Thom Gruhler, CEO of marketing strategy consulting firm Fjuri, is fluent in the language of marketing—prior to founding Fjuri, he led the marketing team for Apps and Services Marketing Group at Microsoft and served as the corporate vice president and global CMO of Microsoft’s Windows Division, where he led all division marketing.
While CEOs understand the importance of marketing operations, it’s often CMOs who are driving strategy and managing key areas such as marketing technology and customer data. Chief Executive spoke with Gruhler about how his experience as a CMO has influenced him as CEO, the things CEOs need to know about marketing and technology and what inspired him to create his own company. Here’s what he had to say:
How his past CMO experience informs him as CEO
I think the main things that make a successful marketer are experimentation, measurement, and redirection. So as a CEO, I’m constantly in that mindset of, “What experiments are we running? How are we learning very quickly or failing fast? How are we redirecting in near real time to get better results?” So having that data-driven marketing training has allowed me to accept the fact that we are testing, and that we live in a world where multivariate testing is not just a proxy of a marketing leader—it’s the proxy of vetting strategic thinking. Some things you don’t test and some things are true: core values of the company, core strategic mission, the reason you exist.
But other things—having a testing mentality, learning to fail fast, and then coaching the organization around the willingness to do that—are pretty important to the way that I lead the company. And I think it does a lot of things for the team. It really gives them the confidence to bring an idea forward. It gives them the grit that comes from trying and failing but learning and getting better the next time. And it’s been one of the more valuable things that we have instituted in the way that we run Fjuri and the way that I condition and manage the organization as the CEO.
What CEOs should know about the challenges CMOs are facing today
CMO is one of the most challenging roles in business today. And it’s one of the reasons that the tenure for CMO is shorter than it’s ever been. Marketing is continuing to evolve pretty dynamically, so it’s today required of a CMO to balance data and technology-driven thinking with creative and, let’s say, brand authentic thinking that will drive this top line growth and ROI. Most CEOs today look down into their marketing department and they will see either a right-brained or a left-brained CMO. And in reality, there are very few that are both right-brained and left-brained. But frankly, that’s the skill set that’s needed to excel today and for the future CMO. So the expectation to tap into data intelligence, to drive data-driven decision making, and to drive revenue growth is at an all-time high. But most CEOs look across the table at their CMO and see a brand person, or a left-brained person. And I think most CEOs have got to start to appreciate the fact that they’ve got to look at both right and left brain.
The other thing I would say is that the marketing challenge goes beyond the CMO in many instances, and we see this in technology all the time, is that customer experience is more important than brand image or brand advertising. And that customer experience really does require data so that the customer experience that is happening across your channels, whether it’s your media, your advertising, your site, or your product, is tremendously important to understanding how you get customers, how you convert customers, how you retain customers. And not enough CEOs are thinking about customer experience performance instantly, and instrumenting measurement of what their customer experience is, and improving performance across all their touchpoints to get that customer experience lifting.
“THE PREDICTIVE CAPABILITY IN MARKETING DATA IS PRETTY EXCITING, AND THERE ARE A NUMBER OF TOOLS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO MARKETERS THAT WILL EFFECTIVELY CHANGE THE GAME.”
And I think too many CEOs are not giving their CMO the power to own the customer experience. They’re saying, “Hey, you can own the brand,” and what I’ve heard CEOs refer to as, the finger painting exercise marketing. “But you can’t really own the model around how we use our data, how we instrument our product or our website, and how we improve customer experience across all touchpoints, whether physical or digital.” And I think that’s a key role for marketers today.
What CEOs need to know about marketing technology
I think it really is the power of data and how are you using and applying data to improve your relationship with your customer, whether that’s an acquisition or conversion retention. I think it’s what Netflix is doing with their marketing team and their product team to really understand what content their customer wants to watch that evening or that weekend, and then direct their marketing efforts at communicating with that customer around the choices that they have that might marry their preference. Using data and information that’s gathered with the user’s permission, marrying it together with content options that that user has for that weekend, and using predictive data analysis to say, “Hey, for this user, for this evening, this is the content that is most likely to get a response,” and then executing on that in real time. And that seems like it’s an easy thing to say. But frankly, executing it is not trivial, and it really requires top-down execution leadership.
And so in my experience with CEOs, they have lots of different leadership styles. And I think if there’s a leader that has a clear vision, that says, “How are we applying data to improve my customer relationships or improve my customer experience?” then I think that’s going to be a difference maker for a CEO in the marketplace. So I think entrusting the team to be respectful with the data and then using the data to drive experience is important. The predictive capability in marketing data is pretty exciting, and there are a number of tools that are available to marketers that will effectively change the game. These AI engines today that are using, let’s call it site data, or preference data, to instruct how ads are delivered, and who they’re delivered to in real time, and change response rates, I think, are pretty dynamic. I think it’s a big ask for a CEO to try to understand how AI will power their ad buying efficiency, but I think it’s not a big ask to say, “Hey, are you using or applying data to improve your customer experience, and how are you doing that?”
On what inspired him to found Fjuri
When I was at Microsoft, and as a CMO, looking at the options that I had as service providers, I saw a gap in the market. And marketing is changing so dramatically. Part of the reason why we named the company Fjuri was really to speak to the furious pace of change. And frankly, what wasn’t changing fast enough were marketing service providers. And I saw that opportunity and thought, “If I can create a solution to help marketers like me bridge the gap between their creative agency and the digital tools and data providers that they’re using, I think we’ll end up doing a lot of good in helping marketers kind of bridge the gap.”
There was a specific statistic that really compelled me to grab the strategy and take it down to something we could bring to market. And that was in 2011: ChiefMarTec does the statistical evaluation, and in 2011 there were 145-point solutions that marketers could choose from. Whether they were siftings of records, or tools, or point solutions, 145. In 2017, there were over 5,000. And each one of those tools were requiring marketing teams to stitch them together, to make sure that the data hand-off between one tool and the next was clean and operational. Make sure that they were able to harvest business insights and visualize those insights from one to the next, and there just wasn’t a way to do that easily.
And at the same time marketers were being asked to focus on performance, not on infrastructure. Focus their dollars working in the media and working in the marketplace, not on FTE and management. And so we wanted to make that simple. And I think combine that with the fact that I’ve kind of always had an operational mindset, or a notion of building entrepreneurial solutions, I think that’s what compelled me to bring Fjuri to market.