Laura Jones: Yes, there is a role for sales activation. And yes, you can see in-period results with that. And we all love a great measurable lower funnel. And we see time and again that coupling that lower funnel with some upper-funnel support, or telling stories that are emotional and build those deeper connections helps to bolster the lower funnel.
Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get smarter and stronger. I'm Greg Stuart, CEO of the nonprofit, MMA Global. And that voice you heard at the top is Laura Jones, the CMO of the grocery delivery company, Instacart, which went public just this last September. She was previously the global head of marketing for Uber rides business. And she led brand and marketing communications for Google commerce, and she recently joined the board of the MMA. Now, today on Building Better CMOs, Laura and I are going to talk about meeting the consumer where they are, the importance of continually challenging yourself, and the underrated practice of building different products for different marketer objectives. This podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Laura Jones from Instacart is going to tell us how she did that right after this.
Joining us here today is Laura Jones, CMO from Instacart. Hey, Laura.
LJ: Hey, Greg. How's it going?
GS: Good. So you attended your very first board meeting with the MMA yesterday, right?
LJ: Yes, I did.
GS: How'd we do? We okay?
LJ: It was great. It was a little early. I was on the West Coast. I couldn't make it to New York, so a 6 a.m. start, but I was hooked right from the start, so you kept me leaned in despite some mild exhaustion. It was a really, really great meeting.
GS: Yeah, you know it's funny, I think you saw in the pre-note that I sent out that I really did think that was going to be one of the best board meetings we had. Just for those listeners, we revealed the only second-ever Brand as Performance research, which is going to be a big topic for us today, we know.
GS: There's some more to come on that in a little bit. And then also, we'd asked the professors who have done the marketing org work for us to think about how do you actually integrate AI into an organization. Obviously, I've talked to a lot of the board members and other CMOs, I don't know that anybody's got a really great plan yet it feels like to me. We're so early.
LJ: This is a big topic, I think, for all of us and one we'll be talking about for years to come, for sure.
GS: Years to come. I love these transformational moments when we get an opportunity to really relook at everything. And I suspect that AI is really going to let us do that in just a monster way, but boy sure is uncertain. And it felt easy to get our hands on mobile because that was a channel. It was a thing I held, I understood it, I used it. But AI, it's like this amorphous being that's out there that I don't see or touch or feel in any way.
LJ: Yes, and I think we're just beginning to understand the capabilities, the things that it will let us do, and also some of the risks associated with that. I think it's going to be a very interesting time for all of us.
GS: Yeah. I think we're all afraid of destroying the universe in an effort to produce better marketing or something. I don't know, maybe not where it goes. Laura, funny enough, you've been at some pretty interesting tech companies, too. You were at Uber for a period of time, right?
LJ: Six years at Uber, so yes.
GS: And what years?
LJ: I was at Uber from 2015 to 2021, which was a particularly exciting period of time to be at Uber, including leadership changes, IPO, hyper growth, lots that we accomplished.
GS: That was a real story of a company maturing into adulthood really, really fast at that time, correct?
LJ: Yeah, it was definitely, I think, one of the fastest-growing companies ever at the time. When I joined, we hadn't even done a billion rides ever. By the time we went public just three years later, we had done 10 billion rides total, and today Uber's doing 2 billion rides a quarter. And when I say rides, let me substitute that now with trips, because that includes obviously Uber Eats. But to go from under a billion, to 10 billion, to now 8 billion a year, that's a pretty wild trajectory. And it was really fun to be a part of that and to see the evolution of the company and the team over time.
GS: And I think what a lot of people don't understand, so correct me if I'm wrong here... I'm pretty sure Kellyn Kenny—who's my current board chair now at AT&T was there at the time—when she was on the board of the MMA she was telling me, I'm pretty sure Uber was the largest employer. I mean, there's complicated in different countries. What's contractors? So let's just stay out of that debate, doesn't matter. But I think the largest employer of people in the world.
LJ: I think it was second to the Chinese army was the fun fact. That was, I think, the stat we would reference. But yeah, it's wild the scale that we provided work on, and also just the scale of the user base. It was a really fun place to be.
GS: This is a sort of non sequitur to what we're going to talk about, but I'm just curious. Do you remember when you first heard about Uber and what you thought of the concept?
LJ: I have a distinct memory. I live in San Francisco, and I believe it was 2012 when I took my first ride. It was actually an Airbnb Series D funding event or something, and I couldn't get a taxi and it was late in San Francisco and I needed to get home. And I had heard about this app called Uber, and that was in the black car era. And I remember just feeling so relieved and saved to be a woman standing on a street corner late at night, not able to get a taxi and having a way to get home that felt so safe and comfortable, and then became a big Uber user, especially as X and Pool launched. So, when Uber was reaching out it was really a no-brainer to go and join this company that I was already such a fan of.
GS: I was on the board of a company with a guy from Menlo Ventures, and they were one of the early funders. I remember when they and others put a $50 billion valuation on that thing, and I remember going, we were out to dinner, I said, "That's got to be nuts. It just doesn't make any sense." And he walked me through the economics of that and I was like, "Oh my god, I've totally underestimated how valuable this thing is and what a big deal, and what's happening here." Revolutionary. And by the way, San Francisco, worst taxi market in America, they never got it right. I lived out there, I just hate it.
You have a very interesting educational background. Apparently, if I'm reading right, I know you have an MBA at Stanford, incredibly prestigious, amazing institution obviously. But your emphasis is around design thinking?
LJ: Yeah, I think I was the first person to apply to the Stanford Business School so that I could spend time at the Stanford d.school, and I was very explicit about that in my application. The d.school is this incredible interdisciplinary design institute at Stanford that brings together MBAs, engineers, med students, ed students all together to work on cross-functional product development work. And do so through the lens of design thinking, also known as user-centered design. And that was really where I got my first taste for that cross-functional collaboration and how at the intersection of technology, business, and creativity, there is this incredible generative potential. And that's really how I decided to then embark on this career of tech marketing.
GS: Why did you believe that was a thing for you to do?
LJ: For myself, I have always been somebody that is incredibly passionate about creativity. I'm a painter in my spare time. But also very engaged intellectually by analytical problems. And so I got my undergraduate degree in economics, went into consulting, but then at night was off in the painting studio. I had this insight in my early 20s that I needed to find a career that would bring together the analytical and creative sides of my brain, the right brain and left brain, if you will, and really find a way to tap into both and find how I could really make that my superpower. And so the Stanford d.school provided a path for that. And it was great because I not only got that exposure to that design thinking methodology, but then also got an MBA, so learned a lot more about finance, accounting strategy, and got exposed to this incredible community of entrepreneurs through Stanford that has really been the foundation for everything I've gone on and done since then.
GS: Phenomenal to have the exposure and opportunity to go to that school there. It's a great institution, but it's also amazing where it sits there in the valley where I mentioned I lived out there. Do you have a sense or examples even of where you've most found like, "Oh my god, I'm glad that's the background I have?"
LJ: Every day for me. I feel like I drank that Kool-Aid back in the day and I never looked back. Because for me what it's about is just focusing on the user and really understanding the customer that you're building for. And I really believe that to make great products and great marketing, it all starts with the user. And that you need to have clear insights and you need to really approach the question of how do you develop and bring to market new products through this lens of, "What does the consumer need?" And how can we speak to them in their own voice through the lens of the needs that they have, whether those are conscious needs or unconscious needs. It provided an organizing framework or a theory that really underpinned my interest in marketing and really in helping people discover new products and services. Which is how I think about the role of marketing in tech.
GS: In some regards—and we can maybe even touch on this more later—you're a CMO there, but you could have been a product person within Instacart or other places, right?
LJ: Yeah, and I've spent a tremendous amount of time with my product partners throughout my career, even at Uber, initially product marketing that I was leading, sat on products. I've been in both the product and marketing organizations. And I think that marketing has a huge role in product development. At Google, I led the development of the first-ever shoppable video at Google back in 2013, '14, a long time ago. But found an engineer that wanted to do a 20 percent project, had this idea, could we launch a shopping integration for YouTube and for Hangouts On Air, which is actually where we initially built it. Could you have video content and make it shoppable? This wasn't happening anywhere at the time. And off the side of our desk, we launched this shoppable Hangouts On Air, we launched it with Diane Von Furstenberg and developed and productized this solution.
And was that marketing, was that product? It was a user experience that was related to this insight that when people watched content, they were curious how to buy what they were seeing in that content. And amazingly now, if you fast-forward a decade, this is a huge theme and we're seeing all players both from the content and the commerce side converging on this insight.
GS: Here's a fun one. Who's doing that really well today? Do you have somebody in your mind that you watch and say, "They're just doing that so well?" Not Instacart. Let's keep Instacart out of it for a moment.
LJ: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of respect for a lot of the other players in the commerce space as well. I mean, you're seeing Amazon getting into some shoppable ads, which is cool. I saw Walmart has launched a holiday romcom via TikTok, which seems interesting. As somebody that believes in the convergence of commerce and content, I'm always looking around at the industry and for inspiration and trying to bring that back to the work we're doing. We recently did an integration with Apple on Lessons in Chemistry, which is a cooking-focused show. And obviously have done a lot in terms of shoppable ads with our CPG partners. Really excited to see this space coming into maturity, and excited to see what else ourselves and other players will do with it.
GS: And I think what's interesting about this, I'm suspecting that what you're doing is you're bringing that orientation to be user-centric, user-appreciative, user-respectful in the advertising and the marketing you do. I think that's the underlying theme you've just given me here, which is sometimes a little unusual for advertising. Not always sure we are good at respecting consumers.
LJ: We have to respect their time, we're asking for their time and attention. And we have to make it worth them paying attention. And we have to make sure that we're delivering useful information, introducing them to products and services that they're going to love. And fundamentally entertaining them so that they remember and form that emotional connection to the brand that we're talking to them about.
GS: My early entry to this, as it was for probably many people, was reading David Ogilvy's original book. He had a thesis which is basically, respect the consumer, she's your mother or she's your wife. I think forget exactly what his tone was, but it was some variation of that. Regardless of the gender dynamics of that one. It's like, "Yeah, these are your family members, be responsible, be respectful of them." And I do feel like sometimes advertising has lost sight of this idea that we're really there just to help people make better decisions more quickly. That's really at a fundamental level, to satisfy a need in some way quickly.
LJ: I feel this a lot with my children. We try to limit screen time, but when they are watching something and there are ads, sometimes they'll either want to skip the ads or they'll see an ad and respond to it in some way, because they know that this is the industry I'm in. And I'm always saying to them, "The ads need to be..." They'll say, "Oh, do we have to watch this ad?" And I'm like, "You don't have to. We can skip the ad, but great ads are ads you actually want to watch." I want them to see that this is work, somebody has done this work, and if it's bad and people want to skip it, then that's kind of on whoever made the work because it's not worthy of that person's time and attention. And to the bar I try to hold myself to is make an ad that if I show my kids they're going to want to watch it, they're not going to want to skip it.
And not that I'm advertising to children, let's be clear here, respecting all the laws, but as a litmus test of just to your point, is it a member of your family who's going to be in the audience? Yes, and you should make sure that you're respecting their time and making something ultimately that they want to watch and get something from.
GS: Exactly. And the proliferation of ad blockers suggests at some level we've not done a very good job of that. In fact, I actually did learn the other day that one of my daughters, they're older at this point, but they were like they had an ad blocker, I go, "You don't know what paid for all this. You of all people, no ad blockers in the house, please." And we shouldn't allow that. But I know, goes to show.
Let's jump into it here. This is the most fun of this and I'm really excited to have this conversation. Like I mentioned, we had a research yesterday. You know the thesis, building better CMOs. Whereas we can spend a lot of time talking about the great work that CMOs do, but I'm in trade association. My job is to go fix things, to make the world better, to move an industry in a positive direction holistically. And so the question I always have for guests here is what do you think we get wrong? What do we as marketers, as CMOs... And you can go in a couple of different angles: what do you think we either don't understand, don't know, it could be that, don't appreciate that you bring into the work that you do with you and your teams? What do you think is required to, in some regards, start to become a better CMO?
LJ: I think what comes to mind for me when you ask that question is really looking at some of the false dichotomies that we construct for ourselves. The dichotomy between brand and performance marketing or even between brand and product marketing, as someone that came up as a product marketer. And I think that we sometimes can over-rotate on our own silos that we as an industry have created and, as a result, speak to customers in too many voices, even from the same company, and really fragment their attention, fragment our own budget, limit our ability to really maximize the impact of what we're going out to market with. And I think for me it's been a real focus as I've stepped into this role of CMO to think about how can we think more holistically, think about the entire funnel, think about speaking to the customer in a more cohesive and coherent voice, so that we are able to command that attention and really deliver the message we're going out with?
GS: That sounds like part a philosophy, part an organizational dynamic, I think. Were you the first CMO or the first CMO at this scale? First public company CMO, which changes everything, so that's a whole other level.
LJ: I'm not the first CMO of Instacart, but I am the first as a public company. We went public in September, so we are definitely in a new chapter.
GS: Congratulations, that's very exciting. I've gotten to do that. It's a very interesting process to go through. I wish everybody in business gets to go through an IPO.
LJ: And I think to answer your question, is this an organizational problem? Partially, I think it's also a mindset problem. I think it's how many of us are trained as marketers? People come up through a brand-led organization or performance-led organization. And they come with biases about how marketing should work. When I stepped into this role, brand media and performance media not only were in different orgs, they were just entirely different budgets that had no real connective tissue between the two. And we really were not thinking in full funnel, we weren't thinking through the lens of the consumer. And as much as we can talk about the funnel, which feels like more of a marketing buzzword, taking it back to that customer-centric design mindset, it's really just like, what is the user's journey? What is the user's mindset? And what are they trying to accomplish?
What do they know about your product or service? And just meeting them where they are and really recognizing that it's a single customer that you are reaching. And you need to make sure that you're speaking to that customer in a coherent way. The same way that if you were having a conversation with them, you'd start by saying, "Hi hello, my name is Laura, here's what I do, here's what I care about." We have an opportunity to do that with customers as well. But if we want to do that effectively and eventually get them to take an action and change their behavior, which is a huge ask, we need to really make sure that we're speaking in a way that's coherent and taking them through that journey of really becoming aware, considering, and then trying and more deeply engaging with a brand or service. And I think that we really need to look at that as an end-to-end journey and make sure that we are not fragmenting that in a way that will be confusing or disruptive to the user.
GS: Here, I don't want to put you in a position to maybe comment on previous work at Instacart. You'll figure out how to answer the question. But do you have a sense of what a disconnected... What it could look like to the user? Can you bring that alive for our listeners here to think about what happens when the brand and performance is not connected? What does that look or sound like?
LJ: When I got to Instacart we were doing a tremendous amount of inbound marketing, so really leveraging a lot of channels like search and shopping.
GS: It was all customer acquisition, had to be all customer acquisition.
GS: We want to tear it up to get this thing going, build a growth engine.
LJ: And that made a ton of sense at the time when you had a lot of organic discovery and the awareness was low and anyone that had made it to that point in the funnel of proactively searching to buy an item online in the grocery category, you could assume had pretty high intent. I think that where I saw an opportunity is, as you start to capture all those high-intent customers, you need to go out and speak to the broader audience that does not have as much intent, and that's where that unified voice becomes really important. Because it's important to recognize that for people who are not proactively searching for what you're selling, you're going to need to bring them into that conversation, make them aware. And I think for us the big unlock was really bringing together the budgets and bringing together the teams and saying, "Okay, this is one team aligned against one objective." And we should really view different places in the funnel as different points on that user journey and make sure that the creative we're putting into the very top of the funnel matches the mid-funnel.
Because if you don't, to your question, what does that look like? I think it looks like brands speaking in many voices to the same customer. And I think we've all experienced this where you see one thing on television and you're being told about one product, and then you're getting a push notification for something else from that same company, and then an email about something else from that same company. It can feel pretty disjointed. And I think what we need to be doing is really thinking about how do we make sure that we are really simplifying things for the customer? And making sure as well that from a budget standpoint, we're not siloing these two budgets and maybe even targeting people differently. But really thinking about this as an end-to-end journey that gets the maximum value at a portfolio level out of all of those dollars.
GS: As you saw on the board meeting yesterday we were really seeing that it's only the second study in the world that has ever been done around trying to understand what we call in our Brand as Performance series. And I'll tell you what, I've told this story a lot, so apologies to the listeners. But basically what happened is about four years ago, I would hear mostly brand CMOs say things along the lines of... or maybe just brand-oriented marketers, I'm going to say it that way, a little bit differently. They would say, "The performance people are ruining the business. They have no appreciation for your long-term customer equity." Then you'd ask the performance people what their position was, and they would say, "Well, the brand people are full of rainbows and unicorns, they have no measurable goals." They're the opposite of where they were.
And there was this tension in the organization, and it's what got us going in the research. We said, "Well listen, we do have inconsistent goals and that's a corporate problem that does need to be fixed. We need to somehow align where they're aiming for." But we were kind of like, "Well no, but brand does need to be performance, but over time." It does need to deliver some results to the company, that's why we started then that research. But it was that inconsistency between the two of them, and it really created conflicts in organizations you could hear, which is what I think you said you maybe walked into there?
LJ: For us it was not so much a conflict, it's just there wasn't really a brand team. I think there was one person doing brands. For us it was more of a build, but that so resonates what you're describing. I said at the beginning of the year that this was the year of "brandformance." And it was a hard journey because we said that, but we didn't really know what that meant in the beginning. And we, especially on the creative side, had a lot of back and forth. And the thesis was that every impression that we were putting out there, even if it was performance, would have an impact on brand perception. My push to the team was, even if we're doing outbound media through a performance lens—so let's say we're buying CTV and maybe even linear TV but measuring it as performance media—we should make sure that it's building brand equity.
But then there was tension about, well, how DR should this creative feel versus how brand equity building should it feel? And I think we candidly struggled with that in the first half of the year. But I felt so proud, because we had a huge breakthrough over the summer on our back-to-school campaign where we were able to really, I think, strike a balance where we told an emotive story that if anything skewed on the brand side... Because there was no offer, it was really a story about a customer told through the lens of the customer. And we really optimized for like, can we make someone feel something? And there were two spots, one that was more emotional, tear-jerking and one that was more funny. And what was interesting is, compared to an earlier suite of creative that we had run that was much more DR—much more like, "This is what we do, and here's the offer"—these actually had a lower cost of activation, so these actually were more efficient and were more performative.
And that's just in the short term, that's just in the measurable short-term attribution window. And what's so interesting about the research you shared at the MMA board meeting, what I took away from that was that the ROAS actually accrued over time. And so if you took an in-period snapshot same quarter, the ROAS was like 25 percent of what the long-term ROAS was for that brand-forward messaging. If you imagine that we observed this in-period efficiency gain, that the real comparative efficiency of those ads would have been actually much more if we looked out over a multiquarter period and looked at the quality of the customer we had brought in. It reflects something we saw at Uber as well, where we were so heavy on incentives in that middle period of when I was there and we used to... Actually Kellyn, to give her credit, we talked about it as the sugar high: you do this incentive, you've got the short-term spike, but you're not building this long-term value.
And I think that really stuck with me and is something I've brought with me to Instacart as well of like, yes, there is a role for sales activation. And yes, you can see in-period results with that, and we all love a great measurable lower funnel. And we see time and again that coupling that lower funnel with some upper-funnel support, or telling stories that are emotional and build those deeper connections helps to bolster the lower funnel. Now, the lower funnel is so important, and I don't live in the rainbow and unicorn world of brand. Our budget is heavily skewed towards lower funnel. But I think you need both. I think you really need both. And even if you look at Instacart as an advertising platform, we started in the lower funnel. We were sponsored products. And it's great for CPGs because it's at the point of purchase, you can see immediately did the person purchase or not.
We have also now promotion tools where you can do dollars off. That's all incredible. And we've really been also thinking about how do we start to go higher in the funnel. We launched shoppable video ads, shoppable display ads and did some really interesting co-marketing partnerships even off platform with, for example, AB InBev at NFL Playoffs. Last year, we actually partnered with them to take their TV campaign and make it shoppable through a QR code so that people who were watching those ads could immediately get those items delivered on Instacart and sync that up with our CRM and our push. And really did that thing that thing that I was mentioning of using every channel together to deliver a singular message. And that's proven really effective and we're now scaling the CPG co-marketing partnerships with the team because we're seeing that same full-funnel insight that we apply when we're being B2C marketers going out and building our own service, that CPGs are seeing that same value in partnering with us to hit people throughout the funnel, both on platform and off platform.
GS: What you're saying is that for the advertisers, and Instacart's a largely advertiser-supported company, you're actually building different products for different marketer objectives?
GS: It's so funny you say that. I don't hear that enough, and I'm often surprised. The one that bugs me the most is people who run brand campaigns and then measure clickthrough. I mean, first off, clickthrough is pointless anyway. The research has proven, it's all in there. Everybody stop it. Last-click attribution is a terrible, terrible metric for building a business. That said, there's different products that work in different ways. Wow, I don't think I've heard anybody talk about that in the way you just did. I love that clarity.
LJ: Objective-based buying is very much the lens through which we are talking about our ads products and really trying to help educate folks that might be customers of our product that we have not only that kind of lower funnel—which, again, I think people think of us as just being so close to the point of sale and that is really the beautiful advantage of retail media.
GS: But it doesn't mean you can't do brand in that environment, too.
LJ: Absolutely. And you have to drive discovery. If you go back to the metaphor of speaking to someone like you would speak to a human, if you are an emerging brand that people don't know about, just doing a dollars off discount, people might not even be ready to buy in your category. If you can then go in with a video ad that helps explain this product. I'm thinking there's all sorts of new innovations in food especially that require a little bit of explanation. Get someone warmed up, help them understand what your product is and why they might want to try it, and then offer that price-based discount to really close the deal.
GS: Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back after this with Laura Jones.
This is Building Better CMOs. Let's get back to my conversation with Laura Jones, the CMO of Instacart. I probably talked to at least 150 CMOs over the two years to get some companies to do this research. And as you know, Kroger, Campbell's, AT&T, and Ally are the four brands that agreed to do studies. But the one question that we got all the time was very funny. It would always come late in the conversation. It was, if you're going to measure the relationship between brand and performance, they'd finally go, "How do you know it's a brand or a performance ad?" Ain't that funny? And so we used to tell people that, "Listen, we're going to figure out the optimization of brand and performance based on what you think the ads are doing. And then we're going to actually measure which ad's producing more brand and more performance, and we're going to run an analysis secondarily on it."
And the only reason I find that question amusing is because it reminds me that... And I don't know we do this enough in marketing, I just don't know that we admit that there's some things that we don't know that we really should go figure out. This is one of those questions, I always felt like was one of these questions.
LJ: And I'm so glad you guys are doing this research because when I took this role, I sat down to try to write a business case for more funnel investment. And it was actually shocking to find what a dearth of information and especially highly rigorous case studies. Because we have an incredibly high bar from a data science standpoint about what kind of data we'll accept. And I spent weeks looking and there was really not much.
GS: Oh no, Laura, it's a mess. And that's why we started. What happened is that I'd heard the tension that I mentioned earlier between brand and performance marketers. And I took a step back and I said, "Listen, this is not like a go to Mars problem. We have to build new technology. This is a simple math problem." Now, granted the data collection's a nightmare. And in fact, when we first set up to do the research, if you heard me, I think I mentioned this in the board meeting yesterday. We first went, we talked to Google early on about, and they said, "We love this idea. By the way, we don't think what you're trying to do will work. We don't think it's measurable, we don't think..." And it's not that our approach is wrong. They were like, "We don't think there's any approach that will work." That's why they hadn't done it themselves.
And we're like, "Well, we think we're right. We don't know, we'll figure it out." And now it turns out we have good results. The other thing I think is important, too... You made a point, I want to go back to something you said earlier, and I think it's important to mention here to listeners. And I don't know if you heard it. But the performance ads, the cost of acquisition, CAC ads, cost of customer acquisition ads are 85 percent lower when that consumer has been converted to favorable, otherwise they believe in the brand, they understand the brand messaging at some level. Then you heard a complicated explanation of favorable yesterday. But 85 percent less, which is funny. So, we now have a saying in the MMA, which is that brand is both upper funnel and the lower funnel.
GS: Which is, if you stop and think, that's a sort of blow your mind kind of situation.
LJ: That's basically what we observed with this back-to-school campaign where, qualitative metrics aside, the cost per acquisition was lower than the more explanatory, more offer-driven ads, which was just really mind-blowing. And I'm super curious to see if, as we go, if that will hold true.
GS: Yeah, exactly.
LJ: But I think that was a really interesting data point. And for me, if I think about the year of brandformance, that was the indication I was looking for that it was possible and that there was a there, there.
GS: And I think what you run into, then you run into whether or not the CFO or the board, CEO for that matter, what their orientation is to marketing. You become at the victim of people's predisposed ideas. Whereas now with real data, you can sit down and have a considered decision. "We've got to be very focused on short term. We've got quarterly numbers to make, let's double down short term. I understand we can't wait for the year whatever that brand's going to take effect." Or, "Hey, we're in good shape, let's invest more so next year feels easier." Now we know the dynamics of that at some level. I mean, it's imperfect. It's two brands, so I want to be careful about saying the world's done. But at least we've started to set down that journey so we know.
LJ: Yeah, I think it's going to be so valuable for all of us. And again, I think that anyone who is not going with data to the rest of the C-suite and the board finds themselves in a tough position. And so that's where I think really finding this fact base for this being an effective strategy is going to be something that all of us will benefit from, and hopefully we can all contribute to as more of us have the rigor to do these long-term holdouts and be able to do these kinds of studies.
GS: I think we're just starting on a journey here. Okay, listen, this is incredibly interesting and I knew that—like I said, I talked to your comms team and I heard you speak at that Google event—so I knew that this was going to be a fun conversation. We've been doing the research, you've been practicing it, so it's all good.
Let me change topics here for a little bit in the time we have remaining. You've been a part of a number of very great organizations, really smart people, really thoughtful, really developed an emphasis on talent in every other place, should it be from Google, to Uber to... was it Deloitte originally, consulting?
GS: Yeah. I have a thesis that a lot of people who sit in other parts of organizations starting their career, maybe majority of your career, they don't really respect or understand what it takes to get to the executive C-suite of these organizations. And they also don't fully understand that the game gets played a little bit differently and that it's hard to stay in those roles. I mean, you see the fallout all the time amongst our friends and business at large and the media and so on. I'm just curious, did you always set out, were you always determined to be in a C-suite? And then, what do you think you did right in getting there? And if you want, you can even disclose what you don't think you did right along the way. We're not here to put you on the spot, but what was your process? What was your path?
LJ: For myself, I did not have a specific end state in mind. I knew the kind of work that I loved to do, which was that combination of creative and analytical work, and I've always really loved learning. And I think for me the answer of how did I end up here, it really centers on proactively seeking out learning opportunities. And what that looked like was, I spent four years at Google. My last role was quite comfortable there, had had a great experience. I was actually five months pregnant when Uber called, and initially—
GS: That's a hard decision.
LJ: Yeah, I was really afraid to leave Google because I was comfortable. It was my first child. I didn't know what that would look like. But when I really reflected and thought about what is my learning curve, what do I continue to learn if I stay at Google versus go and challenge myself to really go build a new function at this hyper-growth company, I realized that I really wanted to do that. And similarly, the move from Uber to Instacart was also motivated by realizing that after six years at Uber I had learned a lot, and not that I couldn't have learned more, but that I wanted to continue pushing myself. And I really feel that, especially if I think about the past decade, I have learned something new every day, and every day has been hard. It's the opposite of comfortable. It's the opposite of what it would have been like if I had just stayed in a comfortable spot.
Every day I have to do something that I don't know how to do. And even at Instacart, I was initially hired to do brand, product, and creative marketing and then took on performance. And I had done some performance in my past, but this was really a different scale and I have learned so much over the past few years, and it's now where I spend most of my time. And I've actually really loved it because, again, I have an economics background, I have an MBA, and getting to really get into the guts of this field has been incredible. I really think that I feel lucky that I was given these opportunities to learn and that people took chances on me along the way. And I also think that that is probably how I got to this level was by just challenging myself to keep learning, to keep growing, and not becoming complacent along the way. Because I think that this is such a vast discipline when you think about the level of mastery you need over data and the ability to talk to motion designers.
It's just the neurodiversity of the team you manage is so broad, and so I think that you have to love learning. And then when you ask about what could I have done differently or what did I do wrong along the way, I think there were a few times when I could have pushed myself to learn more or to get out of my comfort zone. I spent many, many years in product marketing and I love that discipline, and then broadened my scope. And I think just when I now give advice to people, just that rotational aspect of making sure you get mastery over brand marketing, performance marketing, product marketing, other sub disciplines. Just really seeking that diversity of experience is super important. But I feel mostly just gratitude that I was given enough opportunity along the way to learn all these things.
And when I think about my own team, I'm always trying to really just make sure that they see that learning and development and growth opportunity, and that that's really the primary value proposition I can offer them at any of these companies because this is a tough and fickle industry. But the one thing I can guarantee them is if they're willing to put in the effort, we're going to give them the opportunity to learn at a larger scale and faster than they could anywhere else.
GS: Is there a thesis or philosophy in there that says love the challenge?
GS: Is that what you're saying?
LJ: Absolutely. That's very well put. I might borrow that.
GS: I'm on the far side of my career, so it means I carry a lot of baggage from a different generation at some level. Let's just maybe assume that. But it's funny you say that. I think that people... There's a lot of desire that somehow work becomes easier, and I don't know that it has to be painful all the time, but there's a sense of sort of moving away from the challenge. In fact, you know what? I'll do it this way. I read about a year ago there was a Wall Street Journal article about a study they did at Harvard, and they had done an analysis. Their basic thesis was, what is happiness? And it was done for the MBA class, by the way, and they're like, "What is happiness? What defines happiness?"
And what was interesting about that study says that there's four components. The first two were obvious, friends and family. So friends, family, those were the first two elements. I think we'd all kind of get that one right, okay. You know what the third one was? Challenging work. The meaning of happiness was challenging work. I get that people can get stressed out and worried and overwhelmed and life can feel really hard. Buddha said that for many thousands of years, so let's assume they're still right about that. But I think somehow we want to walk away from the challenge and yet that's the thing I find interesting the most, and I consider myself to be a very happy person. I love the bullshit. I love the hard stuff. I love not figuring it out. Granted, I'm a CEO, so it gives me a little bit more latitude to be easy. Changes my dynamics a little bit, so I'm going to be respectful of that, too. But I don't know, somehow I feel like we've lost that in work today.
LJ: I agree. I think it's really important to have that contrast between putting in the work and reaping the rewards. And if we all just think that everything's going to be easy and it's all just kind of the reward piece, we lose the meaning and the growth that comes with that. I think that's true in all aspects of life. I'm a cold water swimmer. I swim in the San Francisco Bay, which is about right now 56 degrees, gets down to about 46 degrees, and there's nothing like putting your entire body into freezing cold water and then suffering that kind of intensity and then finding the fulfillment that comes on the other side of having done something really hard. It's very much, I would say, a philosophy I apply throughout every aspect of my life, and it's a really important mindset even from a parenting standpoint. Growth mindset to instill in your kids that you've got to get in there and do the work to get that reward.
GS: It's funny you say, I do remember the stage when my kids were moving into their teen years, and I realized this point where I could not buffer them from the pains of life itself. And I remember being like, "Wow, everything just changed there with that." And at the same time, I don't know that my job is to take away that or to interfere with their understanding of that. Help them through it, they're children, don't leave them alone. But there's something about that, I think we lose sight of that. That study just really caught my attention that I never would have thought that challenging work, it would have said, "Oh, purposeful." We tell people purposeful work, which I agree with Scott Galloway, that's just stupid. But the challenging work is a big deal in my opinion.
LJ: Right there with you.
GS: And appreciate that and work against it. I do think we have to support people, though, around that. I don't know that companies do a good job of helping them with mental health. We certainly saw that come up in the pandemic. We don't help people enough with mental health and other complexities of that, or give them the right orientation. By the way, the fourth item in that list was a philosophy of life. Could be religion, although religion has its own complexities to it. But it could be somehow a philosophy of life. And I thought, "Oh, that's very interesting." At least you're aiming for something it feels like.
LJ: I definitely think that it's important on those last two dimensions that we challenge ourselves and also are kind and gracious with ourselves and also realize that we can't do it all every day. And that there'll be days when you feel like peak ambition, going to go tackle the world, and then other days that are harder, and also teaching ourselves and our children and the people on our teams to sit with that and to really respect that there is kind of variegation in terms of how people show up every day.
GS: Say that again. What does that mean, "There's variegation with how people show up every day"? What does that mean?
LJ: I think there is research that suggests that there's an order of magnitude difference from how people perform when they're at their peak performance to at their lowest performance. I think this is maybe out of the Multipliers school of research. And so yeah, I think that just net-net, you want to be pushing yourselves in learning and avoiding that sense of complacency, and also realizing that some days you're going to be more able to tackle things over other days you may need to practice self-care. I think that, again, it's the long game, making sure that you're challenging yourself. But also not doing that, to your point, at the expense of mental health or having a balanced life or seeing your children. That's that one. And then on the point about having a philosophy, I think that's true in life and in work. Which is where I go back to my own foundations at the d.school.
And for me, once I had that organizing principle of, "I am here to understand and serve the user and the customer," that then provided me with really a philosophy with which to approach my work. And I think that has made it easier for me to have a clear career trajectory and to make decisions and to think on any given day how I want to approach any given task, because I know why I'm doing it and what the purpose is.
GS: Oh my god, we could spend a whole other hour going down the path of how do I make good decisions? And I think what you said here, if I can summarize, tell me if I get this right. How do I present myself in challenging opportunities? How do I keep my head in the game? And then, how do I make good decisions on the days, maybe even the days when I'm not so sure I'm prepared emotionally to make good decisions? Is that where you kind of went?
GS: I think it's treating myself almost as an athlete in some regard. I've got to be at peak performance. That's what is required. And to learn how to do that, don't be critical when I don't, but realize that's what I'm aiming for. Is that where you're going?
LJ: Absolutely. I think it's really that growth mindset of embracing the challenge. And it's a journey. It's going to be not a linear journey, but knowing the direction you're headed and knowing why you're doing it. What motivates you, what part of the work speaks to you? Why do you love doing what you do, and do you love doing what you're doing? And then just reminding yourself of that kind of core orientation so that you can stay on the path that you set out on.
GS: Yeah, I love it. There's advice. Okay, listen, we're going to do a quick lightning round. You ready? We're going to wrap this up. These are going to be quick as you want or wherever you want to go. We've got a little bit of time.
GS: Who else in marketing—person, company, can't be anybody at Instacart, so let's keep it away from that—do you kind of admire? Is there somebody's work? Is there a marketer whose work you really admire right now? Is there just somebody who becomes inspirational for you, or is there a company you think is just doing interesting things right now that you focus on? You want to pick on somebody out there?
LJ: This is an easy one for me because a few years ago was lucky enough to do some work with Jonathan Mildenhall at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. And I had always used Airbnb is my North Star in my mind of really having a brand purpose and then having that flow through the entire product and user experience. And so when I got to work with Jonathan, after the engagement ended with TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, I kept wanting to call him, and I actually did call him to get some advice on some things. And eventually I said, "I think I just need you to be my coach." And he, for the past two and a half years, has been my coach; we meet weekly. And I just feel so lucky because we talked about learning and my value of really always wanting to be learning, who better to learn from? And especially even going back to that theme of the moments when you're on top of the world and the moments when it's hard.
He has just been there for me through thick and thin and pushed me. I'll never forget that I was prepping for a board meeting and I was pretty sick, but I had to finish it, and he stayed on Zoom with me for much longer. Just really pushed me to really rethink the narrative. And then I really had to start over and redo it. It was so worth it. That was for me a pivotal moment, I think, in getting the CMO role. And so I just feel like not only is his work—the work he's done throughout his career at Coke and at Airbnb—incredible and best in class, but also just him as a person, as a marketer, as a coach. It has been transformational, and I feel so lucky that he spends his time with me.
GS: 100 percent agree. Listen, there are so many great people that came out of Coke. He is one of a couple there. I don't know how Joe Tripodi did that and put together that dream team. It really was the ultimate dream team.
LJ: Rebecca Messina, also. A great crew of people, for sure.
GS: Exactly. Wendy Clark. A great, great crew of people and we're leaving out too many people there, but Mildenhall's amazing. He's just one of those people... I saw people like him I worked with in the agency days. They were the heads of creative. They tapped into information from a different data stream than the rest of us got somehow. And I don't know how they did it, but they did it. Yeah, he's one of those. Oh my god, it's a good call out. I didn't think he'd be named here.
Okay, last one. What do you think is over-hyped in marketing or underappreciated in marketing? We kind of did underappreciated in marketing, we just talked about brand. What do you think is over-hyped in marketing today? What do you think we're not getting right?
LJ: I think we have hype cycles. And you can sense it at Cannes every year. In 2022, it was NFTs and the Metaverse. This year it was definitely AI. And I'm not saying AI is over-hyped, because I think it is transformational, but I think the narrow obsession on generative AI when really ML has been the backbone of pretty much all of tech for the past many decades. It's a little bit of a hype cycle definitely that we're living in. I think we as marketers get into these cycles, and I think each one of them has something that is really valid and valuable in them. And I think AI particularly is going to be transformational, but it is almost funny to think about, "Okay, well each year at Cannes, what is going to be that buzzword?" In the past few years, it's definitely been very, very obvious what it was.
GS: I start this out saying, I'm not here to hero worship CMOs. But by the way, you did, I think, didn't I see you got to speak at Cannes Lions last year?
LJ: I had a few different speaking things there. It was a great session. I mean, I feel so lucky to be among this group of world-class marketers.
GS: It's a nice career marker. You know what I listen for a lot is I listen for people who appreciate where they are. Even sometimes when it's painful, but to appreciate where you are, it's a big deal if you can. It's hard to get there, but it's kind of the goal. Laura, listen, you're great. I couldn't be more excited to have you with us at the MMA and helping to solve some of these problems. I think we're going to do some great things. We will definitely walk through the results of the Brand as Performance work as soon as we can get that scheduled. I made a note of that already, so we'll do that. But I can't thank you enough for being on Building Better CMOs today.
LJ: Thank you so much for having me. This was such a fun conversation. I really appreciate it.
GS: Thanks again to Laura Jones from Instacart for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the description of this episode for links to connect with Laura. If you want to know more about MMA's work to unlock the power of marketing, visit mmaglobal.com. Or you can attend any of our 30 conferences in the 15 countries where MMA operates. Or just write me at email@example.com. Thank you so much for listening. Tap the link in the description to leave us a review. 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 bettercmos.com. Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from LightningPod.fm. Our project manager is Lili Mahoney. Artwork is by Jason Chase, and a very special thanks to Lacera Smith for pulling it all together. This is Greg Stuart, I'll see you in two weeks.