The Tech CMO Who Started A News Bureau – Part 1 With Maxar’s Nancy Coleman
The Tech CMO Who Started A News Bureau – Part 1 With Maxar’s Nancy Coleman
There’s using your product to tell a story, and then there’s using your product to tell breaking news stories. In this episode of CMO Conversations, Tricia speaks with Nancy Coleman, CMO of Maxar (a space technology company), about the Maxar News Bureau – a partnership program with top tier media organizations that uses satellite imagery to provide indisputable truth at a time when credibility is critical. Tricia and Nancy discuss the story that started it all – which involved the Associated Press, three investigative journalists, and smoking gun satellite imagery from Maxar – and resulted in the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves in Southeast Asia’s commercial fishing industry, action from the U.S. government, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Trici Gellman: Hey everybody. I'm Tricia Gellman and I am the CMO of Drift. And I'm excited to be here for another episode of CMO Conversations. Every episode, we try to uncover ways to build success in the ever changing world of marketing. Today's guest is Nancy Coleman, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Maxar Technologies, a space technology company that specializes in manufacturing, communication, earth observation, radar, on orbit service satellites, satellite products, she even told me they're building spacecraft. I mean, this place is out there. I love Nancy's story and her philosophy because it centers on something I believe in and I think is critical to individual success, but also company success today. And you know what that is, it's trust and transparency, both internally and externally. And when you're creating high definition satellite observation imagery, there's not much to hide from. Nancy, maybe my description of Maxar may not be exactly right. So maybe you can start by explaining sort of your role and the company and why you're excited to be where you are.
Nancy Coleman: Sure. Well thanks so much for having me, it's delightful to be here. So in terms of my role, I would describe my role at Maxar is helping to tell the stories that explain what we do and why it matters. And the capabilities that we offer both span the distance of space to earth, but also in many ways describe how we connect earth to space. So there's a lot of things that happen in space that impact how things are observed on the ground. And there is also the use of space for space exploration. So the distance that I cover is pretty broad, but the customers that we serve is actually pretty small. There's not, unlike a lot of other marketing, the universe of customers that can afford to buy our spacecraft is pretty small on the national commercial and civil side of things. So I'm not marketing like a lot of B2C marketers. I'm primarily B2B, B2G. On the earth observation side of our business, which we call earth intelligence, we primarily serve the US government and the intelligence community and provide the foundational imagery and data that they need to take on changes that are happening around the planet, to observe what's changing around the planet in order to make decisions about where to put critical assets and to keep people safe. And then finally we do serve some of the most discriminating technology companies like all the online mapping platforms, where you look at maps on your phone every day, over a billion people are looking at the imagery we take from space and we deliver down to earth in order for people to navigate the planet and observe the change that's happening here.
Trici Gellman: It's pretty amazing. And it's so different from what we're doing here at Drift and from the roles that I've had. It's also exciting because we haven't had anyone on the podcast series that's doing B2G. So I'm excited to have that, but also, I think even in my role of B2B, we are predominantly moving to a world of a defined target audience because it's just so much more efficient. And technology really allows you to be much more effective as a marketer in doing that than the previous sort of like pray and spray kind of behaviors that we were used to back in the day when you didn't have great technology. But I think back to sort of your guiding principle and the company, when we first spoke you talked about how the principle for the company is really transparency. And so maybe you could talk a little bit about what that means at Maxar.
Nancy Coleman: Sure. Yeah, transparency. I mean, if you think about the product that we deliver, it has to be accurate. It has to represent something that is true. And not only just in terms of the resolution of the pixel, which everyone can relate to, it also has to correlate with an exact spot on the surface of the earth as it truly is. And so I think of transparency and accuracy as being two things that are hand in hand. More broadly, transparency, the way I think about it, I'm a big follower and a fan of the Edelman trust barometer, which is a 19 year survey looking at the level of trust that people, regular people, have all across the world in the institutions that we hold dear in order to define who do you trust? So they look at levels of trust in governments, businesses, media, and nonprofits. And what their 19 year study has been showing is that over time, level of trust in business has been going up at the same time that level of trust in governments is going down. So we sit at a unique intersection where we provide information to governments in order to make decisions about critical changes that are happening across the earth. But we come at it from a commercial point of view where all the imagery that we collect is available in a public archive that someone could go look at, like a library, and look at the changes that have happened over time. And so, although we serve a lot of classified missions, the imagery that we collect is inherently unclassified and therefore carries with it a high level of trust because our information can be verified. Our information is so accurate and the custody of the information from the time it comes down from the spacecraft all the way to the ground is verified so much so that it's used in the Hague in criminal court proceedings against war crimes, because it carries with it that seal of trust and transparency and accuracy. So it's essential. I can't think of anything more important to our value proposition to our customers is that level of transparency. And it does cross over into how we behave culturally inside the business too.
Trici Gellman: Yeah, that's really interesting. And it's also interesting what you mentioned about the Edelman trust barometer, because I think as people are working from home, they feel more isolated and then there's so many different things that are happening in the world where you think you're isolated, but then you're not isolated because now we're in such a global economy that it's very hard for people to understand what information they should trust. And so how has that impacted your company or yourself?
Nancy Coleman: That's really loaded. I mean, I think it shows up a lot in our internal communications as well. I know COVID is top of mind for people, but if we take a step back and we say, well, what does imagery about the changing earth really tell us? It can be empowering, right? So if you look at climate change or if you look at this is, and as I mentioned, we have a library, we have an archive that goes back 20 years, so I can go and I can look at something, let's say it's the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on the amount of snow pack in July during a year that has a similar kind of climate and temperature. And then I can compare it to today. That gives me information that I can trust that I can go and take action on. It's a feeling of empowerment, I think, that at a time when people are so mistrusting in information. So when you look at COVID and you're thinking to yourself, well, really what's happening to the economy in different places? We, for example, we'll do things like look at parking lots in different big box stores. Or here's a better one, economic output of an automobile manufacturing facility where they actually park all the cars in the back, you can measure the output or the decrease in output just based on impacts of COVID to a workforce in a certain environment. So it gives you a layer of visual evidence that becomes hard to dispute. And I think that's something that people desperately need right now is just that sense of confidence and believability.
Trici Gellman: Yeah. And I think it's very, it's neutral, right? You're not taking a stance. It's just, this is what it is. But then when you overlay, oh, this is the output from a factory, you're like, well, there's no output. Yes. That's the point. There's no output right now because there's no one working in this factory. And if they're telling you they're going to deliver a car from this factory right now, then that's not trustful information. So I think that's amazing the way that it can change perspective because it's so transparent. It's so trustworthy.
Nancy Coleman: Yeah. And I know you've hinted at other questions around COVID, the same thing applies to our employees in there's so many conflicting data sources for even the state and local reporting. So we have 4, 000 employees in over 20 locations all across the United States and globally. But in every single location, we have to look at that state and that locality and then interpret that. But we are also transparent with our employees about where that information is coming from. And that goes back to that kind of brand pillar that's key to everything we do.
Trici Gellman: I was reading this book recently and it was talking about just the explosion of information. And since social came onto the scene, the explosion of information has just gone up exponentially. And it used to be that we relied on our news sources and that was the source of information. But then now we're into individual publishers basically. And people love to consume information from people that they know and to share it. And there's an almost unending thirst for it. And so in the past, it was like a capped capacity, but now it's like this unending capacity and it's just created so much noise that when you're not, I think in the office, let's say, or your day- to- day face- to- face with people kind of concatenating what you're hearing to validate it, I think then looking for what is the true information and is it the same information you're seeing from your laptop at home as someone else? It becomes like a whole other thing in terms of what really is the true information, which is really interesting.
Nancy Coleman: That's a great point. And I think it does go back to one aspect of our business is that our eyeballs are actually really good visual information processors and humans are actually very good at looking at visual information and extracting insight. And I want to emphasize something you said a minute ago is we have to be really careful about being the interpreter, unless that's actually something that our customer is asking us to do, which we do do. We are analysts. We are intelligence analysts and we support the US government in making sense of data. But more common now is not just rely on any single source, even a visual information, it's to find the other verifying pieces of information that verify and drive a certain level of confidence behind it. And so we're more increasingly refusing different sources of information to gather, let me see, I'll give you an example. Here's an interesting one. Like we can look at social sentiment through regular social media information and using natural language processing to infer that there might be conflict. Let's say it's a protest that, oh, people are gathering, there's chatter around a conversation that's happening in social media that might indicate that there might be people gathering in a certain place to take on a certain activity. And so we call that tipping and queuing where we might take a tip from one source of intelligence information, but then we use it to queue up our satellites and actually go look at that place to confirm whether or not that thing is actually taking place. So increasingly it's when visual information is combined with other sources of information, you just continue to see a higher and higher level of confidence behind it.
Trici Gellman: It's really interesting, you're verifying your own tips of your own data to then use another type of media to then verify what's happening, which I mean really helps to build your story of trust. I mean, you said as the CMO of Maxar, you're a storyteller. It's a component of your story that you're telling to kind of represent your company in the business. The other story I think is really interesting and it kind of builds the case for what you guys are doing is really about almost something I would consider to be philanthropic. And that is that since you've been at Maxar, you helped to create the Maxar news bureau. So can you tell us a little bit about the news bureau? Because I think we've all probably interacted with the output of that and not realized at all that this company Maxar even exists.
Nancy Coleman: Yeah. So the Maxar news bureau, I would say the genesis of it goes back as far as the business itself. It was always obvious that we had a product that was conducive to the news media and journalism with high integrity. So definitely for the entire history of the company, but more formally in the last five years, we've really invested in creating the expertise and the relationships. I would say really it's the relationships with top tier media, where we partner on enterprise level investigative reporting, where we know that the visual information we can provide will make a difference. We used to always just provide visual context around stories, but now we're really trying to partner with journalists, data journalists, and even those that specialize in GIS. Believe it or not, there's a cottage industry of people that have learned how to look at satellite imagery and then drive information to help drive news and information forward. So we partner with some of the top news organizations in the world, and it's very rare that they will sometimes let us in, what is the problem that they're trying to solve in their journalism? It's particularly conducive to places that are far flung or dangerous, right? So we'll even work with journalists that have left a place of intense conflict where there's massacres and we will stay behind, so to speak, and be the eyes that are keeping an eye on a story even after the journalist has to flee for safety reasons, or it's just too difficult to get to. And we work on both of those. So the product that we have in terms of being able to observe the earth from space does really lend itself to everyone shares the same goals in marketing and communications, which is how do you drive awareness for the thing that you do uniquely that you can offer to your customers and have it be accessible to the mainstream? And we frankly found that investigative news journalists were excited to have this additional visual context for their storytelling, but it also allowed us to position our product in a way that demonstrated its value and underpinned our commitment to using our technology for good. So in 2016, the break open opportunity was that we partnered with the Associated Press and a team of three investigative journalists led by Martha Mendoza who were working on a six month long investigation into human trafficking of humans in the Gulf of Thailand for commercial fishing. And the source of this fish, this fishing practice, had been around for a long time and they'd collected a lot of evidence on the ground, but what they needed was a smoking gun image from space that actually showed the transfer of the fish from a slave boat that was slave caught fish from the holds of one boat and dropped into the hold of a commercial fishing vessel that rendezvoused with that boat and ultimately ended up in American grocery stores.
Trici Gellman: It's like an action thriller.
Nancy Coleman: Exactly. And so we worked with them. It actually took us a long time because they turn off their tracking devices and it was a little bit of a needle in a haystack problem where we'd collected with our satellites a very wide area of ocean. But we were trying to find these two boats actually tied together. And so that investigation ultimately led to the Indonesian Navy going out and rescuing 200 men from that slave boat and then cascaded into other rescues at sea and closed a loophole in the United States law that Obama closed at that time that still made it legal for slave caught fish to be brought into the United States. And the Associated Press won the Pulitzer for their reporting and the project was called Seafood from Slaves reporting. They won the Pulitzer for that, that led to us formalizing our ability to support investigative news journalists. And we've never stopped. We probably, I think we did 300 projects last year and we're on track to do about the same number this year. They're not all as large as that, but we have one, Reuters won a Pulitzer for a project we worked with them. The New York Times won an Emmy for a project that we worked with on them. The New York Times won a Pulitzer for international reporting this year on a project that we supported. And then finally the Washington Post won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting on climate change also in 2020. So we're really incredibly proud of our ability to just support that level of quality journalism.
Trici Gellman: So on the outside, it sounds to me like your job is amazing and that that is so fulfilling. But is that the case? Or does it create a lot of pressure for you as the CMO with this transparent technology that you all have and the ability to partner with the media?
Nancy Coleman: Technology is a powerful tool and as with all powerful tools comes immense responsibility. I would say it's good pressure. It's not bad pressure. And I'm just grateful that the leadership at Maxar has really seen what this brings to the table, but to help us in conversations with our customers to help get our name out, it is a new name. It's a 20 to 60 year old company, depending on which leg of the stool you're looking at in our history. We've been in the space business for 60 years. We've been in the earth intelligence business for 25. So I'm grateful that the rest of the leadership team has found the value in that. The pressure is just being in a fast paced tech business that's publicly traded. But no, it's incredibly rewarding. And I like to say it fills my buckets and I'm not the day- to- day lead anymore. And I'm just grateful that we have a really smart team of people that they're killing it all the time.
Trici Gellman: Yeah, that's amazing. I mean, you even shared a story with us today in terms of something that had recently just broken in the New York Times. So I mean always happening and the proof points are there ongoing. And I mean, I just have to say that I think we're all grateful that you're doing this and that you started the news bureau back in 2016 and that it's continued to exist. But how has it changed the way that you think about storytelling and marketing?
Nancy Coleman: That's a great question. I think storytelling is everything. I think that regardless if you're an investor or potential customer, we're all human beings at the end of the day and we love stories about people. I shared with you that I feel like sometimes I'm only one or two degrees removed from the people that we're actually helping and touching. And that's incredibly powerful. What I will say is that this is a very technology, engineering heavy industry. And so the challenge for me, I guess it makes me well suited. I am an adopted space nerd, but I didn't start out as one.
Trici Gellman: You' re not celebrating today? I heard from friends today that today is national Star Trek day, fifty years of Star Trek today. So imagine that I'm talking to you the inaudible of the company that has satellites and spacecraft all over the globe on national Star Trek day.
Nancy Coleman: Well, I love it. I love it. I've fallen in love with technology. However, I think part of my job is to help the engineers of the organization translate what is actually amazing, real rocket science in aerospace engineering into stories that people can relate to. So I think that's where I hit is right at the sweet spot between people that really want to know the tech and people who really want to understand the outcome that you're delivering. So that's where I focus a lot of time.
Trici Gellman: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think as we've talked about already in this episode, I mean the world is super noisy and I think it's only becoming more noisy. And if you can tell a good story, then I think you can break through that noise and you can get other people to even share your story, which is the most powerful thing about storytelling and I think about being a great marketer. Or if you're able to market your technology and get advocates and other people to tell a story for you.
Molly: Hey everyone, Molly here from Drift's podcast team. This is where we're ending today's episode, but don't worry, we'll be back next time with part two where Trisha and Nancy go even deeper on how CMOs can take a stance on social issues plus the growing role of internal communication for marketing leaders. Before you go, make sure you're subscribed to the feed wherever you're listening from. It's the number one way to make sure you don't miss an episode. If you really liked this episode, please be sure to leave a six star review wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you're looking for even more CMO content, we've got a newsletter for you. Once a month, Trisha shares the customer centric, data driven and barrier breaking marketing headlines that are defining today's CMO. Sign up at drift. com/ cheap- marketing- officer.