Beautiful Thinkers: Russ Klein, CEO of The AMA

Carolyn Hadlock
Mar 27, 2018 · 7 min read

On stakeholder management and setting the stage to do original work

Russ Klein was one of the original architects of the campaign that turned Burger King around in 2004. He hired the then unknown CP+B to help create some of the most memorable work in contemporary advertising. Whether Russ was on the agency side, client side, or leading the industry, his quest for originality has never waned. There isn’t a CMO who couldn’t benefit from his experience and advice.

10 pieces of advice for CMOs today who are seeking to be original.

1. Build your brand with a twin-engine approach.
Brand = story + experience. Neither one can operate without the other. If either one of them is zero then the brand is zero. This underscores the importance for a CMO to partner with operations. Good stakeholder management is involving them early. It’s possible to inspire an operating partner to do something differently if they understand that it’s part of a customer experience.

2. Don’t relegate your agency to just storytelling.
CMO’s should involve their agency in non-advertising issues. They should allow their agency to challenge them and get in their face around the experience. A lot of agencies don’t think they have the right to go in say things like, “Your product isn’t useful right now.” Or “Your product is high friction. Let us tell you ways that you can subtract friction from the customer experience. Let us tell you how we can help design it and then how storytelling can surround the experience. A lot of agencies aren’t asserting themselves yet into the full equation of what it takes to build a brand. The brand is the story + the experience. If you’re only working on one side of it you’re not going to build a healthy brand.

Crispin Porter got this. I fired Y&R and hired CP+B in the dark of night after working with them for two consecutive weekends. For our second session they’d covered the walls of their conference room with concepts. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that I saw the first TV commercial. Everything before that was about the retail experience.

3. A CMO’s job is to set the stage for doing original work.
I knew chances of doing great advertising would be multiplied if I could find a way to make creative briefs more productive and more useful as opposed to checking the box. The creative brief that I handed to Crispin the first day was based on identifying the source of tension in the intersection of the customer, the brand, and the need state. If you can find that tension, that’s where great advertising lives.

4. CMO’s must develop better taste and strategic sense.
Unfortunately as it relates to tastemakers there are more fine agencies than there are client side tastemakers. I remember a story of a person who was a career defense attorney. They became a prosecutor and said they could actually keep more innocent people out of jail by being a prosecutor than by being a defense attorney. That’s when I Ieft Leo Burnett to go client side. I wanted be a CMO for the same reason: To get good work on the air. When you’re on the agency side you can’t will, no matter what, the client to have good taste or good strategic senses.

5. Instead of testing creative work at the end, invest in understanding the consumer in the beginning.
In all my time as a CMO, I have never done a piece of copy research. I didn’t want to flog creative concepts with research. Testing would only get in between the human process of knowing the customer and selecting the work that I felt would be the right work.

My view was, and still is, that if a CMO has any interest of being original, they need to invest heavily in the upstream with consumer insights and downstream after it’s in the marketplace because stakeholders need evidence that it’s working.

6. Stakeholder management early is critical to getting good work developed.
There’s a key difference between stakeholder management and consensus management. Consensus management by definition creates winners and losers, abdicating the decision to others. Stakeholder management means collaborating early with all the people who matter, without abdicating the decision rights. To think that it’s respectful collaboration to pull someone in late in the process is disrespectful.

It’s important to know who the stakeholders are and where they are on the spectrum. Are they for you? Are they for the work? Or are they against the work? Are they against you? Or are they neutral? The methodical process of knowing who those stakeholders are and having a plan for moving as many of them to at least neutral is how I organized my thinking.

7. Layers can weaken the process — and the work.
I never allowed layered presentations. I never let an agency be victimized by an assistant brand manager and then a brand manager and then a brand director and then a brand vice president. I always put everybody in the room at the same time and I used it to teach younger people about evaluating work. I always thought it was unfair to put an agency in front of someone who’s not a decision maker.

8. Skilled humans develop insights. Big data alone, doesn’t.
Insights don’t reside in the data warehouse. Data resides in the data warehouse. Insights are still the job of the humans managing it. And not every piece of data leads to an insight. Having to know what data matters and what data can deliver a high yield insight is a management skill for a team and the CMO.

When it relates to the branding and brand health and advertising effectiveness I tend to favor qualitative anthropological insights from observation of social behavior of customers who represent your overall customer base like the deprivation study we did that led to Whopper freakout. There are more high yield insights to be generated in that dynamic than there is by a survey generated for 10,000 people.

An example of a high-yield insight is a pricing insight that related to Whoppers. The team had done some customer pricing work. They came into my office and said, “We’ve got to introduce a triple Whopper.” They told me that I couldn’t let the customer research on the triple whopper alone be my guide. After we launched the triple whopper I got a call from a franchisee who said, “I’m selling like two or three of these things a day. I had to train my crew how to make a triple Whopper; the bun heel is not built for that much meat so it gets crushed and soggy. It’s not a great product.” Which was true. I asked him to look at his double whopper sales to see how they were doing. There was silence on the phone and he said, “Wow, my double whopper sales are up 55%.” While I didn’t know how much his sales had increased, I knew they’d be up. We knew, because of the centrist theory of people. When they saw a single, a double and a triple, they migrated towards the double. That’s real insight. If I had said, I’m going to look at the data on the triple Whopper and find that the customer satisfaction is not very high; I’m not introducing that product. I could have easily found reasons not to do it. After learning that the “goldilocks theory” could drive more sales; we could then focus our team on improving the Triple Whopper product for even those few who ordered it.

9. Embrace a learning culture, not a “data driven” one.
Data is everywhere now. It’s in every aspect of every organization, every department. In the context of marketing the most important thing I could say is to build a culture that is not a data driven culture, but a learning culture. Where curiosity gets rewarded and failure doesn’t get punished.

10. Make sure the organization you’re joining is actually marketing-driven.
Not every job I’ve had has been marketing driven. I’ve warned younger marketers who think that they’re joining a brand because it’s a household name to be careful. It may have become a household name for reasons other than marketing. One example I would give is 7-Eleven where I worked. We were successful during my stint there. But they are not a marketing driven organization. They are very much a merchandising driven organization. They have a retail mentality and are an operations culture. Just because we all think of Slurpees, Brainfreezes and Big Gulps you might think they are a prolific marketing organization. It’s not that they would explicitly say they aren’t, but behaviorally they aren’t. It can be a great company but if the culture is dominated by other functional executives, a CMO may find it to be tough slogging. Although it’s difficult for me to concede that any company is functioning at its peak performance if marketing has no seat at the table.”


Eunoia is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. It means beautiful thinking. This blog is a collection of just that, beautiful thinking from the worlds of art, advertising and culture.

Carolyn Hadlock

Written by

Principal, Executive Creative Director, Young & Laramore,



Eunoia is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. It means beautiful thinking. This blog is a collection of just that, beautiful thinking from the worlds of art, advertising and culture.