Greg Stuart: This is Building Better CMOs. Let's get back to my conversation with Aron North, the CMO of Mint Mobile.
I think you also have a thing that you do. Aren't you always bringing your teams into... something about a thing called Jump Ball where you bring the teams in to come up with creative ideas. Is that what you're doing there?
Aron North: Yeah, Jump Ball is a concept, again, shamelessly stolen from Taco Bell.
GS: Okay, fair enough. Listen, a lot of great CMOs and great marketers have come out of Taco Bell. Some of the best marketers and CMOs I know who sit on the board of the MMA come out of Taco Bell, so it's a great—
AN: I agree.
GS: It was great, yeah.
AN: Before we get to Jump Ball, I think there's two types of companies. There are companies that make products and do marketing, and then there are marketing companies that have products. My opinion is that Taco Bell was a marketing company that had products. You'll often hear same eight ingredients, mixed 200 different ways. But with us and wireless, it's colorless, odorless, tasteless. I mean, it's airwaves, right? It's talk, text, and... Can someone please physically manifest talk, text, and data in a way where I can smell it, touch it, eat it? No, it just works. So what we do is we are very much marketing driven, and I feel like because of that, you take a different lens on how you bring the product to market. That is a quick predecessor of Jump Ball.
AN: But what Jump Ball was is at Taco Bell... Every company launches big products, medium products, small products. Taco Bell was launching some of the biggest products in its history while I was there. We launched the Doritos Locos Taco, we launched breakfast, we repositioned the core brand. So we moved from the archetype of jester to the archetype of explorer, and that manifested itself with the new tagline, Live Más. With these big, huge programs, we did this thing called Jump Ball. What that was at Taco Bell was we would bring in all of our agency partners, brief them, and allow the best idea to be the leading idea for the campaign.
AN: So I bastardized it, bringing it to Mint and Ultra. What we do here is our media team is looking to solve... They need creative for specific media challenges. So what we'll do is we'll work with our media team and the media team clearly identifies, "These are the challenges we have," whether it be platform, whether it be vehicle, et cetera, et cetera. We take that. We brief the entire agency. So that includes everyone, animators, copywriters, art directors, it doesn't matter. Everybody gets involved. Then we say, "Here's the brief. You all get a number," like literal basketball player for a Jump Ball. "You all get a number. Nobody knows who you are. You get to submit work that is not reviewed by your supervisor or by the creative director." It is your raw, unfettered idea and let the best idea win.
GS: Okay, now who's the panel? Who's the judge and jury on this thing? Is that you and a couple of others or—
AN: No, the customer is the media team. The media team is giving the feedback. Now look, the media team... My head of media has been with me for seven years. She gets it. She gets brand. She knows what we're doing. I mean, she helped co-author the program we're building today. Then before the final work goes out, of course we will have the brand marketing team take a look at it to make sure, but she's so good that she knows the brand, "Watch out for this pitfall, watch out for this." So she's constantly pushing, but we let the customer decide what ad wins. She gives feedback, like speed round feedback. Our goal was to get — and this was an eight-week process — 100 new ads for various platforms and programs.
AN: Yeah, big ask. Well, we delivered over 400 because we like to hire a different type of employee within the marketing group. We like to hire what I call killers. These are people who are fiercely competitive, excellent at their job, don't like to lose. It's just a different breed. What ended up happening with Jump Ball... I mean, I know people can't see me, but I hope they hear the smile on my face because I am fiercely competitive. I hate losing. I can't stand it. I've got a team of people who are like that. What ended up happening is in the initial couple rounds of Jump Ball, there were winners and losers. The people who "lost" were furious, and all they kept doing was asking questions on why they lost. So it wasn't just the immediate feedback. We held feedback sessions early on that really explained why we were saying no. What we saw was an optimization within the own creative team where people just started tinkering and tuning.
AN: We didn't get a lot of winners in the very first Jump Ball, but towards the end, we were posting Ws left and right, and that's how we got to this giant number of ad units that ended up being in creative. I was so happy. Look, not everything is a Jump Ball. You'll kill your teams with all this extra work, but they are clamoring now for Jump Balls. They're like, "When's the next big program coming because we want to Jump Ball this. We don't want this specific team to solve the problem. We all want to have a chance at having work go out." So yeah, it's become this amazing thing we do inside our office now.
GS: Would you, off the top of your head, know what was the best Jump Ball? I mean either here or maybe at Taco Bell? Is there one or two that maybe stand out? It doesn't have to be best one ever, just a couple that caught your attention. Ideas that came out that maybe wouldn't have come out of even your agency or something.
AN: You'll love this. We're an exclusively digital brand who goes very analog during the holidays. We send our customers a holiday card, like an actual in the mail, with a stamp holiday card. So every year we send the holiday card. We've done it ever since Ryan became an owner in the business. I don't want to pat myself on the back. It was an idea I had when we were much smaller. I just thought it would be fun. It really was a stolen idea from Southwest that used to send a happy birthday card. I'm like, we don't know everybody's birthday, so we'll do holiday, it'll be great. So it started as a holiday card, and then we started adding a little Cracker Jack gift, if you will, in the holiday card. Last year we did it, and there was a temporary tattoo included in it.
AN: This year, I challenged the team to come up with an idea of what would this Cracker Jack toy be? The idea that won was an orna-Mint, and we are including in the holiday card a little die-cut, assemble yourself, mini cellphone. Like a paper cellphone orna-Mint. That idea came out of a Jump Ball session, which was, "Hey, we're doing the holiday card again this year, what should go in with the holiday card?" The reason I chose that one is it's so brand, right? We've been talking about analytics and marketing and science and math and insight. This is pure creative, just a beautiful, fun piece. Put a penny in the brand bank, have fun with it. That was an output of a Jump Ball program.
GS: I like that. I like that. Do you remember what department came up with that by chance or no?
AN: A copywriter. A copywriter came up with that idea. I always want to know who came up with the idea because I love giving credit where credit is due, and I love giving the accolade and publicly thanking them so much for all the hard work. I think that's the culture we have here, is we like to really give credit where credit's due. So Tim Heckman, if you're listening, nice job.
GS: Way to go, Tim, your mother and father and I are all very proud of you. Hey, I got a funny one for you. Part of your communications here, part of what you said today and your thesis around the power of brand, the value of brand... Do you guys know how many sales you develop off of brand ads? You do a fair number of brand ads. I've seen the ads on YouTube and other places.
AN: I would argue that every ad we do is a brand ad. I like to look at it that way, but I know where you're headed.
GS: Yeah, I'm thinking a video, classic TV way. Do you have any idea what the sales produced off a brand ad are?
AN: We do to some degree. The reason I know that is the way we introduced broadcast into our marketing toolkit was we only introduced... Everything was the same. We introduced broadcast and we saw the lift. So yeah, I know generally how much it is, and we're evaluating—
GS: Broadcast affects all other channels, too. I mean, if you have any direct marketing background, you realize that it does that, right?
AN: A hundred percent. And when we launched broadcast, the way I did it, and this is a good... I mean, this is very obvious I think. But for folks who maybe are thinking about going into TV, the way we did it was we kept everything constant. We added broadcast. We had an eight-week flight, and then we turned it off and just watched what happened. What we found was that the day we started TV was not the day we saw an increase in sales volume or transaction volume. It took some time and then we saw the lift start, and then after we turned TV off, we did not see an immediate attrition. We saw a foxtail, is what we call it. Just a slow decay over time. So then I was able to do some simple mathematics and understand what was TV bringing to the program.
AN: I'll tell you, I did it that way because I had a hard lesson learned maybe six months before that where I launched three new tactics at once. We saw a huge pop in the business and everybody was like, "Wow, what did it?" I go, "I don't know." So I was really upset with myself and I promised myself I would never learn that lesson again. Then four years later I learned it again. So my team is quick to point out like, "Aron, what are you doing? You've made the same mistake twice." I go, "Oh, come on, there's four years in there. Give me a break." But that is something we've ingrained in all the team is that if we're testing something new, make sure you've isolated the test so you can see the impact.
AN: But yeah, TV's massive. It was a huge bump for us, but a relatively small piece of our budget goes into analog TV or traditional TV. There is something to be said if you're a digital business that's a transactional... the digital transaction and being one click away from the website versus a Google search and a query.
GS: Let's shift degrees here a little bit. I always like to talk to CMOs. Listen, you've gotten to the C-suite of your company. You're a competitive guy, so let's assume you were always aimed that way. But I think a lot of people underestimate how much work and energy is taken to get there, how much energy and work and effort and thoughtfulness it takes to stay in those roles. I mean, you have to really read the room. There's a bunch of things that have to happen. So talk to me a little bit, just lessons you might have for others who might want to become a C-suite executive or a CMO, as is your case.
AN: Well, I think you have to have a thirst for knowledge and always want to be improving yourself. The journey to the C-suite... You're right, this is something I've always wanted. The challenge I had... So I started my career 10 years agency side, various agencies—
GS: Me too, 10 years agency side, agreed, yes.
AN: It's hard. I've been away from it for 12 years now. Ten years agency, it's been 12 years client. But it's hard. It's really hard. You get to be with creative and you get to be with strategy at a volume that really helps you learn the power of creativity, the power of strategy. I think the challenge for me was that I was always a person who is providing a recommendation or trying to exert influence. The switch when you go client side is now you make the decision. I actually had some paralysis when I went to Taco Bell the first six months in. I was like three months in and then my boss yelled at me. I told her, I go, "These decisions are so huge." I made an offhand comment that this taco needs more cheese. Somebody was like, "Hey dummy, you're going to cost the company $12 million by that extra pinch of cheese, keep your mouth shut." That wrecked me because I didn't understand. I went in not haphazard, but the scale of your decision was massive.
AN: My boss ended up yelling at me and saying, "Look, you've got excellent instinct, use it. Stop second guessing yourself." I'll tell you the trick for me. You've got to have a thirst for knowledge and I think depending on the business you're in, I think you need both the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain. So my career, I started in the creative side. I mean ad agency, creative really rules the roost. So I was very much into creative, appreciating creative, how to work with teams to get the best creative. During that, I also went out and got my MBA with, believe it or not, focus on marketing and entrepreneurship. That really gave me the mathematical lens I needed to be smart in making business decisions. I also started my own business and it failed, but that was my PhD.
AN: But when I got to the client side, I was able to really meld creative with business acumen to get the end result we all want, which is both sales overnight, brand over time. Then fast-forward to coming to Ultra and building Mint Mobile. That has been, I think, one of the key secrets to my success in getting to this chief marketing officer role was my ability to have both the business acumen and the creative side as well. I'll tell you, the one thing I would tell everyone, everyone, everyone, is that you cannot be successful in the CMO seat unless you have a great partnership with both the chief executive officer and the chief financial officer, Riz and David.
AN: David's, the CEO and founder of our company. Riz is the CFO and co-founder. I love these guys. We work so tight together. I raise my hand when things fail, and I have a super high degree of accountability for mistakes. The CEO and the CFO may not have marketing backgrounds or brand acumen. If you're starting to do touchy-feely metrics, is what I call them, the things that are hard for them to quantify, it's hard for—
GS: Yeah, likes, all that stuff, right.
AN: Yeah. It's hard for them to believe in marketing. So what I've been able to do is meld both sides of the equation: brand and transactions. When things don't work, raise my hand and go, "Hey, I (censored) up. This was a mistake and it was an error." We've taken huge risks with Mint, huge risks with Mint, especially early on. I told them, "If this fails..." So before it failed, and some of these things didn't. But before it launched, I said, "If this fails, here's what we're going to do to rectify the failure. Here's the accountability I will take if it's wrong." I have raised my hand and said, "Look, I made a mistake. My instincts and intuition led me down this road, but I messed up."
AN: If you think you can do your job without making an error, you're fooling yourself here. So you're better off taking a high degree of accountability, fessing up to it, saying it was a mistake, and moving on. Because what I realize is you develop so much credibility within the org, you end up getting a longer leash or more budget, whatever you want to do, what you're trying to solve for, because you've built trust. That's really important anytime you're in any spot in the C-suite.
GS: That's very interesting, Aron. I've asked this question a lot. I've not heard anybody say it quite the way that you just did there. I will just say it happens to resonate with me a lot. I mean, listen, I have the title of CEO. So at the end of the day, it's not just paying homage to a plaque on a wall that says the buck stops here. I actually think if I don't take the position that I'm accountable for everything, even the things I don't control... Because the only thing I can change are those things. I can't change anything else. So I have to be 100 percent accountable. I have to act like I'm 100 percent. I have to take 100 percent accountability. I have to say that "Yes, I'm wrong. I called it wrong. I read it wrong. We didn't change fast enough." Whatever it might be. Yeah, it's very right. But I don't hear a lot of people orient that way.
AN: I agree with you. I mean, I don't know it any other way. That's why I gave it to you that way.
GS: Yeah, it's funny. I actually had to let somebody go the other day. It was about a couple of months ago and stuff, and I said, listen, "I need you to be 100 percent responsible." They kept coming back to saying it was somebody else's fault. They said it three times and I finally said, "Listen, just if you're going to report to me, you have to have 100% responsibility." Then they gave me a reason why they didn't. I was like, "Okay, I think you're missing the point here." It's just to your point, I didn't trust her at that point. I didn't trust that things would be okay. I liked her by the way. I liked what she did and how she was oriented and so on, but we had to part ways.
AN: So we have an accountability culture as well—
GS: Probably stems from your CEO, I assume, right?
AN: I think within the marketing group from me, right. I know that that is really important to me and I want the team to do that as well. That's why I talked about risk and failure and all these things. I want people to know it's okay because you're not going to get in trouble, as long as we're talking about it honestly and openly because I can't run a business with a bunch of question marks. I need to know what the truth is. When you have the truth, you're able to make better business decisions. Honestly, that's really what this is about is good decision making and if people are open and honest and they feel safe, you have what you need to make good calls.
GS: I had a guy tell me when I got to be an SVP within Y&R, right... This is a lot of years ago. So SVPs started to feel like a real title versus where I'd been before in agency world where they just hand out VPs all the time. I said to him, a friend of mine, I say, "I hope I'm smart enough to keep up." He says, "Everybody at this level is smart enough. That's not the issue any longer. You wouldn't have gotten here if you hadn't. Now it's about keeping 51 percent of the vote." I always thought that was very interesting. I think if I'm hearing the way you're playing the game is that you're very fixated on making sure you keep the support of your CEO and CFO in your ability to tell the truth and tell them where we're going, right?
GS: Did they give you the commercial owner title or did you ask for that responsibility?
AN: I think it was grown into. I mean, our business is a direct-to-consumer business. I built it from zero. I didn't get it on day one, obviously. I was at the company for a few years and then I got the CMO title, and I just kept growing. I mean, my role here has shifted a lot over the years. I was actually the CMO and commercial owner of both Ultra and Mint. I'll tell you, this is a great story. So this is how accountable I am to myself and to the company. I was the CO of both brands and a startup project we had, which I won't go into, but it was too much. I went to David and Riz, and I said... This is a year ago. This is actually a year ago in November. It was in a PowerPoint, so bear with me.
AN: I go, "Look, I think the company is performing worse with me doing all of this, with me being the CO of Ultra, the CO of Mint, the CMO of Mint, Ultra, and everything else. It is too much for me. Here's how I'm allocating my time. Here is how the company is growing and benefiting from that. I think I'm not performing well enough for the company, so what I'm raising my hand for is I'm going to ask to do less. I think we should go find a CO for Ultra and take that accountability off of my plate because I don't think I am doing the job well enough." Look, that's a risky move to go to your boss and go take away accountabilities, I want less. I mean, you narrow scope, you could narrow a lot of things that are sort of consequences of that.
AN: But to me, I said, "I think that the company will grow faster, will grow healthier, and will be a better organization if I am more focused on Mint Mobile." We made that shift and we made that switch. I think, again, accountability culture, things like that, that the company benefits from by me taking a higher degree of accountability. I had to deliver that message to the organization. I remember doing it because we do town halls where the entire company — we've got this distributed workforce — are on a big Zoom meet or whatever. I had to tell the company, "Look, it's too much. I think we would be better of a company if I do less." The crazy thing is we have... Scott Venuti is now the commercial owner of Ultra Mobile, and I'm servicing him from a marketing standpoint to make sure Ultra is growing. As a result of me doing less, Mint is growing faster, Ultra is growing faster, the company is better for it. That is sort of like a dream scenario for me.
GS: Love it. Love it, wow, so nice to get it proven. Okay, Aron, this has been phenomenal. Let me do a couple of quick lightning round questions with you here. I don't know if we sent these to you in advance, but you're a smart, clever guy. You'll get there pretty quick. You ready? Okay, first one, who else in marketing... It can be a person or company, but it can't be somebody who works at Mint. It can't be Ryan. Who do you most admire in marketing?
AN: I love, love, love, love what Liquid Death is doing.
GS: Oh my god, somebody else just named them recently. Why? Yeah.
AN: Well, I've worked with Andy in the past, so I think I cheated a little bit on your question. But the creativity, the brilliance. They're selling canned water, okay. Canned water, right?
GS: With death in the title.
AN: Right. And a flaming skull as the logo, right? But think about how close that is to wireless. It's odorless, colorless, and tasteless, but you can physically manifest it. But I'm looking at a sink right now that's got water in it and they're selling it for like $1.99 or $2.99 a can. But the marketing is exceptional. They're doing things. They're taking the haters and they're putting the haters front and center stage. They have fully embraced their brand, their position in the market. They are disrupting water. I love, love, love what they're doing. It's my favorite thing is to see when they come out with something new. I follow Andy on every social media platform and on LinkedIn. He's constantly posting the new work they're doing. I love it. I just absolutely love it. To see that brand skyrocket the way it has will tell you they're doing something really interesting. It is about as anti-Fiji, Aquafina, Dasani, Purity as you can get. I love it.
GS: I love it. It's so funny. Somebody just quoted them the other day for the same capacity. Okay, next one here. We already talked about what you think is underappreciated, so we've covered that. What do you think is over-hyped in marketing today? Anything you'd like to pick on and you think, "Ah, geez, we're just over our skis on this one, we've just gone too far, it's probably not as big a deal as the wisdom of the crowd thinks"? Go.
AN: Two letters, AI.
GS: Really, you think it's over-hyped?
AN: Yeah, so look, let's be honest, right. This is a really smart computer, okay? That's what AI is. Everybody right now is rolling their eyes and they're like, "This guy has no idea what he's talking about." We've just lost listeners. No, but for me, if you want advanced analytics, machine learning, yes, AI. But in the world of creativity, I believe that you need creatives. I trust human minds. I trust people coming up with beautiful art and creativity. I am not going to trust a machine, so I do not think artificial intelligence is going to take the seats of copywriters and art directors and things like that. Yeah, sure, I've seen some really neat animal 'morphistations' of the Egyptians and these empires of the past, and that's clever, but there's no commercial reason for that other than to sell AI as a neat thing. So I think AI is way over-hyped in the creative realm.
GS: That's fair enough. It's interesting. I've often said... By the way, my other podcast is Decoding AI for Marketing, so just FYI, obviously I'm a fan.
GS: No, no, it's alright. So I hear your point. I don't disagree with what you're saying. I'm going to relate it back to your point. I think that what AI is unusual about, that we don't often see come around in business, is increased performance. By the way, we're doing a series of personalized ads using machine learning. In fact, we're using one-hot encoding in K-modes, clustering. Beats the hell out of me what those are. I just know that's the techniques we're doing to optimize the creative personalization of ads using contextual signal. We're seeing unbelievable gains in performance, Aron, it's crazy. Nothing like I've ever seen in my 30-plus years. We're seeing gains of two, three, maybe even as high as 4x using these techniques.
GS: So it's that one place where something is so high in performance that builds so much revenue, but we're also lowering cost and that usually doesn't happen. That's what makes it interesting. What I think about your creative point... I gave a presentation to the CFOs of A&A Group. I said, "You assholes in procurement and CFOs are killing your business and you don't understand why, because what you're in essence doing is you're reducing the power of creative. If you reduce creative and its influence, you're going to ruin your business." It's a variation with the point you've gone down.
AN: Yeah and I agree. I am going to find said podcast and learn about K clustering or whatever you just said... I don't want to, I will never turn down 4x.
GS: One-hot encoding. One-hot encoding and K-modes clustering. Those are the techniques.
AN: Yeah, I will send that podcast to our media team and we'll look at it as well, because 4x... I am not a fool, right. Like I said, performance and advanced analytics, yes, but—
GS: But you tied AI to creative. That's where you said you think it can never go as far. I'm not so sure. I don't know that you're wrong. I don't know that we're 100 percent right on that. At the current state, you are for sure right. Long term, I don't—
AN: Right. It's over-hyped today because I think... I mean, look, I hear the rumblings of creative folks saying, "Are our jobs being lost?" I'm like, "No, don't worry. Not here. I don't see it yet." But I do want to always improve, so I want to learn about this. But yeah, I think AI taking the seat of a creative copywriter and art director, a creative director, we're not there yet.
GS: We're not there yet, no. No, we're still a long ways away. Okay, last lightning round then we'll wrap up here. What's the one thing that somebody listening to this can take away to be a better CMO? If you were to summarize that? I mean, you've said it the whole session.
AN: Yeah, yeah.
GS: But, what's the one thing you would point them towards? I have five I could list off of the things you said.
AN: I know, and for me, I read a lot about how the tenure in the CMO seat is small—
AN: Yeah, I don't know if I believe it.
GS: How long have you been in the CMO spot there, just to be clear?
AN: Gosh, I think it's been like four or five years. I don't know the exact date. But I think accountability, because that is something that goes both up and down. Do you have accountability to your team down? Do you have accountability to the management team up? But I think accountability is probably the biggest thing that I would want CMOs to embrace because if you have a high degree of accountability, you get a high degree of credibility and credibility is critical in this seat.
GS: It's capital in the bank.
AN: Yeah, so I would say accountability.
GS: So Aron, Mint Mobile, congratulations. Congratulations on this sale to T-Mobile. I said it earlier. You built, you created value from nothing... In fact, in your case, you really did because you're on somebody else's backbone. It's not like you installed a bunch of network, if I understand how the business works.
AN: That's correct.
GS: You really created value out of nothing and somebody put a big giant billion-dollar price tag on it. So congratulations, well played, my friend.
AN: Thank you so much.
GS: Thanks again to Aron North from Mint Mobile for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the description of this episode for links to connect with Aron. 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.
GS: 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.