Building Better CMOs
Podcast Transcript - Building Better CMOs

GE Global CMO Linda Boff, Page 1

Linda Boff, the global CMO of GE, talks with MMA Global CEO Greg Stuart about leading marketing at a "capital-P Purpose" company, how to punch above your weight with a smaller team, why B2B businesses don't have to be boring, and more.
Linda Boff: I wasn't talking in business terms. And it took getting up there, oh gosh, too many times—three, four, five times—until I realized I was speaking French and they were speaking English, and we weren't going to connect. And it was not their job to understand me, it was my job to put it in business terms.

Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get smarter and stronger. I am Greg Stuart, the CEO of the nonprofit MMA Global. And that voice you heard at the top is Linda Boff, the global chief marketing and communications officer at GE. She has been with the company more than 21 years and a CMO for almost a decade. She's also a senior advisor at private equity firm, Citation Capital. Today in the podcast, Linda and I are going to talk about punching above your weight with a small marketing team, the problem with calling B2B marketing "B2B", and the danger of only talking to other marketers and not the rest of the C-suite. Now, this podcast is all about the challenges marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Linda Boff is going to tell us how she did it right after this.

MMA's 2024 POSSIBLE Conference

GS: So Linda, welcome to Building Better CMOs. I'm so excited to be doing this with you.

LB: Greg, thanks so much. I've been really looking forward to it. And on the heels of Possible, I feel particularly privileged.

GS: I know, I know, how exciting. Most things of success are born out of... desperation is a little too strong, but they're born out of mistakes and problems. So basically, MMA had a terrible US events business. I mean, we currently run 41 conferences in 16 countries, so I have a huge event portfolio around the world, but the US one was really bad. So I went to the board and I said, "Listen, I've got to rethink this whole thing. I've got to come up with something completely different." So I went and hired a consultancy out of the UK to help me redesign what was missing in the marketplace. What they came up with was a giant conference expo that marketing could get together because we really didn't have it. CES is only partially attended. Kellyn Kenny, my board chair will be there, but she's there to sell phones not to talk with the marketers. And Cannes Lions, it's a little too bougie. I mean, it's fun, but a little bit too much. I mean, the whole industry doesn't get to go, correct?

LB: It's a tad bougie.

GS: It's a tad bougie. Oh, that's how we're framing that now. But there wasn't a marketing event for marketers.

LB: Yeah, no, hats off. I didn't get to go to Possible last year, and I had real FOMO. All of a sudden, it felt as though there was this conversation coming out of Possible and people talking about what had happened onstage and, frankly, what hadn't happened onstage. Just sort of this gathering of marketers. And so I was thrilled to be there this year. And as advertised, I thought it was a great conference, good people, good discussions and needed. Talking to each other is important.

GS: And what do you think about the name Possible? I mean, you're a CMO. It couldn't be any better than that, right?

LB: I was just going to say, is there a better name than Possible...

GS: Oh my god.

LB: ...for a marketer? I mean, anything's possible. No, how did you come up with the name? I'm curious.

GS: So I have a guy on my team, his name is Vassilis Bakopoulos. He's an ex-strategy planner from the agency world. He used to work at Digitas, and he's been with me now over eight years. And so when the board was deciding if we should do this... This is a for-profit business, and we raised money. It was unusual for a nonprofit to go down the path. I didn't have the money or the capital to get the talent. And so he went through a process. We went through an archetype analysis about what was the ANA event, what was Cannes Lions, what were these other events? And we got to the sense it was either bold or it was where Disney sits in this sense of magic. I don't remember what exactly the archetype was, but it was a sense of endless possibilities. And we're like, "This is what marketing needs because we're feeling a little beaten upon as an industry." Don't you think sometimes marketers are feel a little put upon sometimes? Or it feels like there's a lot of negative news or maybe that's just the media reporting, I don't know.

LB: I think it's a little bit of both. I think there are too many times we hang our heads and we shouldn't. I pinch myself most days. We're the soul of the company. We get to play this role in helping businesses grow, but I do think there is some moaning and groaning. And so the idea of Possible plays against that. And frankly, a lot of what I heard in a lot of the conversations, I think, were what does leadership mean in marketing and how do we drive that?

GS: Well, it's certainly what MMA is out to do. I mean, we're out to try to find every problem there is and fix it and come up with a real validated... Not always just science because that can take things in a slightly different direction, but a validated position that we know that that's truth and fact. I don't know if you heard me open the event, but I used it last year. We have a tendency to believe things that logically make sense, but just aren't true. And it's because nobody's taking the time. The agencies aren't put in a position to do that anymore. It's bad. The consultancies aren't asked to do it. So who is? It's the unique nature of the MMA.

LB: Yeah. No, no, no. Listen, I think it's terrific. I was thrilled to be there, and the fact that this was really only year two...

GS: It's crazy.

LB: ...I think speaks volumes to the potential.

GS: And what is the opportunity there? It felt to us. In fact, when I did it, Allan Thygesen, who at that time was the head of Americas and sales for Google... I said, "I'm thinking about maybe we should do a big conference expo." He goes, "It's so funny. We were just talking internally at Google, and we were saying, 'Wow, there really are no good marketing-oriented events.'" Isn't that funny? I thought, "Wow. Well, there you go."

LB: That's really interesting.

What Is a Chief Learning Officer?

GS: Hey, now, Linda, I didn't really set this up well. You and I have known each other now for a lot of years, so let's just be clear for everybody listening. Okay, so at GE, that may have come up in the pre-read, but you're global chief marketing and communications officer and chief learning officer and president of the GE Foundation.

LB: Those have been my corporate roles. That's right. Now, Greg, we are at a point at GE where we have split into three companies.

GS: Oh, okay.

LB: But that has been my purview for... I've been CMO for nearly a decade, coming up on a decade. The other two roles, the learning, culture, it's been about six years and foundation maybe four or five years. So, add a pearl as I went.

GS: I don't know if I've ever known anybody that had a chief learning officer title. We're here to talk to you as CMO, but I want to hear what that means.

LB: It's really interesting, I think, because all of us in corporate America have some form of training and development. GE, over the many, many years, this was something we have emphasized. We had a corporate facility that people would come to and spend sometimes weeks on campus learning. We did a lot of online learning, virtual even well before it became as big a thing as it is. So learning, training, development has been a core to GE. About six, seven years ago, we started looking at training in a different way when our new CEO, Larry Culp took the reins—so that was fall of '18, so more like five years ago—which was how do we think about training less from the point of view of bringing people to us and more with this idea of how do we get the rank and file to go to our factories, to go to the place where we are making things so that we can get even closer to the products that are going to our customer.

So why does this make any sense in the world for somebody with a CMO title to be doing it? I'd say there were a couple of things. One is we tried to innovate in our learning in a way that we had not done before. We took what we were doing and literally flipped it on its head. And I think there was a level of innovation there that the person who was, at that point, head of human resources knew me with an innovator's head, thought I could do a good job on that. And I think there's also something about how a brand works inside a company as well as outside a company is really important. I've always believed that our ambassadors are inside as well as outside.

GS: So equally to teaching them maybe new skills or aptitudes or so on, you're also saying they need to understand the company, and the CMO was the one who knows what that is. Kellyn Kenny did a presentation last year at the MMA CMO & CEO Summit. She talked about how she had rolled out a new position for AT&T. Only you can probably consider how massive that job really is.

LB: I don't even think I can appreciate it. I bow down even further to Kellyn, and I already am a bit of a worshiper. Yeah, that had to be tough.

GS: But what was interesting is that she said something that I still remember now, almost a year later, she goes, "I needed everybody, even those on the line or linemen," I think that's the choice of words, "They needed to know how they contributed to the mission and purpose of this company." And I went, "Wow, that's a very powerful idea." If you can get all the way to those who are stringing the telephone poles to know their role in the thing based on that mission statement? Very powerful, I thought. And you're right, only a CMO would get that.

LB: There's the old story, which hopefully I won't butcher too much, of John F. Kennedy visiting somebody in the bowels of NASA, I think it was a janitor who was cleaning the place up and saying to him, "What's your job?" And he said, "My job is to put a man on the moon." And I think that is the essence of really driving something all the way down in an organization so that you're not breaking stones, you're building cathedrals. And I think, wow, that's a big thing if you're at AT&T or GE or any of these big companies, which is for the people who are doing the hard work to feel as though they are just as committed as what the CEO is doing to what's going to grow and move the company.

How GE Has Changed Since Linda Joined

GS: Granted, an army could do more than an individual, so that's a very powerful idea. That's interesting. Oh, one other thing here before we go on. So 21 years at GE?

LB: Yeah, I think it's between 20 and 21, but who's counting?

GS: That's what LinkedIn says. Who's counting? Well, I did. There's not a lot of that longevity in the world today.

LB: Not a lot.

GS: Why? Why did you stay? I mean, first off, the company's nothing like when you started, I imagine, is part of your answer. Not even the same.

LB: It is similar in the DNA and the purpose and the impact, and it is wildly dissimilar in the portfolio. So when I joined the company, we owned NBC. In fact, as you know, I went to work at a division of NBC.

GS: Yeah. You were the CMO for iVillage, exactly. I mean, that was one of the big pioneers. That was one of the 10 top internet properties to start the business off. Yep, I remember.

LB: We owned GE Lighting and Appliances. There are still GE Lighting and Appliances. We don't own them. We owned all kinds of businesses—water, security—that we are no longer in. So the portfolio looks completely different. Of course, what looks the most different is we're now three separate publicly traded independent companies. There are three GEs. I joined one, now there are three stocks, three boards, three CEOs. So that is completely different. But what isn't different—and this will, I hope, start to answer your question of why in the world stay anywhere for that length of time—the purpose of the company. The Edisonian, "I figure out what the world needs and I try to solve it, I try to invent it," is unchanged. We are a company, I like to say a capital P purpose company. We think about the impact of what we have the privilege of doing, providing energy to a third of the world. It's a lot of people.

GS: That's true. Energy equipment to a third of the world.

LB: A third of the world, third of the world.

GS: Oh my god.

LB: Third of the world has power because of GE. Our planes with our engines take off every two seconds. So as you and I are talking, there are probably, give or take 900,000 people in the sky right now with our engines under wing. And our health care equipment, MRIs and CTs and so much more, touches 2 billion patients a year. So that is very... God, it makes you feel just this enormous pride to get to work on that. And I think the fact that we're a company that has invented so many things. We did invent the first jet engine. God, we invented the first TV broadcast. We invented the stock ticker. I mean, so many things. I've tried and my amazing predecessor, Beth Comstock, and so many people on our team have tried to imbue that sense of innovation in our marketing. And that's really quite a treat to get to do that. To say to ourselves, well, if we invented a jet engine, how do we bring that ethos to marketing? Not by being silly or doing marketing for marketing's sake, but really that Edisonian heritage. That's kept me there. It's a treat.

GS: Wow. It's great. I mean, listen, you almost get chills when thinking about the proverbial standing on the shoulders of giants and really remaking the world in such a much better way. I think the question would be, why would you ever leave that?

LB: Well, when you split into three companies, that gives you a reason. But I joke that we're the sons and daughters of Edison, but GE is a company that takes great pride in the fact that a lot of the work that we do is really hard. It is hard to manufacture offshore wind turbines that are the length of a football field and do it with quality. It's hard to make the safest jet engines in the world.

GS: I was going to say, you just look at jet engines... I mean, listen, I don't know about you, but I sit in enough planes. I still sit and go, "How the hell did we do this? Really?"

LB: How the hell did we do it? And so it's humbling to be a servant of that, if you will. Anyway, it's a wonderful company. I've loved every minute of it.

iVillage and Web 1.0 Shenanigans

GS: I love it. I love it. Well, boy, we sure made iVillage look a little bit small, which I mentioned to you earlier that I was supposed to be the fifth founder. Candice had asked me to join her with her and Robert Levitan, and I forget who else was there at the time, but I was excited in the moment. I passed, as I think Eric our producer, I said earlier, I was like, "The Pete Best of the Beatles." I opted out early or something. I don't know.

LB: We could have used you.

GS: That was a tough time, though. That was coming in off of the dot-com bust.

LB: It was a tough time. I think it was not a well understood time to be in the digital pure play business. And I think for the folks at NBC who, understandably, it was broadcast business that had just spent, I think it was $600 million to purchase iVillage. iVillage's secret weapon was community. It was the community bulletin board, as you may remember, which were the earliest possible precursor to social media. It was people who just wanted to connect with each other. But how do you monetize that? That was not an easy thing to do.

GS: Yeah, it was born out of the concept of AOL. AOL was big on that idea. I don't know if Candice did it specifically out of Greenhouse Networks, that was AOL's subsidiary, but she was good with Ted and others there and picked up that ethos. Yeah, exactly.

LB: Yes. No, you're right. I will say, just to spend one more moment there, sometimes I think I wouldn't be in the job that I'm in today if it hadn't been for iVillage. Here's the reason.

GS: Is that right? Oh, wow, why is that? That's interesting.

LB: Yeah. I got a front row seat at digital 1.0 if it was even digital 1.0.

GS: Barely 1.0 at that point, barely.

LB: Barely 1.0. I had to learn search marketing in order for us to do business. I had to be able to explain why a digital portal made sense to companies like Walmart. And as I did it, I had to learn those things. It was just a great experience being on the field. And when I went back, Greg, into GE in a marketing communications role, I was able to ask questions that I don't think I even would've understood, let alone been able to ask had I not had that experience. So I am blessed for doing it.

GS: To be fair to the business, you started there just as I was finishing my term as, in essence, the first CEO of IAB. I had had to step in to write. I wrote the Global Impression Standard, which we now call viewability. That standard was developed globally by me and a guy named George Ivie at the MRC because we had no measurement. I mean, we were just making shit up all the time, quite honestly. I mean, it was unbelievable. We had done analysis. We figured out that impression counts could be anywhere from plus 100 percent to minus 50 percent. So that means if you bought $10 million of inventory, you either got $20 million or $5 million and you didn't know. And the same ad servers in similar companies were measuring that kind of dramatic change. We were really having to put in the underlying infrastructure.

But you're right, there was a lot of, I don't know if I'd call them shenanigans, some. But there was just so much foundation that had to put in. You really had to, as a marketer, pay attention. No wonder that I think marketers mistrusted the internet people at some level because there just was a lot of stuff that hadn't been worked out and figured out yet.

LB: A lot of spray and pray.

GS: Oh my god, yeah.

LB: And I think there was no malfeasance. I think we were all trying to understand the power of something we just were beginning. We were taking baby steps.

GS: Yeah, there was a little bit of shenanigans actually, Linda. I mean, listen, I was running the IAB. I worked for the publishers. I'll tell you what happened. Actually, I'll tell you exactly what it was. This is so funny. This is a way back machine here. Then we'll get on to the other topic we're here for. But I went to somebody, I went to the CEO of a public internet company at the time. We were doing some separate analysis. So basically I created multi-touch attribution. Rex Briggs did the math of that, and then I figured out how to popularize that. But we were doing MTA, so it put us inside server logs. We saw all the data that was going, and what we had discovered is that as much as 15-25 percent of inventories being served to international audiences by these domestic properties.

Now when you were a media person or a marketer, you bought Time Magazine, you knew that that was US. When you bought NBC, you knew that was US. The question had never come up. And so there was inventory that was going to these international audiences because internet now was this global medium that we didn't really fully understand. And I went to the public company CEO and I said, "Listen, you're not disclosing." Or "Did you know this, one?" And he said, "Yeah, how do you think I'm making my quarterly numbers?" And I go, "Well, I would consider the fact that we don't disclose that the marketers should be stealing." And I'll never forget it, he said, "You better keep your effing mouth shut."

LB: Oh, boy.

GS: Isn't that a shame?

LB: Yeah.

GS: I don't think you'd get away with that today in the world. I think we've really tried to clean up that stuff. But there was a lot of those, it was some bad practices. Thank god we got it cleaned up and we created a medium, and the whole world's moved digital. And I think we have some trust, although some anxiety about it still, but there was a lot of stuff that was crazy.

LB: Yeah. No, no, no. It's come so far. I mean, now I think, in some ways, everything is so measurable in many good ways that we forget what we're supposed to be doing.

GS: Or we take convenient measures like click... Okay, listen, we're here for a whole other reason. We'll see if Eric, our producer, wants to cut that out later. We'll let that go. That was maybe just fun.

LB: Our trip down memory lane.

GS: It'll be in the archives. They'll find it in a cassette tape someday on the floor of a studio somewhere.

What Have You Done Today?

GS: Okay, listen, here's the topic. Building Better CMOs. So the fundamental thesis of the podcast and the MMA is, as I mentioned to you and the reason we started Possible was that marketing can be better. There's ways that we can improve things, that there's power in marketing that we can unlock.

The question I always like to ask people, of CMOs in particular, those with stature and have been around the business for a long time, is what do you think that we, as marketers, don't necessarily fully understand. We either maybe don't give enough credence to it. It's in there, but it's not a top priority. Maybe we miss it. Maybe we know nothing about it. You can take it any way you want, but as the head of trade association, I'm looking for stuff to go fix. So I'm building a list every time I hear this. So what's on your top of the list that we as marketers really would be better off being much better at?

LB: I don't know that it's, Greg, that we don't know it. But I think if we are not answering as marketers, the fundamental question of what did you do today to move the business forward, I think we are not serving our companies, our services, our customers well. Because in the end of the day, that is the marketer's role to drive growth for our companies with our key stakeholders. And it's so damn simple that it can be easy to spin that out. But if we're not inherently in that fulcrum of what moves business forward, if it's a public company for our shareowners, for our employees, as I said to you, I think then it's just noise. Now, the noise can be fun, it can be entertaining, but if we're only entertaining each other, what are we doing? And so I think it's that simple. What did you do to grow the business today?

GS: I can't even tell you. Again, I think I said this earlier. I have goosebumps. So I was a big agency guy, and then I went to the dot-com, and I worked at a lot of small businesses. And my most important phrase to people, especially if they had not been around startups, I guarantee if you ask any of them today, they would confirm this I said it so many times, this is required in a startup. When you are a small company like that, when you're just emerging, the question is, what have you done today to move the business forward? I'm a little flabbergasted to hear somebody of a company your size to say, "Well, have I really done something?" And listen, a little bit harder to, and I don't want to get into parse that question, that's irrelevant. But that orientation to what have I done today to make the GE business better? I've never heard that from anybody.

LB: Our CEO, Larry Culp is a disciple of lean management, what's called the Toyota Production System. I will not attempt to give anybody a lesson on lean on this podcast, but in its purest form, lean is about continuous improvement.

GS: Okay, got it.

LB: Some of those steps are small, some of those steps are big. But it is always about how do we get better? And I think that mentality, and I've worked for Larry for five and a half years, I don't think I fully appreciated the value of that simple idea of how do you improve every single day? And listen, Greg, to your point, if you're a small startup, from Monday to Friday, there's probably a lot you can do where you turn the crank and you see something. GE is big, it takes a lot to turn, but in the last five years, our stock, as one trigger of measurement, has improved 290 points as compared to that same timeframe for the S&P 500.

GS: Wow.

LB: We've changed our portfolio. We've separated into three companies. We levered by over $100 billion. Now, I promise I won't turn this into a GE fandom show. It is more to prove the point that that was not because of what marketing did. It wasn't because of what HR did. It wasn't because of what legal did. It was because of what we did collectively. Our CEO gets and deserves the lion's share of that because of his vision and his commitment to seeing a North Star driving us there. But this was a we thing in every sense of the word. If it wasn't as clear to me as a marketer before that, it sure is clear now.

Punching Above Your Weight

GS: Wow. So great leadership, a big deal, clarity of how we execute a vision against that, a really big deal. Are you willing to say how big your marketing team is there?

LB: I'll give a sense of it. We're three companies. So when we were one company, god, we were never more than about 50-60 people.

GS: Wow. Small.

LB: The GE model in corporate marketing has been, for a number of years, to have a group of people who are, I believe, best in class. Really, really good at what they do with extensions through some fairly terrific agencies. And we are proud of those partnerships. Some are very, very long in the making. GE and BBDO have been partners for 100 years. Some of them are much, much more recent, and it's a plethora of folks, but it has always been a fairly small team inside the company. I will not give a number to our marketing budget, but it has been a decidedly hardworking team.

GS: I think they say punching above your weight is the phrase.

LB: Very much so. I sometimes say shouting louder than we spend, but either of these will work nicely.

GS: Okay, talk a little bit about translating, though, marketing into the business objectives. Go back to it because I don't want to lose sight of that core point because I do think it's so crucial. How do you do that? How do you know that? Give examples. Let's go.

LB: So I think it starts with what the narrative for the company is. What is it that we want people, as I say, both inside and outside, to believe? For us, and I love this because it's a great discipline, we start our narrative with a messaging triangle. What are the three things you have to believe in order to want to do business with us, in order to believe that we can do better, that we can deliver, et cetera? So number one is a messaging narrative that everybody in the C-suite agrees with and that we hold so near and dear that it is consistent. It goes back to what we were talking about before. Every person in an organization articulated. On a good day, you want to believe that, but certainly you want to believe that by consistency and repetition, people understand what it is we're playing for.

GS: Yep. Got it.

LB: That's number one. Number two is to figure out what role marketing can play in driving growth. And to figure that out at a GE, at an industrial long cycle business, is really different than what a McDonald's or an AT&T that's looking at either same store sales or performance week after week. We might put a jet engine into the market in concept, and the first one will roll out of the factory 10 years later. So for us, this is building confidence in our ability to do something. I am a huge believer, have been, and probably always will be, in the power of a story told creatively and beautifully. I just think that finding that, as my friend David Lubars at BBDO loves to say, that single creative nugget that is often a very simple but unique and ownable way to tell your story, serves the company really well. And for a company like GE, we're 133 years old, turned 133 at Possible. See? I knew I could work Possible in there. You have to find ways to not just tell that story, but to make what, in our case, is the important interesting.

GS: What is the story, by the way? Go ahead and give me a... I'm just curious while we're on it.

LB: It's the story of a company that is constantly thinking about how to build a better world. Now that is really, really 20,000 feet. So how do you do that? We do that through figuring out what the future of flight needs to be at aerospace. We do it through precision health care at our GE HealthCare business. GE, now Vernova is the name of our third public company, our energy company. We do it by figuring out how to both electrify and decarbonize. But none of that, Greg, matters if we can't find a way to do it that is human and approachable and showing up the way a person would, not the way a big company would.

Earning the Support of the C-Suite

GS: So let me ask you a funny question. How much time do you have to spend gathering the support of the C-suite around this? And by the way, before you answer that question, I'm going to give you the answer, I think.

LB: Good.

GS: I have a feeling just listening to you, Linda, that everybody really looks to you to provide that anchor center vision in some regards of where we're going.

LB: You're kind, I would never say that. I think that to work at GE, there's a DNA that I think never changes. There's a formula that never changes, and that is—I go back to Edison—we figure out what the world needs and we try to solve it, or always on brief. And this is truly and always on brief, is to make our marketing as innovative as the products we make, so that when people see our marketing, they're reminded of what the company is and the trust, believability, and innovation that has been part of the company for a century-plus.

If I engender leadership, which you're kind to say, I think it is a bit of a reminder that that is who we are. And at the same time, trying to always figure out, Greg, new ways to say that. Sometimes it's with a creator, sometimes it's putting a drone show in the sky the night before we spin into three companies. Sometimes it's through long form, sometimes it's through short form. Sometimes it's creating our own event, participating in others. I think what I've been able to do with my team is to find innovative ways to tell that story.

GS: Now let's take a quick break. We'll be back right after this with Linda Boff.

Recent episodes: