On a recent episode of CMO Convo, we were joined by Christy Raedeke, CMO of Charguers PPC, to discuss all things risk-taking as a marketer and CMO. Christy explained her propensity for risk and how it’s paid off throughout her career, how to get internal stakeholders bought in, why risk-taking isn’t the right move for everyone or every situation, and more.

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

Christy's professional background and approach to the CMO role

To get started Christy, could you tell us a bit about your current CMO role and how you're approaching it?

Sure, I'm fairly new to this role, I started at Chargeurs in August of 2020. It's an interesting company, it's been around for 150 years, my particular division has never had a central marketing role. It's never had a CMO. And so although it's a global company with 38 offices, a lot of the marketing was handled regionally.

I was hired to streamline that process, bring together more of a marketing culture and unite all of those 38 offices behind one marketing message. So it's an interesting task. I've never been the first CMO at any company.

It sounds there'd be a lot of established practices to get people to work beyond, get them used to this new way of working with a CMO and with a centralized marketing department.

Definitely. I think it's one of those things where they're waiting to see what happens and if we can have a couple of wins, I think people will understand the power of one central message, even though every region is different, everybody knows that, and we need to speak in the voice of the region. But that message, that main core message, and brand identity need to come through in a consistent way.

You mentioned you've never been the first CMO at a company before, would you consider taking this role as a risk? Because that is what we're here to talk about today, risk-taking in the CMO role.

Oh, it's definitely a risk, probably one of the biggest career risks that I've taken because there was no blueprint. This is a substantial company, we have about 2000 employees, and like I said, 38 offices around the world.

So it's quite daunting to think about bringing a marketing culture to a company that really wasn't focused on that, especially in the apparel business, in a pandemic, that's a business that got hit pretty hard. So it's a very interesting, risky job to take. But I like risk, that keeps me going every day and so I'm always up for that.

Is risk-taking something that you really take as a philosophy when you approach marketing when you approach the CMO role? Do you think risk is something that a CMO has to take to be a good CMO?

No, I don't. I think it's very individual and it's also based on the kind of company you work for. I think there are some obviously financial services, some software, taking risks in marketing can be really dangerous, sometimes leading to things that could be even illegal.

So I don't think it's for everyone or for every industry. I've worked in industries where it's been permissible, I guess I should say, and I've always been a person who likes to take risks, not for the sake of taking risks, but because I know that it would pay off for the brand.

And just doing something creatively different, unusual, provocative, those are the things that interest me in marketing. And since I've always been in industries that allow that, for 32 years I've been doing marketing, and most of that has been in industries where we can take some creative risk.

Biggest creative risks and how to get buy-in from internal stakeholders

If you were to pick your top three best creative risks, what would they be? What would be your biggest career highs in terms of marketing actions that have been risks that have really paid off? And then maybe we can talk about how you sold those ideas to the board as well, because having these ideas is just the start, you've then got to sell them to the rest of the stakeholders in the company.

Yeah, exactly. Well, I would say the first big risk I took was back in the 90s. I started in high tech, in 1988 I started at Microsoft and I was there for six or seven years. When I left, I went to some other startups and one of these startups was called the Mountain Zone. It was one of the first websites dedicated to mountain sports and putting up scores and race results. Back then you just couldn't get this information.

If it was mountain sports that were not on a sports channel, you would never know who won the mountain bike circuit in Italy that week. So we were bringing mountain sports news and entertainment to the web at a very early time, this is like 96/97. One of the things we wanted to do was the first live simulcast of the Mount Everest expedition.

We wanted to get a local climber who we knew was going up with the group, and get him to be able to use, back then it was satellite phones, to report back both with audio and with video, and photos. In order to do that, we needed some funding. I went to an old coworker at Microsoft and pitched Microsoft Explorer, which was then Browser. I thought that was a nice synergy with this kind of expedition.

I asked them for some money, and they ended up sponsoring it and we were able to do this live stream from Everest. That was the year after the big debacle on Everest, one of the deadliest years, and Jon Krakauer had just written a book about it. It was very risky to involve our company, and a company like Microsoft, and then a climber as well in this.

But we just made sure that everything was really dialed in. The one thing about risk is it makes you focus. And I think people who rock climb or fly or any of those kinds of things, know that when there's danger involved at that level, you have this singular focus, which I really like, and it makes you really pay attention to all of the details. And that was really, really successful for us.

That was something that put us on the map, we were in the New York Times, we were in a lot of different publications and newsreels, we would actually put up information that would then be published by other entities on the web or on TV. So that was exciting.

I would say the next, maybe it was the next decade, I was working for a company that made high-tech performance gear for the US military. So every soldier got four of these shirts that we made, when they went in theatre, as they call it in combat. These were super high-performance, flame-resistant gears.

So most flame-resistant gear in the past was bulky and uncomfortable and we made something that was more akin to climbing gear, it had a lot of stretch and recovery, and comfort in this hybrid design. In order to market that, when you're marketing to soldiers or the military, they sniff out anything inauthentic immediately. And so we wanted to do something really authentic.

I hired an Oscar-nominated documentarian filmmaker who was going to embed with a troupe. We hired him to get a bunch of footage and put together a little mini-documentary, mini-story on some of the soldiers that were wearing our gear and we decided to tell the story through the eyes of medics because they're there to help but they're still in the most dangerous situations.

And so he followed this certain medic troupe and helicoptered down into live firefights and rescued people and along the way, took a lot of footage of these medics talking about how this gear really changed the way they do their jobs.

That was incredibly, incredibly successful because we got so much good video, still photos of the garments in situ, and then DuPont, who makes the Nomex fiber that is flame resistant, contacted me about using some of that footage for their own marketing, and they paid us handsomely. That year marketing became a profit center for the first time, which is interesting. So there is a way when you create great content, there's a way to monetize that branding.

Then I think the most the most recent big risk was this activation I did with Work-In-Progress, which is a local ad agency here in Boulder, Colorado. We did the world's first pop-up shop on the side of a cliff. So the highest pop-up shop, and we did it here in Eldorado Canyon, really high up on one of the most famous big walls here for climbing. It was literally a pop-up shop, built on a porta-ledge.

We had the Colorado Mountain School do all the rigging, we knew it was safe, but still, to ask, it was actually our VP of sales, who was in there, minding the shop, because he had spent 10 years as a Teton Climbing Ranger. And so he thought it was the best two days of his life, but I thought it was pretty risky to put him up there on a ledge.

Then anybody who climbed up to the shop could get an Adidas jacket or pair of rub socks and keep climbing. So the whole activation was around getting you the gear you need most when you need it. That was pretty dangerous. All three of those were pretty dangerous situations to put people in, for marketing.

It's not just dangerous in terms of taking a risk with some new strategy, you're actually putting people's lives, maybe not in danger because that sounds a bit too severe because I'm sure this was all calculated risk.

But that's still an extra hurdle that you'd have to communicate to the board, to the money men. It's not just like, "Oh, we're taking a chance on this new strategy". You've also got to insure these people, and that's an extra cost.

How did you go about pitching these ideas, to begin with? How did you convince them that this was a calculated risk that was worth taking?

Yeah, there are definitely people in the company who are going to hate this. So anybody who has to deal with insurance is going to hate you if you're a risk-taking CMO. But I think the most important thing, obviously, is to start at the top and to get buy-in and to really explain what you're doing, I never want to do something for just a stunt. We don't want to do things that feel like they aren't authentic to the brand, all of the risks I've taken have been in service to the brand.

And so when you can sit with the CEO, and the executive team and explain why this is important, and why what you're doing will cut through the clutter. That's I really think the most important thing here is cutting through the clutter. That's what we need to do with risky marketing.

It paid off in the end, all of these things were quite successful and the cliffside shop won a Cannes advertising award, actually three different Cannes advertising awards. That was up against some behemoths like Google and Delta Airlines and Heinz and these companies that literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing. So to compete in that arena, you have to cut through the clutter.

If you can convince your executive team that this is a good idea and why and what's the business case for it? How will this increase sales or increase brand value? Or brand equity? Then you pretty much have them control the people who deal with insurance. So you get buy-in.

The time and the place for risky strategies

One advantage with these risks connected to these particular brands is the people you're marketing to take risks, they're mountain climbers, they're soldiers in combat situations. It's sort of like practicing what you preach when it comes to the brand. It's showing that you're putting the gear through the paces as a way of showing the people you're marketing to that it's worth using.

Is there a case for taking risks and you don't necessarily have that kind of target audience? Is it worthwhile or is it just better to play it safe in that situation?

Well, again, I think it depends on the industry and the appetite that the CMO has for risk. I've never wanted a job more than I wanted to do what I felt was right for the brand. So I was willing to either get fired or leave a job - neither ever happened. I've never had to do either of those. But I am the kind of marketer who wants to do these kinds of cut-through-the-clutter activations.

You asked also about activations that might not be completely in line with our target audience. Because you're right, everything we did was was squarely in line with either climbers or soldiers. And we did some other things like we were launching a bedding line at 37.5, which is a thermoregulating technology.

This was a market where we didn't have a lot of customers yet. We took a pretty big risk, it was right when Trump was first elected and while we had many customers who were in law enforcement and military, who may have supported Trump, we also had a lot of sport and outdoor customers who maybe didn't, so we wanted to walk a fine line there.

But we did this activation where we sent Trump a set of bedding, with a "Sleep well, Trump" message saying, "We want you to do your best in office and this might help you sleep instead of tweet". Because this was when he was up at two and three in the morning tweeting, and so we thought that was a good opportunity to talk about how important sleep is.

That got some interesting reactions too, was very successful. And then we had some customers in cycling, but we wanted to broaden that and this was also 37.5 thermoregulating technology, and we had just worked with a university to prove that it actually increased human performance, much like doping did.

So we thought we should, when the Tour de France started, launch this campaign called "Dope with this". We were trying to convince people to dope with the clothing. But the whole messaging around it, the visuals were blood bags, it looked like we were really selling some sort of performance-enhancing drug.

But it turned out that what we're selling is gear from one of our cycling customers that would actually improve your performance as much as a performance-enhancing drug. That got a lot of attention because it's such a touchy, touchy subject in cycling. Probably the most negative attention I've ever gotten on a campaign was around that.

But it provoked a really important conversation because, for everybody who said that we need to not talk about doping in cycling, there were the others saying, this is the biggest thing hindering our industry right now is who's clean and who's not. So it opened a conversation and was very provocative.

It's a way of opening up a conversation in a way that people looking at a brand initially, they might not think this is a great thing to talk about, but opening up that conversation through this risk, was that something that you planned to do from the outset? Were you expecting that kind of negative reaction? Was it something you prepared the board for?

Absolutely. We were prepared for that. And in this case, my CEO, Jeff Bowman, was spectacular. He likes this kind of provocation and he likes responding to it. So any of the more vitriolic messages we got, he would handle, and he enjoyed it very much. He enjoyed being provocative. So it does help to have a CEO who is energized by that kind of situation.

Choosing the risky choice when it comes to your career

You've mentioned your career path as well. We touched on it briefly. Do you think your willingness to take risks in marketing activities, is that tied into a willingness to take risks in your career, do they go hand in hand, do you think?

Yeah, I think you either have a propensity for risk, or you don't. There isn't much middle ground there, I don't think. I've always been the kid who jumped off high rocks into bodies of water. And so I have always had a propensity for risk and I think that also shows in my career too because it has not been a straight line from starting in high tech marketing and PR, then I went to Landor, that was my only foray into the agency side of marketing.

And I just really missed controlling a brand message. I think as marketers, we're world builders, and you came up through writing too, I was a copywriter to begin with so you understand that it's all about building a world. And that's why details are so important when you're building a brand because you're creating an entire universe around that brand. That's really thrilling for me.

That's why plugging these risky activations into the brand, and making sure they really feel like a room in that house, not a mansion down the street, that's an important component of what I love to do. So I went back to in-house marketing, then I took some time off and actually wanted to be a writer, so wrote a couple of young adult adventure novels, and then went right back to marketing because that was not all it was cracked up to be, although it was quite fun to get an agent and sell books and see them translated and all of that.

So I went back to marketing and moved from high tech into textile and material marketing, which I've sort of been in since then. But yeah, after that first foray back into textile marketing, I then moved across the country for a different job with thermoregulating technology, and then hopped to antimicrobial yarn technology and now to Chargeurs.

So, there's been a lot of zigs and zags. I need to market things that I'm enthusiastic about. I think that enthusiasm sells. And so if you love your product, if you're interested in what you're selling, it's just going to be so much more authentic and you can really build out that world that I'm talking about, that brand world in a way that people want to come to visit and hopefully come to live.

Yeah, you want it to be an exciting world that people visit and live in as well, depending on the product. But you don't want them to be overly familiar, because a journey that's overly familiar is not one you remember, it's the exciting twists and turns along the journey that you remember. That's probably the biggest advantage with these marketing activity risks.

But going back to the career path side of things, do you think the willingness to take those calculated risks in your career path, is that a skill you developed hand in hand with taking the risk? Or did you take the risks first in the career path and that gave you the willingness to take the risks in the marketing strategies? Or were they always tied together?

I think you're probably right, if I reflect on it, it was taking those risks and realizing, what's the worst that can happen when you change jobs? A lot of people don't want to change jobs and I think it's just super interesting, and it keeps life fresh.

But I think that I didn't start taking bigger risks until the second or third job hop. And then also, when you're low level, you can't really do a whole lot risk-taking-wise. So when I got into managing budgets and managing people and being able to manage programs, that's when that risk-taking started, I think.

At the time of of this discussion, we're in Q2 2021, a lot of countries are starting to move out of the pandemic and looking forward to life beyond COVID. A lot of people are going to be thinking "is now the time to take a risk with their career path?"

Is now the time to make the jump into an industry that they've not necessarily worked in before, but they're passionate about? Or maybe they want to play it safe. Do you have advice for people considering those risks? What should they think about, what should they consider in their career path in those terms?

I think you should be true to yourself, I think it's really dangerous to be risky if that's not something you're comfortable with. Because it will just keep you up at night. In some people, that creates a sense of focus and purpose, and that's what risk does for me, it helps me really focus on it and make sure that every single detail is right.

But if you don't have a propensity for risk, I would never suggest that you start trying to do risky activations. There are so many skills that I wish I had deeper experience in. There are so many CMOS who are coming up from the analytics side versus the creative side that have so much knowledge and can bring so much value to a CMO role.

So again, I think it's just so individual, and I would never, ever, ever tell people to start taking risks unless they were comfortable with it. Also, you really have to feel deep down inside that doing what you're doing is more important than having a job that doesn't allow you to do that. So, again, it comes back to I've never wanted the job more than I wanted to make the brand successful.

And if I couldn't do that in the way that I thought was most effective, then I was willing to either leave or be told to leave, again, neither ever happened so I'm lucky in that regard. But you do have to have that mindset of I'll find something else if this isn't the right place for the kind of marketing that I'm known for.

Was that a philosophy that you made clear with the rest of your team and the rest of the board that you were working with at these different companies? Did you tell them from the outset that you were here to take risks and if the risk didn't work, you'd walk? Or was it just something that was implied?

I would never say that - I don't think ultimatums are effective at all. I think it comes off as I want this job because I want to take risks, and I want you to pay for it. That's not my intent. And I don't have ideas that I want to execute at different companies.

It's really a product of that world-building. So as you're creating a new brand, and launching the brand, and thinking of all of those details around the brand, that's when these things naturally bubble up. They just happen to be risky. I think there are a lot of effective ways to market without being risky. But in my case, maybe because I have a propensity for it, those are the kinds of things that I think about when I am world-building for a brand.

And what I'm doing here at Chargeurs is, I can't quite talk about it yet, but this is something completely different than anything that they have been known for in the past. I didn't come to this job even with a preconceived notion of this. This bubbled up as a result of trying to build this world.

So I don't think it's effective to tell people that you're going to walk if you can't do something, it's just always in the back of my mind that the freedom to do what I think is best for the brand is most important. And so I might tell a prospective employer that, but I would never say like, "Hey, I'm coming here, and I'm going to take some big risks."

My way or my highway kind of thing.

Exactly. That's just not very respectful.

The benefits of risks

As marketers, the purpose of our job isn't to cover ourselves in glory, it's to enhance the brand. You can't take risks for risk's sake. You can't be chasing awards, even though you've managed to win a few awards with some of these risks that we've discussed, that's not the purpose of the activation. It's not the purpose of the activity. It's to enhance the brand.

Exactly. And it was really effective in the case of 37.5, those activations like the "Dope with this" and "Go to sleep Trump" and the cliffside shop, that was over maybe a year and a half that we executed those.

Then we did one in Europe on the Ripcurl snowboard tour, which was really cool. So we did this series of activations because it was a brand new brand name, we launched the name 37.5, which sort of speaks to thermoregulation and the ideal core body temperature and humidity level.

So there's a lot encoded in that, but we needed our brand partners, this was an ingredient brand so apparel makers would use this in their gear, and then we wanted them to promote that it was 37.5. Well, you can't just go in and ask somebody to spend their money to promote your brand unless you're doing things that are interesting enough to capture their attention.

So we had brand partners all over the world from Solomon to Ripcurl, to Burberry, to PVH, Calvin Klein, companies like that, Carhart, companies that had deep pockets for marketing, and we wanted to get them to market our technology.

Once we started doing these activations, we saw an enormous turnaround in the amount of money that these brands were spending to promote the fact that their apparel had 37.5. inside of it. This included TV commercials, three of these brands used pro athletes to talk about the product. We had virtual reality pop-up shops in Asia, I mean, they were doing some incredible things.

By the time I left there, we calculated our brand partners were spending between 20 and $25 million a year promoting the 37.5 brand. That's an exponential increase in what I spent on those activations. But marketers read publications, they see what's happening, they see what Adweek reports on, what The Drum reports on.

And when they see this in publications like that, while the goal isn't that we want to get an article in Adweek, that does help if you are in an industry, B2B industry where you are selling something that is an ingredient brand like an Intel Inside, and you want your brand partners to actually spend their money promoting your brand. That was 20 to 25x what I had in my budget to spend. So it was incredibly effective.

Almost like a snowball effect kind of thing, this one well-placed activation kicked off, maybe an avalanche would be a better term. This noise in the right place kicked off this huge chain reaction. Is that the big advantage of taking risks?

I think so. And you have to be consistent, but not tell the same story. I mean, in the fact of 37.5 there's a variety of uses. You could use it in bedding, you could use it in sports, you could use it in clothing for comfort. So we had a lot of different audiences to play to. That's why we did different things like "dope with this" and the cliffside shop and "go to sleep Trump" was to hit various different audiences.

But in doing that, when all of those activations are provocative enough to get coverage in trade media, ad trade media, then all of the people that I was working with, all those people are seeing, oh, wow, they did something else. Oh, wow that's very cool, what can we do with that brand? How can I think outside the box to do something really unique?

It was a great time because we had all of these brand partners coming to me saying "Hey, we want to do something, can we brainstorm, what do you think of this? What do you think of that?" And there were some incredible things that came out of that, just sort of this creativity snowball. So I don't know if just one will do it.

But if they see you do two or three and see that the work is consistently good, and non-stunty, again, can't stress enough how it just can't look like a stunt because that's just so inauthentic. It really has to be authentic to the brand. Then if you're in a B2B business, then your partners are going to want to work with you.

As well getting that kind of coverage, it's good for talent attraction as a CMO if you're building a good marketing team, people are going to want to work for you.

They're going to want to work for the brand, for sure. I don't know if they want to work for me. But definitely when you see the kinds of risks, and that speaks a lot to the CEO, too. Because the CEO, that's where it starts and stops.

If the CEO shuts it down, then you're never going to get those kinds of opportunities I had. But yeah, it is much easier to get great talent when you can show a portfolio of work that the brand has done, that's interesting, provocative.

Redefining risk

Any final piece of advice on how to go about taking calculated risks?

We've said risks a lot, but it's really calculated risk, isn't it? What's your thought process in how you approach these calculated risks, both in terms of your career path and the strategies you activate within brands?

I think we should rebrand risk because the executive team hates the word risk. So if we could rebrand risk as being bold, I think that's more effective. I would encourage marketers to be bold to the extent that is comfortable to them.

There's a great quote by Dorothea Brand, "Act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid". So again, it's all about that focus, when you do something that takes a great amount of boldness, you'll notice that you get this extreme focus. I think that's super effective for marketing.

I would say let's talk about it in terms of being bold, and think about maybe what you could do to just notch it up one, you don't have to go from two to 10. But if you can just think about taking your marketing up one notch in terms of boldness, where it's still in line with the brand promise, it still feels like it fits within that brand world but it's just a notch above and see how comfortable you are with it.

Some people are going to get juiced by that and are going to want more and more and more. And some people are going to say no, not for me, it was too nerve-wracking, and back off of it. So I do think it's incredibly individual and also in terms of what industry you're in too.

Thank you very much, Christy!

Are you struggling to get buy-in on exciting marketing from overly-cautious stakeholders? Maybe you've reaped great rewards from risky marketing activations? Share your story with the CMO Alliance Community!