It’s tough enough to build a company’s marketing engine from the ground up, but Isabelle Papoulias, CMO of Mediafly, successfully navigated through not just one, but two acquisitions within a six-month period. What did she learn? Not all acquisitions are created equal: it was two weeks before their second acquisition announcement when Isabelle, in conversation with her CEO, realized they had an opportunity to completely pivot their brand messaging for the better and decided to scrap their original plan. While this would be considered risky to most, the decision ultimately elevated Mediafly to a new level within the sales enablement category.
Join us on this week’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite to hear all about Isabelle’s experience during these back-to-back acquisitions, how their campaign brought both expected and unexpected successes, and why ABM goes beyond marketing to give a company a surround-sound approach to targeting valuable prospects. If you’re looking for additional materials on polishing a brand—which can be helpful in scenarios like Isabelle’s—take a look at our comprehensive guide to effective B2B brand strategy, here!
Full Transcription: Drew Neisser in conversation with Isabelle Papoulias
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Here’s the situation: you’re the CMO of a startup, you have to build the marketing engine from the ground up, you find your positioning, you get your demand gen engine up and running. Life is pretty good. And then, you acquire a new company. Okay, that’s going to change a lot of things, but you’re a CMO. You can react, you can deal with this thing. No big deal. Then there’s another acquisition, and suddenly life might change a lot more than you expected.
That is exactly the situation that my guest today went through, and she’s going to share it with us. It’s going to have some really interesting implications for you as you think about the marketing even without an acquisition. Isabelle Papoulias is the CMO of Media Fly. It’s a Chicago-based sales enablement company and as I said, she’s lived through this experience. Welcome to the show.
Isabelle Papoulias: Hi, Drew. Very excited to be on your podcast. Thank you for having me.
Drew Neisser: Thank you. I’m excited to have you. And I always share this kind of stuff, this is the second take because of course, in the first take, I butchered her name. But that’s cool. It’s all part of being a podcaster. So, let’s go back. You arrive at Mediafly. You started sales, but you become the Head of Marketing before the acquisition. Talk a little bit about the challenge that you faced at that moment.
Isabelle Papoulias: The challenge was that I needed to build a marketing engine from the ground up. The company had not had consistent marketing efforts and it was reliant more on the sales engine, so when I took over, there were a couple of people in a very nascent marketing team and my job was to build it from the ground up: hire a team, develop the strategy, put in place the tech stack, develop messaging and sales collateral very quickly because there was a baseline of self-support that needed to happen.
Drew Neisser: Let me stop you there for a second because that’s a long list and I want to break some of those things down because you’re basically building a marketing organization from scratch. I know this happens a lot and I’ve seen it happen a lot. Some CMOs really like to do that. Now, knowing your background, you haven’t really gone through this before. You spent a lot of time in advertising, and when you came to the company you started in sales. How did you even know where to start?
Isabelle Papoulias: Wow, that’s a great question, I never really thought about it that way. I think that even though I came from an agency background, I always had a lot of changes within my agency career that were deliberate, so I found myself, even before Mediafly, in roles where I was building a team from scratch, and perhaps it was a US team going global, or I was injecting account management practices with a media team. The notion that you need to build a 90-day plan and build an annual plan and start running things out was not something I was unfamiliar with and it’s something I love doing.
Drew Neisser: I have to go way back to an early episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite. There’s a woman on the show by the name of Gina McDuffie (episode), and my nickname for her is Gina the Builder. That’s what she does. That’s what her personal brand is. She goes in, she spends three years, she builds the structure and then, typically, she moves on, which I think is really interesting. Knowing that you had that strength certainly makes it easier to take the job on because you know how to build something from scratch. Let’s talk about the order of things. You mentioned, “hire a team.” That was priority number one. When you were hiring this team, was there any sort of characteristic or cultural match that you were trying to get to? These days it’s not just “do they have the skill set?” but it’s, “are they the right person for the company?”
Isabelle Papoulias: We have a very defined culture and company values at Mediafly, so that’s an important filter for us as far as the type of person we’re looking for. Also, look, we’re a startup in a high growth phase, right? You need the person that’s going to come in and is not looking for a well-oiled machine and consistency every day. That is just not what you’re going to be doing here.
Drew Neisser: They’ve got to be able to just go with it and recognize that this is the way startups work. That really is hard. I had lunch with a CMO friend today and we had the same conversation—the hire for the $10 million startup is different than the $50 versus $100 versus $1 billion. They’re just very different entities, cultures, and expectations. I’m really interested at this point, you got the team, you built the tech stack. What was the hardest challenge during this phase for you?
Isabelle Papoulias: That was two years ago. The hardest thing was actually the noise around me, which I think is the noise that any marketing lead experiences. There are a lot of opinions in the room. Sometimes the loudest voice in the room wants to win. Because marketing was a new discipline for Mediafly, they were very strong opinions. It’s a difference between consensus and collaboration: I’ll collaborate with you but at the same time I have to remember that you put me in this role because I’m the marketing expert and ultimately, I have to make the call and I have to trust my judgment as an expert. Making sure you don’t get sucked into that noise or influence too much is not always easy, I’ll admit that.
Drew Neisser: And it’s really tricky. I think I know exactly what you’re talking about, which is, everybody watches the Super Bowl, so therefore, everybody thinks they’re an expert on advertising. To me, it’s the equivalent of, everybody writes out checks and maybe some people balance their checkbook, so therefore, they are a CFO. It’s just ridiculous, but nonetheless, and even this happens in the C-suite, nobody seems to have a problem making a comment about what the CMO is doing.
Isabelle Papoulias: Right. There are a lot of smart folks and they have great ideas but knowing when that’s the right idea versus your idea is where you need to find a balance.
Drew Neisser: We’ve had a lot of conversations on the show about approaches to this. The reason why the CMO can’t simply ignore everything those people say is because you have too many dependencies. You need the CFO to give you the budget and believe and agree on the metrics. You need the HR people to help get the message out internally. You need Sales to buy into whatever you’re doing, and you even need Product to bake in the marketing message. You can’t operate on an island even if you want to, so it’s a very dicey situation.
So, there was a lot of noise. You had to ignore some, pick and choose, build some collaboration. Right before the acquisition of the company, where did you feel like you were?
Isabelle Papoulias: That was at the end of the sort of the first year of “Launching Marketing,” as I call it. The first year was “marketing foundation.” Building and stabilizing. And we had done that. I had a three-year plan in my head. The first year was lay the foundation, the second year was improve based on what you learned year one, and the third year was aim even higher and go for your best in class. So, at the end of year one, going into year two, I felt pretty good and I felt like we were going to start year two with a good plan because we were learning quite a few things in year one.
Drew Neisser: And then the acquisition happened. What changed?
Isabelle Papoulias: Well, what changed is, first of all, it’s disruptive because all of a sudden it’s almost like you have to stop some of the priorities you’re currently working on and an acquisition just sucks in a lot of resources. You have to almost pause everything and focus on this acquisition that is happening very, very quickly. That’s the simplest way I can describe it.
Drew Neisser: I’m guessing that you’re dealing with things like, you’ve acquired the company, how do you integrate them? Do you keep a separate brand? Do you have common marketing? Do you have common sales?
Isabelle Papoulias: Exactly. There’s a lot of to-dos, so you have to build all of the roadmaps. “You’re in charge of merging the websites, and you’re in charge of merging with tech stacks, and you’re in charge of merging the content, and you’re in charge of merging the sales process.” It’s daunting, it’s time-consuming, but it works really well. We did it very well in the first acquisition. When you’re planned in advance and you have clear leaders. I’m a firm believer that you can only have one leader per project, one owner. With deadlines and a clear project plan, it actually worked very, very well in that first acquisition.
Drew Neisser: How long did that take?
Isabelle Papoulias: It was fast. From the day we acquired to when we were pretty well merged was three to four months.
Drew Neisser: That’s impressive. And so within three or four months, you’ve made all the decisions, you’ve consolidated everything, everything’s back up and running, if you will, as one thing. All right. We’re going to take a break and we’re going to disrupt that whole situation. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: Okay, we’re back. We’ve been talking about dealing with an acquisition and integrating a new company into it, and we didn’t even talk about the cultural issues that come with an integration, but let’s just assume all that went well. So, you’re four months in, things are running pretty well. How much time between then and the next acquisition?
Isabelle Papoulias: About six months or so. We had two acquisitions within the same year.
Drew Neisser: I’m going to fast forward. In those six months, most of that time was just spent dealing with it, then, boom! Acquisition number two. From our prep call, what was interesting is that when you first approached this, you approached it pretty much the same way. Talk a little bit about that, what you did there with the second acquisition.
Isabelle Papoulias: We came out of this first acquisition patting ourselves on the back and, going back to your question about timing, we merged in three to four months. Aren’t we amazing? Look how organized we were. We thought, great, we have the playbook. We did it well the first time, it went really well, and we’ll do the same this next go around. We had a similar launch plan in terms of announcement and everything you’d expect to go with, put out a press release, website, et cetera. We had a similar roadmap for post-announcement. We were, again, pretty ahead of ourselves as far as getting all of that planned and ahead of schedule. We were feeling very good.
Drew Neisser: Right. You’re feeling really good because this is suddenly a skill set you didn’t know you had, now you have it. You’ve done it, it worked, apply it again. Why wouldn’t you? At what point did you scratch your heads? What was the moment where you thought, huh? Talk about that scenario where you thought, maybe we’re not doing this right.
Isabelle Papoulias: The moment, I still remember it vividly, was in a conversation with our CEO. That’s when I realized that this acquisition had the potential to be a lot more transformative for us than the last one. He said, “I want to campaign.” And I said, “What does that mean? We didn’t do one last time, say more.” It’s when I started to ask more questions and trying to get into his head, then we started having this exchange where we both realized that we need to make bigger news out of this. There was a storytelling opportunity that wasn’t necessary for the previous acquisition and an opportunity to disrupt the category and elevate our brand positioning as a result.
Drew Neisser: I want to pause you for a moment, because there was a moment there in that conversation. The CMOs who are listening have had that conversation where they may or may not have pushed back. They may or may not have said, “What do you mean by campaign?” Because you’re a CMO, you know what a campaign is. That’s a moment of real backbone. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a moment of courage because, at that point, you’re saying, “The question that you’re asking doesn’t quite feel right. But I’m not going to say that because you’re the CEO. I’m just going to be a little Socratic here and I’m going to get deeper into this thing.” It sounds like, in your mind, you were already thinking that maybe this was different.
Isabelle Papoulias: In fairness, I actually was not. You give me a little too much credit, but I’ll take it. Although that’s still great advice and I’ve learned from this, for the next one, whenever that is. The question really came more from, “I actually don’t really understand what you’re saying, so say more.” I knew there was something there and it felt like he was coming to me with the solution without giving me the reason behind it. That’s really what I was trying to get out.
Drew Neisser: Right. Don’t give me a tactic, let’s talk strategy. Again, great question, because the conversation between the CMO and the CEO, when it stays on the strategic level, can be really powerful. When it’s on the tactical level, it’s one of those, “Hey, we need social media.” That is not valuable input, to the CEO’s listening, to a CMO. No. “What is it that we need? Well, we need more employee engagement. We need more customer engagement.” “Okay. Why do we need that?”
By the way, the fact that your CEO was thinking differently makes sense. One of the things that I really like and that we emphasize so much on the show and in writing is, repositioning a company has to be more than a coat of paint. It’s not about a campaign. It’s about something substantive, and it sounds like, as you were looking at this acquisition and he was looking at the acquisition, he was realizing that there was more to the story. What was it that was more to the story? What was this evolution in terms of the company going from here to there?
Isabelle Papoulias: The biggest thing for us was that the perception of Mediafly historically has been that we’re a sales enablement platform that is more premium and just for enterprise. It’s hyper-customizable for the needs of very sophisticated organizations that are truly looking to transform the way they sell digitally. With this acquisition, we were essentially adding to our portfolio and expanding our total addressable market so that we were able to service the sales enablement needs of all companies regardless of size and regardless of their level what we call sales enablement maturity, where they were in the sales enablement journey. Were they having very basic entry-level needs, or have they already been doing it for a while? Are they already using tools and looking to become a lot more sophisticated? We thought about it as this opportunity to bring sales enablement to the masses and democratize it in a way.
Drew Neisser: That’s an important threshold for a company because when selling to an enterprise you know what the playbook is. You’ve got to build an enterprise sales force, you know it’s going to be a longer sales cycle, so you have to have all sorts of things that go along with it. When you’re selling directly to small businesses in the software service model, the whole support structure is different. The model iteration is different. That’s a huge consideration and it affects staff, it affects culture, it affects marketing. How did you all get to the point where you realized that this was a smart way to go?
Isabelle Papoulias: Well, it was first in conversations within the leadership team and then homing in even more. One of the main barriers to acquisitions that we see is this notion that sales enablement is an expensive, risky, and complex proposition. We often bump against that barrier. Through this acquisition, we were able to combat that and say, “Well, actually, no, we’re making it easy and not costly and we have a self-serve option now.” You can just go on the website and swipe your credit card. It’s not a big risky commitment and you can sign up with us and be up and running quickly and build a business case to then expand and become even more sophisticated. That was truly the turning point: hold on, this is the paying point and we’re now able to go after this.
Drew Neisser: And for clarity’s sake, the reason you could suddenly do this was one of the acquisitions that you made had something in there.
Isabelle Papoulias: Yes. And the second one.
Drew Neisser: It’s interesting. I was having a conversation with a CMO about this recently, not on the show, but in conversation. There’s always the grass is greener syndrome. You’re in enterprise and you wish you had lots of customers, or you have lots of customers and you wish you had enterprise. It’s just the way it is. It’s very hard for marketers to stay focused on a target, but having said that, the appeal of what you’re talking about is real.
You’ve seen that with Red Hat, with MongoDB, with Magento, and these companies that can offer a free or freemium version get a massive pipeline of users. I think Meagan Eisenberg (episode), when she was on the show, was the CMO of MongoDB, and I think she said they were getting 45,000 downloads a day of their cloud-based data product. If you had those numbers, your marketing challenge would be very different. We probably wouldn’t have time because we’d have to be just spending every second figuring out, of those 45,000, who can we convert into paid?
I digress, apologies. Once you decided that you were going to go to this broader market, how did the brand story change in terms of how did you articulate it? How did you bring that story to market?
Isabelle Papoulias: We took it on as a campaign. We didn’t jump in right away and say we were going to truly change our brand positioning or anything like that. It was more, let’s make sure we launch beyond your typical announcement tactics. We need a press release and we need a blog and we need to brief the analysts and so on. How do we make this more memorable, more iconic, and make sure it has emotional resonance? That was the biggest difference between the second and the first acquisition. It was really developing a campaign, an integrated campaign.
We called this the “Sales Enablement for All” campaign, and had a series of ads, long-form, short-form content, information on our website, paid social. We made sure that the presence we had at trade shows reflected that branding and that campaign. The launch was around the SEFA “Sales Enablement for All” message, but then immediately afterward we followed that through with a premium offer, which we called “The 100×3” offer: one hundred users for one hundred days for one hundred dollars. It was important for us to not just talk the talk but walk the walk. We’re saying we’re bringing sales enablement for all, but we’re actually going to show you that we’re really committed to doing that.
Drew Neisser: Interesting. Well, the good news is your CEO finally got his campaign.
Isabelle Papoulias: He did, and he liked it.
Drew Neisser: Well, that’s good. As you think about the campaign, was there anything about it that went better or worse than you expected?
Isabelle Papoulias: Yes. Interestingly enough, the 100×3 offer worked very well, but not in the way that we expected. We had this expectation of, if we build it, they will come, but they actually didn’t come. We anticipated it would be a demand gen tactic, we had it on our website, and we said it in other ways that we’d get flooded with leads. That didn’t actually happen. What did happen and is happening still is, it’s become a great hook for our sales team to use very strategically as they’re engaging prospects. They’re finding that it’s really helping them to convert that prospect. It’s been much more impactful that way and we’ve had great conversions that way, but it’s not what we had initially expected.
Drew Neisser: Oh, that’s interesting. So, you go out there thinking you’re doing a mass sale and it ends up that this is really just a sales enablement tool for your enterprise customers. Really what you’re allowing them to do is pilot now in a way that they couldn’t before.
Isabelle Papoulias: Right, but not just the enterprise customers, it’s also for companies that are small or medium-sized that know they need sales enablement but don’t have the budgets or can’t build the business case internally to try it. This wasn’t an enterprise play; it was still very much an SMB play.
Drew Neisser: Oh, okay. So, you add salespeople who are actually calling on SMBs then. What I’m really hearing is that the concept of sales enablement as a software tool is too young for people to go and buy it without the helping hand of a salesperson.
Isabelle Papoulias: 93% percent of companies, according to CSO Insights, are still not enabled. That’s a huge whitespace.
Drew Neisser: Yes. We’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: We’re back. Let’s see, we’ve gone through two acquisitions, we’ve relaunched the brand, we’ve developed and radically expanded into the target audience. We’ve had some surprising results in that it wasn’t that people signed up and started downloading. But your salespeople were able to sell against it. What’s so funny about that is that you’re a sales enablement company and your product became sales enablement. In other words, your marketing of this offer enabled your salespeople to get pilots going.
Isabelle Papoulias: To be clear, the offer was one tactic that ended up working differently than we had expected, but we did see huge jumps in lead generation and pipeline generation as a result of the messaging and the other content related to the campaign that we had out there.
Drew Neisser: I did a quick Google search of sales enablement companies. There seems to be a lot of brands out there and when I hear the percentage of penetration of 7%, you’re all having to sell the category, which is so hard because you have to sell the category and you have to sell yourself. How have you been able to walk that fine line? You’re doing so much educational work while you still want them to buy your product.
Isabelle Papoulias: Right. There’s the education that needs to happen and you’re evangelizing to the masses so to speak. But what we’re also doing very successfully is targeting companies that we know are hand raisers or have proved in market signals through account-based marketing technology. They’re past the education, past the awareness and exploration phase, they’re further down the buying cycle in their customer journey, so we’re also focusing on them and, of course, the messaging is different.
Drew Neisser: Can you give any sense of what those signals might be? Is it coming to the website or behavior? For example, if you’re a branding agency, you know that mergers is a moment. That’s a trigger moment. What would be an equivalent in your category?
Isabelle Papoulias: Through the ABM technology platform that we use, we actually see the behavior online. We see what keywords they’re searching for (not at the individual level, but the account level, the company level), the websites they’re visiting, and for those that we know we also see what they’re looking at on our website. Once we understand that they’re out there searching for sales enablement content or information then they’re more likely to want to talk to us.
Drew Neisser: You don’t have to sell the category to them because they’re the 8 and 9 and 10%. Those people are ready to do it. They’re exposing their interests.
Isabelle Papoulias: That’s been revolutionary for marketing, for our team.
Drew Neisser: Revolutionary. Let’s say that they’ve identified themselves. ABM means different things to different people. With that information, you then do what via ABM?
Isabelle Papoulias: With that information, what we do is, first of all, focus on our ideal customer profile and industries, and then we create segments. Based on what they’re looking for, we target our messaging using that same language. We’ll develop display campaigns, we’ll serve them ads, we’ll do e-mail campaigns, and so on. The big difference here is that we’re able to target the messaging very specifically to what we know they’re looking for so it’s much more personalized and customized.
Drew Neisser: I’m glad I asked the question because that is an aspect of ABM and then there are others. When I had Jon Miller on the show from Engagio (episode), ABM for him is a lot of high impact direct mail to a very specific, high value target. I think it’s a little bit different here because this is your value per customer could be high, but it’s not necessarily initially. When you’re dealing with small, medium-sized business, the more you can automate this and get these folks all the way to the finish line.
Isabelle Papoulias: By the way, we’ve tried the premium direct mail approach too and it didn’t work for us. It’s something we might consider redoing in the future, our execution just wasn’t great.
Drew Neisser: For the folks listening, you’ve got to have the right list and you have to check it twice and three times. It’s really got to be a good list if you’re doing this high impact thing. Then you have to have a really profound and interesting and disruptive offer.
Isabelle Papoulias: One other thing about ABM is, it’s beyond marketing. For us, it’s also the buzzword of sales-marketing alignment. The business development team is also targeting those same lists, those same prospects. We’re very much working on this together so it’s a surround sound approach that prospects are hearing through different channels.
Drew Neisser: That’s the first time anybody has ever said “surround sound approach” on this show. It’s a magic word. As a CMO, you’ve been able to deal with a fair amount of organizational change, marketing change, strategic change. What do you are the biggest lessons learned for you from this experience?
Isabelle Papoulias: There’s a few. The first one is, check your biases. Don’t assume that the way you handled it last time is the way that you should handle it next time. I learned the hard way because when we made that pivot, when we had our “hold on this is different moment,” this was two weeks before the announcement.
Drew Neisser: Two weeks before the announcement, you pivoted. At one point your heart must have just stopped.
Isabelle Papoulias: Oh, absolutely. I can’t even. That’s a whole other podcast.
Drew Neisser: Everybody who’s listening and is following along at this point is going, “Wait, two weeks before the launch announcement, you and the CEO decide you’re going to take the company in a completely different direction?” I would imagine a second lesson might have been to practice meditation and breathe very heavily. Check your biases is a great one. Anything else?
Isabelle Papoulias: Yes, so check your biases not just in terms of doing it differently next time, but also, don’t make assumptions about the brand architecture. Just because you’re acquiring a new company you don’t need to become a branded house versus a house of brands. The other big learning moment for me was, ask the right questions, try to truly get in the head of your CEO. You think you might know, but maybe you don’t. They might think they’re doing a great job communicating to you what’s on their mind, but maybe they aren’t. In hindsight, I wish I had done that better. Take the time, ask the questions, and then, within that, have empathy. Realize that everyone within the company, including at the leadership level, is moving very fast. Acquisitions typically happen very fast. Just ask the questions, take the time to breathe, pause, and, of course, the CEO is the most important person to have this conversation with.
Drew Neisser: Behind every successful CMO is a CEO that they’ve figured out how to really work with and help realize his or her vision. It’s impossible for a CMO to do well without a CEO and being aligned with them. I love this. For those who are listening, as we wrap up this episode, I do want you to know that the marketing that Isabelle has done has been remarkably effective. We didn’t talk about that much, but we just sort of took it for granted. I just wanted you to imagine you were in this situation and how you’d deal with it.
In an earlier episode with Dov Baron (episode), his recommendation to any CMO was “stay curious.” While I love that language, you can just say, “ask the ask good questions for the critical moment.” Every CMO that I talk to is so busy, which is why I’m so grateful you listen to these shows, but there’s that moment where you ask yourself, did I ask the right questions? I think it takes practice.
Isabelle Papoulias: I like that. You’re absolutely right because I’ll know better next time. I practiced it this first time and I know that it’ll be better next time.
Drew Neisser: And you know what? People say “learn from your mistakes,” but I’d rather learn from someone else’s mistakes. Our big takeaway is, as you’re going through these things, ask great questions. My great question for the audience is, one, what are your questions? What’s that big question that you have for your CEO that’s going to radically change the direction that you’re going to take your organization in? I say that because I think CMOs have the opportunity to radically change that direction for a company. It may be positioning, it may be cultural, but set that bar very high and say, “I want to make a significant difference in this organization because I am a chief in this organization, I’m going to do that first by asking great questions.” I love sharing time with you, Isabelle, thank you so much for being on the show.
Isabelle Papoulias: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure, it truly has.
Drew Neisser: And to you, wonderful listeners, thank you so much for your time. Enjoy the rest of your day and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.