From Engineer to CMO: How My Unlikely Path Unveiled the Purpose and Power of Marketing
By Mayur Gupta
I was recently asked to talk about my journey from an engineer to the Chief Marketing Officer at Freshly. My initial response was, “Oh, that’s easy!” But I quickly realized it isn’t, especially when you feel that you may not have anything particularly special to share. As I reflected on my career trajectory, though, I realized that maybe my mistakes and the lessons I learned are what make my experience stand out.
At the core of this transformation lies the belief that engineering is more than a profession or an academic degree — it is a mindset. As long as we build technology not just for the sake of it, but for a larger mission or purpose, we have the power to anticipate people’s needs, solve their problems, shape their experiences and improve their lives. And this is where marketing, with both a systems thinking approach and a focus on outcomes, can make all the difference.
But first, let me rewind.
I grew up in New Delhi, India, where it’s common for a single college spot or job opening to draw thousands of applications. So, at a young age, we learn to choose between what makes our hearts happy and what’s going to help us earn a living.
That’s why my mother encouraged me to become a computer engineer — a field that was and continues to be in high demand in a country of 1.3 billion people — despite my passion for playing cricket.
After earning a master’s degree in computer science, I did my internship at HCL Technologies as a C++ developer and then joined SapientNitro as a Java/J2EE developer in India in 2001. I moved to the client side to build an online education platform in Scottsdale, AZ in 2002. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I acted as a hammer for a few years, and, in that phase, everything I saw looked like a nail. In other words, I wasn’t thinking of outcomes, solving problems or altering human habits. Instead, I was simply churning out code (and at times code with a lot of bugs and memory leaks).
My career took an unexpected turn in 2006, and I owe that to one of my mentors, David Murphy, senior vice president and managing director of SapientNitro in the UK. Our company had just acquired an AdTech Platform — BridgeTrack by Planning Group International — and David entrusted me with the responsibility of being a Product Lead. The role moved me from a world of pure technology to building platforms and products for the world of marketing and advertising.
After work hours, I would often pour over Wikipedia (with most simple explanations), reading everything I could on pixels, publishers, ad server, bid management and other topics I was alien to. Little did I know that my life was about to change in ways that I, with my restricted perspective and narrow view, could not even imagine.
Before I knew it, it was 2009 and as is common in any growth company, I had an evolved role. It now included co-leading a production studio as well as spearheading marketing technology strategies for a number of Fortune 100 clients. It was yet another step closer to using technology to solve consumer problems and business needs.
I ventured out of Sapient University, as I have fondly dubbed it, and joined Kimberly Clark as their first-ever Chief Marketing Technologist in 2012 and was soon profiled on Harvard Business Review. This experience taught me about the application of technology for a broader outcome and how to influence change in a 150-year-old organization that straddles 80-plus markets.
In fact, I now believe that technology is the interface of marketing. As I look around at the myriad successful companies and brands around us, it’s clear that they are using technology, innovation, data and science to solve basic yet unsolved human needs.
Marketing is no longer just about catchy creatives or hilarious advertisements. It’s about trying, failing, learning and experimenting. It’s about offering experiences that forge connections with consumers and inspire behavioral change. It needs to be an “always-on” experience for an “always-on” consumer, who is making life decisions at 12 a.m. without waiting for our next campaign.
It’s also time for the field of marketing to move beyond being complicated and complex. The only way we can sell technology is by translating it to its simplest form. If we can’t do that, we may not fully understand what we’re trying to sell.
So, when faced with a choice between building technological solutions and creating products that matter, I went with marketing — an unexpected choice, considering I knew next to nothing about the field.
I do know, however, that we have all, at one point or another, been victims of marketing, with marketers using diverse channels to sell stuff and talk at us without understanding what we really want and need, and interrupting our lives as opposed to offering experiences that enhance and change them.
Marketing can be inauthentic, false, and broken.
The biggest challenge and opportunity for marketing is to stop marketing. We have to unlearn marketing. It’s time to initiate conversations and engage with people, listen, understand and imagine if not predict human needs and do the best you can to meet them. The traditional model of a campaign with a start and end date does not work any more for a consumer who is buying at her own choice of time, location and channel. Marketing has to become always-on, always listening, engaging, analyzing and then trying again.
The need for speed in marketing now supersedes the desire for perfection.
‘Systems Thinking’ Unpacked
It’s easy to be intimidated by the academics of marketing — the four As, the four Ps, x number of Cs, templates, frameworks, and more — until you realize a basic fact: the consumer experience you deliver is a reflection of who you are as a brand, as an organization. I may not have always understood the nuances of marketing, but as an engineer I could see how fragmented it was. I could see all the different parts and I at least knew how to stitch them together.
I saw how brands had data but they had no insights that were actionable. If they were lucky enough to have insights, they did not have the pipes that would feed these insights into media buying or personalizing the consumer experience. For most brands, online and offline were two isolated worlds, but not for the consumer. These were all different teams, building different parts for their respective outputs and goals that never came together to deliver an integrated, seamless and frictionless consumer experience that would inspire behavioral change.
That’s ‘Systems Thinking’, which became marketing for me.
Let me put it another way: Companies are trying to sell a tire, a chassis, an axle or a steering wheel; but, at the end of the day, people are looking for a fully assembled car. And most businesses only have pieces of the car; they also don’t have the blueprint for what the car looks like, let alone having a car that they can then sell to the consumer.
It’s what I call “the engineering of marketing”. It’s not subjective, it is measurable. It should be held accountable for outcomes — not outputs.
Here’s where an engineer’s mindset helps to put all the components together so companies can build a car a.k.a. the ultimate consumer experience. Remember, the buyers are not focused on the greatest tire or the best car seat — they are trying to get from Place A to Place B, for which they need an entire car.
And then came the second inflection point.
‘Serendipity of Marketing’
The experience as a Chief Marketing Technologist taught me how marketing and technology could impact human behavior. But it was my time at Spotify, starting in 2016, that shaped me tremendously as a marketer, thanks largely to Seth Farbman, ex-CMO at Spotify. It made me realize the value of a purpose-driven brand that is not merely part of a culture but is actively shaping culture. It also taught me that data, science and technology can drive mechanical growth for a company, but the irrationality and serendipity of marketing helps build an emotional and cultural connection with a brand, which in turn generates long-term sustained growth.
Exponential growth occurs when you grow the brand, the user base and the user value — it’s not an either-or situation.
Another take away for me from Daniel Ek, Spotify’s co-founder and CEO, is the fact that the only moat surrounding an organization in this day and age is its ability to move faster than the competition — everything else just becomes a commodity at one point or another.
Companies and leaders can no longer be afraid of chaos; they need to harness it. Exponential speed and growth cannot work alongside excessive structure and organization.
That can only happen when people have trust within the leadership; when they have the freedom to fail, and when those failures are celebrated as much as successes.
Marketing needs to protect and reflect a company’s culture — both internally and externally — and reflect its values and belief system through the brand. The culture you intend to shape with your brand is a reflection of the culture you build internally. That’s what creates resilient brands that will stand the test of time.
The art and science of leadership lies in how you build a culture that inspire the ability and appetite to run at 100 mph when you can only see 10 feet ahead.
At the same time, CEOs should hold marketing teams accountable for the overarching growth of businesses. Connect the growth of a cultural brand with the growth of your business and use science to prove that incrementality. The two should not and cannot be isolated anymore.
My understanding of marketing has been built on real-life experiences and mistakes on the fly. And there could not have been a better platform for me than Freshly, where I joined in January 2019. With an authentic purpose and mission to change people’s lives by inspiring and enabling them to eat healthier, it has given me and my team a beautiful canvas to draw out our orchestration of modern marketing. An engineer’s world of marketing.
Originally published at https://medium.com on April 19, 2019.