We’ve all had to deal with a lot of challenges in the past few years. When things change so much, and so fast, it’s not continuing with the old ways that will bring you success. You need to look for new opportunities.
For Bozoma Saint John, former CMO at Netflix, entrepreneur, and author, that’s where the C-suite has a big role to play. Think with Google sat down with her to explore how encouraging creative freedom, taking risks, and authenticity can help marketers uncover the unknown.
Eva Menger (EM): How do you think the last few years have shaped the way CMOs make decisions?
Bozoma Saint John (BSJ): Senior executives have long been making decisions based on fear. Fear of making a mistake, fear of disappointing audiences, fear of losing sales. That fear only grew when the pandemic hit because suddenly going by what worked in the past was no longer an option.
The leaders who were able to keep their businesses afloat — and even transform them during this time — were those that dared to jump into the dark. They didn’t know the answer, but made their decisions based on how they felt about it.
That’s a scary thing to do and it requires an ability to make a call based on a focus group of one; yourself. But if there’s one thing we learnt of late, it’s that no amount of data can predict the future. People need to be able to follow their intuition.
EM: What should be the priorities of CMOs today?
BSJ: Today’s CMOs must create a better understanding of themselves as human beings and how they behave in the world. So much time in the C-suite is spent on being considerate of everyone, which results in decisions that don’t make any sense as they’re too watered down.
The way we’re going to make a difference is by allowing for nuance in the data; spoil it a little bit with our own thoughts.
I know this goes against conventional wisdom, and some might say: “then we’ll just end up in a world made of decisions by white men!”. And that’s true, so we need to change that too.
Corporations are made up of people. People make the decisions, so leadership needs to pay more attention to their own feelings and behaviours. The domino effect of that is the need for a more diversified C-suite. Only then can we have people with different experiences contribute to what’s decided for the rest of us.
And while data is important, we must be mindful of changing environments before using it to draw conclusions. This can be difficult, but if it was easy none of us would actually need to do any work. It’s our responsibility as leaders to change the dynamic. The way we’re going to make a difference is by allowing for nuance in the data; spoil it a little bit with our own thoughts.
EM: Marketers are facing pressure to drive performance. How can they do so without compromising on creativity?
It all comes back to their tolerance for risk and accepting that not every idea is going to hit. We’ve just come out of this completely dynamic time, where a lot of old rules went out the window. Now is the time to start allowing more freedom. I see it as a renaissance moment; we’ve been given the chance to start over.
This means teams will have to be rewarded accordingly. If you reward results based on historical data, that's what your team will work towards. But if you celebrate more risky ideas then people will feel more encouraged to go down that route. As leaders it’s our responsibility to find the right mix. I’m not saying this balance should be 50/50, just as long as it's not 0/100. You can’t operate a successful business if you’re not allowing for any risk.
My message to anyone doing the creative work is: if you don’t like it, don’t bring it.
At Netflix, we rewarded our people based on the new ways they got viewers to watch a show or film. You’ll always need billboards, trailers, and TV ads, but we encouraged people to reinterpret them. We’ve all seen two-minute trailers, so how about six seconds? It’s this kind of thinking that led to Tudum, Netflix’s first global fan event that launched in September 2021.
This is where I really advocate for the focus group of one. If I, as a person, don’t think it’s funny, engaging, or inspiring, then why would anybody else think that? My message to anyone doing the creative work is: if you don’t like it, don’t bring it.
EM: In today’s fragmented media landscape, how can brands tailor their creatives in an authentic and consistent way?
These platforms may be new environments for brands, but it shouldn’t change who they inherently are. And if they have a hard time finding their footing in these new places then maybe they don’t have a great brand identity. If you truly know who you are, you can exist in any environment.
And here’s another thing. Many brands are afraid to declare who they are because they don’t want to turn people off. But actually, people don’t like it when you shift and change to fit different expectations. It’s not authentic. If you met me three months from now and I start speaking to you with an Irish accent you’d be like “who the hell is that?!” and you wouldn’t trust me. It’s the same for brands.
We’re so dependent on the data these days that we forget common sense sometimes. We forget that human connection, but more often than not that’s where we can find the answers and new opportunities.
When it comes to innovation, especially during uncertain times, putting yourself in the shoes of your audience will help you move forward while staying true to your brand. And whether you talk about short-term results or your long-term plan, the two will need to work together – just like data and intuition.