CMO Secrets with Joe Chernov

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 Joe Chernov. Joe is the CMO of Robin Powered, a SaaS company focused on the flex working space. He’s been a marketing leader during two successful IPOs (Eloqua, HubSpot). The Content Marketing Institute awarded him “Content Marketer of the Year” and AdWeek named him one of the 100 most creative people in advertising. Joe serves on the board of advisors for several tech startups and is part of Flybridge Capital’s advisor network.

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

I joined Robin for a number of reasons, the weighting of each varied by the day. I believed in — and liked — the leadership team. I felt there were cultural tailwinds driving the space. Broadly, we’re in the flexible workspace industry, and this rising generation of professionals has a much more fluid relationship with their office and office resources than does, say, my generation, which tends to have more of an “ownership” mindset when it comes to their workspace. The idea of not having to convince the market that “something’s happening here” was enticing. Selling into a trillion dollar market is always appealing because it leaves some room for error. In a more constrained market, execution needs to be flawless — which can introduce all sorts of strains culturally.

Have you experienced any big surprises or “ah-hah!” marketing moments in your time at Robin?

A few, yes. My younger son is obsessed with cars. Seriously, what four year old harangues his father to take him to Germany to drive a Porsche on the autobahn? Anyway, this has led me to watch an unhealthy number of car videos. My a-ha here is that the metaphor for our marketing program is the Porsche 918. The hypercar has three motors — a conventional internal combustion engine that delivers the bulk of the horsepower, but also two electric motors, one for the front wheels and another for the rear. Similarly, we need to run three integrated marketing programs. The bulk of the value we deliver will come from a relatively conventional demand generation program, which we’re building out now. But we also need adjacent specialty programs, one focused on our incredibly networked partners, like Herman Miller, and another focused on influencers across the commercial real estate value chain. The key to our performance will ultimately be found in our ability to mesh these three complementary programs together.

In 2006, you made the switch from PR to Marketing, and it seems that you’ve never looked back. What do you remember about your time in PR and what prompted you to move over to marketing?

I look back every now and then, thankful that the people around me who gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself. PR gave me a valuable foundation in marketing, but look what has happened to that industry. The publishing crunch has reduced the number of journalists while the sprawl of startups has spiked the number of PR people. The value chain is broken. We’re upside down. Foresight has never been my dominant skill, but I saw this one coming, and I was able to find a safe harbor thanks to some trusting managers.

Over the course of your career, across all your different companies, what trends have you noticed in terms of the programs that consistently perform best?

Time for another lesson learned by way of bonding with my son over cars. Simple wins. The Porsche 911 design has changed minimally over its lifetime. And if you observe the newer models, it appears as if progress has been made by shedding, not adding, ornament. Marketing programs that take a simple idea and execute it simply are the best. Once marketers begin to layer complexity, presumably to impress themselves or their fellow marketers, the program collapses under its own weight. I mean, when was the last time you admired a Dodge Viper?

Using 3 words, how would you describe the marketing world within Eloqua, Kinvey, Hubspot, InsightSquared, and now Robin.

This feels like a dangerous question, but I’ll give it a shot. Eloqua: Chip on shoulder. Over time, we developed a very healthy chip on our shoulder. The company had started the marketing automation space, but was being challenged by newer entrants. This was destabilizing initially, but when that feeling hardened into a “chip,” look out. Kinvey: Developers distrust marketing. Seriously, I had to challenge every instinct I had when trying to influence developers. HubSpot: Hiring is vital. Pretty much every member of the team, at every level, was world class. And look at the execution. Robin? Give me a little while!

Do you think there are any attitudes or beliefs in marketing that need to change?

Yes! Too many people conflate demand generation with marketing. As vital as demand generation is, it’s not the only aspect of marketing that matters. And yet for many people, the words are synonymous.

If you could play marketing professor for a day, who would you want in that class and what would the syllabus look like?

If I didn’t need to work, I would set up demand generation and marketing operations schools in areas of the US that have been financially crippled due to the shifting sands of industry. There are enormous swaths of this country that are hurting. Given that one can run a variety of marketing/automation tools from anywhere, it would seem that someone could conduct mass training in some of these modern skills.

So many professionals today simply do their best to follow instructions, or do what their managers and predecessors did before them. You make waves and forge new paths. At what point did you start thinking for yourself as a marketer? And what gave you this confidence?

I’m reluctant to answer a question that is inherently flattering. Instead, I’ll say this: I’ve never been particularly concerned with getting fired. As a result, I’ve enjoyed a self-imposed liberation to do what I think is right, without a surplus of concern over the consequences. One could say, “Well people know you in marketing, so you have an unfair advantage.” But the truth is, I’ve always been this way.

If we asked your team members what they’ve learned the most from you, what would they say? And if we asked your current team members what they look to you the most for, what would they say?

Early in my career? Man. They’d probably say, “I’ve learned what kind of manager I never want to be!” Seriously, I was pretty icy early in my managerial career. I wasn’t always the easiest person to approach, particularly when I was focusing on a project or stressed. I’ve worked to mitigate some of those tendencies. Today, I suspect my team would say they’ve learned the value of transparency and inclusiveness. I aspire to always lead the best informed and most appreciated team in the organization. I can’t always give someone more money than another company, but I can do my best to empower them with more information and more insight. That’s entirely within my control.

What’s the best career advice you ever received and who did it come from?

Gosh, there’s been so much good advice, and I’ve taken so little of it. That Maya Angelou line about people not remembering exactly what you do, but always remembering how you made them feel – that one has always resonated.

What deserves to be on your marketing hall-of-fame plaque? The 1-2 marketing ideas or successes you are most proud of from your career to-date.

My god. I’m more interested in writing my epitaph than a hypothetical hall of fame plaque! If someone were to ask me what project I’m most proud of, it would be an infographic my friend Robin Richards and I created to expose the unimaginable scope of shark finning. That project blew up. It was everywhere. But most importantly, it was printed, seemingly a hundred feet long, and laid down as a carpet for a media conference in China where sustainability was being discussed. That was my proudest moment professionally.

Want to spread the marketing love? Any marketers, teams, or companies who deserve a shout-out?

There are lots of marketing executives that I admire. But the true praise should go to their teams. The dirty little secret is that we don’t do all that much other than find the right people, connect them to the right information, help them arrive at the right decisions, and then get out of their way.

You invest a lot of your time and energy into supporting important wildlife causes, such as anti-poaching and shark-finning. Open space here to share with the audience anything on your mind related to this work and these causes.

It would insult those who have dedicated their career to conservation if I were to pretend to be anything more than an armchair conservationist. I think mankind does horrible things to wildlife for many different reasons, one of which is simple ignorance. A couple of times in my career, I’ve focused on helping combat ignorance. Elephants don’t shed their tusks like a deer sheds its antlers. Those ivory trinkets? They came from the animal being butchered. That shark fin soup? The cost was a magnificent creature being left to drown. I prefer to think that if people only understood, they might act differently. I’ve tried to help them understand, that’s all.

Time to rant or rave. What’s a marketing/business/technology topic that’s getting you fired up right now?

The rise in single-vendor events masquerading as industry conferences is getting a little tired. A few companies have done it exceptionally well, but now there are copycat events everywhere. Events are the new blog!

What does open marketing mean to you?

Open marketing is like a healthy gene pool, with varied DNA. Marketers are unusually forthcoming with their ideas, experiences and opinions. It’s the perfect “persona,” if you will, around which to facilitate an open community. It’s a natural act.

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