I would never have predicted in my early days aspiring to be a pro French Horn player and assiduously avoiding anything that looked like a leadership role—or in the series of my first short career hops trying to engage both sides of my restless brain—that I’d end up as a marketing strategist advancing some of the planet’s most iconic brands, including a Fortune 500 company. But every unlikely adventure, every seemingly aimless twist in the road early on proved exactly the foundation I needed to thrive in the roles that followed.
The Early Years—When Music Was My One True Calling
In my family, musical roots run deep, through several generations of performers, teachers and composers, and my education in that world started early. Although it’s not something I brag about in biker bars, I was a professional boy soprano from the age of 12 to 15. At that point, though, singing was a strictly financial pursuit (it was a great way to earn pizza and movie money, plus gave me the opportunity to do fun things like perform in Carnegie Hall, New York’s Lincoln Center, and The Juilliard School). My real passion was the French horn—that cranky, difficult, slightly nerdy, but glorious hybrid brass/woodwind instrument. This passion took me to LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in New York (the setting of the movie Fame, which I auditioned for, but sadly my acting chops were not equal to my horn playing.).
At a specialist school, doing what I loved, and surrounded by a group of staggeringly talented kids (many of whom have ended up as shining lights in everything from film, to jazz tuba, to painting), I was certain I had found my life’s work—but I also craved the full dose of a well rounded education. So this otherwise low-key kid stormed the administrative offices and managed (against all odds, as I now realize) to browbeat them into violating city regulations and give me an illegally full load of math, science, language, and social studies (and no lunch period) in addition to my music courses.
As it turns out, this drive for intellectual balance—a marriage of creativity and rigor, of art and science—would become a defining theme and core source of inspiration throughout my career.
Early Career Schizophrenia (And Future Foundations)
Many leader stories out there sound like a linear flow along an unswerving path towards success. That wasn’t my experience. In fact, midway through college, my early vision for my life’s work started grow less compelling.
I arrive at Harvard still convinced that the French horn was my destiny. I studied with the principal horn player of the Boston Symphony and played in the Harvard Orchestra. Meanwhile, I kept the pattern I’d established in high school, majoring in History and Literature as the most expansive subject I could identify.
The thing that turned the tables on my career plans was the summer job I got almost by accident. I worked as a reporter at—believe it or not—a medical news radio network which broadcast 24 hours a day to physicians. Although the content was a bit unusual, it remains to this day one of the most fun jobs I ever had. I got to interview, write stories, and go on air—I even got to cover the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
It also introduced me to a world beyond my lips, and I began to see visions of glory as a network anchor, and even started studying every vocal inflection of and facial expression of my then-hero, Ted Koppel. So my target shifted from the symphony hall to the newsroom and I had a new mission in life.
My explorations into the broadcasting world as I graduated from Harvard took me to ICM, the large talent agency (at that time they also owned several radio stations). While the conversation there was about the radio business when I began, it quickly turned to the agency business, given my artsy background. This drove the next shift in my thinking, that a career as an agent would allow me to have a vital role in the creative world—minus the poverty and frustration part. So with my freshly minted Harvard degree, I joined ICM’s “Agent Training Program”—which was French for “work in the mailroom”. I spent three soul-sucking months frantically running scripts, contracts, and whatever else a big star needed all over New York. After 90 days of sweaty, disrespected physical labor, I was elevated to the glorious position of “Assistant Agent”—French for “Secretary/Slave/Object-of-Irrational-Rage”. If you’ve seen Entourage and remember those unhappy-looking young assistants you get the picture—minus the nice clothes.
I enjoyed the proximity to all the creative energy at the agency, but as I looked around I didn’t see much really intellectually challenging work going on in the office (at least as far as I was experiencing it—I will grant that there was likely more interesting stuff higher up the ladder).
With the impatience of youth, after a year in the agency business, I again set out to find a way to keep one foot in the creative world while planting the other in a more cerebral space—this time in law. But I hadn’t yet found the answer. As it turns out, your average big law firm is filled with a fair number of unhappy lawyers who passionately urge you to do something—anything—but law school. But more importantly, while I did enjoy the challenge of the complexity, I found that I’d swung the pendulum too far and could now feel the right side of my brain atrophying.
At this point, I was forced to acknowledge that while I had the drive and aspirations to do interesting work, I lacked the skills and experiencing that would make me interesting to the kinds of places that could offer those opportunities. This epiphany led to an obvious answer: business school.
Realizing that I’d so far built up a rather bizarre track record—medical reporter, talent agent, paralegal—I worked myself into a position as a periodicals editor at the American Management Association to round out my resume for a year before attending an MBA program. At the AMA I got to leverage my experience and passion for writing while also dipping my toes into the world of business by interviewing consultants, executives and academics on issues of leadership and innovation. This experience was a great foundation for understanding what makes for effective leadership, and how managers can create environments that foster big, innovative ideas.
Want Balance? It’s Marketing, Stupid!
It was pretty much Year 1, Day 1 at the Tuck School at Dartmouth that I discovered my destiny—marketing. Some combination of fate and a gifted professor, Rohit Desphande, conspired to convince me beyond doubt that I’d found the answer to everything I’d been seeking: a whole-brain profession wrestling with the numbers, cracking the tough strategic issues, and then pivoting to creative mode to develop insightful positionings, breakthrough innovations, and artful communications. From that point on, there was no hesitation: Marketing was it.
Upon leaving Dartmouth, I did what most aspiring marketers were doing at the time and joined one of the classic marketing ‘finishing schools’—in my case, General Mills. While my New York-based friends and family were shocked, appalled, and bewildered by my choice to move about as far as possible from any of the music or creative capitals of the world (“Wait, where is Minneapolis again????”), I was thrilled to be joining a company with such a great history of brand-building—and which had a reputation for giving meaningful responsibility early on. The reputation was well deserved. I was shocked by how much trust was placed in this particular newcomer (who really had no business running a P&L and telling others what to do). But it was fantastic learning as they ground me through a great rotation of brand and business environments—and I found I could rise to the challenge.
Job one: Help turn this into a brand you recognize.
My first assignment was in Snacks, where I breathed life into the then-tiny franchise Nature Valley Granola. We saw that there were still a few loyalists who remembered it as “the original” granola bar, so we cleverly slapped a flag on the box that said, “THE ORIGINAL”. With miserly focus on efficiency, we tested advertising, couponing and in-store promotion. By looking at adjacent categories we drove an innovation agenda to beef up the product line. And now, all these years later, it’s astonishing and heart-warming to see Nature Valley as one of the cornerstone franchises of the company.
My manager stripe came with a promotion to the Betty Crocker Side Dishes business. In the potatoes business, we set our sights on becoming the game-over dominator—and driving Kraft out of the business. And with relentlessly focused advertising and regional promotion, we did just that. Which meant that the next challenge, with 72% share of market, was to expand the category. Here again we looked to other product categories that had more modern, on-trend prep and flavor profiles, and designed new product lines to catch those waves.
My last tour of duty at General Mills was on the Pop Secret Popcorn business—a brand that had seen double-digit growth for a decade, but was facing fresh challenges in a flat category and huge competition. This called for a major dose of both art and science, as we dug into the data to understand why the category was flattening and how to combat it. At the same time, we needed to revamp the positioning and creative to reflect the new reality, and we developed a provocative ad campaign starring the amazing Bill Irwin.
During these years I discovered a few areas that would turn out to be long-term areas of passion and strength: drinking in a broad set of data as a prelude to creatively-building breakthrough marketing; and pulling together diverse perspectives to spot opportunities and generate big ideas that transform categories.
Wait…I’m A Leader!?
Early on at General Mills, I made a startling discovery—the watershed kind you remember forever. I was holding a meeting with a cross-functional group about some product innovation for Nature Valley, and towards the end of the meeting there came an awkward moment when everyone stopped talking and looked at me. In that instant, the realization seized me: “Holy crap, they’re expecting me to tell everyone what to do! I’m in charge here!” And now, despite my carefullest efforts in my first quarter century of life, I had found myself in a leadership position.
So, in addition to all of the classic grounding in brand and marketing that I got at General Mills, I also got a crash course in providing leadership—even when I didn’t have all the answers, and especially when I knew less than others in the room. In that way, I may be a poster child for the notion of leaders being made, not born. I learned the power of what I would later call “confident humility”—the willingness to acknowledge what I didn’t know and the need to learn from others; combined with comfort in my judgment and ability to make good decisions as a leader even amidst uncertainty.
Shifting Gears: Early Dive Into Digital
The six years I spent in the trenches at General Mills were great experience. By the end of it, though, my craving for new learning and new challenges was reasserting itself—and the kicker came when I realized I didn’t really covet my boss’s job. So rather than position myself for the next rung on that ladder, I poked around and discovered this thing called convergence that was happening in the early 90s. Telephony was deregulating, the Internet was becoming a thing, and in the ensuing mess Hollywood, phone companies, cable TV providers, satellite players and others were all colliding and trying to figure it all out. This world of strategic turbulence and technology explosion was everything that that steady world of packaged foods was not. So I joined what was then US WEST (the Bell phone company of the Rocky Mountain region) which later became Qwest and then CenturyLink.
My three years there were a whirlwind tour through different business units and market environments. I wore several different hats, bouncing back and forth between my role as an internal marketing/strategy consultant and working in operating units.
One of the most fun experiences I had at US WEST was helping to build their Internet Yellow Pages business as head of marketing, national sales and business development. This was pre-Google, and still fresh territory, so this role combined interesting strategic dilemmas (can you execute a regional strategy online before geo-targeting?) and marketing challenges (how do you position a new-fangled digital product to low-tech small businesses?). By maniacally reading user data, we crafted an award-winning site design, we led the creation of a first-ever consortium of phone companies to do joint marketing, and managed to move from pretty much worst to first in our area.
Other experiences included leading database marketing for the small business phone group; exploring new business opportunities in the emerging digital services space; and helping to position and launch the company’s growing investment in cable TV (where we were the first to use the term “broadband” as a consumer marketing term).
I was fortunate (though I didn’t know how much at the time) that my role touched so many parts of US WEST’s diversified business across telecom, cable TV and digital media. My experience not only gave me crucial insights into cross-functional and cross-market management, but an early start on understanding the dynamics of online businesses and digital marketing—both of which have become increasingly valuable to my career. The great diversity of marketing environments I operated in further developed my ability to take in the quant and technology issues, while then pivoting to the creative side to turn those insights into big ideas. I also spent a fair amount of time working for and around some high-powered former consultants, so I was able to watch and learn from masters in the art and science of rigorous strategy development and compelling storytelling. One of the most valuable lessons was in the power of analogy, and using examples from businesses in unrelated categories to creatively shed light on the challenges we were facing.
I was just three years in to that adventure and still going strong when, as sometimes happens, a recruiter called and upset the apple cart with just the right pitch.
Fresh-Minted CMO Going Viral (Before There Was A Word For That)
Life was good at US West and I was thoroughly enjoying the Denver skiing when a recruiter contacted me on behalf of an entrepreneur in Omaha (the visionary Joe Ricketts, now owner of the Chicago Cubs) who had a killer value prop on the web and wanted to spend 100% of prior year’s revenue on marketing—but didn’t have a marketing lead. So, as much as I enjoyed day trips to Vail, it was clear that this opportunity would represent dog-years of experience, stretch and growth. Of course, I had to say yes, and off I went to be Ameritrade’s first head of marketing—and their first external officer hire.
Exactly as billed, my time at Ameritrade was an amazing ride, a classic case of building the airplane while flying it. The marketing resources were me, a nice young guy not long out of college, a great team at Ogilvy, and a huge bag o’ money. And with that, we managed a startlingly disruptive and bold campaign, with a level of spend that initially caused Wall Street to yowl that Ricketts had lost his mind. But at the first quarterly report following the launch we announced staggering growth at record levels of efficiency—at which point the analysts cried, “Don’t stop! More!!”
For me as the top marketer, with a lot of bucks stopping right at my desk—and a lot of expectations riding on them—this role was an exciting leap forward. It was my first experience with what a subsequent boss used to call “the loneliness of leadership”—no one to turn to to share the burden of weighty decisions about strategy, investments and people. One particularly “lonely” early moment was when AOL was launching their brokerage center, and asking players to ante up a huge sum of money with no data or analytics to justify the spend. Ricketts looked at me and said, “Well, should we do it?” And a $25 million decision (which in 1997 was real money!) came down to my judgment, with nowhere else to look. That moment called for some real humble confidence.
And then there was the continued evolution of marrying art and science. “Job one” was clearly to wring every ounce of productivity out of a huge multi-channel marketing investment. But the other “job one” was to re-define the brand to be more than funny ads with a great price point—and that task again required that we roll around in the data and the segmentation and then ultimately develop a brand persona and creative output that brought it all to life in a powerful way.
The answer? This guy.
One of our most successful campaigns, “Tales of Ameritrade,” sprang from an insight about the unique personality of the independent online investor. Through a mix of quant data and some immersive personal digging, we saw a sense of a rugged, confident individual with a desire to take on the world on their own. On the basis of this insight, we went on an unusual creative development process to capture that unique spirit: we produced ads with no scripts, no casting specs—none of the things that usually give CMOs comfort in the production process. The work was highly improvisatory, cast around people with big personalities, and relied on artful story editing. I had to judiciously exercise control on the points I felt strongly about (cast that crazy young guy, not the slightly boring girl), but at the same time have confidence in the collective team and roll with the process. And the result was pure magic—some of the work I’m most proud of. The “Stuart” ad became bizarrely popular, viral before that was a thing. It ran for 18 months (unheard of in a DRTV ad) and was talked about everywhere. This episode was also an education in the power of a great idea to attract great talent. The production team was full of A-list stars, some of whom took a cut in their pay in order to fund the genius editor who spun it all into magic.
Heck, it was even parodied by Bill Clinton in his farewell video.
Crisis Management 201
Ameritrade was fun, but the time came to move on from Omaha—this time for family reasons. So I took another left turn and joined a small B2B technology company in the cybersecurity space—TruSecure. What in my background, you may ask, qualified me to be CMO in B2B technology? Not much, as it turns out—especially after fate decided to upend my job description. TruSecure’s original vision was to go public, build a war chest, and hire a big marketing player (like me, I guess) to build a dual B2C and B2B brand through an aggressive campaign. But just weeks after I joined the company, the tech meltdown of 2000 rocked the world, and there was no IPO, no war chest, no big campaign—and no need for big-time consumer marketing skills. Instead, I was charged with a most unfamiliar mission: thrifty lead generation feeding to a high-end enterprise technology salesforce.
Needless to say, this involved a lot of fast, often painful, learning in B2B marketing, technology product management, and PR as a primary brand-building vehicle—if I thought my experience thus far had been robust and well-rounded, this was my chance to learn otherwise. Fortunately I again found myself surrounded by great people, and with their help we got a lead machine humming, developed a more robust and scalable product offering, built a brand that was way disproportionate to our size, and more than tripled the business.
What’s In Your Wallet?
After three years of relentless guerilla marketing and learning on the firing line, I was feeling that for this stage of my career the 80/20 of comfort vs. stretch was reversed—while I enjoyed learning the new B2B tech stuff, I felt the skills, instincts, and experiences in B2C and broader marketing leadership that I’d racked up over the years had been left fallow for too long. And so—once again with the serendipity of a recruiter phone call—I joined Capital One, which turned about to be my home for 12 amazing years.
At the time I joined, Capital One was still for the most part a sub-prime credit card company—but with aspirations to be so much more. And with the founder still at the helm, the visionary Rich Fairbank, my 12 years there were characterized by moving from one bold, improbable goal to the next. For a guy that had demonstrated some career ADHD in the search for learning and challenge, I found in Capital One a non-stop series of thoroughly daunting, completely energizing objectives that kept me satisfied—growing, stretching and developing.
I spent the first part of my tenure at Capital One working on all things diversification outside credit cards: small business, online banking, mortgages, auto loans, personal loans. These moves into new segments presented really interesting challenges in brand strategy, value proposition innovation, and customer management—how do you take such a distinctive brand and evolve it enough to be credible in new spaces without losing its unique edge? How do you design a marketable product in a category where consumers are frankly not waiting with baited breath for the next banking offering? How do you thoughtfully cross-market to your base without alienating them?
All these issues were massively turbo-charged when we made the unlikely move into branch banking, a step that so many analysts and pundits thought was ludicrous. We acquired three branch banks in just a few short years, and my team did heroic work in managing that delicate evolution from credit card marketer with provocative tactics to trusted protector of nest eggs. We developed differentiated checking and savings accounts. We created wildly breakthrough launch campaigns to tell each of the new geographies that Capital One was in town, and drove big increases in awareness of the new kid in town.
The most fascinatingly complex marketing challenges came with the acquisition of ING Direct—a really special and unusual franchise. It was a banking brand that customers really, genuinely loved. When we conducted focus groups among ING customers, they talked as though a cherished friend had passed away, lamenting the presumed loss of that special sense of mission, customer focus, and delightful experience. Going deep on understanding what made ING Direct such a special brand was a real education in that mysterious alchemy of purpose, brand and experience design.
Next-Level Leadership Challenge
A big shift for me came when my peer who was leading the Card business’s marketing left the company. After several fruitless months of a search, the decision was made to simply hand me chunk of activity in addition to what I was already doing. So that meant that I was now leading the teams that supported the entire breadth of the enterprise, from sub-prime credit card to commercial banking, auto loans to home loans, and everything in between.
Such a big jump in scope of business and team size called for some new moves in terms of my own leadership and managing of my daily life. I got some great coaching and advice during that time that has really stuck with me. One incredibly timely tidbit was the idea of moving from a “retail” to a “wholesale” mindset in terms of my leadership—I needed to shift from acting like a shop owner who handled customers and managed issues and delivered services, and start thinking in terms of creating more systems and infrastructure that would enable more ‘retail owners’ to deliver service themselves.
During my time at Capital One I had the incredible opportunity to work with truly brilliant people across many different functional areas from whom I learned every day—and if I don’t name names, it’s only for fear I’d stupidly neglect one of the countless people who meant a lot to me along the way and feel terrible for it. It was a period packed with friendships and working relationships that drove me every day to up my game and deliver some of my best work.
One of those projects that was a real high point at Capital One was when we made the sweaty-palms decision to move away from the Visigoths as our main “spokespeople”. This was a scary move—those hairy guys had anchored our creative strategy for a decade and even been named one of the advertising world’s most iconic equities. Testing showed the lovable brutes as outscoring competitive ads by multiples. But based largely on strategic conviction and gut-level judgment, and with the support of a visionary CEO, we made the first shift away from them, and their largely comedic tonality, to the QuickSilver campaign with Samuel L. Jackson.
SLJ: “Are you trying to be taller than me?!”
At Capital One, high-powered analytics was really the company’s inception, DNA and primary competitive advantage. When I joined, the culture and the bulk of the leadership was still heavily weighted towards the data, quant, left-brain side of the spectrum, and I was constantly fascinated and amazed by the analytical prowess of the organization and its individuals members.
One of the missions of the team I joined was to act as the right-brain complement to this data-driven culture. We joked that we were the emotive, gesticulating Captain Kirks to the company’s logical, dispassionate Mr. Spocks. This blending of cultures and thought processes provided me with my most advanced education yet on the value of whole-brain thinking and the power of finding the delicate balance of the art and science in business and marketing, leading to many of the insights I later co-published in a Harvard Business Review article, Don’t Let Big Data Bury Your Brand, and a book underway now.
It Comes Full Circle—Back to Consumer Foods
I did reach the point, albeit after 12 amazing years, of again feeling the craving for new challenge—the old itch for flexing new muscles and stretching in new ways. After looking at opportunities in hospitality, telecom, and financials, I ended up making another somewhat startling move—I returned to my roots in consumer packaged goods, joining The Hershey Company as their global CMO. This time, however, the New York delegation of my family was much more supportive.
It was an unusual move for a CPG company to hire at such a senior level from outside the industry, but it reflected their desire to break out of the mold and adopt new moves. For my part, I was drawn to the opportunity to work with such iconic, beloved brand in a bold agenda to modernize their marketing model and drive growth in new categories and geographies.
Plus, I have the sweet tooth of a ten-year old.
Here was a truly fun mix of responsibilities: everything from the global brand stewardship, to digital advancement, media and creative, global snacking strategy, global design, and P&L for the flagship Hershey stores. And here again I was able to spend time with an amazing team and learned from every member. As I was re-acquainting myself with the world of packaged foods, it was more critical than ever to practice humble confidence and soak up all the learning I could from everyone around me.
At a blistering pace that at the time we didn’t appreciate internally as much as people outside the company did, we re-made the agency ecosystem, repositioned most of the big brands, shifted to a more digital- and data-driven marketing model, developed a ton of new campaigns and re-energized the innovation pipeline. I have to say it was fun working on brands that people truly adored—you don’t often get that kind of brand love as a marketer.
A New Frontier
The Hershey move brought with it another fun addition to my personal and family life: Camp Shikellimy. And no, it’s not a Bill Murray movie. It’s the property I bought to live in when I took the Hershey role. We had wanted to try country living as a part of this move, and found what looked like a nice house in the woods on Zillow. What the listing didn’t mention (and what we didn’t realize until we got there to look at it) was that the property had been a YMCA summer camp for about 75 years. So sure enough, as soon as we pulled in we saw that nice log home—along with the 15 cabins with bunk beds, the communal shower building, and the equipment shed with the tractor.
Oh, and the double-wide with Woody the caretaker living in it.
My first reaction, quite rationally I think, was that it was perfectly fine for Matt Damon to buy a zoo, but I was not about to buy a camp. But my of course my wife’s first reaction was, “This is it!!!” Fortunately, I had the good sense to say, “You bet, honey!” because she had the vision to see what a wonderful adventure it would be. So we took on 100 acres in the woods, right by the Appalachian trail, complete with the occasional bear rummaging through our garbage. For this child of New York City, it was simply one more twist along the path to a totally improbable destiny.
I’ve also enjoyed discovering my inner Grizzly Adams. Bonus: I can now wield a chainsaw without being a major danger to myself and others.
At this late stage in my career, I found I wasn’t willing to uproot my family for another move. So I commuted—I spent my weekdays at the camp, close to Hershey, while my wife Kris remained at our home in Mclean, Virginia, where she runs a cybersecurity start-up. But though we’d been breezily confident that spending most of the week apart would just feel like a typical busy week of business travel, I soon discovered that sitting alone, eating a frozen burrito in the dark and watching Big Bang Theory re-runs did not have as much charm as I thought it would.
So after a fair bit of agonizing, we made the call to re-set our life to be something we were happier with day-in and day-out, and I left Hershey’s for a new adventure. In doing so, we have created the opportunity that I always saw in my future, just not clearly when or how—stepping out of the corporate environment into a life of consulting, writing and speaking. And while there’s no denying I sometimes miss the energy of a great team around me, elbow-deep in the craft of marketing for an iconic brand, somehow the chance to dive deep into interesting issues, talk to interesting people (sometimes thousands at a time), and transform it all to create new value in the broader world brings me to “work” every day incredibly jazzed.
Given the magical mystery tour that has been my career path to date, I’d never make a prediction about whether this is the last stop or simply the next in the long and winding road. But it feels good to love what I’m doing with no reservations—and with nothing but curious anticipation for whatever might lie around the next bend in the road.