A successful CMO has many roles, including leading an organization's marketing department, establishing marketing strategies, and tracking successes and failures. How can a CMO create a highly successful career? What tools, strategies, and approaches can a CMO use to be successful? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy King.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you share your personal backstory with us?
Thank you for having me! When I was deciding which field to pursue in college, I hadn't yet developed an interest in marketing. I began my time at Davidson College on a pre-med path studying science. Then, I took an art history class, completely changing my career trajectory. My newfound passion for art and art history blossomed into my early career. For me, this underscored the importance of keeping your eyes open to different potential areas of interest; you never know where your curiosity will lead you.
My career pivoted to marketing in the early 2010s. During my time at Artnet, an art market website, I developed a passion for bringing storytelling and emotionally connected marketing into SaaS businesses. Marketing didn’t look like what it used to anymore; roles in this field were expanding, and there were considerable advancements in tactical possibilities on the backs of increased access to big data, MarTech growth, and mobile development. Over time, I developed a growing interest in MarTech, leading to product management and product marketing roles at digital advertising companies. Largely, changes in the way we consumed and monetized our screens were happening at lightning speed, making this an exciting time to embrace the marketing profession.
Now, as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Relias, I work with great talent at every level of the organization. I am grateful our leadership recognizes the importance of marketing as a discipline, and I couldn’t be more proud of our 82 highly skilled, empathetic, and creative marketers. Getting here has been a journey of curiosity, remaining open to new possibilities, and, ultimately, learning from my colleagues’ leadership and expertise everyday.
What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you on your path to becoming a CMO?
One specific moment in the early 2010s at the annual ANA Masters of Marketing Conference has stuck with me through all these years. At that time, Facebook was less than 10 years old, and the iPhone was about five years old. With social media still in its infancy stage, we were just beginning to see both the promise and the risks of its influence. At this point, digital marketing was predominantly thought to be banner ads on websites and figuring out how to make them palatable in mobile environments.
I was sitting in on a session where Mark Addicks, the then-CMO of General Mills, presented their recent campaign. In this campaign, consumers were encouraged to take photos of themselves with boxes of Cheerios and other General Mills cereals at places all around the world for General Mills to then share on their Facebook page. At this moment, it was clear that a digital revolution was about to take place. On the one hand, social media could become the engagement channel of brands’ dreams, giving them control of how consumers interact with their brand. On the other, it could become a communication channel where consumers are in control, potentially putting organizations’ reputation at risk.
I loved the newness, the attention shift, and the promise inherent in Addicks’ presentation. It made me want to be the CMO onstage—to be a part of the marketing revolution and its swiftly moving tide.
Can you share an interesting story that has happened since you began leading your company?
In early 2022, Nurse.com acquired a startup nurse community app called HOLLIBLU. We kept the company’s small, entrepreneurial team because of their passion for the challenges facing nurses today and the power of a community in offering support and recognition. The team was accustomed to working in a very different culture where decisions were made immediately with little approval needed, and where concerns for the larger contexts of brand reputation, information security, or competing business goals were absent. Our challenge was to bring this incredibly enthusiastic, community-oriented team into the Relias fold. This meant introducing layers of new processes and brand guidelines, as well as cross-functional stakeholders, reporting requirements, and approvals, all while trying to not squelch the team’s creativity, innovative impulses, and contagious passion for nurses’ causes.
We did this by allowing the team to have a higher degree of functional autonomy and by encouraging experimentation with new marketing channels. We also gave the founder, Cara Lunsford, a strong voice within the community through avenues like hosting Nurse.com’s new NurseDot Podcast and event sponsorships such as the National Nurses’ March. We have also been amplifying her voice on the Nurse.com app and social channels. At the same time, we instituted processes of collaboration across teams to guide the HOLLIBLU team into a new working environment. While there were some growing pains, we’ve reached an incredible place where the team is thriving. They’re growing our nurse audience exponentially and even spreading lessons learned to our B2B teams, which are seeking to take advantage of new marketing channel opportunities.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
My path has been paved by countless incredible people who have helped me get to where I am today. However, the following two helped to solidify my interest in marketing and subsequently prepare me for my now role as CMO.
Coming out of the art world in 2012, I started with a small, digital privacy and MarTech management company called Ghostery. They took a chance on my odd-looking resume, trusting my passion for digital data products, curiosity, and embracing change. At that point, I understood relatively little about the industry, technology, and the role of product management. My boss, Ed Kozek, who was Chief Product Officer at the time, never exhibited frustration despite my steep learning curve. He was patient and focused on connecting me with the people and resources I needed. When faced with many stressful business decisions, he diffused that stress for me and my team in a way that enabled me to focus on developing my skills. Even if he may have been feeling different, he always demonstrated a confident and thoughtful demeanor. Adopting this mindset has been significant in helping me move into larger leadership roles.
In mid-2019, I took on a VP of Marketing role at a data management SaaS business called Zaloni, where I was reporting to a newly-hired CEO named Susan Cook. Susan came into the company with a resounding voice of positivity, encouragement, and relentless commitment to recognizing the strengths of employees, celebrating their victories, and fostering an inspiring vision of the future. At that time, the company was struggling financially, but I admired Susan’s ability to straightforwardly face challenges while also raising every voice in a positive way. Learning to actively embrace this leadership approach has been key to my achievements.
Can you please share your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote' and how it has been relevant to you in your life?
Manish Patel, a former colleague and current Chief Product Officer at CData Software, introduced me to a book called “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. In a chapter exploring the potential of a ‘possibility-based’ perspective, Zander, who was a former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote, “In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.”
As marketers, we are often taught to only focus on being data-driven, to push our teams to develop dashboards, reports, and continuous insights, and to drive ever-better outcomes for metrics like return on advertising spend (ROAS), return on investment, monthly active users, daily active users, and click-through rates. Don’t get me wrong - goals and measurements are very important. However, if driving to a number remains our only focus, we become outdated and inflexible. Instead, if we enable a purview where anything can be entertained in the path to goal attainment and where adaptability and creativity are encouraged, we set our teams up to better capitalize on their strengths.
Recently, Relias' Nurse.com team was increasingly frustrated with trying to hit a specific conversion rate number for a checkout process that didn’t offer a great user experience. Because our product team had to prioritize other more important projects, they couldn’t devote the resources we needed to improve a long list of requests. I asked the digital marketing team, “What do you want? If you could wave a wand and get one thing that would move the ROAS needle, what would it be?”, and this sent them down a path of possibility. By enabling them to think creatively and set the context, they identified a solution, the implementation of mobile pay, that will help them hit their measurement goal, once the capability is added.
Can you share three strengths, skills, or characteristics that helped you to reach this place in your career? How can others actively build these areas within themselves?
The first, a skill stemming from a concept that I embraced in “The Art of Possibility” is the practice of giving everyone an ‘A’ from the start. Although I adopted this later in my career than I would have liked to, this has been pivotal to any success that I have found as a leader. It is all about motivation—when a person knows you believe in them, their expertise, and their abilities from the outset, they approach their work with confidence, creativity and initiative. Continuously communicate this confidence, and the rest will follow.
The second is more of a practice. I learned to be comfortable with the idea that the more you take on leadership roles within your organization, the less likely you will be the expert in any given room. Although it’s not always true, the transition up the ladder can be difficult for people who advanced because they were the most knowledgeable person in the room. Learning to relinquish that expectation and listen to others is critical to making good decisions.
Lastly, maintain an eagerness to continue learning. While you may not be the foremost expert on any given topic as you transition into leadership roles, it’s more than worthwhile to continuously improve your soft skills and leadership skills. There isn’t a magic secret for developing these skills, but rather it’s about devoting the time and effort to do so. Time is often a challenge, so find which formats you are most likely to engage with based on what you enjoy and how you spend your time. Then, use those channels to find content that develops your skills and, most importantly, commit time to practicing what you learn.
Which skills are you still trying to grow now?
I’m interested in how we, as organizations, can excel in complex decision-making environments, especially when the path to a business goal is not agreed upon. When I began my career, most decisions were made by ‘a boss’ in a very top-down hierarchy. Workplaces have evolved to invert this hierarchy pyramid, adopting more of a ‘bottom-up’ approach. Today, in our highly collaborative workplace at Relias, we’re using a consensus-based model that applies more weight to certain roles, but I believe we can further improve upon this. Putting time and effort into this is integral because most projects, especially where marketing is involved, are cross-functional, and the impact of a given decision is felt across many roles. I’m focusing on finding ways to eliminate potential feelings that someone else in the organization has made a decision that negatively impacts my ability to perform and achieve my goals.
I recently read “Words that Change Minds” by Shelle Rose Charvet, which includes fascinating insights on how to better motivate and influence people. Within the book, Charvet defines 14 context-dependent productivity pattern categories that affect how our interest is triggered. For example, some people approach solving a problem by looking for options and new ways of proceeding that may even bend the rules. Others prefer to have a step-by-step process to follow, finding motivation within a known procedure. With these different outlooks in mind, knowing how a given member of your team may approach a challenging project and tailoring the project to their specific pattern is likely to have a significant effect on the outcome. I am currently working on practicing this skill, but it will take some time to bring it fluidly into everyday practice.
Lastly, keeping up with marketing technology is a constant area of development where I will never be fully fluent. However, I want to ensure we are considering the latest solutions. From ChatGPT and AI innovation to the latest advertising options to the many streaming options and beyond, I rely on my team and a selection of trusted media advisors to educate me and keep our team focused on what offers the best applications for our business.
Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?
Here are five areas that stand out to me to be a successful CMO:
- Focus on personal development.
In 2022, I participated in a podcast for the Triangle Chapter of the American Marketing Association where I referenced a video leadership session featuring Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill. In that session, Linda spoke about the importance of practicing leadership and spending more time on learning and development than on performance. This is something I am working to instill more in our team. For example, our Nurse.com team is facing a massive period of change right now: new products, business models, technology stacks, websites, and apps. Because of this change, there isn’t much that will be the same in about a year from now.
For us to gain the adaptability, curiosity, and creativity we need to make complex decisions during such a considerable cross-functional change, I asked my team to read “Crucial Conversations: The Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” and participate in a book discussion during our annual Marketing Week this past November. The activity was well-received, and I continue to see ways in which the collaborative, emotional problem-solving strategies of the book improve our ability to tackle challenging projects.
- Treat your partners in service well.
As marketers, we live neither at the birth of a product nor at the signing of a contract. We serve at the center of complex processes around launching products, engaging ideal audiences, and guiding them towards a sale. This means we must be good stewards in service to our many company constituents while also trusting that they will honor our expertise and ideas.
Marketers walk a fine line of serving and working with our stakeholders as partner advisors, and deciding which team should take on specific roles in different contexts. This requires mutual respect and empathy. For example, Relias' Market Intelligence team gathers survey data, competitive intelligence, and customer feedback and then compiles this information into a Voice of Customer report. Their critical intelligence feeds into our product strategy, marketing approaches, and sales pitches. To be successful, our downstream partners in sales and customer success must complete a variety of fields in our CRM software and other applications. Every team is an essential partner, as the strength of our insights is only as strong as the data shared with us.
- Relevance is value.
As CMOs, it can be difficult to stay up to date on the latest in digital technology and innovation. However, staying relevant is vital, and we must remain digitally fluent while engaging with our customers and industry partners. While we can rely on our younger, more digitally native employees to help advise us, it is also important that we invest our own time in learning and exploring new skills.
As an example, our Nurse.com team started a variety of new programs late last fall to grow our active nurse community. As a result, influencer marketing campaigns became a core part of these efforts. Given my background, I had relatively little experience working with influencers and was fortunate to have a couple of experts on my team within Bertelsmann’s family of companies. While learning from these individuals, I concurrently worked to learn more on my own. Because of this experience, I feel more prepared for growing future influencer spend, and I am now alert to how this powerful channel will help us grow additional communities.
- Diversity of teams.
The importance of building teams diverse in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity has been clearly established. For marketers, diversity is critical to our development of creativity, empathy, and relevancy. If we do not produce materials from a wide range of perspectives, we will never reflect the reality of our customers and open ourselves up to being dismissed as irrelevant. This is true across every area of marketing and, while we are making progress, it’s critical to remain committed to further improvement.
For example, one of my teams that I am proud of in this respect is our creative team. This is a particularly diverse group of individuals who value the difference in each other’s perspectives. They do an incredible job of channeling their differences into exceptional work. Throughout our company’s rebrand, this team has produced materials focused on accessibility, inclusivity, and empathy in ways that resonate with the populations we serve.
- Focus on your customers.
Regardless of the industry you work in, it’s critical to never lose sight of your customers. However, this is even more important in healthcare. Relias is ultimately working to measurably improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and those who care for them, which we take very seriously. We must remain relentlessly focused on what helps healthcare workers deliver better outcomes. In a world of healthcare market disruption, staffing shortages, and workforce burnout, concentrating our focus on solving our customers’ challenges is key.
For example, our team has made a commitment to helping healthcare organizations improve their service to individuals with an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD). A part of this commitment is evident in a course that our content team created. The video-based e-learning simulation course, filmed with a GoPro camera, combines immersive environments with online training to allow users to experience the challenges faced by an individual. These efforts don’t go unappreciated, either. Our efforts cumulated in Relias winning a Brandon Hall Award last year for our course, “A Day in the Life: An IDD Perspective.”
Are there any underrated skills or qualities that you encourage others not to overlook?
I strongly believe that high-performing teams should be built to include members with a healthy variety of strengths. A skill I look for in managers that I find often underrated is the ability to hire individuals across a wide range of personalities, backgrounds, talents, and interests that are different from their own. For example, I enjoy exploring new options, paths for improvement, and environments of constant change. While these traits can be beneficial for expanding our marketing channels, optimizing operations, or exploring new ways of work, they can be exhausting for team members, leading to unfinished projects and a tendency to lose focus on key goals. I rely on team members who are more skilled in process, have the ability to troubleshoot and predict hazards, and thrive in following a strategic path to ensure we are accomplishing our business objectives.
What are some of the main issues that other CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?
I believe marketers have a natural affinity for ferrymen, pilots, tour guides, and train conductors. We exist in a liminal space at neither the beginning nor end of the product-to-customer journey. To be successful, we must have exceptional relationships with our colleagues and partners who work in product roles, who begin our journeys, and those in sales and customer success roles, who carry us to the finish line.
Too often, marketers work siloed off from their partners, or worse, resent their roles or outcomes in the shared journey. To work effectively, CMOs must work diligently to remove these separations and create structures where marketers have valued positions along the route. This requires both systems of efficient collaboration and agreed autonomy, alongside mutual trust and respect- a balance that can be difficult to achieve.
In my organization, I am very proud of how we have reached a place where our teams are highly collaborative and partnership oriented. There is no silver bullet to success, as time must be invested in defining processes, creating collaborative governing structures, and bringing teams together outside of meetings to build relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding.
What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact as a CMO?
Marketers live in an era of great change. Digital transformation, AI revolutions, the splintering of channels, and many more changes mean that CMOs must be flexible. In a world of constant change, untested waters, and new possibilities, making poor decisions every now and then is natural. However, they will rely on you to give them the confidence that comes with knowing that it is alright to make a mistake if you are open-minded enough to learn from it. This, coupled with flexibility and receptiveness to alternative approaches, will ensure your team is motivated for success.
One method for cultivating this open environment is to put failure-sharing into regular practice. During monthly marketing all-hands meetings, my team partakes in an exercise called ‘The Bellyflop.’ In this exercise, a team member or a small group shares something that recently went wrong and what they learned from it. This vulnerability and openness is great for team bonding and transparency.
Small efforts like these can have large impacts on those around you. By removing a collective fear of failure and building the courage to admit mistakes, you enable your teams to build trust, leading to improved outcomes.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would that be?
Reach out and praise a healthcare worker in your life. It might sound simple, but, as we have mentioned, the healthcare community is suffering from burnout, staff turnover, and many stressful challenges in between. Let a nurse, therapist, doctor, or health aide in your life know how valuable his or her presence and hard work is to you.
Through a lovely video tribute to nurses, we’ve already begun paying homage to their deeply impactful work. The video series reminds us that nurses are likely with us when we come into this world, when we leave it, and at many moments in between.
Lastly, is there a person with whom you would love to have a breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this!
I’d like to share a meal with Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the current President of American University and former DHHS Secretary and President of the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other incredible professional and service accomplishments. While women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of healthcare organizations where policy and funding decisions are made, Sylvia is a symbol of change.
She is someone skilled at bringing strongly disparate perspectives together, navigating complex decisions, and forming solutions that elevate healthcare outcomes for our society. I’d like to get her advice on increasing healthcare workforce satisfaction and how she views the many conflicting forces in the healthcare market.