CFO World

From CMO to CEO: Anametrix’s Pelin Thorogood

The number of marketers who have made it to CEO is still in the low percentages, but with the right mix of data-driven marketing and customer focus any CMO can reach the top job

The average tenure of a CMO has risen dramatically in recent years, leaping from just 23 months in 2006 to 43 months in 2011, according to Spencer Stuart’s 2011 CMO report. Although CMOs still don’t last as long in their positions as their C-level counterparts, the increase is seen by many to signify a CMO’s legitimacy to ultimately taking the top job: CEO.

Yet examples of CMOs who’ve made the transition are still in the low percentages. The stumbling block is being able to understand and translate marketing’s value into a language the rest of the board appreciates. According to a Forbes survey of CEOs undertaken in mid-2011, 73 per cent of business leaders still think marketers lack business credibility and are not the business growth generators they should be because they fail to provide sufficient proof of the brand’s values through key metrics like sales, revenue, EBIT or market valuation.

Marketing metrics and proving economic impact is no such problem for Anametrix’s one-time CMO and new CEO Pelin Thorogood, who was promoted to the top job in January. The digital analytics company was founded three years ago to provide marketers with a way of gauging return on marketing investment – something Thorogood herself is an expert in.

“I’m a believer that a data-driven marketer can become a really good CEO – perhaps even the best CEO of most companies, not just companies like ours,” she told CMO.

A love of analytics

Thorogood’s love of analytics goes back to her university days, where she secured a master’s degree in engineering in operations research. She likened it to a cross between “advanced mathematics and computer science”.

“We were more focused on the manufacturing sector, as that was the key area then, but analytics is applicable in any industry,” she claimed. “It’s about understanding data and being able to use modelling to make sense of it.”

Thorogood followed up with an MBA in entrepreneurship. “I wanted to get all the skills I needed to build a business – everything from having a basic understanding of accounting and finance, to being able to relate to that side of the business.”

After switching from engineering to product management, Thorogood stepped into product marketing, a move she puts down to her desire to better understand customers. “Technology in itself is interesting but what engineers do is solve problems,” she explained. “I moved into product management then marketing because I wanted to understand the purpose of the product and those specific problems we were solving.

“I realised I really enjoyed the conversations with customers and diving deeper into understanding the audience.”

The one thing that held Thorogood back from taking a pure marketing role was the lack of data analytics employed. What eventually changed her mind was the opportunity to run the marketing department at start-up company WebSideStory. She joined in 2004 when the company went public and said in many ways it was her dream job. WebSideStory was acquired by Omniture in 2008 for US$394m, which was in turn bought by Adobe Systems in 2009 for US$1.8bn.

WebSideStory allowed Thorogood to implement data-driven marketing best practices that showed the CEO how many dollars were being spent in which channel, how many leads were generated, what the cost of the lead was and how much revenue those generated.

“We were focused on marketing analytics products to make marketers more data-driven, and enable them to analyse the emerging world of online to see how they could more effectively engage the buyers,” Thorogood recalled.

“It was a beautiful world of leveraging creativity then testing that creativity to see if it worked. My motto became ‘creativity without conversion equals zero’. You’ve got to be creative, but if that creativity didn’t drive revenue or convert people, then it didn’t fulfil its job. Of course you can’t just be data-driven without creativity either, because that’s where everything starts.”

WebSideStory’s founder and first CEO, Blaise Barrelet, is also the co-founder and first CEO of Anametrix, and recruited Thorogood to the team initially as CMO last year. She attributes her promotion to CEO to recognition of marketing’s position in the company’s DNA.

However, Thorogood is adamant any CMO can be a successful CEO, whatever the sector. “Somebody who truly understands the end user, and has empathy for their needs, will make a more effective CEO and the company a more client-focused, agile one,” she said.

“As a business, your raison d’etre is to service your clients and if you understand their pain and have empathy for them, you’re going to be a more successful company. A marketer in many ways understands the journey from prospect to customer and the transition those customers go through, because we’re all about understanding our audience and the different segments involved.

“In my case, the fact that our target buyer is a marketer makes me an even better suited person; in many ways, we are targeting me.”

How to be a CEO

The key to being a CEO, whether you’re working for a private or public company, is recognising you are accountable to the shareholders, and that you have to make a company successful.

“You need to know what you’ve done, how that translates into revenue, profitability, market share and a lot of metrics that indicate success,” Thorogood said. “Unless you are actually thinking in those terms to begin with, in whatever job you’ve had, it’s difficult.

“I see a lot of CFOs become CEOs because they understand metrics. Unfortunately, many of them don’t understand the business. They know the numbers and that’s why they can switch from an automotive company to a retailer and then a food chain, and do a good job in all because it’s about accounting. They understand accountability and metrics and can easily transition into the role of being the person being accountable to shareholders.

“A good CEO needs to also understand their buyers as well as be accountable to the shareholders they are servicing. You need to work with two masters – the people who make you successful [buyers], and the people who helped you get there to begin with [shareholders/investors]. Successful CEOs can service both masters because they understand them and balance their accountability to both.”

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Among Thorogood’s first tasks has been presenting her 2013 company budget and hiring plan at her inaugural board meeting as CEO in February. “I made quite a few changes to the one I’d inherited, then I presented that to the board and shareholders and got that approved, and am now moving on it,” she said. “Smaller businesses move fast.”

One of the first lessons she’s learned since becoming CEO is around budgeting. Although well-versed in finance and experienced in managing the marketing team’s P&L, Thorogood said diving into the entire company budget was both enlightening and challenging.

“I now have so much more empathy for the people who said ‘no’ to me when I asked for things as the CMO, because I realise how many things we’re balancing as a company,” she said. “I should have known that before, but you selfishly look at your own piece. As I CMO, I’d say ‘I need to spend more money to generate revenue and I don’t know why you’re not giving it to me’. But now I understand the delicate nature of business and how many things we have to really balance. It’s about balancing our cash coming in and out, and revenue coming in and out, which are obviously very different things, and being able to figure out the timing of everything based on those financial metrics.

“It was one of those moments where I just smiled to myself as I thought back to multiple conversations I’d had in the past and saw the other side of the story.”

Thorogood is also striving to put her own stamp on Anametrix and is working with co-founder and chief technology officer, Anders Olsson, to re-evaluate the product roadmap.

Anametrix has had a slew of product releases in recent months, announcing its campaign analytics product in October, followed by Anametrix for Microsoft Excel in January and a mobile app in late February. This allows clients to access, manipulate and interact with their data whatever mobile device.

“What I want to ensure is we are truly balancing innovation with immediate client and market needs,” Thorogood said. “The most difficult thing as CEO is walking that fine line, because it’s easy to just say ‘I’m going to be purely customer centric’ or ‘I’m going to go all for innovation’. I want to make sure we are innovative enough but at the same time serving the needs of clients that don’t require innovation as such, but an adjustment in our product set to make them happy. That’s important.”

Making sense of data

Given how critical data-driven analytics has been to Thorogood throughout her journey to CEO, she has clear ideas on how the technology platforms should evolve to service the modern marketer. The next big advancement needs to shift the focus from recording and dashboard technologies, into interpretation, she said.

“A lot of analytics providers talk about analytics, but they’re just reporting tools, whereas analytics is about analysing and diving into data to show what it means,” she claimed. “We want to dive right into that world of analytics and particularly predictive analytics. With the amount of data coming in from so many different sources, we’re in a great place to understand what the future holds for various market segments and product segments. We want to give that power to marketers to do their own ‘what if’ analysis of data so they can make their own decision.”

As Thorogood puts it, the biggest opportunity is moving marketing truly into the forefront of being an accountable, predictable revenue driver for the business. “There is a lot of power there, we just have to harness the information we have about our customers, and be able to be more relevant to them so we can do more right-time marketing through the right channel,” she said.

“That can be done if we can make sense of the breadcrumbs consumers are leaving behind.”

CMOs who can embrace this data trend and find a strategic way to straddle marketing and their company’s objectives will truly become the best CEOs, she said.

“We need to make marketing not just a revenue driver in the sense of top-line revenue, but also understanding margins and therefore driving profitability as well,” she said. “The difficulty is using both your left and right brain together and bringing accountability and predictability into a department that wasn’t known for either in the past. But by joining that creativity and analytical ability, marketing has a much bigger potential impact on top and bottom line than any other department.”

And no doubt, so do the CMOs who are driving it.

10 ways to prepare for a CEO role
  • Take on a general management role in an emerging market
  • Broaden your skill set at every opportunity
  • Gain experience in at least one non-marketing role
  • Get involved in as many mission-critical, non-marketing projects as you can
  • Demonstrate your credibility and track record as a commercial leader
  • Develop close working relationships with other functions
  • Work with the CFO to value the company’s brand assets
  • Hone your communication skills
  • Learn to make the tough decisions
  • Find a mentor who is a CEO or in a general management position.
- From Spencer Stuart’s From CMO to CEO: the route to the top

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