As a CMO you might have recently gone through some chaotic times, where you pretty much had to tear up all your plans. And with the economy for many parts of the world facing massive downturns and myriad other problems looming on the horizon, how the heck are you supposed to make plans?

Rusty Bishop, CMO of BigTinCan, knows full well that it's important to have a plan as a marketing leader, and how to make that plan applicable when there's trouble on the horizon.

Rusty joined us on an episode of CMO Convo to share his advice on how to make plans in times of chaos. It's now available in written form below, so read on for plenty of advice on being a leader through an uncertain future.

We cover:

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

Rusty’s surprising background and his role at Bigtincan

Hi, Rusty. Welcome to CMO Convo. How're you doing today?

I'm doing great. Thanks for having me.

Well, thank you for joining us, Rusty. It's an exciting conversation we're gonna be having all about the future, which is always – well, often – a fun thing to talk about. Maybe it’s not such a fun thing to talk about right now, but we'll dig into that later on.

Before we get into that, maybe you could tell us about yourself, your role, and why we're talking about this subject today.

My name is Rusty Bishop. I'm the Chief Marketing Officer at Bigtincan, and we are a public company out of Australia. I've been in this role for three years.

I came to this role in a very strange way. I have a doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. I spent about 10 years working in a university lab, got rescued from there, and came into the real world. I founded a company in 2011 and then sold that company to Bigtincan in 2018, and I've been here ever since.

I was the CEO and founder, and I became a marketer, which is a very strange pathway for a CMO, but I think having a scientific background as well as a co-founder background and now being a CMO gives me a lot of different insights.

At Bigtincan, we do sales enablement automation. For those that don't know or have been living under a rock, sales enablement is one of the hottest things out there as far as software for boosting revenue.

Let's lay the boring sales stuff to the side for now and talk a little bit about what our tool does for marketers. It gives us, for the first time, the ability to see the value of the things that our teams are creating, like all those PowerPoint decks and one-pagers that your teams are churning out for the sales folks. For the first time ever, you can see how buyers interact with those, and you can see their value tied back to revenue. That's what we do for marketing.

Do you think this outsider perspective gives you a different approach to marketing and how you think about the CMO role?

Yeah, definitely. If we just take one step back to my previous role as the founder and CEO of a company, in that role, I had to learn finance, I had to learn legal, and I had to learn lots of things that most marketers probably haven't had that much of an opportunity to learn.

The upside is it gives me insight into what my role does and how it affects the business as a whole. As the CEO, I understood HR, legal, and all that, so when the finance guys come back and say, “We need to do it this way,” it makes more sense to me. I feel like I've been very fortunate to have that CEO background coming into a CMO role.

I will say, being CMO is 10 times easier. Don't kid yourselves. I never want to be a CEO again. I love being a CMO – I think it's the most fun, interesting job that you can do in business.

Before that, I was a scientist, and that's really the thing I've applied the most to the CMO role, but I don't know if it makes me different – I think all CMOs now think in terms of metrics, and if you're not a metric-driven CMO now, it's very difficult unless you're at a really big brand and your job is to grow that brand. Although even then the metrics are still critically important.

One of the things I've always tried to do is apply my scientific background to marketing, and there are two things worth discussing there. The first one is that science is the job of proving yourself wrong. Let me say that one more time – proving yourself wrong.

That's what the job is. You assume everything you do is incorrect at all times. Even the scientists who look at the most fundamental theories assume that they're incorrect, and that's the polar opposite of the entire rest of the world.

What that forces me to do, and what I try to try to instill in my teams, is to seek good explanations for everything you do. That means constantly asking yourself, “Is my explanation correct? Am I basing this on fact, or am I basing this on a bias or faulty information?”

What I see a lot in the business world is things being predicated on false information, or information that's not quite been vetted, or information that people assume is 100% gospel truth, but was, in fact, something that somebody made up 10 years ago and put in a white paper that's since gotten widely published across the internet.

So I'm super skeptical of statistics in the business world. These things are so rampant. Every time I see something like, “57% of people have already made a buying decision,” I think there’s no way that they did that correctly.

CMOs: The future is calling
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.

Why CMOs need to keep an eye on the future

Let's talk about why it’s important for CMOs to keep an eye on the future and not just think about the here and now. Why do you have to plan ahead of time?

I don't doubt that any CMO or marketing person is thinking about the near-term future or even the long-term future. The CMO role is the one that gets cut the fastest, right? So the first thing we should all be thinking about as CMOs is which job we're going to look for in 18 months!

All flippancy aside, I think we're at a time where Moore's Law has caught up with us. We're seeing the exponential curve of computing power changing the world so fast. I never dreamed I would see a day when you could buy a car online without talking to a single person, but that day is long past.

As marketers, we need to understand which part of the Moore's Law curve we're in, and how fast change is going to come. Meta is a prime example of that. I think a lot of people laughed when Facebook changed to Meta, and they said they were gonna make this magical world that came right out of a fiction book.

The reality is that many companies today are already doing virtual reality, even old-school manufacturers. We build 3D things and VR for our customers. They're coming to us and asking for this now. If you're asking yourself, “Am I going to have to sell in a VR room in two to three years?” The answer is probably yes.

Let’s take that one step further and think about machine learning (AI is one of the topics that I'm super passionate about). I think the majority of people that I've spoken with don't understand machine learning. They just see it as like the Terminator and think it's going to end the world.

But you need to think about the future and what that means for you and your customers. How are you going to take this thing called machine learning, which can learn faster than any human could possibly dream of, and apply that to what we do as marketers? I think if you're not looking at that, you're probably going to be in trouble in two to three years.

It's also about making sure that you've still got a role in two to three years. If machine learning keeps going the way it's going, it could be making a lot of decisions that CMOs are already making.

My fear is not that the machines will take over and kick us out of our jobs because, as far as I know, there's no pathway to a machine doing conjecture, which is creating something new.

Where I think there is a danger, because it’s become so metrics-driven, is in the fact that marketing is now seen as a cost center. That's a real danger because marketing is one of the only two places in business where there’s an unlimited upside. Every dollar you put into marketing is going to generate Y dollars out of the gate and then Z dollars in long-term value in a customer.

If marketing becomes seen and accepted to be a cost center, that's when it gets really dangerous. When you start turning that over to metrics and machines and not allowing creativity, not allowing conjecture, not allowing marketers to experiment, that's when I think we’re in real trouble.

We have to see that future coming as marketers and make sure we’re educating everyone in our companies so they don't do this to us. Because that is the real danger. It's not that the machines take over; it’s that we get metricked to death.

You probably had to fight a bit to get machine learning and AI applications brought into the company, so you might have fought to get rid of your position if you're not smart about how you approach it.

Totally. I think these days most marketers are probably responsible for signing the check for at least 17 different SaaS products, and that could rise as high as 25, depending on how big your company is or what kind of business model you run.

Every one of those things is collecting data. That means you have access to that data; it also means that if you don’t understand that data and ask the right questions about it, you could absolutely have signed the check for the thing that replaces you – especially if you don't understand it and you have to go tell your board what it does.

Let’s not make it sound like we’re fear-mongering, though. At the end of the day, there are a lot of tools to help marketers and CMOs; you just have to be smart about how you approach them and how you build them into your systems and your tech stack.

There’s 100% no question about it. One of the things that we offer here at Bigtincan is machine learning which can say, “Here are 25 opportunities in your CRM that you haven't built the right content for.” That’s something we've never had before as marketers – to be able to look at deals and get recommendations for 10 types of content that can help you drive those deals faster. That’s a marketing dream.

That's a case where machine learning is going to explode marketing’s value across the enterprise because not only does it tell you what to create in ways that you've never thought of, but it also helps you attribute that back to revenue. The way to keep your seat at the table and keep your job is to keep saying, “I did that. I created this revenue,” and attach your name to the biggest revenue line every time as a marketer

That used to be difficult to do. In the past, you made commercials, you put ads in papers, and you said, “Well, the company is growing.” Now, you can use these types of tools to show how you’re impacting the company's revenue, churn, expansion, and brand. You can measure brand against revenue – we’ve never been able to do that before. Those things are super exciting if you're a marketer.

Preparing for stormy weather

There are some worrying things on the horizon at the moment. There's a lot of talk about major economic downturns across the world. How important is it for CMOs to take that into account as they plan for the future?

People may be thinking back to when the pandemic hit and a lot of companies just weren't prepared, so maybe they're thinking we should be battening down the hatches early. Is that something that you're thinking about in your role at the moment, Rusty?

100%. I'm in a Slack group with almost 1000 marketers, and that's probably 80% of the conversation right now, so it's so top of mind. The reason is, as you probably know, the marketing budget is the first thing to be cut. When we experienced the black swan of the pandemic, the first thing every marketer heard was, “Your budget just got cut by 50%. Arbitrary? Don't care. Done.”

In a recession, it’s the same thing – the first thing to go is the marketing budget. Everybody experiences that. Of course, we're getting ready for it, but now you have to figure out what we’re going to do as CMOs to continue to show value.

You also have to remind your company that they already cut your budget. It's very easy for companies to forget that, and six months later they go, “Wow, you haven't generated enough business or enough pipeline,” and you're like, “Yeah, you cut my budget.” So you have to consistently remind them that they did that.

More important is how you’re going to spring out of this and then strike back when it’s over. The best marketers I know are experimenting with different ways to do that. There are lots of companies that invested about halfway through past recessions and they came out absolutely soaring. Bain & Company put out some great articles about this recently because of the coming recession.

One of the things I'm looking at is how to keep driving marketing even if I can't add headcount. Can I do it through agencies so that I can quickly scale when I get more budget? It's very hard for me to bring on headcount and scale them up at speed, but if I've got an agency spun up at a low level, I can dump some budget there, and they can go really fast while I bring that human back on board to do it in-house.

The other thing I’m doing is relying heavily on past data, which is a little scary because the past doesn’t always predict the future. I’m going back over the last few years and looking at what worked, what had the highest impact on sales, and what I hoped would work but didn't. Then I'm focusing and doubling down on what worked with the budget that we have.

Navigating economic turmoil as a CMO
We spoke to Liz Tassey, VP of Marketing at BlueOcean.Ai, on how CMOs can navigate times of economic turmoil and uncertainty, while still doing their best for brand, customers, and team.

Fostering a culture of transparency

How much are you communicating this across the rest of the business? Is this just something you're keeping within the marketing department, or are you communicating these contingency plans with other stakeholders?

I am an open book. That's the way I operate. It's probably because of my background in science, where you have to disclose everything you possibly ever did to make this experiment work.

I'm talking to the board monthly – weekly if I have to. I'm talking to the CEO, the CRO, the president, and the VP. I’m talking to salespeople virtually every day. My team is highly informed about the situation all the way down to people that are five or six levels below me, though I hate to use that term. Internal transparency, to me, is critical.

Now, other people might not see that as a good thing. Having transparency might cause people to leave, but I don't see it that way. I try to be super positive and say, “This is the reality of the situation. Here's how we're going to come out of it, and here's how you're gonna grow your career from it.”

When it comes to transparency, how is it communicated? Is it just shared dashboards? Is it all-hands meetings? How are you keeping people up to date on this process?

All of the above. Shared dashboard? 100% we have that in Salesforce and in Tableau. We have meetings all the time. We have slide decks all the time that are continually being changed. Part of Bigtincan’s software allows you to update slide decks and those kinds of things for everyone to see.

Being crystal clear on what's happening is really, really important for us because we want to explode out of this recession. We don't want to limp out of it.

Taking care of remote teams

Economic crises don’t just affect businesses; they affect people and how they're able to live. When it comes to being transparent with employees, are you taking steps to look out for their well-being?

That's so important. At the end of the day, people are what matters. I love making money as much as everybody else. I love driving business as much as any other marketer, but people come first.

We have one-on-ones with our team, and we're making sure we communicate everything that's happening in our group meetings. We're basically having open discussions and asking, “Does anyone have questions? Does anyone want to understand why the budgets are set the way they are? Does anyone want to understand how we're going to grow out of this? Does anyone want to understand how this affects your career?”

One of the things that I've always preached – that's a horrible word, but it's the way I feel about it – to anyone that's worked with me or that I've coached is that the job you're in right now is a stepping stone to your future job. I try to help everyone understand that that's true. I don't suffer any illusions that you're always going to work for me, and I want to help people see that.

So, taking that mindset, how do you keep them in a state of well-being? Well, I’m very fortunate in the fact that I’ve worked remotely for 15 years, and I've managed remote teams for 15 years. Working from home during the pandemic was nothing new to me, except that everyone else was freaking out. I was used to it. That's not by any design; it's pure luck.

I've always managed by a process that I call MIT – your most important thing. What that means is every day, everyone on my team is asked to block off two hours – no Slack, no phone, no email – and work on that one thing completely uninterrupted. Everyone puts their MIT in our Slack channel every morning or evening before they leave to tell everyone else this is what I'll be doing in my most important time.

After that, the rest of the day is yours. I don't care if you go to the dentist. I don't care if you take the kids to soccer practice. I don't care if you take a walk. I don't care if you work for 100 hours straight after that. What I want you to do is your MIT every day.

That means my team knows they're going to deliver their most important thing every day. It's the thing that's going to move their career forward. It’s the thing that's going to move the company forward. It also gives them the freedom to stop, breathe, meditate, take a yoga class, read up on a career move, take a class, or anything like that.

I've been managing this way for quite a while. I take no credit for it. I 100% stole it from Tim Ferriss’ Productivity Hacks for the Neurotic, but it 100% works. It's not for everyone. If you work from an office, it's hard, but if you're out of the office, I think it's really interesting.

Still, it's got to be difficult to keep track of the well-being of all your employees when they’re spread across multiple locations. They’re even spread across multiple countries and continents in a lot of businesses.

Yeah, my team is global. For me, it means I spend a lot of time in very weird hours, waking up to check on my team in England, and staying up late to check on people down in Australia. That's part of the job, right? Making sure that your people are in a good state.

I'm very fortunate to have very high-quality managers working directly beneath me and that’s one of the things we always talk about when we have our one-on-ones and management calls – is everyone doing fine?

There are so many little things you can do for employee well-being too. Here's a simple one: make sure everybody on your team has an updated computer. There's nothing more frustrating or that destroys your well-being worse than having a computer that doesn't work well, and it's really not that expensive. You may only have to upgrade two a year on your team. If you’re a giant CMO and you have 150 marketers, maybe you’ve got to upgrade 10.

It’s these little bitty things, like taking the time to Slack people and making sure they have the right equipment, that make a difference.

The true ROI of technology

The equipment that employees and workers use is important because it shows the respect you have for them and the work they're doing. If you're giving them cheap, nasty old equipment, it shows that you don't value their time or the work that they're putting into it.

“You don't value their time” – that’s a really important point. This is funny. I met with a customer the other day – and this is something I recommend everybody do right now: go meet with some real customers. Even if you're even at the CMO level, go sit with them. Just pick a random customer on LinkedIn, connect to them and say, “Hey, do you wanna grab a coffee?”

Anyway, one of the things this customer said was, “I think the ROI of software and tools is love.” I was kind of like, “What? Love? No – it's business revenue!” And he's like, “No, it's love.” He said the reason you buy these tools for your team is that you want them to have the best possible chance of succeeding, and that's what you do when you love somebody. I was like “Tom, you just blew my mind.”

If you don't look at these things as a cost center, and you look at them as a way to show your employees and even show your customers love, they take on a whole new light.

Compassionate leadership: more than beanbag chairs and beers
Amanda Reierson, Head of Marketing at Thumbtack, joins us to discuss the importance of compassionate leadership in an increasingly remote working world.

Being transparent with your customers

Speaking of customers, let's talk about being transparent with them about contingency plans and downscaling. How much do you communicate the possibilities of disruption of services to your customers when you’re planning for the future?

I’m very fortunate that I haven't had to do that, so I'm going to speak about what I might do if I had to – that's the caveat here. If it's going to affect your customers and their experience, I think it is your responsibility to tell them in a way that makes sense for your business.

If you don't do that, you won’t have a customer for life, and to me, one of the jobs of marketing is to build customers for life. The reason we think so much about brand and work so hard to create all this amazing thought leadership stuff on our websites – everything we do as marketers – is to create those customers for life.
If you look at it through that lens and you put yourself in their shoes, then I think it's your responsibility to keep them in the loop. Again, I haven't had to do that, and maybe it will change if I do, but that's my personal view. Our job is about customers for life.

Marketing’s bright future

We've been a bit doom and gloom about the upcoming economic problems. Let’s circle back to some brighter future things and end on a high note. What do CMOs have to look forward to in the future?

I think we can look forward to a bigger seat at the table. That's because, for the first time in history, we can show our value against actual deals and against long-term customer value.

Also, CMOs and marketing teams in general are the barometer. We’re the first to detect a change, so it's our obligation to our boards and to the people who have hired us to tell them what's coming.

There’s amazing technology out there. We have intent data. We have search data. We can see trends eight or nine months in advance. We can see if awareness is increasing or decreasing and we can inform our companies of that. I think that’s where the bright future for CMOs comes in.

Once that seat at the table becomes real, we do those things, and they turn out to be effective for the business, then we get more power to affect the growth of the company and do the things that we love to do. We get more budget to be creative, be experimental, and grow our brands. That's the way to do it – by taking that responsibility.

You may have still to share some doom and gloom – “Hey, I'm sorry to say this, but 80% of people are no longer searching for the thing that we think we're selling,” but at the end of the day that might help your company pivot, and I think that's where the future is super bright for us.

You want to be the barometer, not the canary in the coal mine, though. If you need to pitch doom and gloom, you've got to do it in a way that keeps marketing in the mix and keeps marketing budgets as high as you possibly can.

That’s the game, right?

It is the game. It's a game that a lot of our readers are playing at the moment, and I'm sure they've really appreciated this. Rusty, this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation.

We've covered a lot of stuff that's important to CMOs right now – upcoming tech, the economy, employee well-being, customer relations – all the big things that CMOs need to be thinking about. Thank you very much for that, Rusty, and thank you for joining us today.

Thanks for having me.

Want to pick the brains of leading CMOs on how to navigate these trying times? Don't miss the Virtual CMO Summit on November 10th. Get your ticket now.