Dara Treseder: When I think about my values as a marketer, I really believe in the power of creativity. I'm not just talking about creating wonderful creative, which is really important. But how are you applying creativity to every aspect of your job? I think of creativity as that pixie dust that makes everything fly and gives you exponential return on your investment.
Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get stronger and smarter. I'm Greg Stuart, the CEO of the nonprofit MMA Global. And that voice you heard at the top, that's Dara Treseder. She's the chief marketing officer at Autodesk. And as you're going to hear, she's a veteran CMO with past marketing leadership roles at Peloton, GE, Apple, and more. She's also on the board of the Public Health Institute and Robinhood, and she's on the global board here at the MMA.
Now, today on Building Better CMOs, Dara and I are going to talk about trusting your instincts, the importance of having a coach—the critical importance of having a coach, in fact—applying creativity to every aspect of your job, and so much more. This podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Dara Treseder from Autodesk is going to tell us how to do that right after this.
Dara, so nice to have you on Building Better CMOs today.
DT: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
GS: Oh my goodness, you are excited, too. The people here on audio can't see, but you've just got the biggest of smiles and excitement, which is just so typical of what I expect from you. Is that your secret weapon maybe, that's how you win people over with a big giant smile and friendliness? It's got to be it.
DT: I don't know, but I'm certainly an optimistic person. I'm an excited person. It's kind of funny that Pixar movie, Inside Out, and it's like what's your default emotion? Mine is joy, so there you go.
GS: Oh, there you go. I love it. I actually heard the greatest thing today, because of course I get all my information from TikTok nowadays. And it was a guy saying, he goes, "What's more important: positive thinking or reduction in negative thinking?" I thought, "Wow, that's a very interesting question." He says, "Listen, the research is absolutely clear that getting rid of negative—be positive, sure. But getting rid of negative, the most important thing you can do." Isn't that interesting?
DT: No, I believe that, because I really think we are shaped by our thoughts. So the things we allow to sit in our heads, sit in our hearts, they start to shape who we are. So if you have got negative stuff in there, it starts to shape you. So I believe that, and I spend a lot of time really in meditation and positive affirmations to try to reduce those negative thoughts that I have, we all have in our minds.
GS: I love that. In fact, I had a friend of mine... It's funny, we're starting Building Better CMOs we're off on meditation. I had a friend of mine tell me, "You spend 20, 30 more minutes getting ready in the morning on the outside. Why don't you spend a little time getting the inside ready, too?"
DT: I love that.
GS: I've never forgotten that. It's just a great thing. And I think he was totally right, and it's been a practice for me, too. I totally agree. So maybe back to a little business stuff here. We'll come back maybe to some personal stuff later, because I'd love to do that with you. But how long have you been at Autodesk now?
DT: Almost a year. It will be a year in about a few weeks. And what a ride it's been.
GS: Oh my goodness.
DT: I'm absolutely so grateful to be here.
GS: And listen, you had a of heck a ride at Peloton before. That was probably one of the most interesting times in almost any company's history the period you were there, correct? Don't you think?
DT: Oh, yes. It was hitting hills. Hitting hills with a little Tabata, with a little Tabata, so there we go.
GS: Oh my goodness. I don't know. What do you think now? It's fun to be in the center of the action. You have to believe that to be true just knowing you. But also, it can be maybe a rough ride a little bit sometimes with the ups and downs when you're that public. And when a slight event... maybe it wasn't a slight event. Events come around and shift the whole world, or your view of it or the company's view, it's got to be very, I don't know... How did you manage through some of that? Some of the change that was inherent in that company.
DT: I really believe that when we are going through times of uncertainty, the amount of skill sets that we use to navigate that uncertainty, it's not that it was never there. We all have it in us, but it certainly gets honed. And so when I look back on that time, was it challenging? Absolutely. Was it exciting? Yes, in many ways. And I'm really proud of the work that my team and I did while we were there. My belief, I've always said, I believe in a philosophy where there's a time to bloom where you're planted, and there's a time when you need to go to grow.
And I really enjoyed my time there and I bloomed where I was planted, but there came a time where I needed to go to grow. And I think about the role that I'm in now, I absolutely love Autodesk. I'm working across so many different industries as opposed to one industry. And my portfolio of what I oversee is really exciting to me. I have a team almost in 55 countries. I'm also overseeing our digital and e-commerce, which is a very exciting position to be in. So I'm absolutely loving where I am, and I'm grateful for the journey that led me here.
GS: Yeah, no, it's great. And listen, like I said, I think a lot of people probably know you from your Peloton days. But you have a lot of B2B and tech experience under your belt.
DT: Absolutely. It's kind of funny because before I went to my last job, everybody was like, "Oh, you're a B2B marketer. What are you doing going into consumer?" And when I was coming here to Autodesk, everyone was like, "But you're such a great consumer marketer, this is what you do. What are you doing going to a B2B environment?" And my answer was, "I'm both." And really I'm business to human. At the end of the day, whether you are working in a B2B company or a B2C company, the key thing is delivering value for your customer. Putting your customer at the center of it all and being able to really deliver that value. And that's something that I'm obsessed with.
It's something that's a deep philosophy of mine, something I'm so committed to. And it's been exciting to actually apply that in different contexts because you get better at it. And you understand, and you're able to transfer that knowledge that you've gained from different contexts. So it's almost like a skill that you keep building. It's that muscle you keep developing. And so it's been really, I think, a wonderful opportunity that I've had to work as a CMO in different contexts.
GS: Yeah, no, it's amazing. You've got an incredible history there. I think a lot of people don't know. But Dara I think what's something that's very interesting about you is that you actually grew up in Nigeria.
GS: And then moved to America at some point, right?
DT: Yes. I came here to go to college, absolutely. I was born and raised in Nigeria.
GS: Wow, until what age?
DT: So I lived in Nigeria until I was about 16, when I went to boarding school in the UK. I think I was 15 and then turned 16. And then I did my A-levels in the UK, and then I went to Harvard for my undergrad.
GS: Incredible. Incredible. Was that always the plan for you to move away from Nigeria? Did the family come with you?
DT: Oh, no. Growing up I never imagined I would ever have those opportunities. It was certainly not something... I lived in a town called Ibadan, which literally means between the forest and the plains. And there was a local university there that my parents had gone to, and I assumed that was where I was going to go, too. So I'll never forget the day my mother called me and she said, "Hey, you've got the opportunity to sit for some of these scholarship exams."
And I was so excited and I sat for the scholarship exam. I got into the school, but I did not get the scholarship. And I was just so grateful for how my parents and my grandparents and really our community came together to help me get into that school. I'll never forget my grandfather literally emptying his bank account for me to be able to go to A-levels and then onto Harvard. It was a real sacrifice. And so I've always thought my success is not my success, it's our success.
How am I driving impact in the communities that I serve? Because I would certainly not be here without the sacrifice, and I was not the only grandchild. There were a lot of grandchildren. So really that sacrifice is something that I think about every day. And I think about how am I using what I have to help others and create that opportunity for other people.
GS: That's so interesting, Dara. Now, listen, I've known you for a number of years. You've been on the MMA board for quite some time. And you've spoken at a couple of our events over the years, so I feel like I've gotten to know you in a bunch of different ways. And you're right, I think your life is completely oriented around a sense of gratitude. Now that I think about what you just said, and when I look back on some of the things you've shared, that really is it isn't it for you? You're just really grateful for where you are, and what's happened in the life that you've been given.
DT: I'm very grateful. In fact, one of the things that I do every day is I keep a journal. And one of the components I write about every day is gratitude. I'm in a position I never thought I would be in. And I think there are a lot of people who maybe they expected to be where they are, but I certainly never expected that. It just wasn't even something that I anticipated, I could have the life that I have now. So I'm so grateful for that. And with that gratitude comes a deep sense of responsibility of how am I lifting others up even as I climb? And how am I leaving this world a better place than where I found it? And creating opportunities for people, especially people who look like me, who maybe never expect to get to the positions that I've had the opportunity to be in.
GS: I love your sense of responsibility to that and an orientation into gratefulness. It's funny you mentioned earlier just it's about training your mind. The number one book I wanted to give my kids, and if they listen to my podcast and god knows if they ever really will, but we'll see. I don't know they've still not read my book, so whatever, who knows, whatever. Although they are grateful.
DT: All kids are like that by the way. All kids are like that.
GS: And they are grateful.
DT: I have my kids read my ads. They're always like, "Do better mom. Do better."
GS: Exactly. "Mom, you can raise the game here a little bit."
GS: No, one of my favorite books is [As] a Man Thinketh. And it's just a little tiny book and it's old, it's a hundreds of years old. But it really just orients it that really you are your thoughts, there is really in essence nothing else, so I love that.
So you end up over at Autodesk, and you come in to do some great ads. And so I think I know where our conversation is going to go. And I know what's going to happen here. So let's remind the listener of the thesis of this podcast, building better CMOs. What do you think marketers don't totally get about marketing or what maybe... You can answer it a couple of ways, what maybe they don't appreciate? What do they think they would be better as a result of a new orientation? What's the thing you'd like to pick on today that you think marketers could have a better appreciation for?
DT: I really think it's creative effectiveness. One of the things when I think about my values as a marketer, I really believe in the power of creativity. I'm not just talking about creating wonderful creative, which is really important. But how are you applying creativity to every aspect of your job? I think of creativity as that pixie dust that makes everything fly and gives you exponential return on your investment. It allows you to get more ROI. It allows you to really exceed expectations and go beyond. And so I value creative effectiveness very much. And I think as marketers, many people who get into marketing, it is because we are drawn. Even if we are data scientists, we are analytical people, we are drawn to storytelling, we are drawn to creativity. We enjoy that. And it is really important that we bring that to every aspect of what we do. And I don't think we focus on that enough. And creative effectiveness is actually one of the keys to success as a marketer.
GS: And so what taught you that? Where'd you pick that lesson up? I don't know that they teach that in B school or wherever. I don't know, where'd you get that?
DT: This is one of those hard-earned things that you learn on the road of life. I've had the fortune of being a CMO a few times now. It was funny, one of my friends said to me, "Well, Dara, you are a veteran CMO." I was like, "Girl, I like that so much. I'm going to include that in my bio. Thank you very much." As a veteran CMO, as my friend called me, I've learned... In fact, that's how she saved me in her phone, it's pretty funny. I've learned a few things. Because I've seen when I've had the opportunity to really tap into creativity in every aspect of my business, and I've been able to inspire and motivate my teammates to do the same, the results have always exceeded our expectations.
And when I look back at moments that I feel like, "Ooh, we could have done better there," it's always because we didn't lean into creativity. It was always because we got into a bit of a rote situation, or we just started trying to please everybody and we didn't trust our instincts. I have learned this, this is what I have lived. And this is what I deeply believe because of the bank of experience that I draw on.
GS: What first taught you that, though? Because listen, you have an MBA from a very well established school in California. So I don't know that they push that within MBA classes so much. So what was the first time you went... was there an aha moment that you suddenly went, "Creative is so critical"?
DT: There was absolutely a moment, this was actually in my time at Apple. When I was at Apple I was working in an amazing department with an amazing leader called Brad Freitag, and we were working on really communicating the power of custom apps. So if you think about it, you go to the App Store and there's almost an app for everything. But believe it or not, there are a lot of folks out there who might not find the exact app to do what they want, so they want to build their own app. And we were selling software that allowed you to do that, whether you were an individual or a small business or a department within a large business. And one of the things that really turbocharged that and enabled us to go beyond was really leaning into creativity. And obviously creativity and design is a core part of the DNA at Apple.
And so being able to see how we were this department, but when we were able to really turn on our creative hats, we were able to go beyond. We were able to plug in to some of the big things that Apple was doing with the iPad across all these stores all around the world. And so it was that moment that I realized this creativity thing isn't just about an ad campaign or creative, but it's really about process. It's about planning. It's about how we think holistically about the marketing demand generation and growth efforts and the full funnel. That was the first moment that I really tapped into that, and I've carried that with me ever since.
GS: Got it. And then have you tried to bring that into GE, and obviously Peloton-
DT: Oh, absolutely.
GS: ... was amazing. That's historical now at this point. But GE same thing?
DT: Absolutely. I pretty much took that to every job I had, whether it was my first CMO job being the CMO of GE Business Innovations and GE Ventures. When I went to become the CMO of Carbon, which is an exciting, 3D printing company based here in Silicon Valley, to Peloton, to now Autodesk. I've been able to take that with me in every job. And that has contributed a lot to my success in every role that I've been. Because no matter whatever job you have there's going to be limitations. There's going to be challenges. And what I found that has helped me really rise above and rise up has been leaning into that creativity and the power of creative effectiveness. And really trying to have that be something I share with my team.
I am always like, "Well, let's think a little differently. Let's get into debate mode. Let's not put ourselves in a box, but let's imagine there is no box, and how would we approach this? How would we think about this?" And just really pushing myself and those around me to think differently.
GS: Okay, so you go into Autodesk, what I would consider to be a very highly technical traditional Silicon Valley—I'll say it again—tech company. So I think that's who they are. Very interesting, cool stuff. They serve a number of really creative industries, so they border on that, but it's always felt very traditional. So did you have a conversation with the CEO and/or the board before you went in there and say, "Listen, this is how I'm going to play the game in creative"? Or did you just come in and say, "Well, this is my job, this is how we're going to do it"? How'd you get the company to adopt that, or did you need to sell it in advance?
DT: Here's the thing: before I got the job, I had written my 100-day plan, and I sent it in before I even got an offer. And that was important to me, yes, because I wanted to make sure what I am about, what my plans were, what my initial thought... Of course, with a lot of caveats, because even as much research as you've done, as much as you've talked to people, there's a lot you don't know. And so it was caveated with, "There's a lot I don't know, but based on what I know, here's my 100-day plan." And sent that in.
And my purpose for doing that was to make sure there was an alignment between what I believed the job to be done is and my approach and what they were looking for. And fortunately, there was that alignment. And I've been privileged to have a lot of great jobs and work for some really phenomenal people. But our leadership team here—our CEO Andrew Anagnost, our COO Steve Blum—these are some of the most incredible human beings.
And so there was an alignment from day one, it wasn't like I came in and it was an uphill battle. Of course there are challenges and there are lots of battles, but that wasn't it. It was like any job, you don't have a job at this level that doesn't have something that you're navigating, whether it's navigating economic uncertainty, whether it's navigating... You're always going to be navigating something at this level, but that alignment is there and has been there from day one. So it's made it a lot easier, because I'm fighting the right battles. I'm fighting the battles of how do we achieve the growth that we're trying to achieve? How do we elevate our brand? How do we deliver on the outcomes for our customers? I'm fighting the right battles, not the battles of how do I get my CEO to understand what the job to be done is?
GS: Not the internal discussion, "Here's the playbook on how we're going to do this." You got that aligned from the very beginning. That's so important, Dara. It's funny, I've often repeated this story. The most interesting meeting I think I've had in running the MMA was a group of CMOs, and I'll even name names, the CMO of GM. It was before Deborah, but CMO of GM was there, Dunkin', T-Mobile, Allstate, Chobani, a bunch of big-time CMOs. And I'll never forget, we had a throwaway question to begin this little private session we were doing. It was what's the role of CMO? What's the role of marketing?
Dara, one hour later, we never got to a second question because we realized nobody in the room agreed what the role of CMO and marketing was. It was all different. And I remember at the time going, "How do we ever expect CEOs, CFOs, or boards to work with us if we've not agreed on what's our go-to-market strategy for marketing?" And so yes, so you took the time to make sure, "Are we aligned?" I'm assuming the 100-day plan said we're going to be creatively driven, I assume.
GS: How did you express that in a 100-day plan, do you remember?
DT: I really laid out here's my vision. Here is how I believe the ways and the approach I'm going to accomplish this vision. Here's how I'm going to spend the 100 days to get myself set up for success. And so that was kind of baked into it. So there was that understanding. And that's why within 30 days of being on the job, I was able to launch a first campaign, which was really a test. Because here's the thing, you've got what your instincts are telling you, what your intuition is telling you, but you've got to test it because you're going to validate or invalidate it. And the reality was there's even one year in, and there's still a lot I'm learning. And so it was important to test it early, so that I can know whether or not... because if this isn't the path, then I've got to come up with another plan.
I've got to pivot. Fortunately, the homework and the research I'd done in advance, and my experience was such that the plan has been the right plan. And so we've been able to develop it with my amazing... I have such an amazing team. The people I work with are just some of the most brilliant, intelligent people. And so being able to work to hone it in and make it better, but I came in with a vision and I think that's really important. Of course the vision got fine-tuned, but having a vision is so key because without a vision your team isn't sure what you're doing or where you're going or what to do.
GS: Does marketing have a mission there?
DT: Oh, yes, we've got a mission.
GS: Can you repeat it? I don't know if it's public. Can you say it?
DT: I don't know if I'm allowed to say our mission. I don't know. We have a mission. It's exciting. It's a little too exciting, that's why I'm like...
GS: It's a little too exciting. No, wait, that requires explanation. What do you mean it's a little too exciting?
DT: No, no, no, no, of course, we've got a mission. We've got a bold mission. Everyone in our organization knows it's something I've repeated again and again and again. And repeat every time, because one of the things I realized as a leader just when you get to the point when you get sick of saying something, that's when it starts to really seep in. It's really at the point where you're sick of it is when it starts to really seep in.
GS: I find the most valuable exercise I do sometimes is I ask people some period of time later—24 hours, a week, a month, I don't care what it is—"Tell me what we agreed to before." I want to know either the game of telephone that's gone on in the company or within your own head to make sure that we're still aligned. Because if we don't start from the right basis we're not going to get there.
And so did the company buy in to do a bunch of creative ads? What would push an Autodesk to think that that's what they wanted to do? Can you talk to that?
DT: Absolutely, and I think the key is what are we trying to accomplish as a business? What are we trying to do for our customers, and how does this play into it? So we have been out there and talking about where we are going as a company, and growth is really important to us. And so we want to attract new audiences. Well, you're not going to attract new audiences by doing things the way you've always done them. We are over 41 years old, and we're still an innovative, really smart, wonderful company that's focused on solving our customers' problems. And we have to be able to reach our customers where they are. So everything that we've done has been authentic. For example, the very first ad that we did, which was launched in the finale of The Walking Dead, our software had been used to bring that series to life for all those seasons. So it was authentic to us to participate in the ads, in the finale, because we had been used to create the series. So it wasn't like, "Oh, why are you here? What are you doing?" It was authentic to us.