX. For more information, please visit the website >>

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ABOUT RUSS KLEIN

Russ Klein has led marketing teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names — holding top marketing posts at Dr Pepper/7UP Companies, 7-Eleven Corporation, Burger King Corporation, Church’s Chicken, and Arby’s Restaurant Group.

Russ has been named to “top marketer” lists spanning three decades, including his Burger King body of work that was recognized by ADWEEK as “The Advertiser of the Decade” for the 2000’s.

Under his leadership, his teams’ work-product has received scores of industry awards for excellence with particular distinction for creativity, including a Titanium Lion at Cannes; Russ also led new product innovation teams with three products named New Product of the Year.

Klein was responsible for the most highly recalled advertising campaign ever measured by Nielsen’s IAG Research; “Whopper Freakout”.

Klein was a leader in ushering in the age of digital marketing with the microsite “Subservient Chicken” that was recognized by the Wall Street Journal as the “Digital Ad of the Decade” for the 2000’s; and a groundbreaking partnership with Microsoft’s Xbox creating a suite of games featuring BK advertising icons that became the second best-selling suite of games in Xbox history.

Russ has had the rare privilege to lead marketing for three major business turnarounds generating record sales performance and profitability in excess of 600% combined returns for shareholders.

As CEO for the American Marketing Association, Russ is charged with the transformation of the AMA to become the definitive force and voice shaping marketing best and next practices worldwide. Klein was once nicknamed “Flamethrower” by an industry publication for his managerial boldness and provocative advertising, but he now aspires to be the torch bearer for all marketers.