Mayur Gupta: Long-term sustainable growth can no longer happen in any silo. It can't happen with brand alone, can't happen with performance alone, can't happen with just data, can't happen with just storytelling. So we are literally in this fourth era where we are trying to understand how do we operate the marketing engine, which is an engine of ands and not an engine of ors.
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. We have three goals: to change how we think about marketing, to understand the challenges that CMOs face, and to unlock the true power that marketing can have.
Now, this podcast is not a place for hero worship or how great CMOs are. Instead, we're going to talk about real leadership in marketing and what it takes to drive growth today. Today's guest is Mayur Gupta. He's the CMO of the Kraken Digital Asset Exchange and serves as a board of director member at MMA. He started his career at the digital consulting firm Sapient, which is now a part of Publicis, and has worked at Kimberly-Clark, Spotify, and more.
Today, Mayur is going to explain what makes Kraken different than other crypto brands. He's also going to cover the four eras of marketing and what you should really do when the shit inevitably hits the fan. I loved this interview and if you want to be a better CMO, you really want to take notes. You can find a full transcript of this interview and more at bettercmos.com. And if you like the podcast, do me a favor and leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you don't like the podcast, email me. Seriously. I'm email@example.com. But now let's get to my conversation with Mayur Gupta.
Mayur, so glad you could join us today. I was really looking forward to this one. How are you doing today?
MG: I'm doing great, Greg. Thanks for having me over.
GS: Where did I catch you? Where are you in the world right now?
MG: I'm in Miami. That's where I live now with my family.
GS: That's a nice part of the world as you know, we know because we just did the MMA's big Possible event down there just barely a month ago.
MG: Yes, that was awesome. It was great to see you and everybody else, and I loved the event.
GS: You're CMO of Kraken, that's what got you on here, you're on the global board with me and working... We'll get to some of the MMA stuff. How would you describe yourself? What are you? You're a programmer, you're a CMO? There's a lot of product in your background, too. If you were to describe yourself, how do you look at the world?
MG: Yeah, that's a great way to put it, Greg. I guess I can go backwards a little bit. But if I were to describe myself, I would say I'm still a wannabe CMO because that's not part of my academic and education. So I'm learning on the job every day surrounded by some incredible people that I've been fortunate enough to hire. But I would rather call myself as an engineer turned CMO because the basis of my understanding of marketing is all based on my learnings as an engineer: systems thinking, the ability to go top down and bottom up. But just to give some context to everyone, I grew up in India, I did my major in computer science there, literally started my career as an engineer coming out of India. And it wasn't out of passion, to be very honest, it was more because back then if you wanted a job in India, computer science was the safest place to go.
GS: Doctor, lawyer, compsci, those are the three choices for Indian kids.
MG: Yes, that's it. And if I had more courage back then I would be trying to play cricket for the country, but I didn't have enough and we were a billion of us, now we are a billion and a half, so you take the easier path. So I did that and I started my career literally as an engineer sometimes working 24 hours, but the basics of who I am today is all laid there. I worked at Sapient. And then there were two pivots, Greg, in my career. In 2006, after having worked for seven, eight years, one of my mentors asked me to become a product lead for an adtech product we acquired in Miami.
GS: What was the name of that product?
MG: It was called BridgeTrack, it was owned by a company called PGI. And in fact, until two years back, the product was still live. Back then we were competing with Atlas, DoubleClick. We were competing with the Eloquas and the Unicas of the world. I literally coded ad servers, so it'd be management systems. And that was my first pivot, I evolved from being a pure technologist—building solutions for clients like Cisco, Kaiser Permanente, and different verticals—to now building products for marketing and advertising.
GS: Wow. So you have an incredibly deep understanding of the underlying infrastructure, how all this stuff works. Interesting.
MG: That was the genesis of my journey. And I kid you not that when I would go back to my hotel—because I was traveling when we acquired the company—I would literally go to Wikipedia to understand what a pixel is, what is a target, what is an advertiser? Because there was no other marketing for dummies and I was a dummy in marketing. And then the second pivot for me literally came in 2012, and after 12 and a half years I left Sapient to join Kimberly-Clark to lead marketing tech, digital, and eCommerce reporting into the CMO. And that totally shifted my mindset because as you know, when you're working on the other side of the fence, you're literally trained to sell complexity, you're trained to sell technology and build technology.
But when I went on the other side, on the brand side, I finally realized that at the end what matters most is your ability to change the human behavior, your ability to identify what is that human behavior that is preventing your growth and how you use technology towards that outcome.
GS: I love that. Okay, so we're going to get into all that. I had no idea, though, that you'd actually programmed an ad server. And that's a funny business because you know who's a good friend of mine? He's a guy named John Sabella. He was the original product manager for DoubleClick. And he was hired at Lehman Brothers back in, this would've been probably '98, I'm going to guess. '98, '99, somewhere in there. Just as dotcom was really starting to happen. And he was telling me he was shocked to go in there because DoubleClick at that time—and I'm going to get a little bit of this wrong—but they were doing like 30 million transactions a month and he was like, "Nobody"—he comes from financial services. He goes, "Nobody does that kind of scale." So I asked him a good question. I go, "John, when you left 3, 4, 5, whatever years later, how many impressions were you guys serving? What were the transaction load?" He said, "Greg, it was 30, 50 billion."
MG: Oh yes.
GS: It's crazy to go back to the business and what it took to build. I mean, I don't think people understand how complex these systems are and what it takes, what it really takes to run this kind of scale today that advertising is pushing out through the internet.
MG: Yes, totally. And there's a lot of programming that goes into every single impression. There is this concept of munging and de-munging, which is all the parameters coming in and you encrypt them and you decrypt them to really track what happens behind the scenes. Obviously, this is pre DMPs and the CDPs world. This is when everything was going into the database and you're doing all kinds of tracking. I'm talking about 2005 and '06. But for me, that was the foundation laying for my journey into the world of marketing and advertising.
GS: So Kraken is a crypto exchange, for the few people that don't know, and that's where you're CMO now. Where'd the name Kraken come from, by the way? Because it actually means sea monster.
MG: It is. It was actually coined by Jesse Powell, who's now a chairman, but he's the co-founder and CEO. And he just wanted to come up with something really cool. When we all joined, we've all asked that question, and he wanted to come up with something unique and different. So it wasn't really any other rationale, but we are very proud of it. I think we want to be nice sea monsters as protectors and guardians of our clients and client assets. Even though there's a funny story around how we came up with the name Kraken, and a lot of people ask us that, but what matters to us is the soul of our brand. It's very unique that how much a FinTech macro category, a crypto brand, will care so much about its soul and that's what Kraken really is.
GS: Well, let's talk a little bit about what's going on in crypto. As you know, I've told you, because we've talked before, I bought Bitcoin first in 2013 when it was $200. I saw it, it made sense to me. What's funny is—I won't bore everybody with my original investment thesis—at the time I thought it really made sense. I was 100% wrong, but it went up, Bitcoin's continued to do well. What's going on in crypto right now? Because it feels like there's this news of it's a crypto winter. I don't even know what that means. Maybe we're in a thaw spring right now, but how do you look at what it is about and what Kraken is doing?
MG: Yeah. We look at what's going on right now, or what was going on last year, rather, because the market's been improving and going up this year. We look at it as business as usual. This isn't crypto winter or bear runs. This isn't the first one for Kraken. And you've been in the space, Greg, you've seen the ebbs and flows. We look at, you know it's a long-term revolution, which is trying to change the most fundamental concept in the universe, which is the concept of money, and you don't bring those changes at the scale of this technology like crypto by just going up. So the bears and bulls are inevitable. This is probably the third or the fourth in the history of Kraken.
And our thesis during these bear runs is you focus on building great products, you focus on optimizing your engine so that you are preparing yourself for the next run when the market picks up and hopefully the next run brings the next billion users. But fundamentally the way I look at it is the next stage of growth and adoption for crypto will come when the technology underneath crypto becomes hidden and the value becomes more visible. If you look at the last couple of revolutions of this scale that we all went through, something like the invent of the iPhone that totally changed our lives. When you bought your first iPhone, you didn't open it up and dig into the technology because the value was so obvious.
And I think that's the flip we have to make now in crypto where the use cases and the application of a great technology like blockchain and crypto become so obvious to the person walking down the street, where the conversation will no longer be about what's feeding it, but rather the actual incremental value. And that's the next phase that we are all very excited about at Kraken.
GS: Well, if you listen to guys like Warren Buffett and some others, it's a speculator's device. They say, basically their thesis—if you've listened to Warren, who is a smart guy obviously, but I don't know that the old guys always get the future—but his point of view is that you have to buy with an expectation that somebody's going to buy it for more later, which feels a little like the stock market to me, where he's made all his money, but whatever. What is the real application of crypto? Or is it always just a store value?
MG: Yeah. First of all, when you have the non-believers, it's expected. You can't expect for something of this scale to come in and 8 billion people around the world suddenly start believing in it. It's never going to happen and shouldn't happen because there should always be challengers. As a marketer, I feel some of that is a symptom of what we've done as marketing within the category, not Kraken because we were always very humble and we always focused on building great products and the mission. But if you look at in the bull run, a lot of the marketing was FOMO-driven, a lot of the marketing was about being the loudest voice and trying to get people to make quick money, to make a quick buck.
When you bring in loads of people into a category they don't understand yet only to get rich quick or because of FOMO, it starts to feel more like speculative because you know that this is going to be volatile up until a certain period. That's why at Kraken, our belief is that for global adoption of crypto and for its real application, which I'll talk about in a second, the emphasis has to be on the underlying education on the substance of crypto: what this technology is actually meant to solve and shifting from leaning in with the solution to leaning in with the problem that it's meant to solve.
When we've all been talking about the power of crypto and what it can do, most of the world is still searching for, "Explain to me what problem is it really solving in my current existing financial system." We have to stop being tone-deaf, we have to really have empathy for the people who aren't getting it, and we have to talk about the basics. And that's where many brands, and definitely at Kraken, we are very focused on driving that education and awareness of both the problems and the use cases. And no better time than now where we are actually going through a financial crisis, we are going through what happened early on this year with banking. And it just goes back to 2008 and '09 that gave birth to the Bitcoin white paper and led to this revolution.
GS: So do you think it's still a solution in search of the actual problem that it's solving? And I don't know if you want to pick on Bitcoin or crypto generally or any of the other coins. Do we have clarity that it's solving a real problem in the world?
MG: It definitely is. What is yet to happen is start to solve those at scale, start to remove the friction so that the adoption and the usage becomes more and more easy even for the folks who aren't as technical. But as an immigrant who grew up in India, especially in markets and countries like India or South America, Asia, where the system is much stronger, where the number of people are much higher than the available set of resources, you will value crypto very differently than the way you will value in more developed places like US and UK, for example. Coming from a country like India, I can tell you that the real use case for NFT as an example is, can you tokenize your house papers? Can you tokenize your birth certificate? Because these are real issues.
GS: Yeah, those are real issues. I agree. The NFT thing, no question in my mind that that makes sense going forward, yes.
MG: And having one single source of ownership that is immutable, unchangeable, that's a massive leap forward. Same way actually giving full access and control and autonomy on your own funds with full transparency, removing bias from the system. Who should get a home loan? Right now, who you are determines what rate you get and when you get that home loan. What about all the number of people, which is millions and billions in the world, who have no access to the banks because those banks and traditional financial systems aren't incentivized to bank those people. So it's a fantastic solution and technology that removes the bias, that builds that equity, and gives equal access to people who will never be served by the traditional systems because they were built that way.
GS: Yeah, got it. I love it. It's so funny you say—and you're right, I think that we in America have a little bit of oblivion about what goes on. I remember the early days of eBay, and I was on the board of a company in China 20 years ago, and if you were to buy something eCommerce-wise in China, you would transact online, you would go to the bank, give them the money, who would hold the money for the seller somehow, and then transmit it, and then the goods would be sent to you because they just didn't have credit cards. It was the most insane thing I'd ever heard about how the world operated. So you're right, in some regards I guess the world hasn't... I mean, your thesis and part of Kraken's thesis, the world hasn't caught up to this as sort of a revolutionary universal worldwide solution yet.
MG: Yes, it is. And a lot of that is because we feel these are still early days. There's a lot of work yet to be done, there's a lot of friction that is yet to be removed from the technology, and there's a lot of education that is needed, too. So we are in no rush, but we are very bullish, we are very committed to the outcome and the thesis and the ethos of crypto, and it's inevitable that it's going to keep penetrating the world.
GS: We also got to get the scumbags out of the system. Does Kraken have a position on regulation? This year in particular with SBF. I mean, it just seems like every time you turn around there's some other scumbag in crypto.
MG: Yes. I mean, I'm not in a position to talk about it, but what I will say is we are very committed to that part. We know it's inevitable. We have a massive organization within Kraken that is working with the right authorities, that is taking the lead on it, and there's a lot of stuff that our chief legal officer has publicly shared. And we'll continue to put more effort in that direction, and we are very excited about where things are going.
GS: Yeah, we need a little more trust in the system. Well, speaking of trust, let's talk about marketing now. Let's shift gears to the point of this. That was very interesting. You know me, I'm a huge crypto fan. And I think it's a very interesting development in the world and I'm very pro to see where it goes. So listen, you know the underlying thesis of Building Better CMOs is about not just how great we all are as marketers, but also what are we doing? Where are the challenges? Where are the problems? What are the things we haven't solved? In fact, we're talking about the Possible event, you referenced that earlier, being there. I opened the event by pointing out that I believed marketing is not too far away from where the medical profession was in the mid-1800s when they thought bloodletting was a good idea.
Now, the only problem with bloodletting is that theoretically it made sense: you just relieve the pressure of the fluids in my body, I'll be better off. It was killing people. George Washington himself died of bloodletting. So that's a pretty big indictment, I think, for the head of the trade association to make. I recognize that, I'm making a point. But as you look back, and you're perfect, too, because you come at it as an engineer, you come at it from the outside originally, although you got inside pretty quickly, you built the underlying infrastructure. What do you think marketers and maybe CMOs might not fully understand that you think they should from your perspective, Mayur? What do you think?
MG: Yeah. And do you mind if I give you a little bit of a long-winded answer?
MG: Because you're right, you're talking to an early skeptic in marketing. I did my major in computer science and we hated the folks who were doing masters in MBAs because we thought they got all the cool jobs and we were the builders.
GS: Well, wait, I have a funny side story, though, just so you know. So I spoke to the MBA class of Oxford University a couple years ago when we were still doing stuff in person. And you know what? I asked them to put up their hands, it was a throwaway question. I was just warming up the group, I just wanted to see where my friendlies were. And I said, "Hey, who wants to eventually be a CMO?" Do you want to know something? Those MBAs, not one of them put their hands up, not one.
GS: So none of those well-trained, highly educated individuals wanted to be a CMO. That's a problem, too, but go ahead, keep going.
MG: Yes, it is. Look, I think my thesis on—I call it a thesis because as an engineer I've had to look at the last 50 years or so. So I'll give you my thesis on where we are in marketing. And I absolutely agree that this craft is actually under a lot of scrutiny and this is a very important inflection point for this craft of marketing. And it's up to us, every single one of us, to figure out what the paths in the next 20, 30 years look like. I look at marketing in four phases, four eras.
Very quickly, era one was when I was growing up and we all were growing up, it was all about the era of the mad men. Big-scale marketing, the channels when their data tech wasn't there. You've got a fantastic, great creative ad, it was witty. People saw it, they loved it, they went to the shelf, they bought it. Choice wasn't there.
GS: There was a lot of day drinking too in the agencies.
MG: There was.
GS: I was there, I saw the very tail end of that, but yeah, go ahead.
MG: Yes, that was era one. But that laid the perception of marketing for many people. It was a cost center, it was a cool thing, it worked, and it largely existed in CPGs, right?
MG: Then came a little bit fast track from 2000 onwards, late '99, is this concept of digital, this concept of the birth of data in tech, the MarTech landscape. There's this plethora of technology coming that was now making marketing more addressable, more measurable, more attributable, relatively speaking. And to be honest, it became like marketing and then digital marketing up until we all realized, we all were punched in our faces and we realized, "Well, it's not two types of marketing, it's marketing in a digital world." The world itself had fundamentally changed.
Then the third phase was when our lives changed with the launch of iOS, iPhone, and then something that followed right after which was Facebook really scaling. That shifted marketing for very sole and purpose-driven marketing for 40 years—with all the measurement and addressability, and now the scale of Facebook and the iPhone—to total index on absolute 100% measurable, addressable, lower funnel performance marketing, where you blindfolded the audience, put a discount on their pocket, bring them in because nothing else mattered. And it worked.
This was when the D2C euphoria came about. Marketing became all about CAC, the funnels, optimization, nobody cared about brand. In fact, if you were not working on a CPG, then being a brand marketer became a stigma.
GS: Yes, I agree.
MG: Investing in brand became a stigma. You will be fired if you were a brand-driven CMO, if you didn't know performance, if you couldn't drive growth.
GS: Yeah, they would talk about brand and maybe some of the importance of it at some level, but it was always a brand as a product itself kind of thing. What they had done was enough to establish a brand. It wasn't communicating a position in consumers' minds, which is fundamentally what brand's really about.
MG: Because it was harder to prove incrementality of that investment, right?
GS: Exactly. And by the way, that soft skill is... I've been around some of the greats and it's a hard thing to get right.
MG: Yes. And we all got used to same-day gratification. Then we entered the fourth era, which is where we are in now, starting with COVID. Because COVID changed that, "Hey, you couldn't do that anymore," because the world totally changed in a way that nobody expected and planned, and we all went back to the basics of marketing to listen, to be empathetic, where brand mattered. We realized that brands do matter. Long-term sustainable growth can no longer happen in any silo. It can't happen with brand alone, can't happen with performance alone, can't happen with just data, can't happen with just storytelling.
So we are literally in this fourth era where we are trying to understand how do we operate the marketing engine, which is an engine of ands, not an engine of ors. And where we have to get better, especially in a world where there are many product-led companies now needing marketing function compared to back in the day when only CPGs did, and I will at some point talk about why do I keep differentiating a CPG retail kind of marketing function to a direct-to-consumer, product-led company, which is inherently technology led.
In those organizations, there are a few things that we as marketers have to get right. One is we have to love our product before we love our brand. We have this tendency to go in and make it all about the brand, but if you don't love your product, if you don't get your product, if you don't spend more time appreciating and into the weeds of the product like a product manager, there is no way we are going to build brands that are authentic and honest. The journey begins there.
Two, I feel that as marketeers, we have to speak a language that everybody else understands and not a language that only we do, which is the language of data. We've got to own it. If you're a marketer at any level and you don't know your numbers on the water cooler chat, you're losing trust every single day. So you've got to know your numbers whether you like it or not. Whether they're good or bad doesn't matter, but you've got to know what are the KPIs that you've got to be looking at every single day.
Third is this belief that in a world where marketing is one function that has disrupted more than any function in the last 20 years, we have to believe that there are two customers we have. And the internal one is just as important or more important than the external one, or as important as the external one. Which means that as a CMO you have to align and set expectation on the definition of success for marketing. What is the scope of marketing? Because a lot of people, especially in those product-led organizations, have their own understanding of marketing, which is a little bit more archaic.
They will look at you and they'll say, "Oh, you are the campaign people. Just do some logos." Whereas we've got growth and we have to align and set the expectation, and we have to build more transparency into what marketing delivers, what marketing is delivering, and what marketing should be held accountable for. That internal relationship building is extremely critical for marketing in a world where our understanding of marketing is so different.
GS: Well, we've got this issue because it came up at last year's MMA CEO & CMO Summit, which is all the C-suite has marketing as a side hustle.
GS: I mean, the problem with the profession sometimes we're in, and this feels a little whiny, but is that everybody thinks they know it better. They always think they understand how marketing really works because they get so much exposure to it, because it's so much a part of our culture. It's a significantly more complicated business than what you can casually watch from the outside.
MG: It is. And I often say just because you write emails doesn't mean you're a copywriter, right?
MG: Just because you have a WordPress blog doesn't mean you can now build apps. You may, but not everybody who can use plug and play can now become a data scientist. I often think, Greg, that the ball is more in our court than anybody else's as marketing, which means that to that point, the way we build credibility about marketing is we have to prove the incrementality. There is no other choice. We have to prove what percentage of growth is not going to happen in the absence of marketing. We just have to use creativity and data science together to prove that.
GS: I actually had a CMO call me last year and he asked, he said, "Greg, is there a standard for quality marketing measurement?" Unfortunately at the moment I was a little like, "Oh my god, I'm not even sure I know exactly what that is." The answer, though, is very clear, the answer is incrementality. We have to be able to talk about incrementality and we've got to measure against incrementality, and if not all of your systems are pointed to that, then I think you're right, we're always going to be... best case we're less confident, and worst case we're killing the business and we don't even know it.
GS: This is interesting, though, you mentioned about that our customer set is both internal. I guess what you're saying there, correct me if I'm wrong or go on, is that it's aligning the rest of the C-suite, the rest of the internal stakeholders, the CEO, the board, CFO in particular, to what are we doing and where are we going and how are we accomplishing it? Then your point is that, but we have to talk their language, not ours. Not likes and whatever other BS we are kind of making up or even click-through, which is horrifying to think that that's become a major for everything, and too many other executives accept that when they shouldn't. In addition, then we also have to serve external, but you're saying external means our consumers or customers that we're marketing to.
MG: Yeah. And now I'm going to just talk a little bit about why this blueprint is different for different types of marketing. Not all marketing in every organization is the same, which means that if you're a marketeer in a rather CPG organization, and I mean CPG, which is not direct to consumer.
GS: Yeah, I understand CPG. I mean, there are other brands. At some level the automotive companies, although they're changing pretty dramatically, used to be kind of CPG-like because tier one would do brand, but they didn't really ever touch the customer in any way, so they were doing that abstract kind of thing. Yeah, I get it. One step removed, whatever you want to call it.
MG: Yep, totally. We are using CPG as a proxy, but the idea of being the business model is different. It's one separate model, it's not direct to consumer.
MG: I think in that vertical, marketing still is the business driver, it is still the growth driver because there is no other way for the consumers to find you and that's where you are on a different seat. You command a different respect and authority, whereas in an organization which is product led where the first phase of growth actually happened in the absence of any marketing. Look at Spotify, look at Google, look at Uber, look at Tesla. No marketing in the first phase of growth because the product itself had inbuilt flywheels, either through virality or network effects or word of mouth.
GS: Or a guy at the very top who was insane about getting public attention for everything he did and was willing to play not by the typical corporate rules, but go to war with people over things.
MG: But that is only possible because they also created the category. They were category creators, the product itself had so much value in it that it just kept going viral, but the core being the product itself drove the first phase of growth. In those type of product-led organizations where marketing was never needed up until you got to a billion dollars in revenue or X, Y, Z. When now you parachute yourself as a marketeer because growth has stalled, where the competition has caught up, and now you have to create new demand with marketing. The challenge is very, very different because in those organizations a lot of the muscle was built without this new muscle. You're a new organ in the body and you have to prove yourself every single day.
GS: By the way, just a very funny aside because I've actually had a chance to talk to Elon about this, does Tesla have to advertise at some point?
MG: Actually, I was about to post that. I saw an article on The Verge, where I think Elon Musk said that they are going to start advertising on Twitter. And I think there are two things. One, of course there's a very common connection, very easy connection now between one of the largest advertising platforms and perhaps one of the most loved brands recently, at least in automobile. And the second is the growth is not the same that was happening. Look at the clutter in the EV category now.