When I asked Sarah Kennedy, the relatively new CMO at marketing automation firm Marketo, what’s the best advice she’d ever been given, her answer set the tone for our discussion: “Jump out of the plane and find your parachute on the way down.” It is little wonder that Kennedy, who jumped into her role eight months ago, felt compelled to not just rethink the company’s sizeable user summit but also to reexamine the entire brand. In this process, Kennedy realized that her appreciation of fearlessness might just be the key to engaging her target audience.
Concerned that a trend toward perfectionism was overtaking the greater promise of experimentation, Kennedy and her team adopted “fearless” as a rallying cry for an upcoming user summit. Just as importantly, Marketo began practicing what they were about to preach, internally. This recognition that marketing promises are best lived before being spoken is just one of the many insights you’ll find in our lively conversation below.
You were at Sabre for ten years. What inspired you to go to Marketo?
So many things. During my time at Sabre I always had this nagging feeling of, “I need to go diversify my experience even though I love this company and this industry and these customers.” I just knew I had to go do something different, to apply my skill set and just try out a new challenge and solve a new problem. I was very patient when I started looking, just kind of poking around to see what could be interesting next. And from the first day I met Steve Lucas until I accepted the job, it was like five months. It was a long interview process. I met so many incredible people along the way, and I actually threw the nugget out there and said, “You know if the Marketo CMO position ever becomes available, that’s my dream job.” And they remembered that about a year later when it finally did happen.
What were your top priorities in your first 100 days as CMO?
The top three for me: One, just getting an understanding of the team and the talent mix and getting the right roles filled, or at least starting to fill the right roles that had been open for a while. The second is our brand. Just really reinventing and looking at a refresh of the Marketo brand in a way that still has reverence and respect for the great legacy, the community, and the following. Just to take it to the next level. And lastly was honestly just getting my arms around the business and the industry and spending time with customers.
What’s your proudest moment as a marketer?
I’ve had a few, but I’ll focus on this year. When this team rallied together to come up with the real passion and sentiment around our Summit event. The theme that we came together to build, I think. That has a lot of pressure and a lot of opinions. My proudest moments have always been when my team has really been given a chance to shine. That’s really where we invest so much and you see so little until it happens and it clicks. And when it does, it’s really a thing of pride and beauty—and it’s great, because it’s not you doing the work. It’s them really shining, so that for me would be it.
I know the Marketo Summit theme this year is “fearless.” Why?
It was all about how we start to take off the shackles of perfection in our industry. I think a lot of other conferences propagate [this idea of perfection]. And I think there’s so much chatter out there that’s all about painting the prettiest picture of the world of a CMO, and that’s just not the reality any of us live in day-to-day. We wanted to create a community that, for at least three or four days, felt like a safe place to share and to be okay not being perfect. You know, you and 6,000 of your closest friends.
What is a fearless marketer in the context of Marketo?
I think it’s actually all about experimentation. Some marketing leaders have to be fearless in just pushing for an investment in a platform like Marketo and, sadly, even having to justify why engaging with customers is a critical priority for a business. And I empathize with them because that’s a hard, long, uphill battle to fight. But beyond that, it’s looking at ways that you can take risks. You can experiment, and you can test. You can try things out that others haven’t and experiment with things like AI and other technologies and capabilities through Marketo or any other platform. Trying something new and seeing what works and being unafraid. As long as you have the right data, the gut instinct, the know-how to back it up, you can go in confidently knowing that you’re sometimes going to fail (and that you have the right infrastructure in place to learn from that). To me that’s what it’s all about. Being willing to take bold risks. Try out new tech and do so as a leader.
Internally, how do you make “fearless” real?
I was walking in to pitch something to my CEO, who’s an incredibly supportive CEO, by the way, but even then, it’s walking into a meeting, and it is gut checking yourself. Am I hedging? Am I not putting what I believed to be the very best recommendation forward because I’m worried about a million different things? I think about these doubts and try to encourage my team: if you have the right construct and infrastructure to get you there, go in boldly. Don’t hedge. We did that with our own theme. We had three different options and we were going to walk Steve through all of them. We were about to walk in the door and I was like, “Wait a second. Guys, we’re going to pitch the theme that we have no doubt is the right theme. We know it. Why are we taking an hour and talking about three things when we really should be focused on pitching one?” We cut two themes and we pitched the one theme in seven minutes. He was all over it and loved it and was more motivated, I think, by our conviction around a great idea. As marketers we’ve got to do that more often, because people are looking for us to lead—not looking for us to waffle or waiver. We’ve got to be confident to help business move forward.