Greg Stuart: This is Building Better CMOs. Let's get back to my conversation with Andrea Brimmer, the chief marketing and PR officer of Ally Financial.
It's funny, I've often said, and I don't know if I'm right, it's a thesis I have now, but I think marketers have a sense of arrogance in our ability to manipulate all consumers to come to our brand. And that's just not true. Maybe that's the wrong way to put it. That's a little cynical, but I just think we get so excited that if we run enough ads, it's okay, but it's really not. There are some consumers that, for a variety of reasons, are never going to come over to the brand no matter what we do. And so every dollar we invest there is a dollar invested not to either build more favorables or to create more customers and more acquisition.
Andrea Brimmer: Look, especially in my category, because there is a compendium of people that will never want to bank digitally. Finding those people, eliminating marketing to those people that are unfavorable towards the notion of digital banking, is a significant cost save that I can reinvest to convert more people that are open and are favorable. So for us, this thing has been landmark, and I'm excited because we've got other brands coming along. I know we've got Kroger and Campbell's are in. And so I will be super interested to see how it's going to perform in other categories, and then to utilize that data to see, is there a way to make us smarter and vice versa?
GS: Hey, Andrea, you mentioned MTA a couple of times. So by the way, yes, I have the playbook on this because I don't know if you know, I actually, in some regards, co-founded multi-touch attribution. Rex Briggs is the guy who was a scientist. I don't want to take anything away from the brilliance that he brought to the table to do that, but somebody had to popularize that. And I remember going through the point of trying to get everybody to believe in a new way of measurement that wasn't, in some regards, media mix modeling, which had been sort of the standard for too many years. So it's hard to get this change and the industry into it.
Hey, Andrea, let ask you another question, by the way. I kind of want to give you a big shoutout here because you have chosen to be public about this and share the insights broadly. That takes a certain amount of courage, I guess, or I don't know. Not everybody's willing to play that role in the industry. Why have you?
AB: Because I think that we have a responsibility to one another as marketers to make each other better and to help with the problems that face our industry and help with the challenges that we have in our jobs. And to me, there's nothing in the data that I would look at that I'm shy about sharing or that I think gives away any Ally confidentiality. And so my team has literally sat down and taken CMOs at other banks through it.
GS: Oh, wow.
AB: As well as CMOs at multiple companies. I had a young woman come up to me that was a CMO at a credit union in Jacksonville at the Possible conference, and she's like, "This is the exact conversation I've been having since I've gotten in my role and this is data that's wonderful. And is there any chance that your team would take me through it?" The team sat down with her—just a community bank in Jacksonville, Florida—and took her through the research results. And so if we can be helpful in more and more people understanding the thesis and being able to use the data to make their own cases, it only lifts the knowledge of the industry and the power of what we do as marketers.
GS: That's kind of a good segue then, too, Andrea. A lot of people probably want to have your job, and we're all making this sound pretty good right now.
AB: I don't know if anybody wants my job.
GS: It's funny you say that. I remember as a very young person in the agency business looking up at my boss and say, "Ooh, I definitely don't want their job." Not to mention it took me a dozen years. I probably moved outside of the agency business, but nonetheless, I do remember thinking that. But let's assume there's a couple of people, and at least there's the people striving to have more influence, to create more change. Maybe it's just from a monetary standpoint, I don't really want to get there. But sitting in the role that you have, there's a lot of challenges to that. One you're faced with, as we said here, making a lot of decisions on big money. You publicly state what the Ally marketing budgets are?
AB: No, we don't.
GS: It's a big number. It's a very big number, I know.
AB: It's a healthy number.
GS: Healthy number. There we go. Maybe talk a little bit about your career path. Like you said, you came in working with Sanjay originally, then he eventually moved on. You ended up getting the top spot. I don't know if you were really ready for that. Moving from the agency to the brand side is complicated. I left the agency to go over to the marketer side. That was a tough challenge, I remember. Talk a little bit about your experience in doing that and how you show up for those kinds of experiences.
AB: The hard transition for me was going agency side to brand side. And keep in mind, when I came over to GMAC, I was marketing employee number three.
AB: So it was small.
GS: How big was your team at Campbell Ewald, by the way? Do you remember?
AB: Five hundred people. Five hundred people. So it was a huge change.
GS: Wow. And I think at that time we had fax machines, too, didn't we or no? Maybe a little bit.
AB: I had a typewriter when I started at Campbell Ewald on my desk. And that is no exaggeration.
GS: I remember that.
AB: Hell yeah, we had fax machines and bag phones. And we had a dress code. The women had to wear a dress with nylons. It was specific in the handbook, so....
GS: Oh, my god.
AB: Think about that.
GS: Oh my god. That's hard to believe, isn't it? It's so funny.
AB: Nylons. Exactly. That always cracks me up. That was a scarier transition for me, for sure. Because when you're at an agency, you turn around and there's a lot of people behind you. You've got a creative director, you've got a strategy lead, you've got a producer, you've got all these people. So there's this net around you. You screw up, there's a safety net that's going to catch you. I underestimated the bigness of coming brand side and somebody saying with no direction, "Okay, go write a business plan for why you need your marketing budget, by yourself." And so that was a big transition. And then when I moved into the CMO role after Sanjay left, and a few years after I had been at Ally, we had 40 people in marketing. Forty. That was it. You won't believe this, Greg. I had one person in digital marketing. One, Kevin Howard, who you know.
GS: Oh, I do know Kevin.
AB: No social media. There was no social media. Ally had no social channels.
GS: Minimal, insignificant, not paid.
AB: No CRM. None.
GS: Oh my god.
AB: We didn't do any CRM. There was no data and analytics team. None. We sponsored no events, no sports marketing, there were no sponsorships. I had no operations team. And so in my tenure, we've built the entire infrastructure basically from the ground up. And that's been hard. Today we sit over 260 people across literally every discipline, inclusive of PR, which was very new to me. I didn't know anything about PR. I had never had a PR job before. And so navigating through social injustice, COVID, bank failures, crisis du jour has definitely been a steep learning curve. And oftentimes you're just kind of having to make best decisions based on your experiences. So it's been a wild journey, and then I think it's a constant state of evolution in learning. Look, three years ago, there was no AI. Three years ago there was no Metaverse. Every day there's some new "What are we talking about now?" that you got to go learn and figure out.
GS: Changes all the time, but what's it mean for you to be in a senior executive role when people are kind of counting on you? I don't know, they count on you to know those things, to provide leadership around those things? Would you encourage people to want your job?
AB: First of all, I think I have the best job in marketing, period, bar none. So I really believe that. I have a great brand, a great company, a great boss, a lot of autonomy, and it's a great gig. I have an amazing team, and there's value in that. The human capital aspect, I love. And just the enthusiasm and what the team brings every single day is super energizing to me. But I think to answer your question, with great privilege comes great pressure. I allocate about a third of my time just to have an active learning agenda. You've got to go deep on stuff. I had to spend a lot of time learning generative AI, Chat GPT. Even the things that are happening in the financial services category, whether it's been the digital money movement, whether it's been things like bitcoin, whether it's blockchain. Nobody taught me that in school.
GS: Hey, Andrea, so wait, you commit 12, maybe more hours a week...
GS: ...to trying to be active? A day and a half of really active learning is, I think, what you just said, is that right? Wow.
AB: That's exactly what I said.
GS: Boy, that's a real commitment. I don't have time to read an Ad Age newsletter in the morning.
AB: Well, for me, it's a combination of things between getting up super early and doing as much reading as I can, or literally reaching out to people that I admire who are doing amazing things and learning from them. Spending time with my peers. I've got a great CIO who's very active in MMA, Sathish M., who I think you know.
AB: And I learned a ton from Sathish. I just had an all-hands for my team. We had several speakers that came in and just talked about AI and Chat GPT and generative AI and went really, really deep on that. We've been super active in gaming, Greg. I've hired a gaming team 2.5 years ago, right before COVID, that do nothing but build out our gamification platform. And we just launched a really cool... what I would call Web2.5 in Fortnite called Ally Arena that's incredible.
AB: These are the kinds of things that if you don't have an active learning agenda, you can't lead.
GS: I love the commitment to that to stay ahead out on. We'd be remiss not to ask you what are you doing around AI, generative AI, however you want to approach it? What is part of your learning or where you're heading to? Either one. What do you know and what do you think you got to go figure out and get to know?
AB: A number of things. One, we've gone deep. We're lucky within our agency, Anomaly, they have a very deep expertise around AI. This guy there named Chris Neff, who is brilliant, and we've spent a ton of time with Chris. Just spending days, honestly, at Anomaly, playing around with the technology, understanding the technology, going deep, listening to experts around that. And so what we've done is we've created a task force within my team of about 10 people that have been given different assignments around just playing with the technology and understanding it and figuring out how it can make us more effective, more efficient. Not be a replacement for human capital, but make human capital better and make us better as marketers.
We're already using a lot of it for things like chat, virtual assistants, those kinds of things. But if it can make us faster relative to content creation, that's a great use case for it. If it can help us with automation and take away tasks that are painful for marketers around budgeting, around compliance-related issues, around loading things into systems—so you've got campaign trackers—and give us more time to market and communicate, then great. And those are the things that we're experimenting with right now.
GS: Just to confirm, you're positive in AI in its future and its application to business and marketing?
AB: I don't think we have a choice. It's not going to go away. You're not going to put this genie back in the bottle.
GS: Fair enough.
AB: And so I think you have to figure out the best way to use it and not let it scare you and kind of overwhelm you. I was at Michigan State a couple of weeks ago and I spoke at a class, and it was the number one question I got from every single student. The number one question.
GS: How'd they phrase the question?
AB: Is AI going to take my job? Will I have something when I get out? How are you thinking about it? What do I need to know about it? How can I use it to my advantage? And you've got universities right now wrestling with students that are turning in Chat GPT-written papers.
AB: Is that plagiarism? Is it not plagiarism?
GS: I think the questions are unclear on that in my experience. Is it just a tool that we use? We certainly didn't tell people to hand write everything when word processors came along, did we?
AB: Exactly. And these are the things that we're wrestling with as a society. Where I come out on it is we better learn pretty damn quick how to work with it and not let it work against us.
GS: Let's go back a little bit to, you are an athlete, as I mentioned earlier, full-on college level. Congratulations.
AB: Thank you.
GS: I think I've heard you describe yourself as tenacious. Is that what you used? Tenacity, that was your virtue? Did I hear that somewhere?
AB: I would definitely say tenacious is a word that can be associated with me.
GS: Okay, so you're a little bit driven. I've heard other people describe it as type A, bold, underline. Maybe that's where it is. That's me, for sure, but whatever. But what's it mean to sort of operate at a regular basis at this level, to keep up with the other C-suite executives? There's tensions in organizations. You use the word pressure. There's pressure, certainly when things got to be delivered, there's a lot of expectations. You don't always have control of everything all the time. It's not all plotted, planned out like you might like in every situation. The world shifts and changes. I don't know. How do you manage that... I don't want to call it stress, because stress is an attitude, not a job requirement. But how do you manage that situation and keep focus and stay alert? I love your learning agenda, that's a great one. What else?
AB: It's an unrelenting pace, and I travel a ton. I'm gone almost every single week, and it's a lot. You have to find ways to make sure you're keeping yourself mentally and physically strong. And so I think for me, dedication of time to myself no matter what, whether that means get an hour run in or take the dogs for a walk, even if it's the middle of chaos, or go on a girls' trip and decompress, or go and get a massage. I learned a long time ago to stop feeling guilty for finding time for myself. And there are times where I've been gone Monday through Friday, I get home on Friday and I'm packing, and my husband's like, "Where are you going?" I'm like, "I'm going on a girls' trip this weekend." And he's like, "Well, you just got back. You've been gone all week." I'm like, "I was gone for work."
You learn it with age that the only way to thrive and survive is to find that time for yourself. And so I do that and I have no guilt around it, and it's really helped me, just that little moments of decompression, to refocus. Honestly, my team hates when I go for a run because I come back and I've got like five ideas that I want people to run down.
GS: I love that. I get that, too. The worst thing you can do is give me a weekend to think about something. That's never good for anybody on the team.
AB: Exactly. It just frees your mind. So I think as you find those moments... I live on the water. I get a lot of joy out of just being on the boat, even by myself and floating. And I'm a big animal person, so being with my dogs or getting a chance to go find time and spend time with my kids, they reenergize me. They're all adults and out of the house, and so those moments of being with them is energizing as well.
GS: I agree with you, by the way. I'm on water here now. It's unbelievably nice. I think it makes all the difference, both living in the city and here. What are the dogs, by the way? I'd be remiss for the dog lovers not to ask what kind of dogs.
AB: I have my girl, Queen Zena, and she's a pit bull that we rescued during COVID. And then I've got a 16-year-old old guy, Rover, and he's a beagle mix. We had as many as four dogs, down to two. But my post-retirement dream, Greg, is to buy a hundred acres of land, and I've got four or five friends, including Alex Bowman who's our NASCAR driver that we sponsor at Ally, that are all going to start a dog rescue.
GS: Well. So funny, I did not see this coming. If you need somebody to work on that for you, I happen to have a daughter who is a total animal nut and just graduated with a degree in animal science. So as soon as you're ready, you let me know.
AB: Love it. Love it. My son is in veterinary school at Michigan State.
AB: So I'm excited about that, but I have a very soft spot for all the dogs that nobody wants: the old dogs, the pit bulls who have a horrible reputation and are the sweetest dogs in the world. And that would be my dream. I seriously have about four or five friends that have all... We're starting to think about putting a business plan around this together, looking for some property, and figuring out how to get this done.
GS: My daughter is obsessed with pit bulls for the same reason you just said. Exactly. Oh my goodness.
AB: The best.
GS: Who knew? Okay, well listen, you let me know when you need help and if she's available, I'm sure she'll be there in 10 minutes.
AB: She's in. She's in.
GS: It's great to see how you sort of manage this and have been so successful for so long in doing it. It's no small feat.
AB: Thank you, Greg.
GS: It's just a lot of complexities to business. It's simple, and yet it's not a lot of times, and you can really get yourself sideways. I think the only advantage, somewhat, being older is you get a little bit of pattern recognition. You know what? It's not going to be so bad. It's probably going to be okay or maybe this is the end. I don't know. We'll see. I've dealt with that, too. Let's just keep going, everybody.
AB: Right, exactly.
GS: Really my favorite phrase of the team, the MMA team knows. It's like, "Alright, everybody, it doesn't look good right now. Everybody pick up an oar and row. Let's go. Get ourselves out of this if we can."
GS: Listen, just a sort of lightning round. So pick a person, anybody in marketing, it could be marketing, it could be a brand if you want, it could be a recent campaign you've seen. Who do you admire now? Anybody top of mind? You can just pick anybody out there. Give a little reason why.
AB: It's going to be kind of a funny answer, but there's two kind of movements, if you will, right now in marketing that I admire. One is the Savannah Bananas.
GS: Oh, it's very interesting what they've done. I think it's pretty phenomenal.
AB: It's genius. And what they have created is absolutely incredible. And then I give a ton of credit to Liquid Death and what Liquid Death has done. They're just doing brilliant, brilliant work. And I would venture to guess on kind of a shoe string-ish budget. I admire challenger brands. I still think about us as a challenger brand, and I think that it's fascinating. I'm always fascinated and have huge admiration for people that find really creative ways to relevantly punch above the weight. And I use that word relevantly on purpose because anybody can be disruptive. Oftentimes it's completely irrelevant. If you do it consistently and persistently in a relevant way, that's a whole other level of genius.
GS: I totally agree. I got to speak to a CFO conference a number of years ago, and I basically told them that procurement was killing the business. And my thesis was that they're missing the value of a little extra money in creative and thinking more about the big idea and what that could mean. And any sort of limitation you give to that is usually, I think, probably money. Any limitation is not money well spent. If you can double down and come up with a bigger idea, it makes all the difference. Exactly. Just keep striving for that. Brilliant. I love it.
Okay. What's a little bit overhyped in marketing right now? Want to pick on anything you think, ah, I think we're a little over our skis on this one? We've gone too far, you think it's too big a deal? I don't know. I'm not there yet. Where you at?
GS: You know what? I feel like I should take the question out because everybody picks on... Kellen just did Metaverse, too, the other day. That's the excitement of a few months ago that's getting kicked around too much right now.
AB: You got to look at it differently. I don't think the Metaverse is going to go anywhere. It's relevant use. It all comes back to relevant use. And one of our board members asked me one day, "Do you really think someone's going to come into the Metaverse and want to put on an Oculus set and have an interaction with a banker?" It's a good question. No, probably not. But if there's utility, there's a way to provide utility in the Web2.5 space, or eventually when we get to Web3.0, then that's important. But I think all the hype around first brand of the Metaverse, first bank in the Metaverse, first this in the Metaverse. Who cares?
GS: You tied too many things to the concept. It became Metaverse, crypto got kind of thrown into that, blockchain for sure, and then Web3. So I think Web3 is real, but we still have a lot of sorting out to do when it gets to actual Metaverse and if we're going to live our lives in a virtual sort of way yet. So I got you.
AB: And then if you want me to give you a different one too, Greg, I gave you the overhyped?
GS: Go ahead.
AB: We way fixate too much in marketing on awarding ourselves.
AB: The number of awards.
GS: You've really got to put a stake in our heart on this one? You're going right for it?
AB: We got to just chill on it. It's become oversaturation and they're losing relevance. And I think it puts a bull's-eye on marketers' backs...
GS: I totally agree.
AB: ... as we talk about this internally with the C-suite and you talk about that NPS score oftentimes for marketing. I just think we got to take a breath, step back, and refocus on what's important right now.
GS: I had a CFO actually say to me at one point, he goes, "My CFO doesn't go to that many events and doesn't spend that much time getting awards," and the comment just hung there in the air.
AB: I'm sure.
GS: I think they were right about that. Listen, I think it's good and I appreciate that, too, because it's really the thesis of MMA. What are we doing to drive real substantive value back to the brand and the shareholders and the enterprise at large? And what do we do to use marketing as a more powerful tool? How do we unlock its value even more? The good news is that there's still a lot of room to get better.
Okay. How about underappreciated marketing? You want to pick on something underappreciated, think that people maybe aren't seeing yet?
AB: I do truly believe that marketing is underappreciated for the significant role it creates in terms of being a catalyst for growth. And I had somebody say to me once, "I used to think marketing was a nice to do until I saw what it actually did and realized that it's a have to do." And there are too many people that still think it's a nice to do. It's not a new concept. And I'm sure a million people before have said this to me, but I just think changing the narrative around our own industry is critically important. Honestly, it's why I find value in the work that you're doing because I think it's real and it makes us better, which is why we need to be part of trade organizations.
GS: My thesis of the MMA is that there just isn't an entity out there that's really trying to improve the overall practice of the industry, and we need to raise our game. We're a little bit too hobby-ish and not enough of a profession. Listen, my wife sells real estate. She has to get certified every year, two years, again, and go through a series of dozens of hours of classes. We don't have that.
GS: We don't have that in our business, and yet our budgets are significantly bigger.
AB: It's why I look at things like FEs and something that's measuring effectiveness versus a little bit of what you're seeing at Khan, if you read this morning, Ad Age talking about how all the purpose-driven work is the stuff that's winning. I think just getting back to the touchstone of effectiveness in this business is so critically important. And effectiveness, again, can be brand, it can be purpose, but it has to be relevant and it has to affect change in a significant way. And so I think marketing goes through these ebbs and flows and these adjustments on a continual basis, and we all kind of gravitate towards one concept or another at the same time. But just getting back to the touchstone of relevancy and effectiveness and why we do what we do is the most important narrative that needs to be consistent and persistent.
GS: And that is to grow the business.
AB: That's right. There's no need for us if we don't grow the business.
GS: There's a great study done by Kim Whitler. I am pretty sure Dr. Neil Morgan was involved. So Dr. Kim Whitler, Dr. Neil Morgan, just to credentialize with it, they did a study they presented at the MMA CEO summit a few years ago: When a marketer is on the board of directors, those companies' sales are 3 percent higher than when a marketer's not on there.
AB: That's awesome.
GS: Because when you have finance and venture and equity people, then they're managing mitigating risk, but the marketers are saying, "Well, yeah, let's take care of that, but what do we do in the grow?"
AB: Really interesting.
GS: I think that's an interesting conversation. Very funny. Okay, last one. Somebody listening to be a better CMO, what's the advice you'd give them, Andrea? If you were to give advice to those following you, what would it be?
AB: Be brave. Be brave.
AB: Bravery has been the hallmark of my career, and I think oftentimes we kind of bend to whims of people because we get filled with trepidation and there's no real room for that. You just always have to remember you're employable. It doesn't work out someplace, you're going to find something somewhere else. Good people always do.
GS: I often don't regret what I do. I regret what I didn't do.
AB: I love that.
GS: And it's usually a lack of bravery or a sense of fear at the moment that's sort of holding me back.
GS: Andrea, you're great. It's been so much fun getting to know you. I can't thank you enough for the leaning in that you've done with the MMA and the leadership of the industry. It's totally recognized by everybody, so on behalf of the entire market industry, I thank you, but mostly just from me. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Thanks.
AB: It's been with great pleasure, Greg. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
GS: Oh, thanks again to Andrea Brimmer from Ally for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the show notes for links to connect with Andrea. If you want to know more about MMA's work to unlock the power of marketing, visit mmaglobal.com or you can attend any one of our 30 conferences in 15 countries where MMA operates, or just write to me, email@example.com. Thank you so much for listening. Don't forget to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And if you're new to the show, please follow or subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Amazon, iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find links to those places and more at bettercmos.com. Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from LightningPod.fm. Building Better CMOs researcher is Aneta Palevska. Artwork is by Jason Chase. And a very special thanks to Lacera Smith. This is Greg Stuart. I'll see you in two weeks.