This one's one of our more unique interviews we've conducted recently. Sarah has a strong reputation in the marketing space and I'm excited to do this interview with her. I hope you thoroughly enjoy reading this as much as I've enjoyed putting this together! And btw, if you want to work with her, check out Sarah Eppler Co.
Sarah, do you want to give our audience a quick overview of who you are and your top 5 buckets of expertise in marketing (of course you have more haha).
I’ve spent the majority of my 20+ year career building revenue-generating marketing functions for B2B and B2C, sales-led subscription-based businesses in the professional services, media, tech and most recently digital asset space. In most of these roles, I was responsible for all aspects of marketing from brand to customer acquisition & retention, product & content marketing, marketing operations & analytics and PR/communications and some inside sales.
At the core of each role, I focused on building results-driven and data-informed strategies that accelerated internal efficiencies and top-line revenue growth.
I’m most well known for being a problem-solver, for asking difficult questions and for building world-class marketing teams.
I believe marketing is part of my DNA - I genuinely enjoy figuring out what makes people tick - why they do what they do and what it takes for them “to make a move.” That natural curiosity has served me well as I evolved as a marketer and leader.
5 primary areas of expertise:
You’ve worked at all kinds of industries, at all kinds of companies - startups, mid-size, and multi billion-dollar ones. Which means you’ve worked with all levels of marketing budgets.
In your experience, where do the most effective teams focus their marketing budget/attention?
I’d be curious to hear 2-3 unintuitive tips for an early-stage vs. mature company on how they can better invest in marketing to drive efficiencies. And not be distracted with their 100 marketing priorities.
There is oftentimes misalignment between marketing and the business on where to allocate budgets and efforts to drive the biggest impact and that’s because there is a desire to jump to tactics and channels without investing in the foundational components that power successful tactics.
So I’d say the tips I’d offer are the same for both early-stage and mature companies. They may manifest differently, but I’ve found doing these things will pay dividends in the short and long-run.
You’re (famously) known for coming into a team and transforming corporate marketing from a traditional cost center into a growth-enabling, revenue-driving “superpower.” And you’ve done this repeatedly too!
Looking back at your career, could you walk us through some marketing principles that you hold true, which helped you consistently deliver these results?
I love this question however I don’t think my answers are all that unique.
You’ve held several marketing leadership roles including Senior VP, Senior Director and Head of Marketing. Could you walk us through how the core roles/responsibilities differ between these roles at a mid-size / large-scale organization?
I don’t think the responsibilities are really that different, but the reality is your bandwidth will be tested which impacts what you and your team can realistically focus on. Business goals, budgets, resources will always impact how broad or how deep you go into any one effort.
I think the most obvious difference is how tactical vs. strategic your job will be and perhaps what parts of the business are a primary focus.
In a start-up and even when building a marketing function for a scale-up, you’re wearing many hats - the focus is likely on building new business pipelines - quickly. During this time, work will likely focus on setting up a tech stack, sales enablement, and acquisition marketing efforts - hopefully, product marketing is wrapped up in there too. As a marketing leader, you’ll do the work as well as develop the strategy.
In a more mature organization, leadership (hopefully) includes a larger team that can own the execution work which leaves time for more strategic thinking with leadership. The types of marketing being done will likely expand with more emphasis on retention, expansion and brand awareness efforts.
Regardless of the company’s growth stage, Marketing should always have a seat at the leadership table and should be building strategies that help drive both short-term and long-term impact.
It’s 2023. Every company’s slashing marketing costs, and yet, they want to be omnipresent in their prospects’ minds. In your 20 years of experience, you’ve seen similar economic downturns to this year’s and so, my question is –
How did you navigate such downturns for the companies that you’ve helped? Are there successes or pitfalls from those years that you’d like to share with us?
What you should do and what actually happens is oftentimes different and will very much depend on whether you’ve been able to successfully get the rest of the leadership team on board about focus areas, plans and expected outcomes.
Typically the reaction when the economy turns and sales pipelines start to decline, is to try anything which tactically translates to go broad - in targeting, messaging etc., with the hopes that something sticks.
Early in my career, I ran that play (several times) and it never resulted in any meaningful or sustainable outcomes. Common asks were “we need to run a campaign for x” …so I’d run the campaign and MAYBE we saw an uptick in leads, but most of the time they didn’t close or they churned shortly after.
What has been effective during economic downturns has been looking at the data and narrowing focus. If the data shows that audience x closes faster, has a higher conversion rate and/or larger contract values, then doubling down on that group with a specific engagement strategy is where efforts should be directed. And wind down the channels that have low conversion rates.
It’s also common for businesses to say “stop with the branding campaigns.” This is actually the exact opposite of what you want to do. Keeping your business front and center with a steady drumbeat of value messaging (i.e., how you’re helping organizations navigate the difficult time, etc.,) can be incredibly effective in inflecting sales momentum.
So Sarah, you’ve refreshed many company brands in the past. Walk us through what that’s like! I’m curious about the steps that you take, frameworks that you follow, etc.
I learned a lot but it was a lot of work. Primarily because access to the market is so important and just takes time. Interviews with clients and prospects to really understand what their pain points are, how they currently address them and how they like to engage with brands is really important in developing compelling and differentiated language and campaigns that buyers will pay attention to.
What is often underestimated is the importance of getting your organization, especially the leadership team, on board - from the beginning. The CEO and the leadership team should have a rebrand or refresh as part of their OKRs or annual goals. What surprises many organizations is that brand is an operating system for how you do business. It impacts everything you do, and when done right it creates tremendous efficiencies across the company from what your contracting process is like, to how your recruiting team recruits, to how your social team engages with people in comments.
As part of the POLITICO Pro brand rollout, the marketing team spent a lot of time partnering with other parts of the business to ensure everyone was bought into the new brand (and absorbing it). Aside from the socialization of how the rebrand was progressing to get feedback once we were ready to go live, we leaned into the competitive nature of the business and arranged a series of fun competitions including scavenger hunts in the brand portal, a “Spotted” contest of employees in their branded swag posted on social, an out of home campaign with bus wraps in DC and in newspapers, and ending with an American Idol inspired “Pitch Off” where sales associates pitched the new value prop in front of a live audience to win a host of prizes like AirBnB, airline and Uber gift cards.
Since you’ve literally built and trained marketing teams from scratch, I’ve got a big question for you! One thing that’s wearing off in today’s world, I think, is grit and accountability amongst marketers. Too many marketers are “silent quitting” as the cool kids say.
Throughout your roles, how did you instill the idea of ownership within your best marketing teams? And I’m eager to hear if you have any tips for CXOs on how to make the right marketing hires from the get go.
I’m maniacal about who I hire and I’ve been lucky to have really good people on my teams. I’m a tough boss and can ask for a lot, but I think my teams have responded to me because they trusted me and saw me as their advocate from the outset. Some of my approaches included:
Building off the last bit here, when interviewing a full-time or fractional chief marketing officer, are there CMO interview questions that founders should always have on their docket?
And are there red flags that CXOs should look out for when reviewing a CMO resume?
GREAT question. I actually don’t think the questions of a fractional CMO should be all that different from a full-time CMO - the job is really the same, the time commitment may vary, but otherwise, the role itself is the same.
As far as red flags go, I think not having measurable results or business impact highlighted could be a warning sign. Additionally, a candidate with experience in 1-2 marketing disciplines could mean limited exposure to how a full-stack marketing function operates which is important even if full-stack isn’t something you’ll do for some time.
Sarah, as someone who has held Executive marketing positions at several organizations, I can imagine that a big part of your role is about educating the C-suite and team leaders on modernizing their marketing.
Could you share with us some best practices around how you’ve done this before (without the political pushback haha)?
And if there’s a young marketing leader reading this interview, how can she replicate your playbook?
This is a really important question and the lesson I learned early on was to set expectations and gain buy-in early - don’t assume people know what marketing is, what good marketing looks like, etc. Everyone has different opinions about what marketing is and what it should do, so you’ll want to get ahead of those narratives and course correct as needed.
And I tend to leverage the “I’m the new kid” card and do some level-setting during my first 60-90 days observation presentation. In addition to outlining what I’ve observed and where the gaps are and the path forward to achieve whatever said goal there is, I also do three important things:
For young marketers I’d offer a few thoughts.
Speak the language of the business. Get familiar with the P&L statement and balance sheet and focus on the numbers that the business cares about (revenue, CAC, CLV, margins) and not the email open rate or the number of MQLs you produced. Those are important numbers for marketers, but they are irrelevant to the CFO, CEO etc.
As we end this super-packed interview, Sarah, are there any words you want us to close off with?
I truly believe that marketing is a business’s superpower - largely because businesses are not leveraging marketing in a results-driven way, and as a result, they are leaving money on the table. This is exactly why I started Sarah Eppler Co. - to help bold B2B, sales-led subscription-based companies accelerate their growth strategy. I’m confident and have first-hand experience that investing in marketing can be the single most disruptive thing a company (at any stage) can do to positively impact their bottom line.