Being the first CMO: DesignCrowd’s Dan Ferguson on why marketers need to ‘call bullshit’

In our new series of profiles, we look at the first Australian CMOs to be appointed to their organisations and what skills these marketers need to be successful

DesignCrowd CMO, Dan Ferguson
DesignCrowd CMO, Dan Ferguson

An increasing number of organisations, both new and well-established, are opting to appoint their first chief marketing officer.

There’s a good reason for this: Companies are moving towards a customer-first mentality as they seek to find competitive advantage and retain relevancy. And the individual best placed to help them is the one with the closest ties to customers and the market – the marketing leader.

In this new series of profiles on CMO, we speak to the first dedicated marketing chiefs appointed at their respective Australian organisations to find out what it takes to be the maiden CMO, their views on modern marketing, and who their allies in executive leadership are.

Our first candidate is Dan Ferguson, CMO of DesignCrowd, an online marketplace that is disrupting the creative industry by crowdsourcing design work. Established in 2008, the Australian-based business has more than 100,000 designers and has overseen more than $18 million in design projects and contests.

Being able to call bullshit

It is a truth universally acknowledged that marketing today is a complicated game not only requiring brand and creative smarts, but also cross-channel knowledge, data and technology skills, business and executive nous, and staff management prowess.

In light of these factors, Dan Ferguson believes it’s important all CMOs have “the ability and confidence to call bullshit”. He uses purchasing and interacting with online channels and ecommerce as areas he needs to constantly evaluate, as well as challenge thinking around.

“Today, there are so many beliefs around what you can and can’t do with ecommerce and online, that as CMOs we need to know when to say bullshit, there is more opportunity there, even if something has or hasn’t been done before,” he tells CMO.

“Often, team members might question such a call, but you need to know you can make things work harder. This is particularly important in a rapidly expanding company like ours.

“I’m looking at the channels we’ve tried in the past and whether they have or haven’t worked well, as well as what is needed to accelerate growth. I’m also trying new approaches to have another go.”

Ferguson has a strong history in online-based businesses, and prior to joining DesignCrowd last October was the Australia, New Zealand and Singapore director for global online print-on-demand company, Vistaprint. He previously headed up ecommerce for General Pants Group, as well as Myer and Officeworks, and was a marketing manager at Dell.

At DesignCrowd, Ferguson reports directly to the CEO and sits on an executive team alongside a chief operating officer and chief technology officer. He has a marketing team of five, and recently appointed the company’s first US-based marketing manager.

Ferguson cites two reasons for wanting to be the inaugural CMO. The first is its products and services, which he claims “make customers happy on a really fundamental level” by transforming how to source design ideas.

“The second reason was as a CMO, I had a real chance to make my mark on the business, and make changes the company might not have considered before. I wanted to be part of that,” he says.

Taking up the reins

Ferguson attributes DesignCrowd’s decision to bring on a CMO to business growth.

“Often, a CMO is appointed when the founder loosens their iron grip on sales and marketing – these are the areas in a startup where they often have had to be successful in order to grow the business,” he comments. “This was the case with our founder. Having a dedicated marketing chief lets that founder focus on other strategic areas and directions of the business because there are other roles he can play for us.”

Often, a CMO is appointed when the founder loosens their iron grip on sales and marketing – these are the areas in a startup where they often have had to be successful in order to grow the business

Another reason to recruit a CMO is the experience needed to manage a marketing strategy and team facing a diversity of media channels and ever-higher consumer expectations for dynamic and real-time interaction, Ferguson says.

“As a competent CMO, you can’t just ask the agency to drive more sales, or question why they didn’t hit targets, or simply invest in more advertising: You need to have specialist, in-depth knowledge of the channels you’re working across and be able to drive innovation both in well as across those channels,” he claims.

“You could be working with up to 15 channels at any point in time, each with its own nuances. The key is to be able to tell operators about those, and understand and operate in each successfully.”

Ferguson also sees a correlation between the CMO role becoming more important and marketing itself becoming more accessible.

“What’s interesting about the current marketing environment is the question of visibility. It used to be that visibility was proportionate to budget and size. The larger the company, the more you could access larger marketing budgets and make yourself visible to the market,” he comments.

“The change in media mix and skew towards online, as well as the general fragmentation and tools available to us, means this isn’t true anymore. Smaller companies today have a massive ability to reach their target market. We’re not trying to be visible to everyone who might buy our products and services, but we can be very visible to a specific group of people.

“Associated with that visibility are marketing collateral requirements, brand establishment and reputation, understanding meaningful use of customer sentiment, media market commentary and so on.”

Challenges and priorities

Ferguson groups his priorities at DesignCrowd into three areas: Go-to-market channels, the team, and the offer.

On the channel front, he’s aiming for growth by expanding existing routes to market and identifying where the company should investing in its presence. With regards to offer, Ferguson stresses the important role CMOs have in helping shape an organisation’s values, as well as presenting those values to the market to accelerate sales, customer value and grow the customer base.

“It’s also about making our product even more compelling… so marketing is then more effective by channel,” he adds.

For any CMO at a startup, it’s vital to be hands on, Ferguson continues.

“In a more mature company, I’m not sure having a solid understanding of search marketing would be looked upon as a definite value for a CMO. That could paint someone in a larger business in too tactical a light,” he says. “In a fast-growing business and startup environment, having a hands-on attitude is a definite asset.”

The speed and swiftness of how teams come together to solve problems is another difference between working in an established companies and a startup. “At DesignCrowd, we will work for long periods of time until we conquer the challenge or make a strong effort to turn around whatever is holding us up,” Ferguson says.

“In larger companies, you’ll often wait to get looked after. In companies like ours, there’s less acceptance of waiting; and more on how you can act on right now.”

While time management is arguably a huge issue in a startup, Ferguson adds two other challenges he faces as the first CMO.

“On the lighter side, I hold different views opinions to the previous marketing head which just happens to have been our founder,” he says. “Seriously, I’m quite luck as generally we’re on a similar page, but from time to time we have to agree to disagree.”

The second challenge, and one he acknowledges will be a headache for most CMOs, is people. Not only does a first-time CMO need to earn respect organically, Ferguson faces the uphill battle of finding the right staff to match the organisation’s rapid growth trajectory.

This ties into the shared role CMOs have in helping define a company’s culture. Ferguson agrees retaining an entrepreneurial approach becomes more challenging as it matures and brings on more staff.

“Right now there are such values here in this company that require further definition; once they are fully defined, they will serve to remind us as we grow and hire, what’s important to us,” he says. “If you’re realistic about those principles, they will hopefully stay with you.”

Technology and cultural alignment

The role of CMO isn’t just about marketing either. There’s working with data and technology platforms, as well as collaborating with the IT team. Ferguson points out DesignCrowd’s CTO is an ally in finding new ways of engaging with customers.

“We need to be able to brainstorm ideas, but then to identify what are the benefits of data in these larger programs of expansion, and improvements across the website and platforms that will do what we want to do,” he says.

“As marketers, we have the ability to shift spend and activity with much more agility than before. It also means the technology department becomes marketers as well; a good tech person has a significant component of their time on customer insights and functionality.”

In order to have these conversations, CMOs need to talk technology. “We need to know the difference between a short and long implementation, know about agile methodology when it comes to project collaboration and team work, and who can accept cuts where they need to be made.”

Overall, Ferguson welcomes his position at the executive table and the collaboration with his leadership peers.

“I take pleasure in taking a wide counsel from the team and being able to give this as well. When you have trust around the table, you can do that,” he adds.

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