Marketing and business are constantly evolving, so how are you planning on doing the same as a CMO?

According to Jason McClelland, CMO of Shutterstock, it's not just about sitting passively and waiting for change to come, you have to be proactive: be the catalyst for the change that needs to happen.

Jason shared his perspectives on what those changes might be, and how you can go about driving them in an episode of CMO Convo, but now you can read what we discussed below.

Ready to find out what the future might hold for CMOs? Read on...

We cover:

Prefer to listen? Check out Jason's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Jason’s background and marketing philosophy

Hi, Jason. Welcome to CMO Convo. Before we get down to talking about the importance of looking to the future as a CMO, maybe you could give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do at Shutterstock?

Sure. I’m Jason McClelland, CMO of Shutterstock. I've now been here for four months. Before that, I worked at a couple of startups; I also spent a lot of time over at Salesforce, and before that, I spent a really long time over at Adobe.

I was fortunate enough to go through a couple of pretty big industry transformations with Adobe. I was there when we created the first Marketing Cloud and when we moved into enterprise business. I also helped with the Creative Cloud SaaS transformation, when the 30-year-old modernized and became a SaaS company.

I’ve had a lot of great learnings, and I’m always happy to share stories and learnings in the spirit of helping people.

It sounds like you have your finger on the pulse in terms of technological advancements and how businesses need to evolve to keep pace. Is that something that you've done naturally throughout your career as a marketing leader, or something you’ve had to learn?

I would say so. I have a pretty unique background, I think, for a CMO. I started my career as a software developer, writing code and web applications. I fell into a startup company forever ago – that was one of the first enterprise content management system companies. That started my love affair with having robots learn more about our customers and drive more of the customer journey. By nature, that just made me a little bit more future-facing.

Then I went over to product and worked on what became a lot of Adobe's Marketing Cloud. I switched to the dark side of sales and marketing maybe 10 years ago, but because of my background, I've always leaned heavily into product-led growth, growth teams, and having the digital experience drive the customer lifecycle.

Having that experience and speaking their language must make you an absolute favorite with your dev teams and product teams.

It definitely helps. It's also made me fairly pragmatic. I like to create a vision for where we want to go, then break it up into two-week sprints. I’m big on smart trade-offs too. If someone can deliver 80% of what I asked for at 50% of the effort, that’s great.

Engineers and product people like thinking that way, but for a lot of marketers, it's a new thought. Things are changing, though – marketing is starting to move in sprints and use more agile methodology, but a lot of marketers are purists, right? We come from creative backgrounds. We have strong visions of what something should look and feel like, and we want to maintain that, but we need to make sure we're not just stuck in process for process’ sake.

It’s best to break up those big projects, be pragmatic, deliver quick wins, and be transparent about what you're working on, and why. We can’t be beholden to some sort of pure view of where we want to go. Or if we do hold on to that view, maybe we should think about it like, “I’ll be there in a year or two,” as opposed to, “I want to strive for perfection now.”

One eye on the present and one eye on the future

Just to play devil's advocate, from previous conversations with many CMOs, it sounds like they don't have much opportunity to plan for the future. They're very much focused on the immediate needs of a company. They’re constantly responding to demand gen if they’re in a startup or trying to weather the recent storms if they're in a more established company.

At the end of the day, though, you need to keep an eye on the future to be able to evolve as a CMO. Otherwise, you put your career at risk.

Yeah. When you're at that level, you have to do both. You don’t have the luxury of choosing between focusing on the long-term or the short-term. Apologies for the analogy, but it's like being a general in a war. You have triage and you have things flying at you all the time. You can't be on the front line, saying, “I'm gonna go take this mountain,” without looking at the wider context.

As a CMO, like in many other jobs, you have a lot of hard problems. Some of them are today problems, and some of them are tomorrow problems. Your tomorrow problems quite often take six months to two years to solve, so you have to think about them now, or else you're gonna get hit upside the head.

As an example, in some of the companies I've been at, you come in and say, “I need to start building an account-based marketing (ABM) machine,” and the head of sales says, “No, we're good. I don't need that.” Six months later, sales is struggling to hit a number, and they're like, “Marketing sucks!”

You needed to have been laying the groundwork, knowing that that day was gonna come. Because it's gonna come. There's no company that's like, “You know what? We have forever enough pipe, forever enough revenue. Marketing, just go make pretty billboards.” It's not a thing.

Those problems will eventually come to you, and they require a year or two of work. You need to start working on them and thinking about them now, even though you're not going to see any payoff for a while and you don't see an urgent need. By the time the urgent need comes up, it's too late.

That's where I think a lot of CMOs get knocked off kilter. Depending on who you listen to, the average tenure of a CMO now is either 18 months or 14 months. One of the reasons it’s so short is that CMOs come in and focus all their energies on putting out fires. You need to put out those fires, of course, but if you don't solve the longer-term things at the same time, eventually they’ll come and hit you upside the head.

I tend to think about it in terms of math problems. What percentage of my time and what percentage of our investment are we putting into future things versus today things? What's the ROI? And then I try to hold myself to that framework. If you don't containerize things like that, it's really easy to pour everything into the fire drill of the day, and you never work on strategic stuff.

The same goes for your team. You need to make sure that your team is okay with containerizing their work, or else nothing will be delivered because they’re just moving from fire drill to fire drill.

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Speaking the CFO’s language

It must be a challenge to communicate the need to start working on these longer-term goals now, rather than waiting until you need them. You've also got to be able to convince the C-suite to invest resources into those kinds of projects too. That's got to be a hurdle to face as a CMO, surely?

I don't think about it as a hurdle. Once again, it's a math problem to me. You've got to convince the CFO and the chief product officer of the need to build these systems.

You can do that by looking at the customer acquisition cost and lifetime value ratio you want as a company. Talk about the return on spend you want from marketing and how you’re going to get more efficient over time. Show that these are the systems we need to invest in now to be more efficient, even if you're not going to see that efficiency until two years from now.

Usually, not only are CFOs open to it, they love having that conversation. They think in terms of net present value and payback periods, and, usually, other than headcount, marketing is the biggest variable expense in the company by far. CFOs love CMOs that can say “I realize that I'm the highest variable expense in the company. Here's what I'm doing to drive efficiencies to scale so that as we grow, I go from 19% to 17% to 14% of the budget.

Usually, boards, CEOs, and CFOs love having that conversation. They’re happy that as a CMO, you're aware that you're an expense, you're aware that you're being paid for results, and you're aware that some of marketing is magic, but a lot of it's gotta be science. The more that you can be scientific and mathematical about it, the more you're speaking their language. A lot of CMOs run into issues because they don't come from that background.

If you're a brand person or a product marketing person, you have to develop that skill set, hire people with that skill set, or make partners with people in finance who have that skill set. Or else, once again, you'll probably get hit upside the head when you’re like, “Oh, I didn't realize it was so expensive or that you expected me to get more efficient. I just want to create super sexy things.” We all do, but we have to be able to justify it.

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The future of the CMO role

What do you see as being the evolution of the CMO role over the next three years? And how can CMOs keep pace with that?

The role has already changed a lot with the evolution of product-led growth, and we’re still figuring out the marketing team's role in that. Smaller companies are even questioning whether they still need marketing, or if they can drive growth purely through sales and product. Marketers need to be on top of that and make sure they’re the ones driving change. If we’re only being reactive, it's easy for our seat at the table to get smaller.

It’s also becoming way more technical. We need to understand the best software investments and database investments to make, and there have been lots of changes with Google and cookies and the ways we can target people using first-party versus third-party data.

The CMO now spends way more time with legal, finance, and technical teams than ever before. Historically, we were like oil and water, right? We were the creatives, they were the engineers, and we didn't have a lot of common DNA.

That's changing, and so if that's not in your DNA, you need to make sure you have strong lieutenants who are super geeks about all the technologies available. A lot of these technologies are really expensive and hard to implement, so you need to understand enough to be sure you’re choosing the right one.

I've come into companies that had tons of failed integrations. They had every marketing automation system available, but none of them were integrated. They were spending half a million a year on products that were almost like vaporware.

The CMO role is becoming a lot more mechanical from a financial standpoint too. We’re paying a lot more attention to ratios like CAC to LTV – customer acquisition cost to lifetime value – and percentage of marketing to ARR. We’re looking at return on investment for different channels, like what we get out of display versus SEM, or what we get out of brand marketing or organic traffic, as well as other things that are less directly measurable.

The formulas are being baked, for better or worse. You're expected to fit within these bands that are becoming industry standards, so you've got to speak finance. You've got to understand how to have that conversation.

Increasingly, boards and CFOs are like, “I got the playbook from somebody else. Marketing should be spending 6% on that, 8% on this, and 10% on that. Here's what the return should be.” You can't fight that. It's an industry machine. You've got to understand the language and be able to speak it.

The skill set of the people you're hiring is changing too because the market and marketing are changing so quickly. You need to hire builders and entrepreneurs. You need people who can embrace change and keep up to date on modern acquisition practices.

The future of martech

You touched a bit on tech. Let's dig into that. Is there any tech on the horizon that you're investigating or you've seen other people investigating? Let's talk about why CMOs should be taking a look at them now.

As I mentioned, I started my career as a developer, building content management systems for eCommerce, so I've been super enamored with tech that allows me to learn about the customer and use that to make them successful. I'm always thinking about the best next step for the customer, so if Sharae comes in, or Will comes in, or Joe comes in, or Dawn comes in, I can show them what they need to see on day zero versus day five.

A lot of the investments that I make are in that. It's like, what data warehouses do I have? What systems do I need to capture data points across product usage, web journeys, and external information, like buying intent, and org structure?

I've always invested in Clearbit, Drift, Mad Kudu, and companies like that. Right now we're investing in Demandbase for our ABM, so we can get organizational understanding and buying intent, and stitch them together to say, “Okay, five people came in from Google. At what point do I talk to them as individuals trying to do their job versus an account?”

Fortunately, martech has gotten simpler and more complex at the same time. There’s a cycle where every eight years or so something new blows up, and you end up with a million different $20,000 to $40,000 a year software solutions that are best in breed for that specific use case, then they kind of converge. They all acquire each other, and then you end up buying the big platforms.

Would HubSpot be an example of that from the previous cycle?

Yeah, HubSpot, Adobe, Salesforce – some of my alma maters. People are mostly moving away from them because once something gets big, they’re like, “Man, that's too monolithic. I can't do what I want to do. I'm gonna hire world-class marketing ops people who know how to stitch together all the best-of-breed startup products to build something cool.”

That's where the market is right now. People are buying the likes of Netlify and Headless CMS to serve one little part of a web app and make it consistent across the Apple Watch, the mobile app, and Peloton. You can't do that in some of the old legacy CMS systems, or if you can it’s incredibly hard. I love it because I can build exactly what I want, but I have to invest in world-class marketing ops people to get there.

Leading marketing teams into the future

As a CMO, you’re not just a marketing machine. You're also a leader of people. How is that role likely to change in the future? What does a CMO have to be aware of in terms of what their employees are expecting from them, and how can they keep their teams engaged?

Increasingly, people want to work for a mission, and this is solidly the role of the CMO. I can work anywhere, right? I don’t just mean me; I mean all of us. The world has changed a lot. You're not stuck in one place anymore, and we can all work remotely. Even though the economy is crashing and there are a lot of uncertainties about the future, the job market is still pretty frothy.

And so I think first and foremost, people want to work somewhere where they’re excited about the mission, they’re bought into it and they get to help shape it. And so involving all levels of your organization in a shared mission is vital. You want people to feel that it's more than just a job, that their company is gonna change the world, and that they understand how they fit in.

That last part is important. People want to be empowered. They want experiences where they can learn, they can be hands-on, they can make decisions, and it's okay to make mistakes. That’s why I'm a fan of OKRs – objectives and key results. They give everybody in the company their own business plan and make it clear who’s responsible for what and why.

The really fun part of being in marketing is that you get to be the chief storyteller, and you've got to get the company bought into that. We don't just make a bunch of stuff, and we don't just have a bunch of customers – what's the story? How do we exist? Why do we exist? What are we trying to do? Why is it important?

In most companies, you have really cool customers doing really cool things. That’s so much gold for you to weave into your story. You don’t have to be a shill! You can use the magic of the stuff your customers are doing and have that be your story.

I think that goes a long way to answering how you keep your employees engaged. They're like, “I'm not just working here for a paycheck – I see the person who's able to do their job because of what my company made, and I was able to tell the story to find other people like that.” People thrive on that and they get excited by it. They’re not just making something crappy and getting people to buy it; they’re helping somebody be successful.

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That’s an excellent note to end on, and a great way of putting things in perspective for CMOs. They have so many responsibilities and things to keep track of, but the driving force and motivation is that storytelling. It's that narrative. It's being able to create something.

Thank you very much for joining us today, Jason. This has been an absolutely fascinating conversation, and we're sure it's a topic that many people in our community are thinking about right now.

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