What Netflix's CMO is doing to be a more authentic leader

Diversity champion and iconic marketing leader Bozoma Saint John shares her leadership experiences and stresses need for diversity, empathy and human connection in brand engagement

Being an authentic leader is not just an individual choice, it’s a revolution every leader and society itself must undergo, says Netflix’s CMO, Bozoma Saint John.

Speaking in a one-on-one with Sitecore global CMO, Paige O’Neill, during this week’s Sitecore Symposium 2021, the iconic marketing chief and champion for diversity shared her own experiences striving to be an authentic leader, as well as the growing importance of empathy and human connection in brand-to-consumer engagement.

“It’s so hard. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy,” Saint John said of her efforts to be an authentic leader, adding it was a “necessity” for someone who didn’t fit the typical leadership mould or make-up.

“For anyone who thinks showing up as your authentic self is easier than putting on a mask, beware. You have to make this choice every day, and in every meeting. You have to choose not to pretend, or to say the things you think everyone else will agree with, but to instead show up with a unique thought.”

The starting place is the value you place on your unique contribution, Saint John said. “If I see that value, then I need to bring that to the table as no one else in the room will have that,” she said.  

“Even today with the success, title and accolades, it’s still a choice. Plenty of people don’t think I should act the why I do. Lots of people have opinions on that.”

Yet it’s the responsibility of all those entering the hallways of leadership – regardless of privilege, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity or socio-economic stature – to show up and diversify the space, Saint John said.  

“It’s not something to be left to a policy. How do you show up and how do you allow others to show up? Are we perpetuating the stereotypes that have been put upon us?” she asked.  

“It’s not just a revolution of self, but a revolution of society and how we are all doing this. You are not excused. You have to allow for other people who perhaps don’t fit the mould to show up. As a leader, that’s probably the biggest contribution you can make.”  

Saint John has personally been working to bring diversity to the tech industry, joining the board of Girls who Code. The organisation is striving to close the gender gap in the technology industry.

“I don’t know how to code. It doesn’t mean I can’t use my seat and voice to open the door for someone else who can, and for a young woman to make it into this space,” Saint John commented. “It’s an exercise in using the experience I have and voice I carry to open the doors.”

Marketing moments

Saint John also shared her experiences of marketing during the Covid-19 pandemic and how she’s worked to be ready in the moment to heighten experiences for customers. As she put it, Covid-19 has been as case study of how all marketers try to figure out how to be relevant in the moment.

“The idea of what experience you want to deliver becomes even more important,” she agreed. “It takes on more value and purpose. All of us have to consider what it is we’re providing, and how are we serving communities and audiences in a way that makes them better.”

In Netflix’s case, that’s not necessarily about watching content and coming out with some special skill, Saint John said.

“But I do take responsibility for escapism, joy, distraction, insight and empathy as a way to contribute to society right now,” she continued. “What I’m trying to do as a marketer is connect the stories being told on Netflix to you as a human being and your experience.”  

Saint John pointed out that in 2020, more people than ever watched shows on Netflix that were not in their native tongue or from their native country.

“When we stopped being able to travel, more people took digital flight and virtual experiences in new way,” she said. “My hope is coming out of this is perhaps we have learned something about not just helping our neighbours, but understanding cultures far away from us, and how we create more empathy as human beings.” 

Saint John also agreed with Paige that empathy has taken on a bigger meaning in every industry as a result of the pandemic.

“There’s nothing wrong with profit or the way we run businesses, don’t have to be a charity or attach something like that to their business,” she said. “But there are real opportunities to think differently about how we approach the work we do and how we serve people.”  

With purpose increasingly becoming important, especially with younger demographics, Saint John also advocated authenticity in brand connection.

“Understanding your purpose allows me to be more involved and more loyal to how you operate,” she said. “We can be authentic to the company and value propositions we are delivering, and that way our customer base becomes even more loyal based on value systems that are authentic to us.”  

Using culture to connect with people and to better understand where they’re coming from is clearly one of Saint John’s leadership musts. She also advised CMOs and business leaders to make space for other people to show up authentically in their work.

“It’s these nuanced experiences that make our work that much better,” she said. “I hope as a leader I’m making people to allow people to show up and let them do their best work.”

Finally, Saint John stressed the importance of being a sense of humanity to our efforts to personalise communications, marketing and engagement.

“We talk so much about algorithms and way we serve up choices to people based on preferences. That’s fantastic, beautiful and works really well. But let’s put some more humanity into that personalisation,” she said.  

“We sometimes think so much about tech that we forget about the human part of personalisation. Communication from me to you is equally important. It’s so important for us to put ourselves into the work as a result. Don’t discount individual, personal experiences.”  

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