CMO Secrets with Dan Slagen

Welcome to our blog series, CMO Secrets. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, we feature an exceptional Marketing leader from around the industry. Some names will be easily recognized, and others may be new to you, but every single one will have been hand picked for their experience and knowledge in the world of Startups, Technology, and Marketing. The questions are ours, but the answers are theirs – every word, shared without edit, from their fingers to your eyes.

Today, we welcome Dan Slagen. Dan is an executive with a history of building and scaling marketing teams by utilizing a people-first mentality. Passionate for all things marketing, he has worked and held leadership positions at companies including Wayfair, HubSpot, Nanigans, and Alignable. Featured in the New York Times, Bloomberg, Forbes and more, Dan is a frequent contributor to the marketing world and an active speaker at industry leading events. He also advises a number of start-ups and marketing teams on their planning and go-to-market strategies.

Tell us about Alignable, why you were excited to join them as CMO, and the role marketing plays there.

Alignable is the small business network. Think of it as LinkedIn but exclusively for small/local business owners. When I joined them, the platform only had about 100k members and needed to scale into the millions (which it has!), establish its brand/identity, and build out a full-scale marketing team was super exciting for me. I love joining companies that are ready to make their strategic goals a reality and level-up to their next phase of maturity/growth and that’s just where Alignable was at back in 2015. The team I built at Alignable was 100% unique to the business, which I’m seeing more and more from my peers. The standard marketing playbook is gone, it’s all about the custom team now. The team I built at Alignable included growth, content, customer service/success, product marketing, BD, and revenue.

If you could add one more role to your marketing team today to own a different/new/experimental area of marketing, what would it be and why?

Every marketing team has resource issues especially in the early days, which inevitably means certain functions get left behind. I would have loved to add an engineer/data analyst or two to the marketing team, as well as design/video/creative resources.

You recently posted on LinkedIn about the dangers of copycat tactics. You said, “In order to get the marketing success you all want, the team needs to focus on hiring, work ethic, strategy, expertise, focus, metrics, creative, passion, GSD, no drama, helping each other.” As a CMO seemingly pulled in a thousand directions each day, how do you make time and create process to address each of these in an ongoing, impactful way?

The truth is, sometimes you don’t, and that sucks. A week or two can go by where process gets thrown out the window, but you have to reset. If you’re not growing strategically and learning each week, then it’s a waste of time, which is the one thing VC backed companies can’t afford. The best way I’ve seen is to consistently overcommunicate to key stakeholders the quarterly goals, and then the monthly/weekly/daily actions that are happening to help us reach said goals. In addition, keeping the exec team involved and bought into the overall vision/roadmap of where marketing is going, what’s needed, and why. Volpe is great at doing this with his teams.

How do you bridge the gaps/make the connections between data/measurement to insights and then to clear and actionable strategy. In other words, if the data is pointing you towards a similar direction that you’re seeing competitors going (i.e. following similar strategies or tactics), how do you create something new so you aren’t following?

Excellent question. If every company has access to the same data, does that mean they all know what to do with it? No. We live in a world now where the marketing playbook is available to everyone, but not every marketing team is successful, why is that? The reason is because you need the right people, thinking creatively about how to use the data. A good example of this is when I was at Nanigans. We were a brand that needed recognition and an increase share of voice…so what do you do? All our competitors had similar data and Facebook “expertise”… I decided to partner with the investment community, and that ended up making all the difference. We became the go-to resource for firms like JP Morgan and Goldman, but why? What was the point? The opportunity I saw was whenever the analysts at these investment firms would get PR opportunities, they would want to include us in the discussion, and that’s exactly what happened. We ended up getting invited to every Facebook stock PR opportunity out there, including going on Bloomberg, being featured in the WSJ, Forbes, CNBC, all the marketing pubs, and we ended up having a 40% share of voice against competitors that were more then 10x our size. Using data and your best assets creatively is what will continue to set marketing teams apart.

If you could wave a wand and fix one area of 2018 marketing – for all marketers – what would it be?

I think the biggest issue I’m continuing to see is defining the role of marketing within a given company. It’s high level, but everything cascades from that agreement between the success of the business and the role/expectations of marketing. Define the goals of marketing in a clear and concise way, and then let your leaders build it. I find this discussion to be a constant source of struggle amongst most teams, which is unfortunate, as something as simple as proper communication ends up wreaking havoc on marketing’s ability to be successful and unlock their true potential.

Any particularly special, unique, helpful, or just cool new tools or plugins that you’ve added to your marketing stack recently and would recommend to other marketers?

Whatever tool helps marketing get the data they need. There’s nothing worse than having to ask people to pull data for you. I’ve become a huge fan of Looker over the past few years for BI.

In your experience, what traits or behaviors separate good marketers from great marketers? And how do you vet those when hiring?

Persistence. The best marketers are the ones that go deep, and then keep going. There are going to be so many failures in marketing, and the best onces embrace the failures, learn from them, level-up, and move on. You can’t approach marketing with ego, a jaded viewpoint, or in isolation. It’s a total team effort. Listening to the biggest accomplishments of marketers in interviews says a lot. I’m looking for folks that not only love to learn, but apply what they’re learning, in addition to constantly selecting action over planning. You need to be strategic in marketing, but there’s also a point of diminishing return and paralysis that can haunt marketers. I love to ask marketers how they contributed to revenue growth, or how they think the role they’re applying for could contribute to revenue growth. The answers/mindset/framework are quite telling. I also don’t like to ask people questions about what they’ve done in the past. When I’m interviewing someone in person, I’ve already checked out their background, have likely had a quick call with them, so now it’s time for us to meet in person and for you to present your strategy and tell me what you’re going to do in this new role…when I ask for that next level of commitment, about 90% of people drop out of the running (voluntarily).

What’s the most impactful change you think we’ll see in digital marketing in the next 5 years?

I think it’s going to be the role of marketing within a given organization, whether that’s at the start-up, scale-up, or fortune 500 level. It has already changed so much in the past 10 years, and I don’t expect it to stop. Marketing will keep getting closer to the customers, a lot closer.

What’s your proudest professional accomplishment?

Personally, going on Bloomberg with Mike Volpe and Jamie Tedford was pretty awesome, in addition to getting to speak alongside Sir Martin Sorrell at an investors conference. But, the ones that end up sticking with you the most are the ones that involved your team coming together and crushing a goal, which happened at a previous ad agency I was at prior to HubSpot. I had a Google PPC team I had built in-house, and one of our clients in the legal space really wanted to scale their PPC efforts in a specific billion dollar industry. This was when Google had 11 paid ads on the results page for a given keyword search so you could be 1 out of 11 ad spots on the page…but there was a loophole. Google would allow you to have multiple ad listings if each listing was for a different website, which served a different persona. So, what we ended up doing was creating 9 different websites all targeting various segments within the key target market, and using affinity/verticalization to drive relevancy. We would go so far as to set-up our call center by geography, so if a lead called in from Michigan they’d speak with someone from the midwest, or if a lead was from the south they’d talk to someone from Florida. In the end, we had 9 out of the 11 ads on Google for our core keywords and just took the market.

You’re known for having an ability to manufacture awareness and impressions at little to no cost. Matt Johnston remembers a particularly savvy partnership with Facebook. Can you share a bit of that story – where the idea came from, how you were able to make it work for both sides, and any lessons learned from the experience?

I was at HubSpot, and at the time was running their paid acquisition and event marketing teams. I ended up starting their marketing partnership program, which started essentially as just co-marketing. What started as small partnerships, like webinars featuring our CEO and execs at Salesforce, LinkedIn…etc, turned into a lead generation machine. Specific to the FB story, when FB went public if you’ll recall their stock performance was in the tank. At the time, their SMB team also needed help on the lead generation side of the house. So I went to them and said hey, we have the best writers in the space who can produce amazing content about how to use FB, and in return you can give me access to all the SMBs on FB. What we ended up doing was a lead sharing program in which FB would give us ad credits for us to promote our ebooks on how-to best practices with FB, we’d generate leads and then we’d share the leads between HubSpot and FB. That program started with a few hundred leads per month and quickly scaled to tens of thousands of leads per month. It was pretty awesome, and also helped us continue to forge strategic relationships with all the big players in the industry we wanted to align the brand with.

With all of the event and public speaking you do, do you have a favorite topic that you love talking about?

I love public speaking. It’s something that has and always will scare me so much (regardless of the audience size), which makes me respect it. I’ll talk about anything up there, but I love to talk about how marketing teams can think creatively and thoroughly to blow their numbers out of the water. It’s always the elephant in the room for marketers, so might as well address it head on.

Let’s spread the marketing love. Any specific individuals you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Kipp has done an awesome job leading the HubSpot team over the past few years, and just being a genuinely great person.

What are the most important lessons that you learned along the way that helped shape you as a CMO? What are some tips you have for aspiring CMOs?

People. It’s all that matters. There’s no point in hiring people and giving them tasks to do, it leads straight to mediocrity. Hire awesome people who are way smarter than you, treat them like royalty, and make sure they say you’re the best manager they ever have (which is different for everyone). For aspiring CMOs, admit you don’t know everything, humble yourself, and get out there and meet a ton of people. I try to meet with at least one fellow CMO per month. It’s best way to stay connected, keep yourself sane, and generally get some brutal self awareness learnings about where you need to improve. I also love to ask my boss each month what I suck the most at? It sounds funny, but it always leads to awesome conversations. Drop the ego and get better, or else it will come back to bite you.

We talk a lot about open marketing at Mautic. What does the idea of open marketing mean to you?

The concept of open marketing screams limitless, unbound possibilities to me. If you can dream it you can do it. You’re not constrained by systems (even new ones get old quick), only your imagination, which for the most passionate marketers in the world is a dream come true. When you put limits on a marketer, you stifle growth and creativity in a negatively compounding way. When you unleash marketing (with the right strategy and direction), you ignite evolution in real-time, which is what the future of marketing is and will be.

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