November 26, 2020

The CMO’s Silver Linings Playbook

2020 has not been easy for anyone. In this episode, Drew reflects on the personal and professional challenges faced by marketing leaders, and how they’ve overcome adversity to build better, more empathetic B2B organizations that are dedicated to making the world a better place.

As the great Ben Franklin once said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” From how #WFH has changed the way we work to what CMOs plan on doing differently in 2021, this special Thanksgiving episode is filled with silver linings and insights from a wide range of inspiring B2B CMOs.

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • Silver Linings from the challenges of 2020
  • How CMOs can reinvent the way we do business
  • Tips for marketing leaders in 2021

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 216 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

CMO Thought Leadership from: 

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:28] On Facing Adversity in 2020
  • [3:31] Business Is No Longer All Business—It’s Empathy, Too
  • [11:27] The Value of Choosing Change
  • [14:27] How Go to Market Has Changed in 2020
  • [21:44] How #WFH Has Changed the Way We Work
  • [25:06] What CMOs Plan on Doing Differently in 2021

Transcript Highlights: The CMO’s Silver Linings Playbook

[0:28] On Facing Adversity in 2020

“After speaking with dozens of CMOs in the last few weeks, I am convinced that marketers and marketing are in the throes of reinvention, that some remarkably good things and abundant opportunity will emerge from the turmoil.” @DrewNeisser Click To Tweet

Hello Renegade Thinkers! It’s just me today with some inspiration forged out of the hellacious cauldron of 2020. No year in my lifetime has been more disruptive or transformative. The pandemic has changed how we eat in and dine out, how we learn (or don’t), how we vote (or don’t), how we shop, how we dress (Zoom shirts anyone?), how we exercise (or don’t), how we date (or don’t), how we parent (I guess I could say, “or don’t”), where we live, how we communicate and collaborate, where and when we work or don’t, even how we play.

The pandemic has bisected the economy between the essential and the non-essential, between the physical and the digital, between the employed and the unemployed. The pandemic has bisected our society between the masked and the unmasked—I read yesterday a midwestern mother called her daughter a murderer for not wearing a mask and the two, not surprisingly, are no longer speak to each other.

The pandemic has spawned new billionaires, a surge in company bankruptcies, and nearly 40 million applying for unemployment. And I’ve not even covered the staggering tragedy of over 1.3 million lives lost around the globe and over 250,000 here in the US. It’s really just beyond comprehension.

So yeah, it’s been a hellacious year for our planet—one that has forced us to rethink all aspects of our lives and it is this rethinking from which I and the CMO community I’m blessed to engage with regularly draw inspiration. At the risk of trivializing all the bad that has happened, I offer up Ben Franklin’s oft-used quote, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

Even as I say that phase, the words sound trite, yet after speaking with dozens of CMOs in the last few weeks, I am convinced that marketers and marketing are in the throes of reinvention, that some remarkably good things and abundant opportunity will emerge from the turmoil. Call them adaptations or evolutions or outright transformations, the business world at large has changed and many of these changes are for the better. In this episode, I’ll walk you through a few of these changes with the hope that you too will find inspiration—perhaps this is the CMO’s silver linings playbook.

[3:31] Business Is No Longer All Business—It’s Empathy, Too

“What’s profound to me is that it took us all having to separate in order to come together, to go virtual to find our humanity.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Chapter One: Business is no longer all business. I’ll say that again: Business is no longer all business. If you’ve ever been on Zoom call with me between 3-4 pm, you’ve met Louie, our French bulldog and agency mascot. That is the time that he demands—not just wants—he demands my attention with the expectation that my wife and I will soon be strolling with him to Central Park shortly thereafter.

Similarly, we have a client who has yet to make it through a Zoom call in 8 months without interruption from one of his young sons who we’ve come to know and enjoy (shh!) almost as much as his dad.

As a result of our virtual coffee breaks and happy hours, I’ve learned more about the personal lives of Renegade employees (we call them Renegades) in the last 8 months than I did in the last two decades! I can admit that. It’s true. As a team, we’re actually closer than ever. It’s crazy.

And I know we’re not an outlier. Across the country, business leaders have been forced to acknowledge and adapt to a new reality. Our home lives impact our work lives and vice versa. For better or worse, work and home, work and family, work and life, are increasingly inseparable.

On this topic Rebecca Stone, CMO of Cisco Meraki shares: “The biggest surprise for me of 2020 was watching the way companies adapted to a work-from-home model. There is more tolerance for balancing work and home life, and an acceptance of home interruptions that a year ago would have felt weird. People used to be mortified when their dog barked on a call, or their kid showed up on a video call. Remember when that BBC video went viral? Now that’s happening on thousands of calls a day and no one bats an eye. It’s something I appreciate more than I thought.”

Thanks, Rebecca, it’s a great thought. And I really truly believe that in that, as our lives and work lives, we’ve become a little bit more personal, a little bit more connected. The notion of the “all business” business leader is simply a relic. You know you’ve heard it: Oh, that guy’s just all business all the time. Just marches into the room and says, “Okay, let’s get to it, folks,” marches out, gives his orders, and that’s that. No time for “How are you, how’s it going?” Nothing.

If you lack empathy, your ability to lead degraded in 2020. Khalid el Khatib, the CMO of Stack Overflow, explains it this way: The pandemic has made me a more resilient and empathetic leader. The concept of ‘work-life balance’ has been tested like never before. It’s made me quicker to ask employees how they are doing, more proactive about addressing burnout in tangible ways, and it’s made me much more thoughtful about prioritization.” Thanks, Khalid.

We did a whole segment in CMO Huddles—which I haven’t talked about that much on the show. It’s an elite group of CMOs that get together once a month. We’ve got 4 huddles going on right now. It’s an amazing program, and one of the things that we spent an entire session episode on, or a huddle, was how CMOs are thinking about de-stressing the workplace, how they are spending time actually thinking about their direct reports in the broader company.

This used to be just the domain of the HR person. Now the CMO is saying, “You know what? There’s so much stress out there, if we don’t pay attention as leaders, as the head of marketing, we’re not going to have any brand ambassadors. We’re not going to have employees who want to support our brand because they’re just too burnt out.

So this notion of empathy, I think a lot of CMOs have woken up and sort of gone, “Whoa, this has got to be a lead characteristic for me to build my team, to share my team.”

What’s profound to me is that it took us all having to separate in order to come together, to go virtual to find our humanity. I really like that one: To go virtual to find our humanity. There’s not just a touch of irony here. There is a tsunami’s worth. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, many business leaders, especially CMOs, have risen to the occasion. More than just acknowledging the intersection of work and home, they’ve embraced it.

Work-from-home brought with it all sorts of organizational challenges not the least of which is collaboration. I, for one, struggled in this area, particularly May and March and April. I missed my water cooler conversations, I missed my impromptu “Hey, Alan, what do think of this?” or “Hey, Anne…” I was thinking about this kind of language—what do you think…? There were flash ideation sessions that I really relied on, but it forced me and our team to work differently, and maybe a little bit better, to try new methods to uncover big ideas. And while I look forward to resuming in-person brainstorming sessions as soon as possible, I’m confident now we can do just as well without them.

Katie Risch, CMO of Centro puts it this way: “The biggest surprise of 2020 was that our typically centralized team didn’t miss a beat and, in several ways, became even more effective and collaborative working remotely. I believe that working remotely has built levels of trust and accountability across our team that will lead to positive and permanent changes in how and where we work.”

It’s amazing! Again, I’m going to go back to this line: how profound it is to me that it took us having to separate in order to come together to go virtual, to find our humanity.

[11:27] The Value of Choosing Change

#Leadership101: “Change is always an option.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Change is hard. It’s disruptive. It’s annoying. It’s unnerving. This is why it is so difficult to make it happen and why the changes that happened in 2020 are all the more remarkable. Just stop and consider how different your interactions are today with your bosses, your peers, and your employees. Chances are you’re more in-tune with their personal lives, their challenges, and maybe even their dreams. We collectively made all of this change happen in just a few months because we had no choice because it was thrust upon us. Not changing was not an option. Hmm. Let’s pause on that thought. Not changing was not an option.

Now, let’s take out the negatives and say, “Oh, change is an option.” Change is always an option. Such a powerful thought to remember when you get pushback on your newest initiative when someone says, “Oh, we don’t need to do it that way.” Change is always an option. If we give ourselves a deadline or are forced to do it, we suddenly change.

We’re working more efficiently now because we didn’t have a choice. You’re looking at your priorities a little bit more carefully right now and saying, “Do I have to go to that meeting? Does it have to be that long? Can we do this more efficiently?”

All of these have changed the way we work. My team is using Slack like never before. We’ve decided that we will no longer create a document that isn’t shareable on the cloud. I’m sure you’re doing many of the same things.

Now consider your working relationship with other departments. There used to be so many adversarial relationships—product marketing versus customer marketing, HR versus marketing in general, sales versus marketing. It seems like everybody was against marketing. These, too, have diminished with the pandemic.

Explains Mika Yamamoto, CMO at F5, “The need to cut over to a 100% virtual world brought sales and marketing closer together for our go-to-market approach. The virtual world pushed us further out of our silos and encouraged us to work together to deliver value.”

Again, the irony—we had to separate to come together. Wow. As we round into 2021, let’s consider that when it comes to employee interactions, how we lead, how we manage, how we support, how we collaborate, how we partner, how we inspire is always open to change, is always up for improvement. Change is an option. We just have to believe in the need for change.

[14:27] How to Go-to-Market Has Changed in 2020

“I’ve been shocked at how many different variations of virtual events there are and how they keep getting better as they think about their customers and engagement.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about how we can apply some of this thinking to how we go-to-market and some of the changes that happened in 2020 that are really huge in terms of where we’re going.

I want to start with some language from Chi-Chi Liang, who is the CMO at As she said, “Yes, I started my job at my current company right before shelter in place came down. We are an early-stage startup where my remit is to build a marketing function from the ground up. The slowdown that COVID-19 introduced to most companies in late Q1/Q2 meant that I had more headspace to be really thoughtful about how to build the foundation for marketing, cross-functional alignment, and collaboration, and learn about a new industry.”

So interestingly in her case, the pandemic created a little more time to think. It’s not always the case, that’s not a universal thing, but it gave her a little bit of time to think. I would argue that we all need time to think and you may be incredibly busy, but if we look for a silver lining in this playbook, one is you can get control of your schedule.

You could do it. One of the things I love that’s come up in CMO Huddles—CMOs have saved time where it’s “#ThinkingThursday,” where there are no Zoom meetings. You just clear your calendar. I know a number of other CMOs who just block off thinking time. And their tools—I get an email every day—I think it’s Cortana from Outlook—that says, “Block this off for thinking.” Love that. I take advantage of that every day.

Now, we’re talking about go-to-market here. Julie Kaplan, who is the CMO at Versant Health (who was the parent of Davis Vision & Superior Vision and was actually bought by MetLife this year) said: “The hard pause on travel meant that we had to rethink how we engage with prospective members (end users of our service). Open enrollment is the one opportunity a year we have to promote the value of our service. Clients invite us to open enrollment events and we show and talk to members. We HAD to invest in an alternative.”

“We’ve GOT to invest in another way to engage members. Now, this is still a mass communication and still controlled by the employer, but we created a virtual space that prospective members can access 24/7, they can share it with their family members, it’s available all year round.”

Stay with me, Julie is still talking: “We’ll probably reach the same number of people, maybe less, but we’re getting more of their attention than we would at an open enrollment fair. They’re spending 3 to 3.5 minutes in the experience.” And she concludes, “Now we have the opportunity to imagine new ways to encourage members to visit our virtual experience to learn the value of vision care.”

So, think about it. This is what’s happening—digital transformation was forced upon it. They could have kept going, doing the physical meetings, spending all that money on travel, going out there, but they didn’t have a choice. So suddenly now they have a better resource, and I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather, at my leisure time, go online, do my homework. Find out, learn about the plan, and then if I want to talk to somebody, I can.

Again, this change was forced upon us, but look at that. If you haven’t figured out a way right now to improve your customer experience, adding something digitally to it, you probably missed an opportunity, although there’s probably also still time.

I want to share another scenario with you and go-to-market and how this transformation has impacted Paige O’Neill, CMO at Sitecore: “Digital ended up having a silver lining, which was a much broader international reach. Typically, our annual in-person customer event has about 80% US attendance and 20% international. This year’s digital event, we not only doubled in size from our typical in-person event, but it was also 50% international, 50% US. A nice silver lining!”

We’ve had lots of conversations in our huddles about virtual events. What was interesting is, in the early ones who wanted early mover advantage—I’m going to name IBM and Adobe—they didn’t knock it out of the park, but a lot of marketers learned from their experience, and I’ve been shocked at how many different variations of virtual events there are and how they keep getting better as they think about their customers and engagement—how they take the dollars that they use to invest in travel and sending personnel and putting them up in their hotels and the booth structures, all of that—and reinvest it into a virtual experience.

Plus, you can get great speakers now, amazing speakers for a third of what it costs. And they’ll deliver. I mean, if they’re really good speakers, they’ll deliver for you virtually.

[21:44] How #WFH Has Changed the Way We Work

“We can't go see our customers, but maybe we can create richer virtual experiences.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

2020 was intense. Maybe that’s the understatement of the century, but it was not a year that was bad for everybody. Isabelle Papoulias who is the CMO of Mediafly actually was a little bit embarrassed when she said, “We expected the worst impact on our business and the worst did not materialize. In fact, COVID and everything remote accelerated digital transformation for companies at every level, which boosted the need for their technology.”

That is a situation where they were at the right place at the right time, and that was a surprise to her and her management. There were a number of surprises that I want to just list and talk about—and some of which are a summary of what we’ve already discussed.

Work-from-home is not going away. There’s no doubt about it. Think about all the things that happened. It begat flexibility, both in terms of how we work together and when we work because certainly with our parents and kids at home, we just had to be a lot more flexible.

Work-from-home begat empathy. We had to be more because people were having real struggles and sometimes the sense of isolation that comes with work-from-home is hard. This takes empathy and puts that right as a key component, and that’s not going to end when COVID goes away. We’re going to just have to keep working on that skill.

Again, we went from flexibility and empathy to needing more collaboration and finding ways to change the way we work, and the outcome was, in fact, working more closely with other groups. Work-from-home certainly gave us all a sense of resilience, that we could solve problems, that we could get through things.

Interestingly, another byproduct of work-from-home is that we no longer had a commute. Then you had time to do something with that. I’ve used that both to normalize my exercise time both in the morning in the afternoon and to try to give myself more time to think. I know CMOs have done the same thing.

No physical events. Well, what does that mean? Well, we’re not traveling, so that gave us a chance to do digital events, which gave us broader reach, which we heard from Paige O’Neill at Sitecore. No travel, of course, also meant that we had to do a better job.

First of all, we have budget to either get back or to use that money in other ways, and that’s really transformed the use of high-impact direct mail. We can’t go see our customers, but maybe we can create richer virtual experiences.

Work-from-home really accelerated digital transformation. Many of us are in different stages of this and what you really need to think about is not the things that it forced you to do, but think about, “Okay, now this is a pathway. Everything in our business to the extent that it can transform probably ought to.”

[25:06] What CMOs Plan on Doing Differently in 2021

“Let's just do fewer things better in 2021.” @DrewNeisser #RTU #podcast Click To Tweet

One of the things about 2020 from a big picture silver lining is that it made us do things differently—we had to come up with new ways to be more creative. One CMO really thought that what they needed to do differently was to lean into the brand value and that brand value actually is going to be even more important in 2021.

On the list of CMOs, what things they want to do differently—Julie Kaplan called 2021 “the year of the ear.” I love that. She wants to listen more. Another CMO is looking for agility. That was Khalid [Stack Overflow] and Katie Risch from Centro—both see agility as something that they’re going to need shorter planning cycles. And I think that’s a really big point. Let’s stop and put a full exclamation point on that.

Because 2021 is so unpredictable—certainly the first half, if not the first nine months. We don’t know when the vaccine will fully impact society, so, therefore, we’re going to have shorter planning cycles, we’re going to need to be more nimble, and it is a reality, so just brace your team for that.

Another thing that one CMO suggested they want to do differently is experiment with different types of content. I think because we had to turn so much of our marketing digitally-focused this year without events. lots of us invested more in content, and thinking about content differently, I think, is probably a really smart priority for 2021.

One thing I want all of us to think about—and a silver lining is—we couldn’t do as much in some cases because we had less budget, but let’s just do fewer things better in 2021. Why? What does that mean? Can we target fewer personas? Maybe. Can we sell fewer products? Maybe. Can we focus as leaders on a few things so that we’re not constantly adding on to our teams’ list and therefore adding to their stress level?

And then lastly, I want to sort of emphasize this need to fight Blursday, with this continuous one Zoom meeting after another. Give your team a break. Give yourself a break. Get off of Zoom for a day, at least a day, unless, of course, it’s happy hour.

A couple other thoughts as we look for the silver linings of 2021 and what kinds of things you will be able to help with. We’ve got to fight Zoom fatigue. We’ve got to fight virtual event fatigue, and of course, just general COVID fatigue. We’re tired of this thing, but it’s not going away. So, what are you going to do as a leader to help your team fight these fatigues? How are you going to pump energy back into these things?

I think it’s really spending a lot of time thinking about employees and their needs, their challenges, being empathetic but then doing some stuff. Not a lot. We’re not going to add too much to the list, but we are going to do something.

Also, keep in mind that your customers and your prospects are dealing with the same challenges, so how can you lead with empathy? How can you get them and show the empathy that they’re feeling and that they need in order to help them along the way? And I think that’s going back to the content strategy.

If you’re empathetic, “Does this add value?” Would you want your friends who are in this business to read it, to watch it, to see it? If it doesn’t add value, you’re not being very empathetic, are you?

So, we’re going to be more human and empathetic and vulnerable, probably, in 2021. These challenges that we face, that we’ve already faced down—I mean, think about how much you were able to do what, how much change you had to do in 2020. It was amazing. You didn’t have a choice, but you did it. So, as we round the corner and give thanks with our family for Thanksgiving in whatever crazy format it is, I just want you to sort of pat yourself on the back for getting through this crazy year, helping your family get through this, helping your friends and your marketing community. Take stock in that, and then as we move forward, let’s pick the change that we want to have happen. Let’s make that change happen.

This is Drew Neisser. Thank you so much for listening. I do hope you have an amazing 2020 and if there’s anything that I can do to help you, you know how to get ahold of me. You can even text me to tell me what’s on your mind. Thanks so much for listening.

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 the intro voiceover is Linda Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, or learn more about quite possibly the savviest B2B marketing agency in New York City, visit And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.