Bringing a marketer's mentality to the CEO role: B-to-B CMO Spotlight

A former chief marketer talks about the move up the c-suite

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It's rare for chief marketing officers to make it to the CEO level. But you would expect that those who do make it to have strong opinions about the role of marketing—and maybe even take a heavy hand in marketing execution. Well, with Rob Chen, CEO at Brightlink and the former CMO of CEB (now Gartner), you'd be half right. In our interview below, Chen offers important insights into marketing strategy while noting that his "day job" keeps him from being too meddlesome. Brightlink's services include voice, messaging, analytics and cloud-based solutions.

On the top of Chen's strategic priorities is "drinking our own champagne" which in the case of Brightlink means using their latest telecommunications technology (enabling any number to be used as SMS) as a sales tool. He is also a believer in partnerships to extend reach, particularly when it comes to engaging with small businesses. Finally, Chen advises current CMOs to bring their marketing mentality when it comes to building culture and think of it as an "extension of your brand."

As a former CMO yourself, how do you make sure that you give your CMO the breathing room to do his/her job?

The good news is there's a natural forcing function—I have a day job. I've got to run the company. I am a big believer that you hire good people and get out of the way. I do have some ideas from time to time, but I try to stay at the strategic level to make sure that we're doing the right things to surround our customer in all the ways we want to reach them.

Do you have an overarching marketing philosophy?

I am a big believer in drinking our own champagne. We have a new product that can actually text message-enable any number. This is particularly important with the generation for whom SMS is native behavior who are unknowingly texting numbers that goes into the ether. So, when we send out emails, we offer the customer the ability to respond back to us and engage us either by phone or by email or by text. And the texting is to the numbers that we have text-enabled for every one of the sales employees.

Who is your primary target?

What we do is focus on the business buyer, because the value of what we're doing; if you're the business owner, if you're an SMB, if you're a large corporate entity—it's about the sales and marketing function. But the technology functions are actually very helpful and they need to know that this is enterprise grade—and they need to know that this is a file-based solution that's built on robust infrastructure.

Are you targeting small or large businesses?

We actually sell to both small businesses and enterprise, so for small businesses we generally leverage a channel model. We have a lot of what I'd characterize as sell-through and sell-with resellers who actually take our co-branded "powered by" solution. And they sell to the SMBs they serve. The use cases tend to get very specific. For example, a restaurant wants to manage reservations and wants to be able to take those text interactions. With the large enterprises, we tend to go direct.

Can you talk about the partner-based marketing?

Sure. We like the fact that we are relying on people who truly know the needs of the small businesses. In prior lives, I've run small business marketing; we had tens of millions of customers. I understand that the small business market is highly fragmented, highly diverse.

Rob Chen
Rob Chen

And it's a little trite to assume that any company, particularly a smaller organization, is like us, or a mid-sized company is like us. It's really hard to really know how to serve all the different segments. So, bringing in partnerships with some of the value-added resellers and systems integrators delivers a better outcome for the end customer.

Do you have a couple key lessons for CMOs out there?

One is: I believe you need to come outside in, and not inside out. Marketers naturally have that outside in mentality. And so, understanding that it starts with the customer and starts with the use cases and starts with kind of, what are the need states and drivers for their success? And that is a good way to think about it, for me as a CEO— how I want to run the business.

Okay, how about one more lesson?

I think it's important to realize, across the board, the value of culture. I subscribe to Drucker's notion that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is in many ways an extension of your brand, it's an internal extension and also extends outward. So, think about building culture with the same thoughtfulness, the same mentality as we marketers construct our brand equity.

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