This Is What You Should Ask in a CMO Interview (with Amplitude's Jennifer Johnson)
This Is What You Should Ask in a CMO Interview (with Amplitude's Jennifer Johnson)
Sometimes it can seem like the role of the CMO is just an impossible list of expectations for one person to carry out. And sometimes, CMOs find out what is really expected of them AFTER they join a new company. So how do you make sure your next role is right for you...before signing on the dotted line? On this episode of CMO Conversations, Tricia asks four-time CMO Jennifer "JJ" Johnson to come back on the show to share how she has vetted CMO opportunities throughout her career, her perspective on the evolution (and volatility) of the CMO role, how to interview for the role (including what questions to ask the CEO), and the challenges and opportunities of being the "first-ever" CMO at a new company.
Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends. You can connect with Tricia and JJ on Twitter @triciagellman @jj_cmo @DriftPodcasts
Jennifer JohnsonChief Marketing & Strategy Officer / Board Member / Category Designer
Tricia Gellman: Hi everyone. I'm Tricia Gellman and I'm the CMO of Drift. And you're listening to CMO Conversation. Today I have back on the show, JJ, and we previously did an episode around category creation. If you haven't heard that one, I recommend you go back and listen to that one before we jump in today. But if you're here now, you're here now. So let's just get going. Today. We're going to talk about the role of the CMO and so just for the people who maybe didn't hear the last episode, JJ, you want to introduce yourself again. You're recently joined a new company as a CMO. Just maybe give a little bit of the overview of what you're doing in your new role.
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. Thank you for having me, really happy to be here. I'm JJ. My name is actually Jennifer Johnson, but everyone knows me as JJ. So just call me JJ. I am a four time CMO in enterprise software. I just recently in the last six months joined Amplitude as the chief marketing and strategy officer. So I'm really excited. Category design, please. Yes, go listen to that episode. It was fascinating and I had a great time doing it. I know we're talking about another topic that's near and dear to both of our hearts today, but I am a... anything category design I'm... that's my jam.
Tricia Gellman: That's awesome and that was a fun episode. So thanks for coming back to talk about this other point, which is really why I started this podcast in the first place, because the role of the CMO it's challenging, it's changing and the role of marketing I think is changing. I think it was on a pretty aggressive timeline for change, but I think COVID and work from home and the emphasis on digital has changed it even more. It's rapid, McKinsey and others are saying that digital transformation has happened 10 times faster than it was before. So I think it's impacting, but what would you say, would you say... icebreaker question CMO as a role is in a state of crisis true or false?
Jennifer Johnson: True. True. I'm sorry, is this a one word question or do you want me to elaborate here? I could tell you why I say that.
Tricia Gellman: No, you can elaborate. I think that's the whole point. Today were going to talk about this topic.
Jennifer Johnson: I hate to be dramatic, but it is a bit true. And I'd say the following we have... every C- suite role is difficult for a different reason, right? And the reason that the CMO role is difficult is because A, everyone has an opinion about marketing. We've all... anyone who's sat in this seat knows what that means. And two, it's also trying to be many things to many people. So, I had a situation in one of my past CMO roles where in a two hour span, I had my CEO called me and say, hey, we have a board meeting coming up. The board wants you to do a market landscape overview and assessment, and think about where we want to grow and if we want to pivot into different markets where we want to go. So that was like the 10: 00 AM, right? At noon...
Tricia Gellman: Oh, yeah and of course you need it by 08:00 AM.
Jennifer Johnson: Right. Of course, right. And at noon, my CFO calls me and says, hey, for the next board meeting, I really want you to do a deep dive on demand gen and pipeline and marketing analytics and... okay, both of those things you have to do, right? And so I'm not saying that one is more important than the other, but those are completely different skill sets, right? And I think that's the challenge is that we're trying to be... we have multiple very different functions that roll up to marketing and trying to be equal parts, strategic and operational and category creator and technical and understanding the market landscape and demand gen expert and revenue minded. It's almost, I don't want to say it's impossible but to do all those things well, I really... show me one person that does all those things equally well, I don't think they exist.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah and I think we'll talk about it a little bit. I think this is one of the big things about the CMO is leadership as well, because you have to bring together all of the different experts and people on your team who can help you to do all these things. Because I don't think it's wrong to say that it's too much for one person to do. You can be strong in a couple of the things that you have to do and I think that's the requirement is that you can be really, really... we're starting in a couple. But you're not going to be a superstar in every single one. And if you're just mediocre and you're peanut buttering across everything, you're probably not going to be the best CMO either. So really you have to rely on your team and you have to rely and hire great people and then know how to lead together, which I think is really different than other roles. Sales has a very hard job and the way they're compensated is very challenging, but everyone in the organization is a sales person at the end of the day. And so it's a different thing.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. A hundred percent and it's binary, right? You know if you're succeeding at sales, it's very clear. You're either making your number or you're not. Marketing it's subjective. It's many different things. It's... there's many different ways to measure it. I agree, you need to know what you're great at and you need to know what your blind spots are and then you need to hire for your blind spots. And that to me is always dig deep and the key to my success is I have to hire for my blind spot. That doesn't mean you're not competent at it. It just means that's not your natural go- to place and I think being at a point in your CMO career where you're comfortable enough to say that and communicate that and tell your CEO of that, you don't need to be perfect. You can't be perfect, right? And I think a lot of is building the right team, of course. But a lot of it is also managing expectations and educating the rest of the company and the leadership team and the CEO on a lot of times on what your role is and what it's not, and what you as a CMO bring to the table and where you might need to hire for. So, and I think a lot of people, maybe even earlier in their CMO careers don't... maybe aren't as confident or comfortable having those tougher conversations, and that might be part of the reason why the CMO tenure is probably the... I think it's one of the lowest, if not the lowest in the executive team.
Tricia Gellman: CMO and CRO are... it's funny because everyone talks about the short tenure of CMO, but I've seen the companies that CMO outlast the CROs, but and CRO always tells everybody, if you're a CRO you should expect that within six months. You could not have a job because essentially if you don't make your number like you just said, it's very visible. It's very measurable. There's not a lot of wiggle room and gray area. And so if you're consistently not making your number a lot of times your head's on the way.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. And that's why the CRO and the sales job, that's why it's the hardest around the tables for that reason, right?
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. A hundred percent.
Jennifer Johnson: Everybody has their reason that their job is the hardest.
Tricia Gellman: Well, so the CMO role we talked about it, is very strategic and it's doing all of these different things, but if it's so strategic and it's playing such an important role of bringing together a sales service marketing product, who are we going after? Defining the category, everything. Why do you think is such a late hire? Oftentimes, you have people building product, all of these roles including the CRO or hired before the CMO.
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So what is that saying? You make shit and you sell shit, sorry, was I going to say that? Sorry, am I allowed to say that?
Tricia Gellman: You can say it, yes you can.
Jennifer Johnson: You make stuff and you sell stuff and everything else is BS that line, I think there's a lot of people who very much live by that mantra. I will put a PSA out to any executive recruiter that recruits for marketing that is listening to this podcast. Please do not call someone and tell them marketing is the last piece of the puzzle. Over my career I couldn't even count the number of times that I've heard someone say that, it's a great thing," Oh, they're bringing marketing and is the last piece of the puzzle." That... what I hear on the other end is they didn't value marketing. They left it for the last thing to do because there were other more important things to do to drive the business. And now all of a sudden marketing is coming in. They're probably coming in because there's a problem that they're fixing most likely, either with the team or the company stalled out and they need a category because they need... it's going to be the savior for everything. I've heard this line, many, many names. crosstalk And so you're coming into an organization where you're fixing something that's broken, number one. They're probably looking at you as the savior for some problem, that's beyond marketing to fix. Number two, and you have all these other teams that are more mature than you that have expectations on marketing, and I think there's some times the notion of," Well, you're here," it's like flipping on a light switch." Well, now you're here. So everything should be great."
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. We've had these problems. They actually aggregated over five years, but you're here. So let's... they should be fixed in a week.
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So again, this is part of the reason why the CMO role is the toughest role is because you're usually coming in and you're having to spin plates and do many things and juggle at the same time and it's tough. It's tough.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. It's definitely tough role. So what would you say... we talked about really needing to have a team, there's so many components to marketing. But what would you say is the one skill that marketing leaders will need to have to perform to expectations?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So I think the first is collaboration because there's... I can't think of one strategic initiative across the company that doesn't either touch marketing or is led by marketing. And so you need to be able to collaborate and bring different viewpoints and different teams together around a coordinated strategy and plan, so that's number one. Number two is connecting dots, so it's directly related to collaboration is both connecting dots because you are so central to many different teams. And a lot of times it's just getting people on the same page with the same information, but it's also looking around corners too and being able to see where things are heading, not where they are. It's like that whole notion of like skate where the puck's going to, not where it is. And that really is a lot of the job of marketing is where sales is thinking in 90 day increments, marketing might be looking two, three years out. And so really marketing needs to start their process, well in advance of educating the market and getting all that groundwork laid. So you're just looking at things from a different perspective and so I think it's not just reacting to the business, but it's also predicting where the business is going to go and driving the company to it and communication. That's part of our job as marketers, but internal communication not company comms, but although that's important too, but just internally communicating your strategy, what you're doing. What your priorities are and sometimes it's educating and setting expectations at the same time, that is critically important and I think a lot of people... I always coach my teams on that because I think a lot of people don't inherently think that. Internal communication of what you're doing is just as important as externally actually executing it. So those are... I'm sure there's 20 more, but those are the top things that come to mind.
Tricia Gellman: It's a good list. I think it's really important and I think especially in our previous episode we talked about category creation and that's about making sure that everybody's aligned, and you can't make sure that everyone's aligned across the C- suite and the rest of the company, if you're not communicating to people what it is that you're planning to do as well. So let's say that you are the superpower CMO like yourself, and you've recently been through this interviewing process as a new company. So maybe this is top of mind for you, but what is it that you think a CMO who's interviewing or somebody who wants to be a CMO or is a CMO interviewing for other roles. What should they be looking for themselves? And what kinds of questions should they ask, let's say hypothetically they get an interview one- on- one with a CEO?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So this is a great question. Number one is I interview the CEO as much as I interview the company in general because every role, especially this role, you need to have the CEO's support and backing. And so my interview cycle is actually interviewing the CEO, him or herself as part of the process. And you can learn a lot from understanding the history of marketing in the company and what viewpoint is on it, if you're replacing somebody because they were let go or they're leaving, you obviously you want to understand what happened there, right? If they weren't as successful, why? And how does that translate to what is needed going forward? You can ask questions like, what is his or her definition of marketing? What is the contribution and the value that you're looking for, if they say leads and that's where they go. Of course it's part of it. But if that's all they say, that might tell you what kind of CMO they're looking for. The other thing is just how they think, I like CEOs that are forward- leaning because a lot of what I do is driving the company forward, and so I need to know that they want to go there or are they just being told by their board like," Oh, you need to build a category or you need this." And they're just parroting back the buzzword because I've heard that too. So, you can look at a lot of things. You can ask, even looking at operational things. What is the percentage of revenue that is allocated to marketing? What kind of head count? You can also just glean what the history has been by. Knowing how marketing has been funded will tell you a lot about what they view as the value of that function, so.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. And I like this idea of forward- leaning because we've already talked about your jam being category creation and you can't really create a category if you don't have anybody else on board. But I think another part of that is are they really willing to pivot and to make the change? Because it's also very hard to be tasked with driving that change if everybody's shaking their heads and saying to the board and others, like," Yeah, yeah, we're going to do this." But the fact of the matter is that you have people in the rest of leadership who are micro moves or unable or unwilling direction.
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. It's the most important thing to test for if you're going into do category design, and it's the hardest thing to test for. Because you can ask a CEO, a thousand questions about their willingness to do it, and they're going to shake their head and say, yeah. And so finding a way to test for that, whether there was another pivotal moment in the company where it had to change and how the CEO led the company through it and did they lead or did they let it happen? Those are the things you want to test for, but that is a really hard one to test for because really you can only test so much. The other thing is getting a broader view of that CEO and how they operate in times of change from others like the board. I would always talk to the key people from the board when you're interviewing and they're going to give you a great perspective, not just on the company, but they're going to give you a great perspective on the CEO because 10 times out of 10, they're investing in the CEO as much as they're investing in the company.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. Yeah. That's great advice and I think it's also a positive thing, some people may be afraid to ask for interviews with board members but I think it's a positive thing, if you as a CMO are asking whoever striking it to the board, I think it shows that you care about the business, you care about the metrics. You care about what's being expected of you, and so that process of success starts from the interview process, right? It's the first impression that people have.
Jennifer Johnson: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. I don't think anyone should feel shy to speak with the board. Board members are there to help the company grow and succeed and they are always more than happy to speak with a candidate, especially for a role as pivotal as this one. Because again, usually when the CMOs coming in, it's like coming in to solve some big problems or unstick the company or scale it to the next level or combination of the above. So they have a vested interest in making sure that they get the right CMO on board.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. A hundred percent agree. Now you touched on something which is, okay, so I'm asking the CEO," How are you measuring marketing or what are you doing?" And if the CEO says," I'm measuring marketing on leads." My perspective would be," You should go and run the other way." But maybe that's a bad thing to say. I'm sure there's some people out there, but I truly believe that if you want to have the conversation with the board, not just in the interview process but an ongoing relationship, you need to sign up for revenue. And it was okay, five, six years ago to sign up for leads. But in the end of the day, no one cares about leads. You can fill the lead bucket as much as you want. It's easy honestly to fill the lead bucket, but not easy to fill with quality that goes to revenue. And so by talking about revenue as a CMO, I think you get yourself to a whole new level. You have a whole new level of partnership with the CRO and you get filled level with CEO, but what have you done in your career relative aligning toward revenue and this transition?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. And so that is a great point and I'd say anyone can buy their way to a lead number, right? And so it's really... I agree with you, it's about revenue and not leads but specifically with revenue I would say, my background coming from more product marketing and category creation, there's a lot of CMOs who do come from more demand generation marketing analytics, marketing operations backgrounds. My leaning towards category design is a direct result of how I grew up, right? And so I didn't grow up in a heavy demand gen background. So I will say that it is the area that I don't naturally go to because it's not how I grew up. Now the flip side is, if someone that comes from a demand gen background might not be as strong on the product marketing and category creation side, right? So it goes back to, you can't be all things to all people. But I will tell you, it doesn't matter how brilliant you are at strategy and category creation and strategic positioning and all that. If you don't have control over the revenue side and the pipeline side of things, you're not going to succeed because it doesn't matter how great you are at those other things. You still have to have command over those other components and I think for me it's always putting real strength of my second in command on demand gen and pipeline generation is usually one of, if not my strongest executive because they in leader, because that's what I lean on. But also I can't just give it to them and go and say," Okay, just come back in six months and let me know how it went." You still have to have command over it, right? CRO of course they want the strategic positioning and the category and things that are going to help sell deeper and higher and more strategically into the organization and category design helps with all that. But at the end of the day they need to know," How am I getting to my number? How are we going to partner on this?" Hopefully it's partner, not how are you getting me there but," How are we going to partner on this to actually help them get to their number?" Right, that's what they lose sleep over at night, right? And so you got to meet them where they are.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I hundred percent agree and I think actually in the evolution of a company, multiple CMOs, multiple CROs. You always find some baggage or something that somebody is coming along with, even if it's from a previous company in this relationship with the CMO and the CRO. But I think as a CMO, if you come to the table talking about revenue, it's a good footing to start that relationship and to start that partnership. And if you have a CRO who maybe isn't used to thinking of this relationship as a partnership, and it's more like," What have you done for me lately?" Or," Oh, by the way, I've always filled my funnel myself. So I don't need you." These are all different things I've heard from CROs. I think really anchoring that you have the numbers, that you understand how to get through that is a part of what you are doing in your DNA. It really can change and open the door, even if you have a partner who is not your partner yet, but that you can bring to the water.
Jennifer Johnson: Yes. A hundred percent and that gives you the air cover. So you can go then and do things like category design and category creation, which may not be in the typical vocabulary or nomenclature of a CRO. They get it but that might not be... they don't wake up everyday thinking about category design. They think... wake up everyday thinking about revenue. So meet them where they're at and it gives you the latitude to actually go and start to do these other things too.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah. I think... we've talked about how the CMO role comes in late. We've talked about this partnership, we talked about category creation. You uniquely I think, have been a four time CMO, but always in companies where it's the first time they're having a CMO. I think all the different times, at least. Yeah. All four, right?
Jennifer Johnson: No, three of the four. I was the first.
Tricia Gellman: Three of the four. Okay, three of the four. So can you talk me through, what are the some of the challenges you've been brought into address or why do you think that you gravitate toward this type of an opportunity?
Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. So in the three opportunities that I've had, where I was the first marketer not just the first CMO. And I had to... to say I had a blank sheet of paper to build that's exactly what it was. And so I built everything, every component of marketing, every facet of the organization I built it. And so that was a great opportunity and an interesting challenge on its own because it was a very high growth company that was already moving, and so you got to jump onto the moving train. The other two roles I was coming in as the first time CMO, but that doesn't mean they didn't have a marketing team. And in fact, one of the cases there was a very big marketing team that needed to be... probably made a little bit more efficient, the team and how they spent. And so usually you're probably coming in because nothing against the previous leaders, but usually there's a VP there and for whatever reason it might be that the company stalled out or they stalled out and the company's scale to another level, or there's some efficiency that needs to come in. There's problems that need to be fixed, usually that's more of the typical motion. So in any cases, in the one case of getting the blank sheet of paper, I built it from the ground up. Now there's greatness to that because you can build it exactly the way you want it, the negative is there's nothing there. You were literally ours, it can be daunting. On the other side if you are rebuilding, you're building and rebuilding. So you've got things there to work with but you have to... there's a lot of religion as I call it, people are connected to things they're hooked on. Like," Well, we've always done it this way." Kind of things, right? Kind of comments and so you have to have the strength and the conviction to be able to... in some ways, tear it down and rebuild it and it's building but it's a different kind of building but in all of these cases, you're building. And so I think everyone will say, they're a builder. It's like asking a CEO, if they're willing to let go, put it out there with the change and they're like, yeah, yeah. I think everyone will say," Oh, I'm a builder." Not everyone's a builder. Not... when you're really coming into a high growth situation where your organization might be less mature than the others around you and there's expectations, and you have to help fix problems and do all these things. You really have to love building, and rolling up your sleeves and getting the right people around you, you can't do it by yourself. But getting the right people around you, knowing how to assess quickly if there's things there that you might need to unwind or people that you might need to make a change on, right? You have to be able to assess those things and act on them quickly and that is the biggest thing of being able to move quickly. Not haphazardly, but quickly with purpose is really the key when you're in any kind of building role and I will say people should definitely take a real look at... and it will be better for everyone in the end. Really do some soul searching to know if you're a builder or not, because the last thing you want to do is go into a company at this level and maybe not be completely self- aware of what you're walking into or what the work that's required. Building is hard and not everybody is designed for it, and that's okay. But I think having self- awareness is really important because it's going to be better for you and the company in the end, right? I think this is another reason why CMO companies tend to miss higher on CMOs is because they don't actually know what they're looking for.
Tricia Gellman: And I do think that there's transition and challenge, right? We just talked about how the CFO role is multifaceted. And I think one of the things that happens is companies," Oh, we want to create a category. So we're going to really need to position ourselves out of where we are right now, et cetera, et cetera." So then you hire a CMO based around that and then two years later, all of a sudden you're in your category, but now the revenue projections aren't happening and there's not enough pipeline and the person who was great at positioning and messaging and rallying everyone to find them, isn't great at working with sales or whatever it might be. And so I think is a big role specifically is really... there's so many different stages that a company goes through. And I think the CMO role, I've spoken to a lot of people we're going on year two of CMO conversations now, which is exciting. But I've spoken to a lot of people and the majority of people I've had on the show are people who have been probably within the first nine months of their career in their company. And they were brought in to do something, specific thing, whatever it might be. And that ability to transform yourself or to work with the leadership to show that you inaudible things, not just what they position you in their mind, beginning I think is also something that's key to the successes of CMO role.
Jennifer Johnson: Oh, I agree. A hundred percent or we need to get really comfortable as an industry that the average tenure of a CMO is going to be two years, 18 months to two years, because the nature of how companies evolve and change and the dynamic nature of markets. And if it took a market 15 years to be created 10, 20 years ago it's now five, right? Everything is accelerated and so the needs of what the company needs from a CMO is going to change even more dramatically. And so I think it's... yeah to your exact point, it's showing breadth of what you can do but also maybe we just need to get more comfortable about CMOs are coming into... dropping in to solve a specific problem or do something specific. And then maybe this company needs change and it's okay that... I think we worry as we're building our careers, if you don't make it for a certain amount of time, that means you failed as a CMO. I don't believe that. I think it's just that people learn what they're good at and sometimes the company doesn't need that anymore. And is that necessarily a bad thing? I don't think so. So I think we as an industry maybe need to rethink the role of the CMO, but also the tenure in the seat.
Tricia Gellman: Yeah, yeah. That's a really interesting perspective and something for our listeners to think about as well. Well, so I can talk to you for probably three hours. There's so many different things we can talk about and just go on and on, and I think great listening for all of our listeners and CMOs alike, people who are to be CMOs. But again, here we are, we're out of time. And so we're going to wrap up, but I always wrap up every show with the question, same question and you answered it around category creation before when we spoke the first time. But now if you look back on your entire career, what is the one lesson that you think you have learned along your career that you wish you had maybe learned before and you want to share with the audience?
Jennifer Johnson: Position yourself, or be positioned. That's just the statement I live by, and I think we tend to focus on that at the company level but we forget to do that for ourselves and our personal brand as CMOs. And it's everything we've talked about, position your seat at the table, position why you're there. Position why you should continue to be there, or someone's going to write your story for you.
Tricia Gellman: I love that. Yeah. I think that's great as a person and as a company, right? You can take that piece of feedback in both levels, especially as accentuate that message and position in the market.
Jennifer Johnson: Yep. Absolutely.
Tricia Gellman: I love that. Well, thank you for being with us again. It's been great having these conversations. I hope as listeners, you have enjoyed talking and listening with JJ. If you want to talk about category creation or you want to talk to her more about the future role of the CMO, feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn. If you love listening to the CMO conversations and the conversation we've been having with JJ, please go to whatever vehicle you have for getting your podcasts and rank us up high with five, six stars and we love that. Also reach out to me in LinkedIn if you have additional guests, additional topics you would love for us to cover. And if you're really passionate about the role of the CMO, you can check out my other content. I have a newsletter which goes out every other week and in that I do Q& A's with CMOs as well as just share some of the things that I'm reading and just advice in topic that's by the week. And so I'm just happy to have you as listeners, and thank you so much for going along this journey with us.
Jennifer Johnson: Thank you for having me and thank you for doing this very, very important thing.