Greg Stuart: This is Building Better CMOs. Let's get back to my conversation with Zena Arnold, the CMO of Sephora.
Hey Zena, I have another question for you, just along this idea of producing growth. Do you feel like you have a real advantage with a comp sci? It was a number of years ago, so I can appreciate nobody remembers the language they learned in college, I assume. But do you find some advantage in having a computer science degree today and how does that pop up for you?
Zena Arnold: I do, but I wouldn't say it's in the sense you would think of: "I can understand more about how AI works or can be better at digital media buying details." It's more that mindset, like we were talking about earlier, it's like you learn as a computer scientist and an engineer. It's very logical, structured thinking — how to attack problems, how to solve them in very clear ways. So that absolutely I feel like I use every single day with everything that I work on. But the technical aspects of it, not really, because things have changed so much from—
GS: What language did you learn in school? What were you good at?
GS: Oh, huh. How old is that now? Right? Actually, C++ still used, isn't it?
ZA: A little bit.
GS: A little bit. Okay. How many times have you been in this senior marketing role?
ZA: The past few roles in companies I've been in, yeah, yeah.
GS: Pepsi was a senior marketing role. Kimberly-Clark was the chief digital and marketing officer, right?
GS: Google, you were the global head of growth for Chrome. Right. Okay. I get to be a senior guy in a very small company, but I work with very big companies like you all. I find that people underrate the difficulty that it means to get to a top job and then also staying there and being effective. I always like to talk to people about what was their path to get there or what does it mean to be effective in a senior executive role? In part, what advice, what was your personal experience is really what I'd love to hear. And then ultimately, what was your advice to the youngins in the business who are maybe looking up. I do hear a lot of people say, "Oh, I look at my boss's job. I don't think I want that job." So you obviously thought differently.
Talk a little bit about what it means to operate at the level of some of these major, giant, even sometimes global corporations.
ZA: I have been pretty intentional about the different experiences that I've sought out and different things that I've learned along each step of the way. As we were talking earlier, P&G was a fantastic place to work, understand a lot of the fundamentals, not just of marketing but of business overall. And then there's places like the tech industry. I worked at Google, which is such an amazing place to embrace agility and experiment by doing. There's this joke about companies like Google aren't strategic because strategy means making a choice and they don't make choices, they just try everything and then see what works.
GS: I've not heard that. Is that right? They're just a test and learn environment. It's a little bit like throw it up against the wall and see what happens. I love it. Okay. That's funny.
ZA: Simplifying it a bit too much.
GS: I understand.
ZA: It's the ability to do that in packaged goods where the industry isn't growing as fast and the pace isn't so important. It's like you have to be very careful and like, okay, let's do a lot of research and analysis and put all of our money behind this one big bet and really hope that it works out. And in tech, you can't do that because everything is changing all the time. So you make some choices, but you do explore a lot more, which is fantastic because you get to try so many different things. I'd say going to Google and tech industry broadly was definitely a tipping point in my career because I was able to accelerate my career growth because I was in a business that was rapidly growing. And so the expectation is you're going to figure stuff out as you go. There's not as much bureaucracy.
It's like you have to move, you've got to figure it out, you have to make it happen. And I think that's just a fantastic experience to be in that kind of a growth environment because you learn a ton by doing, you make a ton of mistakes, but that's okay, that's what's expected. When you go to a more mature environment, something that's not growing as quickly, it's more focused on efficiency. You also learn a lot about being choiceful about things and doing the right level of analysis. So both of those things really important to balance out, I think, in a career. And if there's one thing I think that has helped me is that ability to be adaptable to the environment you're in and getting everything you can, learning everything you can from where you are.
GS: Got it. What's it mean to be adaptable? Is that a roll with the punches kind of thing? Is that figure out next, new?
ZA: I think it's being able to assess a situation and figure out what needs to be done and selecting from your toolkit of skills of what is best applied to do that. Again, at a place like P&G, deep analysis is very valued because you have to be very choiceful about the things that you do. In a place like Google, it's actually more about that experimental mindset and "Okay, how can I reduce risk to try a lot of things as fast as possible?" Which is a very, very different mindset than that of that deep analysis. I think being adaptable is like having a lot of different skills and knowing when to apply them.
GS: How amazing to be able to operate in the best of large marketing-driven companies, Procter & Gamble, a bunch of smart people. Totally. Thoughtful, ambitious for sure. And then you operated, then you've also been successful within Google. You were at Google seven, eight years, whatever it was, right? You've went back in the CPG, now you're over in retail, which is really, I don't know that all the listeners understand how different retail really is from consumer packaged goods. These are apples, oranges. No, these are fruits and bricks. I don't know. They're just almost not in the same... they're things, but they're not really the same. So that's pretty impressive that you've done that. So is that just because you're a really smart person, you figure stuff out, or is it a style that you do?
ZA: I'm a learner. I love learning and figuring things out, problem solving that goes back to that CS degree. But for me, it's so much fun to be in different environments and learn from different people, different situations. I've just always loved that process. You've probably heard about the growth mindset, and I try to have that in everything I go into. It's like, I don't know how to do this yet. I'm going to figure it out, though. And having that energy to be able to do that I think is what has helped make the transitions and have them be successful and fun.
GS: I'm wondering what your parents taught you at some level. That's where it feels like maybe that comes from. Because I think people could approach it sort of super stressful, they could take the pressure of it. We start to spend the money that we make. It doesn't matter how much you make, you still will spend what you make. And so it's not really that you benefit hugely, I think, at some level from that per se. Money doesn't bring happiness. Over time it's better, but is it staying calm or is it really just looking for the fun? What's the perspective you were given for that?
ZA: I'd be lying if I said there isn't stress in everything that I've done. There absolutely is. And I find that fun for the most part.
GS: Okay. You like the stress.
ZA: Yeah. Again, to me that signals, okay, I haven't figured out how to do something yet and I have to. So that's some fire under me to say, okay, let me figure it out. So yes, I do enjoy that and I think that's why I do what I do. But clearly, there's always moments where you need to step back and take a minute and remember what you're doing it all for. I have a son who just turned five. It's been the best experience ever. My husband and I, we've always both loved kids, but also we thought, hey, if we don't have any, we love our lives. We love to travel, we love to do a lot of different things. And so no big deal. And we were both a little older when we had our son, and it's just been a magical experience.
It's a very hard one, to be clear. Some of the stress comes from that, too, in my life, but it's super rewarding as well. And it really puts a lot of things in perspective to know that there's other people depending on you who they don't know me for anything. My son doesn't know me for anything career related, I'm just mommy. And being able to be there for someone, it's really special.
GS: Wow. I love that. You know what's interesting is I talked to my son, we took him to college this year, so my kids are older at this point. Took him to college and as we were driving, I said, "Are you nervous about this?" He goes, "No, not really." I go, "Why aren't you nervous about the work?" He goes, "I've been successful in school before." And I go, "Okay, well, college is different." He goes, "Yeah, no, I know. I think I know what to do." And I said, "Well, what about making friends?" He goes, "People generally like me, so I'm not really worried about that." I was like, oh my god, if we could only all have that kind of attitude. I mean, that's what you just said. You just said like, you know what, it's going to be okay.
And I love your sense of for a greater purpose. I don't think everybody needs to have children by any means. Having had three, I'm not sure that you have to do that by any means. Okay. However, it does provide a sense of meaning and purpose in your life a little bit, which is what you just said, I think. Right?
ZA: Completely. Completely. And I am sure that other things in my life would've had meaning as well, but this one, it's just been a lot more special than I thought it would be.
GS: Is that right? That's so interesting.
ZA: It really is. It's been great. And I think that is because we waited until we were older, and I think we got a lot of the things that we wanted to do done. And so it was this great phase to enter into, feeling... I don't know if you can ever feel ready, but feeling a little more ready. Versus friends of mine I know who had kids really young that were like, "I don't know what I'm doing and I don't know what I want out of my own life." And so it's just different benefits and different things that you're sacrificing, but it's been something that I'm really happy to say has been completely worth all the sacrifices.
GS: That's so nice to hear. I heard Francis Ford Coppola speak on some Bravo show, so you can just imagine which one it was, but I still remember to this day. It's probably, boy, it could have been 25, 30 years ago. He says, "I hear a lot of you young actors, actresses talk about how you don't want to have a family because you're busy working your career." He says, "I want to be really clear to you, I didn't even begin to succeed until I had a family." And I thought that was very interesting. I think there's a balance. And again, I'm not trying, I'm not going to be the must have children advocate by any means. However, I do think there's a balance that comes with that that can really help, you have a higher purpose than just whether or not we made the store sales that day. Right?
ZA: Completely. Completely.
GS: And to be helpful, too. Like I said, my children are older and listen, children get older, they have a little bit of trouble sometimes. And so the opportunity to help them is really very, very rewarding. Well, listen, this has been super interesting. I want to do a couple of lightning round questions with you, though. Okay. Ready? Who else in marketing, person or company — it can't be anybody that you're working with currently, it can't be the current company, you got to take them out of the mix. Okay? Who else in marketing, person or company, do you most admire today? Whose work do you most admire today?
ZA: I love the marketing that Liquid Death is doing.
GS: I heard about some of what they do. Talk more. I don't know much about the story. Go ahead.
ZA: Well, they are a brand of water, which I think that is the ultimate marketing challenge is how do you convince someone to buy something they could get free.
GS: Exactly. We no longer pay for long distance, but we pay for water. I don't know, the world's upside down as far as I can tell. Go ahead.
ZA: This is a very crowded space, and you might argue what more is there to say or do, but I love their positioning. It's like murder your thirst or something like that. It's a super unique tone, and they live it in everything they do, whether that's their ad creative, their look and feel of their packaging. It looks like a beer can. It's very intense with a skull on it. But maybe most importantly, I love the brand acts, as I call it.
GS: What's the brand act? What's that?
ZA: It's like things that they do in the world that show what they stand for. It drives buzz, it drives engagement. I remember reading, it was maybe last year or the year before, they created the first ever sponsorship for a water boy on a football team.
GS: Of course they should do that. That's brilliant. Of course they should do that.
ZA: And so something that did not cost a lot of money yet so on brand for them, everybody gets a smile and a chuckle out of it. That's really smart marketing.
GS: Oh my god. You know what, I bet you every marketer, every marketer, if we asked them, would love to have an anti brand almost. It's like we want to be just let go, have fun, and make stuff up and not worry about being proper, not have to protect a multibillion-dollar revenue stream. I got into it with one of my brands, one of the big ones, and they said, "Greg, we just can't do that." I'll never forget, they said, "I don't want to be a person who took anything off a $50 billion corporation's valuation." And I thought, wow, that's a whole new level. You're right, that's complicated. I wouldn't want to be that person either. But we live in... in corporate America, there's a lot of sensitivities and there's more danger around some of this stuff than... not danger. It's harder not to cross the line than ever today. Correct? And get it wrong.
ZA: Yeah. No doubt there is a lot of pressure for big companies especially, but what I love about something like what Liquid Death has done is, this isn't controversial stuff that they're doing, it's super clever stuff.
GS: It's just clever.
ZA: Who would've thought of that? But it's so smart to do what they want to stand for in the minds of their consumers and do it in a clever, fun way. I think there's a lot of opportunity for that, and they've done it super well.
GS: How hard is it as a head of marketing of a number of different companies, how hard is it for you to give freedom and rein for people to be able to bring those kinds of ideas? You're trying to crank out the work. You got work to do, you got campaigns to launch. Heather Freeland from Adobe told me she has campaigns with 5,000 assets in it. Oh my god. That's a factory. That's not marketing, that's a factory. Okay. So how do you give room for people to think, "You know what we ought to do? Sponsor the water person on the field"? How do we get to that?
ZA: Well, I think you have to start with a great insight about your customer, your consumer. You've got to have the freedom in what you stand for as a brand to be able to do that work. And then I think tactically you have to actually just really make space for it and say, hey, we want to do something that's a bit breakthrough and out of the box. That doesn't mean a huge spend, it just means thinking creatively, thinking very insight driven. And that kind of stuff happens. And at least in my world, as we're thinking about it, it has to happen alongside some of the factory systems of work that has to happen, because all of that has its purpose and its place and is very effective. So you can't stop that. But when you can do these kinds of things in addition, that's where you start to see some real breakthrough.
GS: I don't know if people heard what you said there, but to me it may have been the most important thing. You have such a clear sense of brand that when somebody comes and says, "Hey, what about...?" Everybody goes, "Oh my god, yes." And that's only from the clarity of brand. Only from the clarity of brand. Because the clever ideas are not important if they're off brand. That's why marketing's hard. I think that's what people don't understand about marketing. It's a much more nuanced aligned thing than you think it is. It's much harder. Okay. How about what's most underappreciated in marketing?
ZA: Underappreciated, I think it's your current customers as brand ambassadors.
GS: Oh yeah.
ZA: Because we often think of, okay, it's got to be about advertising and I've got to deliver a message of this kind of thing. But actually your current customers, your current consumers, if they're telling their friends of about how great the experience of your product or your brand is, that's stronger than any ad that you can make.
GS: Totally. Unmeasurable, hard to assess, hard to execute, most important. I like that. That's actually really good. Boy, spoken like a real person that knows their customer. Okay, last one. You ready here? What is the one thing that somebody listening here can do to be a better CMO? They get the shot or they're in the job, what do you think?
ZA: I think spending a lot of time understanding your customer or consumer is so important, and I think we can do that or get that in the traditional ways. Oh, sure, give me an insight report or here's our brand equity studies. But what I've found, what's been super instructive and fascinating is going on social media, following people that my customers love, hearing and seeing how Gen Z is talking about beauty, it's really cool. And when you get out into the wild and really listen, really observe, I think you just learn so much. And it's just so important to always keep that customer, consumer voice at the core of everything that you do.
GS: I so miss that. I used to do focus groups and all that with Procter & Gamble all the time. I love, love, love, love, loved it. Zena, listen, you're incredibly generous to take this time. You're six months into a new role at Sephora, so you have a lot to do. I think there's a small thing coming up like a holiday season that matters to retailers. So you're very generous to do this now. If you'd said, "Greg, don't you even dare talk to me until January," I would've been okay. And I'm super excited to welcome you into the MMA family. I know you and I have been talking about that for a little while. So the board's super excited. So am I. So really, thank you for this. I really appreciate it. Listeners appreciate it. Thank you.
ZA: Absolutely. Thank you, Greg.
GS: Thanks again to Zena Arnold from Sephora for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the description of this episode for links to connect with Zena. And if you want to know more about MMA's work to unlock the power of marketing, please visit mmaglobal.com or attend any one of MMA's 30-plus conferences in the 15 countries where we operate. Or write me firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much for listening. Tap the link in the description to leave us a review. If you're new to the show, please follow or subscribe on Apple, Amazon, iHeart, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find links to all those places and more at buildingbettercmos.com.
Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from lightningpod.fm. Our project manager is Lili Mahoney. Artwork is by Jason Chase. And a special thanks to Lacera Smith for making the engines run. This is Greg Stuart. I'll see you in two weeks.