September 17, 2020

B2B Marketing to the Rescue

Businesses need marketing now more than ever if they want to drive top-line growth. Why? Because marketers know how to do more with less. Despite budget cuts and the shift to virtual-only communications, marketers still know how to motivate employees, generate quality leads for sales teams, and gather customer feedback to influence product. As Drew says, “Marketing to the rescue. This is your moment.”

Enter CMO Katie Risch of Centro, a global software provider for digital advertisers that has grown from 3 employees to 700 in 15 years. In this episode, Katie shares how the marketing team at Centro has played a crucial role during COVID—enabling the sales team via high-quality content and enabling the product team to develop a companion product for the platform. As one of the original 3 employees at Centro, Katie also shares her unique path to the CMO role, one that has made her a dynamic leader who really understands what it means to align teams to work towards the company vision. You don’t want to miss it!

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How Centro’s marketing team developed new product during COVID
  • How educational content and research can engage customers
  • Why a CMO doesn’t need a marketing background to be successful

 Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 206 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:29] This is Marketing’s Moment
  • [3:48] How Centro Became a Software Company with Managed Services
  • [10:24] Why Katie Risch Became Centro’s CMO
  • [14:26] How Centro’s Marketing Developed New Messaging (and a New Product)
  • [23:18] Increasing Centro’s Focus on Content Creation
  • [25:46] Behind Centro’s Webinars and Certification Program
  • [31:30] The Biggest Surprise About Being a CMO
  • [33:37] Katie Risch’s New Product Development Dos and Don’ts

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Katie Risch

[0:29] This is Marketing’s Moment

“Marketing to the rescue. This is your moment. This is the time when you could probably prove that marketing is more effective than any other dollar investment that you can make.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! I think this is your moment, and I’m going to make the case as best as I can for you. Consider this. Right now, we’ve got a really tough economy, you do have some challenges but think about it from a couple of standpoints.

I know you’ve already probably given some budget back. I know you may have had to lay some staff off. I know you’re thinking this is not marketing’s moment. But I want you to consider this. First of all, you are best enabled to communicate effectively with your employees and rally them in a virtual moment. You have that skill and you know you can do that. That’s easy. You’ve got that one.

Number two: customers. You, marketers, have a better chance of having a conversation and dialogue and putting a program together that will get customers excited enough to give referrals. Clearly customers are the key right now to the survive mode. You’ve got to keep them, and ideally, you want to be able to cross-sell and upsell them. You as a marketer can really get involved with that.

That isn’t even what I’m talking about though here. I want you to think about the role that you can play in driving growth in the company. You’re rolling your eyes. “Wait, isn’t that sales?” I’m going to tell you this. Salespeople right now are struggling. Why are they struggling? They’re struggling because they don’t have their events that they can go to. They can’t count on taking clients out to dinner or customers out to dinner. They can’t get that critical mass of people in one room in order to help close the sale. That’s why deals are slowing down.

Some salespeople can get in the door, but most can’t get in the door. They can’t get people assembled. They can’t meet in person. How are we going to drive top-line growth? Marketing. Marketing to the rescue. This is your moment. This is the time when you could probably prove that marketing is more effective than any other dollar investment that you can make.

Then, consider this. How else is your organization going to drive top-line growth right now? Yeah, I know you can cut marketing and I know you can cut other areas. But that’s not top-line growth, that’s simply trying to protect the bottom line.

Where is top-line growth going to come from? It’s going to come from something that you marketers do. By the way, R&D takes too long. Tech for operational efficiency? Again, that saves money, but it doesn’t drive future revenue. You the marketer are going to be able to do this in this moment. And just in case you need it, we will put a couple of great articles in the show notes on why marketing in a recession is a really good idea—because everybody else is cutting back.

How am I going to get to my guest here? Well, here’s the thing. When we were doing our preshow, planning the story with Katie Risch who is the CMO of Centro, this is when this came up. This is how I got this epiphany that this is marketing’s moment. Centro, by the way, is a Chicago-based global provider of enterprise-class software for digital advertisers. Katie, welcome to the show.

Katie Risch: Thank you for having me.

[3:48] How Centro Became a Software Company with Managed Services

“We really pivoted to be a tech first company in terms of how we go to market and how we sell.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Fifteen years ago, you were the second employee of Centro. I think that’s right.

Katie Risch: Well, number three, technically. We count our CEO as an employee.

Drew Neisser: At the time, you were a startup focused on digital media buying. Now, the company has 800, 900 employees…?

Katie Risch: Around 700.

Drew Neisser: From three to 700 in 15 years. You’re as much a software company as you are a managed service provider. One thing for sure—we’ve established that you know how to bet on the right horse.

Katie Risch: I would agree with that. I took a big risk coming into Centro at the time that I did. We were working in a small little office using IKEA desks. It’s been an amazing ride and I feel really lucky to have been part of it.

Drew Neisser: You’ve also had a really interesting career trajectory getting to the CMO role. Before we go there, talk a little bit about the evolution of the company from being essentially a buying agency to now a digital media management platform.

Katie Risch: As you mentioned, Centro really started as a service for ad buyers, agencies, brands who really needed help with their digital ad buying. The landscape was very fragmented at the time. They didn’t have the staff or the resources to do it effectively, so they started using Centro and we actually executed those buys for them through our own proprietary software. We’ve been using Basis, which is the platform that we externalized to the market a couple of years ago internally to really power the buys of our clients for over a decade now.

I actually stepped into the CMO role exactly at the time that we were bringing Basis to market. We really pivoted to be a tech-first company in terms of how we go to market and how we sell.

Drew Neisser: First of all, there are so many interesting things in this. Suddenly, as you became a software company, there was a probably a realization, “Oh, we need to market, too.” This role didn’t exist before that, I’m guessing.

Katie Risch: The CMO role? We actually had a CMO role before I was in this position.

Drew Neisser: Okay. Bad guess. It’s really interesting—because you started as a managed services company that was using a platform to a software company that also has managed services, you have the advantage in that you get to test your own product, and you get to be on the forefront of using it. One of the things that I see a lot is twofold. One, software companies don’t want to do that because they are worried that it’s going to decrease the perceived value of the company. They won’t get the 6x or 12x multiple because if you say “services,” they just think the margin is wrong. I think that’s such short-sighted thinking.

They’re missing out on that aspect and they’re also missing out on being able to test the heck out of the product, particularly when they’re introducing new features and upgrades and so forth. Talk a little bit about the power of having both of those in house.

Katie Risch: I would 100% agree with you. At Centro, we drink our own champagne. I prefer to say that over “eating our own dog food.” What it does is it enables us to be very nimble, very flexible, and get user feedback in real-time back to the product team so that we can adapt the product quickly and in real-time based upon how users are actually interacting with it.

I think the other thing it does is it creates an option for clients to use the services in a flexible way to either supplement what they’re doing in house or to decide that they want to move to a completely self-sufficient model and do it all themselves with their hands on the keyboard. It’s a big differentiator.

Drew Neisser: I would imagine there are times where people are trying to cut staff, so being able to outsource it entirely makes sense. The downside of it, though, is if some of your agency partners or others see you as a potential competitor.

Katie Risch: That’s an interesting question. I think when Centro was purely just a services organization, that may have been a possibility. Now that we’re a technology provider, what that does is it opens us up to work with anybody. Just like any other ad tech platform or DSP in the space, if you’re an advertiser, whether that’s as a marketer or an agency, you’re looking for software to help power your business. That’s really the realm that we play in at this point along with a lot of other software providers that service both marketers and agencies.

Drew Neisser: I’ll buy that.

[10:24] Why Katie Risch Became Centro’s CMO

“I'm closely aligned with the sales team. I felt really comfortable that I could bring that to the table and help the company move forward.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: In our prep call, you called yourself the accidental CMO. Can you talk about your path?

Katie Risch: I like to look at it more as the fortuitous CMO. At Centro, I started as a media planner and a media buyer. From there, I’ve held a lot of different posts within the company. I’ve run product for the company. I built one of our sales divisions in the organization. Then I moved over and started running our customer success and customer experience teams when we launched our platform. I think, for a lot of CMOs, their experiences are a mile deep. Then, with other CMOs, their experience is a mile wide. Depending upon the company, I think there’s a spot for both. I kind of fit in the latter of the two buckets.

Drew Neisser: It’s an unusual path. What gave you the confidence that you could do the job? This was a couple years ago, right?

Katie Risch: I’ve been in the role for just over two years. I would say that it’s my understanding of the organization and the fact that I have worked across so many different roles within the company. Every company is different and at Centro, for us, alignment between sales and marketing is critical to our success. I came from a part of the company where I ran a sales division. I’m closely aligned with the sales team. I felt really comfortable that I could bring that to the table and help the company move forward.

Drew Neisser: As you know, we just recently released an episode on sales and marketing alignment, but having been in that role certainly gives you a real advantage. Was there a learning curve as far as the craft of what a CMO does every day and all the mechanics of marketing?

Katie Risch: Absolutely, and I’m learning every day, still today. For me specifically, as somebody who has not been a career marketer so to speak, I’ve really had to build a team around me of folks who came to the table with subject matter expertise and could really help us move the marketing function forward to fit the company’s needs. Finding folks who were experienced and who are experts in things that I specifically wasn’t was really critical in the first year of my role.

Drew Neisser: Right. And what’s so interesting about that is you can bring in those folks. And then you know the organization, so you know how to get things done and you can smooth the way for them, but you also give them a lot of growth room and can rely on their expertise.

[14:26] How Centro’s Marketing Developed New Messaging (and a New Product)

“As a result, we actually developed and built and brought a new companion product on our platform Basis to market in July.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: At the beginning, I offered this rosy “Now is the time for marketing to really shine.” Does that resonate with you?

Katie Risch: It absolutely does. It’s not that I think marketing is more important than it was before, but the priorities we’ve taken on have changed. At Centro specifically, our lifeblood is really the technology and then the people. With our people, frankly, stuck at home, they’re not able to get out there at the various events and get in front of our clients. I think that’s where marketing really has the opportunity to step up as the face and the voice of the company in leading and driving a lot of our communications.

Drew Neisser: Let’s face it, sales guys can’t go to events. A lot of them are waiting on marketing to bring these people together. I’m curious—you were in the job maybe a year and a half when COVID struck. If you could go back to February, March, where your story and message was—what had to change?

Katie Risch: That’s a great question. Coming into this year, we were very focused on talking about and marketing the business results that an agency was going to see when they installed our software. Telling that story in a really loud way, that’s what we were all pumped and excited about coming into this year.

Then, March 15, we all started working remotely and our focus and attention shifted pretty dramatically; it didn’t feel right to tell that story anymore. Like a lot of marketers have said, they had to shut down all of their creative messaging and completely rethink it. Frankly, we did the same thing. While the year’s not looking the way we thought it would, I actually would say it’s turning out, for us on the marketing side at least, probably a little better than maybe we anticipated.

Drew Neisser: You knew you had to change your message from “focus on business results.” What did you change it to?

Katie Risch: One of the first things that we did is we actually surveyed all of our customers. What we wanted to do was listen to them, hear from them, hear what challenges they were facing, and ensure that we were bringing that feedback back to our product team. As a result, we actually developed and built and brought a new companion product on our platform Basis to market in July. That was something that was not even on the radar screen pre-COVID.

Drew Neisser: Oh, that’s so interesting. First of all, I just want to put a punctuation point on something that I said at the beginning. Marketing is the one that can go to the customers. You got the feedback from them. That led you to realize, “Oh wait, there’s a new product opportunity here based on a changing scenario.” Marketing helped identify an opportunity. And I’ve talked to a lot of CMOs for the show and in other situations where this timeframe does require new products. One, just to get attention and two, if you can address this specific aspect of a new problem, you’ll be able to get some attention.

Talk about what this new product was and why you felt that it was going to be important.

Katie Risch: The feedback that we got from our customers was that our platform Basis was enabling them to be a lot more effective working remotely because of some of the collaboration and messaging tools in the platform. But there were additional things and additional asks they had that they felt could help them collaborate remotely with their teammates even better. Those were the asks and the feedback that marketing really captured and brought back to the product team.

The result was this companion product to our core platform Basis called Basis Assistant. It really enables users to capture all of the different notes on all the optimizations and changes they’re making to their campaigns in real-time using a Chrome plugin. It allows other buyers on their team to log in and see all of that information in one place.

Since you can’t really wheel over to someone’s desk the way you did before and say, “Hey, can you tell me about the changes you made to that campaign?” this really brings everything together in one place.

Drew Neisser: This, I’m imagining, is essentially a new feature that you gave to your existing customers?

Katie Risch: Correct. We’re in the middle of a free trial right now, so we have some new customers who are using Basis Assistant as well. And all of our existing customers also have access to it.

Drew Neisser: This is a really interesting moment for you guys because, let’s face it, we know that the advertising business is down, so agencies are hurting. Many agencies are hurting because their clients have cut budgets from nothing the agency did wrong. It’s just a reality. The truth is that it sounds like this product enables them to use your product better. In many ways, it makes it more digital, it makes it more user-friendly. I think it’d be really interesting if you actually end up trying to charge for it when in fact it just enables people to use it better.

Katie Risch: We’re in a trial period phase. The product’s been live for just about a month, so we’ve still got a lot to learn. But at the end of the day, the focus was really on building something that could help our users while they’re all working remotely. We weren’t necessarily focused on revenue when we built it, which may not be advisable, but during the pandemic, you’ve got to think outside the box.

Drew Neisser: I’ve talked about that and written a lot about that. Giving something away of value right now is really, really important, particularly for customers who might be hurting because they’re really going to appreciate it. I think there’s real value there for you.

It’s funny, I think I told you this story in the prep call—we had a client we were doing some customer surveying and interviews on. One of the things that we noticed after 15 interviews was that the customers that had a particular module, which was the insights module, were far happier than the customers that didn’t. They were more likely to expand it to new regions; they were more likely to spend money and recommend it than those that didn’t. Was that company hurting themselves by charging for this extra module? The biggest problem with software is that the users don’t take advantage of everything that they have. That’s part one.

Then part two—what I think is really interesting is—you made your product, essentially, a business continuity tool. Anybody who’s doing things that are business continuity-related were able to have a conversation that made you an essential business, whereas without it, you’re a nice to have. I just blabbed a lot of theory and I didn’t even end up with a question, but let’s ask…How has this played out for you?

Katie Risch: We are a month into Basis Assistant being live and we have 200 customers who are currently using the platform. Overall, I would say it’s going well. We’re getting a lot of great feedback from customers so that we can actually continue to evolve and move this product forward with new features, new bells and whistles. Overall, I would say it was something that was not on our radar screen coming into the year, but it’s something that the sales, product, and marketing teams all really came together on. We were nimble, flexible, got it out the door, and now we’re getting really great user feedback. I would call it a success and I’m pretty proud of how the company came together on it.

[23:18] Increasing Centro’s Focus on Content Creation

“It was a way that we saw marketing being able to provide more value to the sales team and, frankly, to the end-user, the customer, or the prospect.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: After COVID strikes you say, “Our messaging is wrong. We do the survey; we find this new product.” Were there any other changes or things that you made in your marketing mix?

Katie Risch: Definitely. The marketing team decided to pivot and become a content creation team for the company. Folks on the team who did not have the title of content marketer actually stepped up and what we really saw our role as was how we could provide educational and informative content. Whether it’s in the form of new webinars—we launched two new webinar miniseries—or in the form of research or infographics that we can provide to sales to give them new ways to reach out to and connect with prospects and customers. That would also be content for the end-user, the customer, or the prospect that would be helpful and informative to help them navigate this time.

We really leveraged the skill sets across the team to generate a lot more content, a lot more research, that frankly was meant to be educational and informative versus selling ourselves or our products.

Drew Neisser: Part of this right now is that we’re all planting seeds, a lot of seeds, because you just have to. It’s very hard to get anybody to buy something completely new and it’s even hard to think about training and all of those things that you used to do onsite. Educational content makes a lot of sense. Was part of this resource reallocation people who might have been on events teams suddenly becoming content people?

Katie Risch: I would say it included that. Luckily, our events team is already a cross-functional team. There were other things that they could pick up and run with right away, but across the team, almost everybody became a content creator of some sort.

We also leveraged other folks in the company, subject matter experts who could help us with getting new content created and out the door faster. It was just a way that we saw marketing being able to provide more value to the sales team and, frankly, to the end-user, the customer, or the prospect.

Drew Neisser: Got it.

[25:46] Behind Centro’s Webinars and Certification Program

“It's about the audience first, before you talk about yourself. Maybe don't even talk about yourself at all.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: You mentioned webinars—two webinar series. I’ve heard from some CMOs that they’re starting to see webinar fatigue. How have webinars been working for you?

Katie Risch: I would agree with that statement. We already have a monthly webinar that we run under the Centro Institute, which is our thought leadership house umbrella. That monthly webinar is continuing. We haven’t really seen much drop off with that. We did launch the webinar miniseries in May and we actually saw significantly higher engagement and registration rates with that first webinar miniseries. We then launched a second webinar miniseries towards the end of June, and we did not see as great results from that one.

I think you’re right. We’re at the point where everyone’s on Zoom all day, they’re sitting in webinars. How many webinars can you attend in one month? I think the challenge is, how do we keep these engaging and how do we keep them informative? We’re going to have to mix it up.

Drew Neisser: The few webinars that I have attended were completely backward in my mind and I’m just going to rant on that for a second. They started with a 10-minute introduction from a senior executive, sometimes the CEO talked about the vision of the company. And then it was a 20-minute presentation on the features of the product by a salesperson or a technical person. And then finally, they got to a presentation by a customer and then a Q&A. They left like seven minutes for Q&A and there were still questions.

It’s like, flip the whole thing. People want to hear from customers who have an interesting use case that might be similar. And then get to the Q&A so that you can have this interactive component because, if you don’t, you lose to Slack, email, Teams, whatever it is—that’s what you’re competing for when you do webinars. I’m curious—how have you structured yours?

Katie Risch: We actually did not take the approach. We did actually take the approach of, one, shortening the length of the webinars. Personally, I think 20-30 minutes is plenty of time. People want to move on to the next thing. Keep it short, keep it informative, so you can capture and keep people’s attention. Focus on the content that’s going to be helpful, educational, informative. It’s about the audience first, before you talk about yourself. Maybe don’t even talk about yourself at all.

Drew Neisser: There you go. I’m with you there.

Katie Risch: If they’re attending the webinar, they may already know who your company is, and you can always follow up with more information.

Drew Neisser: Exactly. Deliver on the promise. Make sure that promise is interesting. What about Centro Institute? When I think of institute, I think of a place of higher learning and a concentration and they’re people who are PhDs that have expertise that runs deep.

Katie Risch: We actually launched this program years ago. At the core of it is a learning program for all of our customers as well as prospects that comes in many different shapes and forms. In “normal” times, that includes onsite workshops where we actually bring subject matter experts in and host onsite at a client’s office. Or we have a training facility in our headquarters in Chicago that we bring customers into. This is a good example of another area that we really pivoted coming into COVID.

Centro-certified is one of the arms of the Institute, and that is something we had actually booked all the way through October coming into this year, our live, in-person events that were going to be in Chicago. Customers would come in. It’s two days of really deep learning. They get to network, meet with other industry colleagues. Within a month of going virtual, we actually pivoted the entire format of that to a virtual learning event. We opened it up to non-customers as well, which is not something we had done in the past.

Drew Neisser: Did you ever charge for this certification program?

Katie Risch: It’s actually included when a customer works with us. So as of right now, we do not charge customers for it. It’s always been free, and our intent right now is to keep it that way.

Drew Neisser: Oh, it’s interesting because I know that Marketo, Demandbase, a number of companies that have software-as-a-service type models, they actually charge for it and people pay to be certified on various levels. But what’s interesting is, at least in the case of Demandbase, they decided to not charge for it during this period, which is fascinating.

Katie Risch: I’ve seen several companies do that.

Drew Neisser: Again, you’re planting seeds. It is in your interest to train people whether or not even they are current customers.

[31:30] The Biggest Surprise About Being a CMO

“What was surprising to me is how much actually goes on behind the scenes.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let’s wrap up. You come into the CMO role, what was the biggest surprise for you about the role?

Katie Risch: I would say the biggest surprise was how much the marketing team actually did that I didn’t even know about. Marketing, from my standpoint, is somebody who had come from the sales side of the business or who was running a product. I was really focused on product marketing, the branding aspects, and things that I could see. What was surprising to me is how much actually goes on behind the scenes. I’ve learned that firsthand over the course of the last six months since we’ve really been focused on standing up and growing the demand gen engine for the company, part of which included launching ABM for Centro.

Learning all of that and just how you can go 20 miles deep on learning about one subject of marketing…that was really surprising to me, and very humbling, too.

Drew Neisser: Here you are, a new CMO and you’re standing up an ABM platform or ABM for the first time. That was brave since you hadn’t done it before. What do you think your biggest lesson learned from that experience has been?

Katie Risch: I think our biggest lesson learned was to get sales alignment early on. Don’t assume that sales is going to know what’s going on. You have to communicate things 4, 5, 6 times, especially when you’re dealing with a sales organization the size of the one at Centro. I would say, sales alignment, get it early, get it often, and really partner with them if you’re going to make this as successful as it could be.

Drew Neisser: Right. And for that, check out episode 201 where we talked about sales alignment. I did the Demandbase training program and sales and marketing alignment is just so essential to ABM.

[33:37] Katie Risch’s New Product Development Dos and Don’ts

“Don't try to be the hero. Take in feedback. And take it in often.” @Katie_Risch @Centro #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: You did customer research, you launched a new product, you stood up ABM in the last six months. From a new product development standpoint, when marketing is driving it, give us two dos and a don’t for other CMOs as they’re thinking about this process of identifying a product and then bringing it to market.

Katie Risch: I think creating an environment where people feel comfortable that you can fail, you can fail fast, and you can learn is a do. Making sure that folks feel that they are going to be supported if they do fail is going to create a more nimble, more flexible environment, and one where people are going to be willing to A/B test and not feel that they’re going to lose their job over something going wrong. My other do would be really to test, test, test, and learn and to do it fast. To really use those learnings to drive your decision-making going forward.

The don’t would be, don’t operate in a silo. Gathering feedback from the folks who are on the street, your sales and your customer-facing teams, as well as the product experts in the organization is just going to drive a better overall experience and a better overall outcome. Don’t try to be the hero. Take in feedback. And take it in often.

Drew Neisser: Those are awesome, Katie. Thank you. What’s so interesting to me is that those are very leader-oriented dos. You’re all about the “Chief” in Chief Marketing Officer. You recognize the need to build a team right away. You mentioned building an environment and also operating beyond your group. One, it’s both your nature as a leader, but two, your exposure throughout the organization. It really makes me want to recommend to non-CMOs who are listening to this—get experience in some of the other aspects of the business. It will make you a better marketer, because you’ll understand how the organization works.

I think it’s terrific what you’ve been able to accomplish in such a short period of time. Congratulations, and thanks for being on the show!

Katie Risch: Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Drew Neisser: And for all you listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, you can thank me and Katie by writing a five-star review on your favorite podcast channel or by sharing the show with a fellow marketer.

Show Credits

Renegade Thinkers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Audio Production is by Sam Beck, Show Notes are written by Melissa Caffrey. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and intro voiceover is Adam Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, or learn more about quite possibly the best B2B marketing agency in New York City, visit And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.