DEBORAH WAHL, CMO, CADILLAC
FROM HOT RODS TO HAMBURGERS
Nadine: 00:00 Hello and welcome to CMO Moves. Today, I have Deborah Wahl joining me. She is the former CMO of McDonald's, and also the Vice Chair of the ANA, which is the Association of National Advertisers. Deborah, Hi and welcome.
Deborah: 00:15 Hi Nadine. Thank you so much for having me with you today.
Nadine: 00:18 Oh my gosh. It's my immense pleasure. We have had so many great conversations as we were putting together the ANA CMO Talent Challenge Playbook, and we talked a lot about the role of the CMO, and you have been at a lot of different kinds of companies and also in the board of Groupon and MediaOcean, so I thought we'd just start with about you kind of your path, how you got to where you are today, and things that you've learned along the way, and I'll pepper in some questions, but tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get started? Wind up in, as you would say, hamburgers.
Deborah: 00:59 I’ll try to make this short and sweet, because it's now getting to be a long path. And I think what's always motivated me, mostly, and why I'm in marketing is an intense curiosity, certainly about people, and cultures, and behavior, and what makes you want to do things and make different choices. So, I started out, actually, in finance, ages ago, and that was a result of really being from an entrepreneurial family. My Dad always had his own businesses and was sort of a creator. And he was in the manufacturing business, but he created a new companies and businesses. So that's what drove me, but we saw how risky that can be, and how many ups and downs. So out of college, I went into finance, and then after a few years there, decided that I really wanted to be closer to a product and find some more creativity, and I wanted to get some international experience under my belt. So, my first job in marketing was actually in France working for WL Gore, where I was hired, unbelievably enough, to go over to France, live in Paris, and launch a brand new business line for them in France, and it was a product for people with allergies to dust mites made out of a revolutionary material called Gortex. So that sort of started me, and I think it was a great way to begin, because no one had ever done it before. It was completely forging my own path, and I was discovering a new market, creating a new segment, bringing a new product to consumers that they've never seen before. And the idea of just having to do that all by yourself when you're still, what I consider it, a real newbie right out of business school, was an amazing foundation to have.
Nadine: 02:46 Wow. That is near and dear to my heart, being French and having lived in France. What a great way to start your career, which is where I started mine too.
Deborah: 02:55 Yeah, that's great. Yeah, it was, it was fascinating. Um, you know, it teaches you when you go to another country, you're studying the culture and you're a complete outsider. So, you know, I didn't know what the customs were, or how people thought about allergies, and France. I really had to study it from the very beginning, without any preconceived notions. And I think that's what formed my whole approach to marketing anyways.
Nadine: 03:20 Wow. So how does that then lead to the next move?
Deborah: 03:24 Well, it was really wild, actually, tried to start our own business and do everything, and we had a lot of success, but not quite enough success for me to pay my business loan. So, I had to come back to the United States and you know, I'm from the Motor City. Motor City gal, born and raised there. And I never thought I'd go back, to work in the car business, but interestingly enough, as I was interviewing and trying to come back to the United States from Paris, I interviewed with a lot of traditional marketing companies and roles. And then I had a contact, of course, at Ford Motor Company, and they said, “Why don't you fly in for an interview?” So I flew in for an interview and then they proceeded to take me and a few other people who were interviewing straight to the test track, put us in Mustangs, and we drove around the test track as part of our initiation, or introduction to the auto business. So when you have that as sort of the motivating factor and thought of, “Wow, this is what I'm really going to be selling.” And talking about, it was pretty persuasive, and I took a job at Ford Motor Company.
Nadine: 04:33 Well, that's an awesome interview. I would like to just go drive the car. Not even actually interview. That'd be fun.
Deborah: 04:40 We could have stopped right there. It was basically like, okay, I'm done. I'm ready.
Nadine: 04:45 So how long were you there, then?
Deborah: 04:47 I spent about six years at Ford. I worked for them in South America and Sao Paolo Brazil. Learned to speak Portuguese there. And again, sort of had another experience of looking at a market and industry customers from a very much an outside point of view, which, again, was very instructive and it was a great time to be there. We were able to introduce a lot of concepts that were new to the Brazilian market, things like programs targeted for women, and doing test drives, which we did, actually, the very first test drives that had ever been done in Brazil as a whole marketing program. It was really exciting. So, bringing a lot of those learnings and trying them out and then adapting them for the specific culture in Brazil was exciting and we were able to grow market share by about four percent, which, for the automotive industry, is really significant.
Nadine: 05:46 Wow, what do you think was the breakthrough move there, that earns you that four percent?
Deborah: 05:49 I think just a different way of engaging with the customer. Even at that point we were really looking at all the customer data and making sure that the cars were configured and targeted to what we were hearing and seeing from that data. And then, just trying new ways of bringing the car to market so that the customers could engage differently.
Nadine: 06:10 Se it's funny, I just got off the phone with Seth Farbman, the CMO at Spotify, and he was saying something very similar to what you're saying, which is it's all about people, and if you're in marketing, you’ve really got to love people, and that sounds like a pretty common theme in what you saw along your way in why you love the roles that you had.
Deborah: 07:28 Absolutely. I mean, it really is, and that's what I think that sparked that. If you're like me, I chose marketing a long time ago. I said, this is my industry, this is where I want to be, stay, develop in, and go as far as I can. And the reason it stays exciting after all these years is because there's no end, I think, to learning about people, and behaviors, and how you can influence and staying really close to the, the pulse of what's happening.
Nadine: 07:58 Absolutely. And I think it's unfortunate that we sometimes get too distracted by technology. I had one CMO say to me, one day, and I about fell off my chair, that they spend all their time ensuring that the technology is working to get the message out. They don't have any time left to check the copy. I'm like, oh my God, like, how does it happen? But it happens. Right? So, how do you prevent yourself from being too focused in one area versus another? And how have you thought of your development path along the way you keep embracing new things into the fold?
Deborah: 08:32 Well, I think you just hit on the key question today, and the key challenge for anyone in the business, and certainly at the CMO leve: it's how do you pick the areas where you actually focus your time so that you can learn enough, because there is now so much coming at us, there's so much more data available. There are so many more channels that we have to learn from and we've been able to, of course, fragment our audiences. Now we can target down to the micro segment and you've got to understand all that so that you can put this strategy into place. So I'm, what I'm finding is that, you know, back in the day, when we learned those time management skills of what you focus on and where you go, it's even more critical today. And then I think to, you know, identify those few sources, like in the morning I start out with my Wall Street Journal, my CMO updates that, for instance, my friend at the Wall Street Journal, Suzanne, she does a great CMO round up every morning. There's Reco Daily that does it. There's the CIO Update from the Wall Street Journal as well. So just finding a few of those sources that are able to curate the information that you need to get, moving onto those. But not spending too much time cause you can get lost in all of that. I think what's most important is to really be actually still overlaying all of that information and data with a real conversation every day with real people about how they're experiencing the products or services that you actually have. Learning from that, understanding that, and making sure you have those experiences yourself as well.
Nadine: 10:09 Yeah, and especially if you're driving around in a Mustang, you're getting that full on experience right there. Right?
Deborah: 10:18 One of my favorite jobs is when I had to launch the Mazda Miata, which is still the most affordable sports car ever. And uh, you know, I really spent a lot of time going up and down the California coast meeting with people who are absolute enthusiasts for that vehicle with the top down with my stick shift, you know, everything going on. It was one of my favorite jobs.
Nadine: 10:41 Oh my gosh, that's awesome. I think I read someplace that if you're trying to record a podcast, which I'm a feebly trying to do right now, you're not supposed to interrupt or talk over somebody, but I can't help but laugh with you, cause it's so fun. So I apologize to anybody who's listening to you who can't keep hearing because I'm laughing too hard, but uh, we didn't have a lot of fun together.
Deborah: 11:01 We, we do. And that's what makes it real. I mean, our jobs are supposed to be the most fun, the most engaging. I always say a CMO has such a unique role in a company because we represent what the customer wants, what the customer is valuing. So there's so much power and continual excitement and change in that, you never get bored.
Nadine: 11:25 No, no, absolutely not. So then how, what prompted you then to go to your next move and where did you go?
Deborah: 11:33 So, after that let's say it was poured in Brazil that I came to California, and worked on a few other brands, Mazda and Lincoln, in the Ford portfolio, and then I was hired away by Toyota. So I spent the next six years working with Toyota, and then eventually Lexus, and really gained an incredible appreciation for the way that Toyota runs and does their business.
Nadine: 11:59 Wow. And then was that what then led you to hamburgers?
Deborah: 12:08 I think I mentioned to you before that I'm from the Motor City, and one of the things after, I felt like I had really been able to gain a lot of learning from my Toyota experience was, I really wanted to come back to Detroit and see if I can make a difference there. And that I think, in our lives, we always have a point where we can take a risk in our careers and our trajectory and do something that we think is important. And for me that risk was going to Chrysler to be the CMO. The year was 2008. If you remember, a pretty impactful time in the world and the auto industry. So, I would say in hindsight, my timing wasn't perfect, but I think it's so worthwhile to be able to know, in your life, that you can take your skill set and pursue something that you think is really important that you want to make a difference in. And that's what I did. I'm still a huge fan of Detroit and everything that goes on, the culture, the personality, so much admiration for the auto industry and what it's been able to do, and build, and seeing it as it continues to transform. But anyways, that is, that's what actually took me back to Detroit, which eventually led me to hamburgers, surprisingly enough. And I think the other thing, you know, you can say as a career, you never know what direction you're going to go in. Um, and I think that's what makes life really the most exciting. So I probably never would have imagined, but I ended up in Detroit in 2008, 2009. Um, of course the whole industry changed. Chrysler went into bankruptcy, and I was in Detroit and I had decided to leave the company. There wasn't really a need at that precise time for a CMO. And as I was after that job, I was recruited by a home builder, and went and spent some time in the home-building industry working for one of the largest home builders called Pulte Group. And I did that because I really wanted to have an experience on a different scale, go to a much smaller company where I felt like I could be much more engaged, both with the senior team and on the board, and really have a role in trying to shape what that company could do. And it was about a five billion dollar company from the multi-billion dollars that in the auto industry, a much smaller ad budget, which I found incredibly fulfilling and really critical for the next steps in my career, because of course, when you have no budget, you're forced to really look at how do you get the message out and what kind of platforms can you use. So that's when I really dove deep into how do we bring digital into an industry that doesn't have it. What kind of tools can we use? What's the most effective way to be in front of our consumers with very little budget and make sure that those messages are getting out? And then, how are we understanding consumer value and helping the company grow from that? So I had that experience, which was terrific, and another four years there, at which point I suddenly got a call about an opportunity at McDonald's, and as you know, in the marketing business when an iconic brand like McDonald's calls, you definitely answer the call, and as I continue to have a curiosity and passion and a desire for challenge, for me that was one of the best things that I could do. Meant a lot of change, a lot of, you know, going to a whole different work level in a different industry with different consumer base, et cetera. But for me, that was well worth it.
Nadine: 16:07 Yeah. I think I just came up with a title for your podcast. I think it's going to be, ‘From Hot Rods to Hamburgers,’ I think. I like that. Okay, there we go. So, well, let's talk about the different industries you're in. I mean there's obviously a lot of differences right off the bat, but was there something fundamentally different about the role of marketing in each of those companies? Or is it truly, is it by industry, or is it specific to the company itself?
Deborah: 16:39 You know, I think the role that the marketing department has in each company is very much dependent on the culture and how their particular business model has developed. Is it very operationally-focused or pure consumer-focused? Or, you know, production-focused and engineering? So I think that does change dramatically and that's probably one of the biggest challenges, as you change industries and companies, is really understanding that the, the core basis of that company's business model, because even if you're in the same industry, competitors can have different business models the way that they've learned to make money. But what's fascinating overall is the approach to the consumer, the types of data that you use, a segmentation, et cetera. That doesn't change. Those approaches are really relevant, because you're dealing with customers, you're dealing with people, consumers, buyers. So, I find that that is very transferable across any industry. So you know, the challenge as you go in, especially at a senior level, is really understanding, and as fast as you can, getting up the learning curve of what makes this particular company, business and culture work, and then how do you bring in the core things that you know about marketing that can drive for growth.
Nadine: 18:05 Yeah. And is there an example that you could point to, and you don't even have to tell me which company, that you went in thinking one thing and then you discovered something about the culture and you're like, maybe I have to do this differently to actually get this to work?
Deborah: 18:20 Yeah. I think, you know, the most important thing is figuring out how decisions are really made, and where the influencers are. So in some companies that have large franchisee basis, there's always a challenge of understanding who makes the decisions and what's it really based on. Is it based on the consumer desire alone? Is it based on an analysis of gross margin and cash flow, you know, sort of, what are those core things that move? And a lot of times I'm always looking at things, definitely, through the lens of the customer. I'm assuming that most people are as focused on that as I am. And then you realize that no, actually, it's the operational challenges, like I learned a ton at Mcdonald's about the specific steps in the operation of what you need to do to put hamburgers and fries together at the same time. So they're hot for the customer coming through the drive through, you know, there's a lot more aspects to all of that operation that, as a marketer, I really needed to learn and dive into. So then I could help understand how to translate that so we could create value for the customer but make it work in the business model.
Nadine: 19:38 And have you always known that you wanted to be a CMO, based on the love you have for consumers, and uncovering those insights, and coming up with great campaigns and strategies to reach and give them great value?
Deborah: 19:53 Yeah, I think I've solidified that, about midway through my career, because, you know, I'm in a lot of companies. Especially if you're in marketing, marketers are often generalists, and in big consumer companies, I mean, they, you know, they move around, you get a lot of different assignments. And, at least in the auto industry, there was that choice between ‘do you stay on the marketing path, or go to sales and get some of this other practical experience that people felt was very important in order to move up the executive ranks?’ And I remember very clearly at that stage, saying, you know what, this is what I really love to do, and I'd rather be an expert in marketing than necessarily go through all these other steps. So yeah, I formed very specifically, and it's part of why I actually moved between companies, in order to advance practically. I mean, you have to factor that into your career progression assessment of what you want to do. But for me, it was great, and it's definitely had some twists and turns and gone in different places. But, for me, it's been really worth it, and I had been able to do what I really love to do the most.
Nadine: 21:06 Yeah. And then recently just joined as a board member on two different companies, and I know you went through quite a process to select which boards you really wanted to participate in. Can you share a little bit about your thinking through that process, and what made you actually pick the ones that you chose?
Deborah: 21:23 Yeah. And this I'm really excited about. One, I am seeing a greater demand and a recognition of the value that this consumer perspective can bring to companies. And that's why, I think, I was able to get these board positions. I think it's really important, at this stage in time, that we do have that perspective at the board level. You know, most companies are really as simple as it sounds. The challenge these days is to create growth. Not just market share growth, but true category growth, which comes from innovation and really serving the customer in different ways. We're also seeing customers change. Their behavior is changing so fast. They're adopting new technologies, new ways of making decisions, getting information, deciding what to buy, and they're moving really much faster than, frankly, we as industries are moving these days. So I think it's really valuable to have that. And for me, it was important to find companies that saw that as an opportunity. Um, and we're really looking to configure what they have expressed is the modern board.
Nadine: 22:37 I remember, it was like, I think three years ago or so, Spencer Stewart put out a report about the boardroom and the composition in the boardroom. And I think the stat at the time, I hope I get this right, was out of the 9,000 Fortune 1000 board seats, only forty were sitting CMOs just three years ago, and I think that number is growing rapidly for all the reasons that you, you mentioned.
Deborah: 23:28 I think it's exciting. What's really exciting is the conversation. I'm hearing through all of this about people really saying, hey, you know, the board makeup has to change. We want board members to be much more engaged. We want the discussion to be more free, far-ranging. We want the consumer point of view more than just a financial point of view, which has historically been where most of the board members come from. So, I think it's a really good sign, and I'm proud to be part of that. What I hope is the next wave.
Nadine: 24:39 And I'm sure you will deliver some amazing value as you always do. As Vice-Chair of the ANA, you're helping us steer this industry in a lot of different ways, including setting the major initiatives for the industry. What is your favorite initiative, or what are you really excited about, as something that you were driving?
Deborah: 25:02 Well, I think one of the most important things that the ANA has worked on is the whole digital media supply chain. We all know that's probably the fastest moving. It's been changing dramatically. So, if you look at the landscape, there are so many different players involved that it's hard for anyone to keep up and know all the different moving pieces and parts. So part of the efforts that we've done through the ACA work is to help people think about that, simplify it, think about how we put in good measurements and tracking so that we all are able to look at the investments and returns on those investments, and what they really do for the industry. The goal, overall, of course, if you're the marketer, is to make sure that every dollar you spend is really valuably spent driving messaging and content and decisions toward the customer so that they have what they need.
Nadine: 26:01 Great. And we had a lot of fun putting together the Talent Challenge Playbook for the ANA. And I think as part of that, I have never had so much discussion, whether it was with you or any of the other CMOs who contributed, about the definition of marketing and the role of a marketer and exactly why we started out with the first thing is aligning your leadership teams and you and I talked about that, I think at least for thirty to forty minutes one day. And as you're driving home, you had a very strong opinion about what you thought the role of a marketer was, especially of a CMO, and what it is. Can you remind me again how you defined that?
Deborah: 26:47 Well, I think what I've really be become an advocate for is that the CMO role is all about growth, and it has to be focused on growth. So many times we get distracted by either being on the cutting edge of the shiny new toy, or something else. But as you go into the CMO role, you have to be driving growth for the company, and whether that's margin growth, sales growth, or the number of consumers who are coming into your stores, on your websites, et cetera. That's the game. And it's really interesting, because when I was growing up in the marketing world, it was about so many different things about creativity, and the big idea, and a lot of other things. But it really boils down to this fundamental of growth. And I think that's where the industry we need to reset. If you look at just the last year of the Fortune 100, I think fifty six percent did not experience any growth, despite all the dollars that we're investing for growth. So that's our core challenges as we go ahead, and we also know that growth is created by category growth more than anything else. I mean, you have to have your market share, share battles. You have to do all that, but true growth for a company, the outstanding side where you can really make a difference, is when you have category growth, and that requires innovation. And that goes back to my core tenant, you basically get innovation when you understand at a very clear level what consumers value and, or what they will need to value, and making sure that we spent enough time and energy on that. And I know in my roles that I've gotten, sometimes, you get so busy with the day to day work that you, you know, if you go back and look at, “Gee, how many minutes of today did I actually spend on innovation, or figuring out what we could do for the next phase that would be major and groundbreaking and how can we do that?” So often you spend so much time thinking about how do I keep the current business going forward because while you create innovation, you can't lose anything that you have currently. So you have to really manage your time carefully and think about that. But now I think definitively like, “Have I spent whatever it may be, a third of my day, on innovation? Am I spending just as much time on the idea of what could create category growth as I am on market share or, you know, meeting the core sales goals for this month?” It's really achieving that balance and thinking purposefully about it.
Nadine: 29:36 Speaking about growth and innovation, I've spent a lot of time chatting with a number of folks about how to actually get innovation beyond just the thinking beyond just the technology, and it really comes down to your teams and how they operate together, so that they can bring their best selves to work and have an opportunity to share their best thinking. That's a tough skill to learn as a leader. How do you foster that environment? Was there something that you did along the way to augment those skills? Or is it just something really you learn on the job?
Deborah: 30:11 Another great question, Nadine, because these are like the core of what we all have to be thinking about to change the industry that we're in. So one, I think this pace of change is a real challenge for everyone. And if you look at core skill sets of people, most people, I think at all levels, everyone's grappling to stay up. So the one thing that I would certainly do, which I regret in my last two positions, I don't think I did enough, a lot of it due to the fact of how much crisis we were under, and how much pressure, but I think you absolutely have to institute regular training that is bolstering everyone's skill sets up so they can work in the digital age, understand AI, understand all the technology implications for the business, et cetera. And we really need to foster that, because most people come into marketing, they have traditionally with strong creative skills, right? That's what drove a lot of us because we want to be creative. We are more creative. That's why we didn't end up in finance versus marketing. And I think everyone's skill sets need to keep pushing forward on both of those sides and that we, as the leaders, have an obligation to make sure that we provide that, and help people along, so that we can all perform better. And then the second is, and I spent a lot of time on this in my last role, but looking at, “How can we change the whole process of things to take time out of the non-value added work, and give people back more time so that they could focus on the innovation, and they could focus overall on doing the bigger strategic thinking that could make the biggest difference?” Whereas, you know, most of the time, you're moving so fast during the day with all the different channels, and complexity, and fragmentation, et cetera, that we deal with, that you're not really able to carve enough time out. So, I think it's incumbent upon leadership to help change those processes so that people do have that time to carve out to think more strategically.
Nadine: 32:19 Amen! If only everybody would do that, we'd be a much more innovative world. I am sure of it. So. Okay. So Deborah, we're going to be wrapping up now and I have one last big question for you. [Yeah, fire away.] Are you ready? If you could be anything in world right now, other than CMO, what would you be?
Deborah: 32:44 Wow, that is what I would do. What I really think is important, sort of my passion project is, “How do you help our cities grow to do well? How do you help our cities have growth and achieve growth?” So, you know, I'm from the Motor City. I'm a huge fan of Detroit, and everything that's going on there. If I could do anything in the world, I would be in charge of innovation and transformation, you know, for Detroit to help grow, come to that wonderful city.
Nadine: 33:15 That is wonderful. Wow. Well, I hope some folks in Detroit are listening. I'm sure they could use a hand for sure. If you're offering, maybe all of a sudden your next career move will be something very different
Deborah: 33:30 And it will all be due to Nadine's CMO podcast.
Nadine: 33:36 Oh Yeah. Well, hey then maybe I had a little part and doing good in the world, so I'll, I'll take that and run with it. So Deborah, you are amazing. Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you and all the time.
Deborah: 33:48 All right, thanks Nadine.
Nadine: 33:49 Take care. Thanks. Take care. Bye. Bye.