Building Better CMOs
Building Better CMOs
Jonnie Cahill (Heineken USA) Transcript, Part 2
GS: Okay, Jon, let's talk about the other side of this. So as you know, MMA has been doing a lot of research around the brand is performance concept and the balance between those two metrics. Our thesis is that in some regard, brand needs to be performance, but it's over time and we've not had an ability to measure that. And just so you know, because you said something to this earlier, you're right, this dynamic of understanding the optimization between long and short term... Jonnie, I talked to at least a hundred CMOs a year, there's not one that hasn't told me that's an issue within. That's not a discussion there. No one's got an answer. Okay. Let's talk, though, about where the performance side of this thing fits in for a Heineken. How do you look at that practice and exercise?

JC: Yeah, I mean we're looking at it across a few dimensions. It's more difficult for us because we're quite disaggregated in terms of our relationship with our end customers because of the three-tier system in beer. So if you think about how a Heineken gets from me to you and your grocery store, it's from us to a distributor to a grocer, to your refrigerator. And we don't often have direct relationships, although we're cultivating them in preparation for a cookieless world and let's say a first-party type future. So there's a few ways we're looking at it. Obviously in direct channels like e-commerce, which is very underdeveloped in alc/bev generally versus other categories in the US. We're cultivating and checking all of our performance marketing and media around occasions, around message management, around life stage management, and really talking to consumers using MarTech to really target moments for maximum opportunity for the business.

And so that's a very sort of straightforward selling function, if you will, in an e-commerce vertical. And then we are tracking all of our measures in terms of completion rates, how our advertising is performing, equity scores by various demographics, how the business and how the output of the business is working its way through to the end consumer to really understand how effective is what is typically upper funnel work. How effective is that as we go down through the layers and get closer and closer to the consumer?

It's really challenging. Having worked in telco, there are times when I'm really envious of that direct relationship because I know for sure what's happening at each stage and through each targeting initiative. And we struggle a little bit to have that visibility. But for both selling tactics and equity building tactics, we are tracking ranges of metrics that are effectively proxies for performance: sales on one side, but all of the creativity metrics that we have on the other to make sure that what we do is flowing through to the end consumer as efficiently as we can.

GS: How do you look at balancing the two? How do you know what that mix should be?

JC: I mean, you don't for sure in terms of the right level, but what we do try to do is, in our business, because of the premium positioning and because of the relationship we're trying to cultivate, we actually try to close the gap between what you might call brand and performance show up. We don't want them to look that different. Because if we allow ourselves with our positioning to be defined by our lowest common denominator in terms of how we talk to customers and consumers, that's what they'll believe the brand to be. So we don't philosophically start with is it brand, is it performance through a creativity lens? We just look at that through a tactics lens: through media buying, through what we do in programmatic, through how we show up at events, through how we conquest data with consumers, how we work with loyalty programs with customers. They're the tactics for us that we focus on for the lower funnel. But from a creativity and positioning perspective, we try not to delineate because we want absolute consistency of brand DNA, tonality, and feeling through the funnel.

GS: How do you not get caught up in having to try to do everything? I kind of get that sense from talking to marketers. There's so much opportunity today, there's so many channels, the business has changed dramatically, right?

JC: Yeah, that is really tough. And we spend so... I mean, you look to how the media mix has changed, for example.

GS: Dramatically.

JC: And then you're enabled by having MarTech solutions. We have an in-house studio that uses DCO. So theoretically, we can deliver infinite amounts of creativity. And yet one of my biggest worries is fragmentation of positioning. So I love DCO and it terrifies me because I want us to be quite single-minded. I want us to be very targeted and customized, but at the same time, I don't want our equity to fragment. So we're quite choiceful. We try to be quite choiceful about what we will do and equally choiceful about openly saying in our teams, here's the thing we could do but we're not doing. And we try to celebrate those choices and not just chase what's next. You can get, as you say, pulled in 15 different directions. And that is, in a way, why that marketing vision and that objective is very important, that North Star you spoke about, because that allows you to say, "I could do this, but I'm not going to because it's not in service of where we're headed or it's not consistent with what we stand for."

We try to use all the MarTech, we try to be incredibly efficient, but we try to be very precious about the brand.

GS: But it's complicated for a business like a Heineken, you don't have to talk about yours specifically, but it's complicated because should you be developing a loyalty program? Should you be trying to extend personal relationships to consumers? Because that's a huge time investment versus creating better ads because you sit at a distance. How do you try to make that decision an allocation of time, energy, effort, resources?

JC: I think we go to what are we uniquely brilliant at? And you have to look at what is it that you are specifically built to do as an organization. So our biggest loyalty program in a world where we're disaggregated from consumers is brand equity. There's a reason that people spend five bucks more or three bucks more on a 12-pack of Heineken versus the millions of choices they have because they know it's worth it. And so it's not that we don't see loyalty programs as exclusively being the click stamp rebate. Of course we do that stuff too because everybody needs a deal from time to time. But we believe equity is also one of the primary drivers of loyalty. We believe in broad reach and penetration philosophically, but we also believe in equity.

GS: Boy, that's still, I mean it really just kind of goes to how hard marketing has become today, doesn't it?

JC: Yeah. I always wonder... because you talk to people and CMOs in different types of business. So there's days when I think, "God, I am envious of AT&T or Verizon," that absolute ability to really—as I perceive it, having been in that world—to really have that direct conversation, life cycle management, change the conversation, absolute clarity on how everything's working in the machine. And I can imagine they look at a brand and a business like ours and think, "God, that must be beautiful." You kind of have a more balanced, more amorphous collection of different marketing techniques in order to do the same thing, but it's much blurrier. They're both fun to do, but it is a different model versus, say, a direct response business or a D-to-C business.

Sometimes it's very frustrating, I'd love to know more. But you get comfortable and then you have to retrench to this is what we believe and this is how we believe you grow the brands, and it's working for us all over the world. Heineken's the fastest grow international premium beer brand in the world. Something in this system is working. It's not that we don't do the other stuff, but something in there works.

GS: To what degree are you paying attention to daily, weekly, or monthly sales trends and then being reactive and responsive to those?

JC: Despite the previous answer, are we looking at daily sales? For sure, absolutely. And weekly and monthly and quarterly and MAT. And you're looking for all of those trends all of the time.

GS: And then how reactive do you have to be to those? Or do you say, "Hey guys, we have a longer term strategy here, we're going to stretch it out"? Or I don't know, I don't know how companies—

JC: No, you've got to be very reactive with your customers to the sales data. Things like pricing, for example, which is really important in our category to make sure we remain premium but accessible to people as they trade up into beer. We are seeing the market data and responding to that. We don't set pricing, but it is obviously something that's important as a premium brand. We're not selling champagne and Rolexes, we're selling an everyday luxury. You see things that grow in a recession: lipstick, nail polish, premium chocolate, ice cream, beer. We need to stay competitive, not out of reach. We obviously track on a daily basis how the sales numbers perform, and we react accordingly with all of the tactics you'd see in any CPG organization to try and improve performance and drive those volumes or compensate if things are slow. And there are natural moments, of course, in the cadence of our business. Dry January for Heineken 0.0 is a great example. It makes total sense. Dos Equis is in college football, very big brand in Texas and the Sun Belt. Saturdays are really important. So you'll see a lot of our activation pointed towards those key moments. So we are all over the long-term strategy and all over the daily sales. And I think almost everybody in the business has that dichotomy.

GS: Let's just talk a little bit about the career side of operating as a C-suite executive. And so I made the statement to you earlier that I don't know that everybody really appreciates how hard it is to continue to perform at the tops of some of these big companies and the challenges that kind of go with that. And you then took and sort of amplified that by changing cultures. So I don't know, maybe start with a little bit like what were the challenges of coming to America and learning an American culture versus where you'd been before?

JC: The US transition, like any transition to a new culture, you immediately assume you know things and you very quickly realize you have to adjust to it. I think good marketeers are inherently curious and usually quite empathetic in the sense that they're looking at the world thinking not what's happening, but why is it happening? I hope I have my eyes open and I'm an empathetic leader and actually empathetic human being. I think when you come to a new culture, you have to lead with humility, you have to seek empathy and try to be kind. I have a very deeply held personal philosophy, which is performance and kindness aren't mutually exclusive. I think you can perform at a high level and be a fundamentally kind person. I try to be, I'm not sure I always succeed. So in the transition to the US, I found it an environment that was incredibly open.

People really want to work with you. There is a real openness to learn. As a marketeer, let's be honest, Greg, I grew up in Dublin, Ireland, I'd been to Russia, et cetera. As a CMO, this is the major leagues, this is where you want to be so I was really humbled to be here. And every day I wake up, I think I get to do this here, it is the home of the discipline. And I feel very fortunate to have chosen to be in marketing. I studied it in college, wanted to do it, got to do it, and turned out to be kind of okay at it. And now I get to do it in the US and that's what gives me sort of huge joy because this is where it's at for what we do. But I think transitioning cultures, you've just got to stay humble, keep your ears open, deeply look at what's going on, and you need to fit in with the culture, not the other way around.

GS: So Jonnie, it sounds like in some regards you kind of had a series of built-in attitudes, perspectives that have helped you to succeed in these big companies. I can hear how you've kind of approached that, which I think is actually very interesting and powerful. Were you raised with that kind of thing? Did it just come natural for you? Did you have a coach that helped you get there? A great CEO? I don't know. How'd you get great at that?

JC: It's a great question. I sometimes try to think about what would my grandma say if she saw me in a meeting or with an agency or in work? Would you be proud of your behavior if people saw it? Are you very different as a person and as a businessperson? Because they shouldn't really be different things. Wouldn't it be great to be yourself? I would hope, if I had one dream, I would hope that people who know me through my professional career have a similar experience to people who know me privately and personally. I don't turn on Jonnie Cahill for work, I just bring him to work and we try and do the best we can.

So from that perspective, I think, yeah, you're just trying to have empathy, take care of people. And I think there's a very simple thing at the root of marketing is you're getting to do stuff that in many cases brings a lot of benefit or joy or usefulness to people, but it's also an enjoyable business to be in. So I try to remind myself how lucky I am to do this for a living because there are real jobs out there that are really hard. So I think it's probably making sure there isn't an enormous gap between who you are as a professional and who you are as a person. I think when you fall into that trap of trying to manage vastly different personas, you lose empathy, you lose authenticity, you lose connection. You're managing your brand. And I'm trying to manage, in this case, Heineken's brand or Dos Equis' brand rather than my own.

GS: Was there any pressure when you were younger, for example, to sort of rise to this level of global corporations? Was that always your expectation?

JC: Not at all. I remember thinking I'd like to do that and I was fascinated. My first lecture was on premium pricing and my head exploded. I thought, "This is amazing."

GS: Your first lecture within college? That was your first education experience you remember?

JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, not my parents when I was-

GS: What a funny thing. Yeah, they weren't teaching you as a toddler, I understand.

JC: My dad when I was four. Yeah.

GS: What a very funny thing that you even remember that as sort of a topic. That's funny.

JC: And I was like, wow, you get people to pay more because of how you show up. And I was fascinated. No, no pressure at all. To tell a very personal anecdote. I mean when I was appointed in this role, which was a big seat and I was very proud, of course, and your mom is proud and your friends are proud. My three best friends, the WhatsApp group exploded. And of course because they're my best friends, the first thing they said is, "One, you're way out of your depth. Two, you won't last six months. Three, I'm looking forward to watching this."

GS: Thanks for the support, guys.

JC: And that was their way of saying, if I translate that, that was my best oldest friend saying, we're really proud of you.

But you know what? I think you have to remember how lucky we are to have these seats, really. And yeah, there are Tuesdays when it's budget day and you have to do some tough stuff. I think you do mention one thing, which is, you don't get given the seat. You do have to do the work, you have to go to places. And sometimes you do tough things. You've got to do those things with humility and respect, and then try and do fabulous things with the brands that you're lucky enough to own. And recognize that I've worked on Guinness, I've worked on Heineken, 200 and 150 years old, respectively. My fingerprints are only on these brands for a millisecond in the big picture. And all you can try to do, Greg, is make them a little bit better than when you got them. And I think if you keep it simple like that, it's easy.

GS: Jon, I love one of your earlier points here, too, you mentioned about gratitude and where you are. Somebody had said to me earlier on my life that, they said, "it's very hard to be grateful and depressed at the same time." What that was aiming me for was that if I stick with an attitude of gratitude, then everything's fine. I really hear that from you.

JC: Yeah, I think I feel fortunate. I feel lucky. Basically because you professionally get to do something that's enjoyable. I wanted to do it. Someone said about exercise the other week, it was, I heard this and it fascinated me, said, "You don't have to do it, you get to do it."

And I was procrastinating about getting on the bike. And the point they were making was like, if you have to work 20 hours a day to feed the family, you don't have time to exercise. So you should look for the joy in stuff. This is the job I wanted to do, I guess. And I get to do it. And I've got to do it in different places with different teams. I have friends all over the world, and I really feel fortunate to have gotten to do it on very iconic brands. I think you're talking to Linda soon and something like Campbell's, right? You just look at that and you think, "Wow. Wow, it's cool!"

GS: Right. Exactly.

JC: And she probably thinks, "Oh, I'd love to do beer and I wouldn't want to do soup." I would do it tomorrow. So we should job swap.

GS: Okay, I'll see if that's available.

JC: You can tell her I said that.

So yeah, I mean to get to play with these brands, and I don't mean that in a flippant or casual way, but how much fun is this? So yeah, I feel very lucky.

GS: Jon, it sounds like you have the greatest job. I mean, who wouldn't want to go to Coachella last week? Miami Formula One coming up, Las Vegas Formula One, the US Open. I don't know. I'm jealous. So I think—

JC: Yeah, I need to—

GS: Not everybody has the right attitude even when they have the attributes like that. So good for you.

JC: I hear people, Greg. I actually hear it sometimes, people say, "Oh, there's a lot of travel." It's like, hang on, we're going to Coachella, we're going to see the Dolphins, we're going to the Islanders. Yeah, that is a great thing. Hey look, there's lots of wet Tuesday afternoons when you're looking at an Excel spreadsheet about performance or budgets or... of course. But I think everyone's doing those things and everyone in every business is doing those things. And so I think you got to accept that there's lots of stuff you got to do. It's just the job and you get so much more as a result.

GS: And it's just the attitude you have towards it. I mean, listen, there's been a little bit of a political fight, I guess, going on around the MMA here and some stuff that's happening recently. And people are like, "Oh geez, I'm sorry you have to go through that." And I go, I don't know, it's interesting. It's dynamic, it's moving. I don't really know where it's going to end up. We're trying to make a lot of our best decisions in the face of otherwise unclear information and maybe some overly ratcheted emotional reactions by some people. But I get to play the game. I'm okay with that. I'm okay with that. I like to play the game.

JC: And you said something very interesting in there, which is, I'm trying to make the best decision.

GS: Yes.

JC: And I think that that's a very simple but a very liberating thought.

GS: Yes.

JC: Which is, I'm trying my best and I hope it's good enough. And so far, it's been okay.

GS: It has been.

JC: I've been very fortunate.

GS: The evidence suggests it has been. Right.

JC: But I'm trying as hard as I can and that's all I've got. You can say, oh well what about the stakeholders and the politics and what will fly and what's the right decision? I think people know if you're putting your soul into it, you're trying your best. Of course you're bringing your experience and intelligence and thoughtfulness to the table. And you can't be reckless and you can't be casual. But that's the only thing I control. I'm always fascinated by elite sports people who say, "I don't really focus on winning or losing. I focus on doing it the best I can and then there will be an outcome." Because that's the bit you control, right? You don't control winning or losing. You couldn't score. The Islanders can score. Mat Barzal can score five times tonight and still lose. He can be proud. He might be disappointed, but he can't control whether he wins or loses. He can control how he plays. And I think that's probably a nice guiding light where you say... And I think people see that. They're like, okay, he cares. He's trying. He has some experience and cares.

GS: And when you get to the top of some of these organizations, too, if I can liken it to... I love running the trade association because I get to work with some of the brightest minds in the business. And I've often said if I listen carefully, they will give me the answer, I will hear the truth of what needs to be done because I have the smartest people around me to help figure things out. I love that idea. And you've got that in the top of any one of these big companies. There's some really smart people involved in these organizations, obviously.

JC: Absolutely. I mean, the people you've had the privilege to sit beside and sometimes be scared by because you're like, "Whoa, I'm not in the same zip code as—"

GS: I like the ones who scare me a little bit sometimes, I go with that.

JC: Absolutely.

I also think your bosses make a big difference on the journey. I've been really fortunate, of course, I hope held up my end of the bargain. I've had amazing, amazing bosses who have championed me and pushed me and kicked me around a bit, sometimes deservedly. I've got an amazing sort of list of people I've gotten to work with, so I think that helps. But I get to sit in rooms with people who are seriously brilliant and that's a very nice place to be, too, if not a little intimidating sometimes when you know you're definitely not the smartest guy in the room.

GS: I don't sit with the smartest guy. I had somebody say to me one time, they go, "It's not about being smart anymore. It's about getting to the better answers all the time at this point." And there's a difference in those two.

JC: And looking left and right, and also allowing people... I think in marketing sometimes as well, we're a little bit precious and if the idea or the push comes from the supply chain VP or from finance, I'm okay with that. I mean, we're just trying to get good stuff done. Probably all of us can sometimes be a little bit precious around our discipline, our own toys. We like to play with our own toys.

GS: It's hard when you're supporting ideas in the way that you talked about earlier. So I get that and maybe not everybody else sees it the same way. Okay, listen, let's do a couple of wrap-up questions here, as I always like to do with people. So who do you most admire out there?You think you could pick a brand or maybe they're another CMO, just somebody in your life that you thought, "Oh wow, really phenomenal." Nobody at the current... You can't pick your boss. You can't do your—

JC: I can't pick my boss. Okay. Well, for the record, my boss is amazing and—

GS: I got that talking to you earlier. I totally heard that message.

JC: Yeah, no worries. I spend so much... because of course I'm a marketing junkie, I can't help myself watching and seeing what everyone else is doing. I have to say, I think what Raja is doing at Mastercard, very, very interesting because I see it as a true 360. They are brand building at every conceivable touchpoint, and it's very consistent. It's very iconic. They're very innovative. Things like sonic and visual identity, all of those things that they're doing, they activate in old-school ways brilliantly, something like golf. They activate and bring the brand to life in new verticals, in new media. They're very disciplined. I think it's a beautiful brand that's in a remarkable transition, and I'm fascinated by the positioning because it would be...

What I love and admire is it would be so easy in that business to default to what you do, and they're trying to change from what they used to be, a credit card, into a completely different, into effectively a lifestyle platform. And they're so clear on what their emotional benefit and space is when it would be so easy to default back into the weeds. I find that very inspirational.

GS: Could have just been a utility. Yeah. Listen, I think a lot of us have a lot of admiration for what Raja is doing over there, so, got it. Okay. What's most overhyped in marketing today? What do you think we're just overdone, people like it too much, you're just not sure it's really there?

JC: I think what's overhyped is the ability to systemically target consumers with accuracy that's being overstated.

GS: We're not as good as we think we are in terms of targeting.

JC: We're not as good as we think we are, and I still have that moment when I look at opportunities with different CPMs and different profiles, and I'm not sure the message delivery in terms of the targeting is really flowing through. And so one of the debates we often have, and I'm sure everybody has it, is what is the role for broad reach, broad demo, let's call it "old-fashioned targeting," and we keep getting sold a dream on hyper-targeted, hyper effectiveness. I don't see it flowing through all the time, and I'd love to have an honest conversation about how good it is. I think that's a place to go. What keeps me up at night is where we're all going to have to go as consumer marketeers in a cookieless world with different types of relationships if you're in a non-direct business. So again, not an issue if I'm in AT&T, but it's an issue for us.

GS: Yeah. I got it. Okay. And what do you think is most underappreciated in marketing?

JC: I still believe in "real-life" experiences. I think you can build a lifetime of loyalty by fabulous interactions in the real world with real people. And one of the reasons I believe that so deeply, because you probably hear a bit of passion there, is I have a Heineken credit card, and so I can go into a bar and I can buy people a beer. Now that's a $7, $6, depends on where you are, right?

GS: Yeah.

JC: You would not believe what happens when our team go into a bar and buy people a few beers. Because we live as CMOs in this world of perfection and a very elevated status, but most people never get a free Snickers or a free beer or a free scoop of ice cream. And that's a very micro example. So yeah, when you do something like Coachella or the US Open or F1, of course you leave a mark for life. But I'm still amazed by this simplicity with which giving people a great experience, even a micro experience, can have them loving your brand forever.

GS: Wow.

JC: I still believe in that. So yeah, I mean, you should see my T&E.

GS: I bet. So Jonnie, this is funny, here's my take.

JC: Go for it.

GS: I think everybody either wants your job or they want to work for you, or they want to be you, my friend. I think that's what we just discovered in the time we've just spent together here. So take that as the highest of compliments.

JC: They might want my job because of the free beer.

GS: Well, okay, that may be. Maybe because it's so hard to be a C-Suite executive, but...

JC: That's it for sure. I think the folks who help me every day and who work with me might say, you know, you've had me here for 40 minutes. I'm maybe fabulously charming, but I become grating after a while, so perhaps.

GS: Fair enough.

Well, let's not ask the family. I got it. I understand. Jonnie, you're great. I can't thank you enough for doing this. The audience is going to be totally appreciative, so thank you very much.

JC: You're very welcome, Greg. No problem. Happy to be here.

GS: Thanks again to Jonnie Cahill from Heineken USA for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the show notes for links to connect with Jonnie.

And if you want to know more about MMA's work to truly unlock the power of marketing, please visit Or you could attend any of the 30 conferences that MMA operates in 15 different countries, or feel free to just write me,

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 Music, iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find links to all those places and more at

Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from Building Better CMOs' researcher is Aneta Palevska. Artwork is by Jason Chase. And special thanks to Lacera Smith. This is Greg Stuart. I'll see you in two weeks.

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