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Q&A: Career advice from Optimizely’s CMO

Kirsten Allegri Williams tells SmartBrief that the role of chief marketing officers is growing and offers advice for aspiring CMOs.

6 min read

Marketing Strategy

An empty conference room.

Tatiana Balletti / Unsplash

Today’s chief marketing officers wear more hats than ever, and it’s crucial that companies give CMOs strategic input on many aspects of the business – from technology to finance. Yet marketing is often the first budget to go when companies are downsizing, which suggests that many companies still don’t see the importance of the CMO role to the bottom line.

Kirsten Allegri Williams, CMO at Optimizely, knows a thing or two about everything marketing chiefs must juggle these days. She leads global marketing and communication strategy for Optimizely, a digital experience platform provider. She built her marketing career at SAP, starting off as a senior manager of corporate communications and working her way up to CMO of SAP SuccessFactors over a 15-year tenure.

SmartBrief asked Williams to share her thoughts on how the chief marketer’s role has evolved in that time, as well as how aspiring CMOs can best prepare for that role.

Why is it so important for CMOs to partner with their C-suite counterparts?

Kirsten Allegri Williams
Allegri Williams

In today’s digital age, the chief marketing officer must be closely aligned with chief technology and information officers, as digital transformation efforts and marketing efforts complement each other. But the most successful strategy for the CMO is to emphasize their fundamental role in business operations, whether that crosses into the territory of the chief technology officer, chief information officer or the chief finance officer function. 

Being a strategic partner to the business and understanding the important role marketing plays in driving revenue and the sales pipeline, for example, will set those in the CMO role up for success when it comes to making key business decisions and leading the way in a company’s digital transformation journey. 

Forging a strong collaboration with the CFO, CIO as well as sales, product and customer success are paramount to devise cross-functional initiatives that can scale. 

The CMO’s goals are closely aligned with those of the CFO or chief revenue officer, after all, in creating excellent digital experiences that increase the bottom line. By creating this cooperation and cross-functional collaboration, an organization can achieve a level of success never seen before.

How have marketing jobs evolved during your career?

Marketing has always entailed creating demand for a product and communicating a product or service’s value proposition. Storytelling was core to marketing efforts then and remains essential in marketing efforts now. 

The difference is that with an abundance of channels brought about from social media and the internet, we can communicate with the individual, rather than the entire cohort of a targeted demographic. 

Modern marketers know that purchasing behavior goes far beyond location, age and gender. While this allows marketers to create exceptional experiences throughout the buyer’s journey, whether it is sending a hyper-personalized email in a B2B setting, delivering highly relevant content, optimizing a website’s shopping cart or gamifying mobile apps (like the Starbucks app, which entices customers to get a coffee depending on their typical buying patterns), the potential to reach the individual is numerous. 

With these advances, marketers are often tasked with maintaining entire digital ecosystems and driving these experiences. The CMO is driving demand on behalf of the individual, which requires technical knowledge and savviness. 

What kind of technical knowledge do marketers need?

Marketers must be well-versed in technology to maximize digital tools, and to understand broader societal issues that might be at play with new tech adoption and the emergence of new marketing channels. 

Understanding applications in your martech stack allows for greater experimentation and digital flexibility. With marketing capabilities accelerating constantly, marketers must have a firm grasp on how to experiment with one’s digital experience, whether that means trying a new personalization tactic or revamping a website’s mobile check-out experience. 

Further, as organizations in all verticals rely on algorithms and automation to personalize product recommendations and create efficiency among long-standing processes, it’s critical for marketers to understand the implications of such tools. 

For example, TikTok is known as one of the most personalized apps with the ability to seemingly “listen in” on consumers. TikTok users love being recommended relevant videos, as apparent from the app dominating charts in 2021. 

Still, using TikTok as a marketer might require critical thinking. You must have a solid sense of how and why TikTok is recommending videos to maximize marketing spend, and consider the need to be transparent with a consumer on why an algorithm is suggesting certain content. 

What career advice would you give aspiring CMOs?

The advice I typically give to aspiring CMOs is this: Always put yourself in the shoes of both the developer and the end consumer. When your product is up to par, it’s far easier to enact effective marketing plans. 

When you’re analyzing customer data, think of the end customer and make decisions based on that data every step of the way, and it will be clear how to create content or experiences that resonate with consumers. 

I recommend getting your hands on every facet of marketing possible, working on understanding business objectives, and following market trends closely. Marketing has changed immensely over the last two decades and the key for young marketers will be to stay flexible as we see even more marketing channels emerge. 

Why are marketing budgets often the first to be slashed?

Cutting marketing budgets has historically been the knee-jerk reaction from companies in times of trouble. This is undeniably a mistake, as marketing isn’t a nice-to-have function in today’s digital economy — it’s driving digital experiences consumers want to see and meeting their high expectations. 

On the most basic level, a website, its content and SEO capabilities are marketing, but it has become the most critical business application a company can run. Without these elements, a company would have its sales pipeline slashed significantly. 

We may see a change in how leadership views its marketing staff and the capabilities they enable as CMOs take on more roles and responsibilities, and as marketing becomes more engaged with other functions in driving revenue and impacting the bottom line. 

This interview was edited and condensed. For more insights from marketing leaders, subscribe to our free newsletter.