Skip to main content

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 Esther Raphael.

Marta DeBellis

Marta DeBellis

Esther Raphael is the Chief Marketing Officer for Intersection, responsible for leading all aspects of marketing including B2B and B2C efforts, creative services, and content development. During her tenure, Esther has launched Intersection’s first brand campaign, established a full service in-house creative agency, and has overseen the go-to-market strategy for 10+ new markets and partnerships. Esther is also the Executive Sponsor of WIN, Women at Intersection, where she champions the growth and development of its female leaders.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your 'backstory' and how you got started in your career? 

Throughout elementary school and high school, I would spend hours pouring through magazines, living vicariously through the stories I read or made up about the people within the pages. Magazines helped shape the person I am today through the vision of the person I wanted to become… and that included the ads. Every page of a magazine, from the edit to the ads, were a precursor to today’s social media influencers. 

Fast forward to college and an assignment I received in a public speaking course. We were asked to interview the person with our dream job. I honestly didn't know what I wanted to “be," so I called my best friend’s dad (and the most successful person I knew at the time) who spent his career at Salomon Brothers and asked to interview him. He immediately said no, that I wouldn't be best suited for a career in finance (while I was put off by the comment, in the end he helped me find my true calling) and instead connected me to the then Marketing Director of Seventeen Magazine.

I interviewed her and finally had that a-hah moment where I realized my favorite childhood pastime could become a part of my career. When I graduated, I only applied for roles at the largest publishing houses and found my way to the ad sales sides of the business.

Today, I still enjoy a good moment with a magazine while traveling, and still spend the majority of my spare time exploring and digesting content (and ads)—from TV to TikTok. 

What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you on your path to becoming a CMO? 

The pivotal moment for me was later on in my journey. I’ve been blessed to have so many managers who championed my success and then unexpectedly found myself with a manager who seemed to want to see me fail. Their willingness to point out my flaws at every turn could have crushed me and was the perfect recipe to seal the deal on permanent imposter syndrome.

But instead, it fueled my ability to deflect other people’s negative energy and shine a light on my strengths. I knew what they were saying wasn't correct, I knew I was great at my job, and I wanted to change the perception they put into the universe and also in my mind. Honestly, I’m forever grateful for this experience because it taught me how to deal with a less-than manager, how to keep composure, and also how to take charge of my destiny, story and future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?  

I launched a personal project with a friend last year, a podcast called “I’m Not Like You.” The two of us have very different perspectives on everything from relationships, to our lifestyle, to what we watch on TikTok. We’re so different, and our podcast gives our female listeners two POVs on a variety of topics. 

For the holidays, my co-host (Eileen Crossin) bought me the most special gift: an out of home (OOH) media campaign promoting our podcast! It was the ultimate convergence of my personal and professional worlds. 

As the CMO of Intersection, an experience-driven OOH media and technology company, I got to experience the power of OOH for my own brand! It was a testament to the power of OOH to build brand awareness and drive action. Let’s not forget the “Hey, look ma, I made it feeling” when you see yourself on the big screen!  

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for? 

I have been fortunate enough to have had so many mentors (yes, plural!) at different stages of my career to help me learn and shape my path. 

Early on: My first gig in the magazine business, Carrie was a Marketing Manager and I was a Sales Assistant at a magazine. I expressed my desire to be in marketing and she took me under her wing, teaching me the basics. I watched her, I listened and I asked questions. This was a very early mentorship-like experience that taught me the importance of finding a role model and being proactive.

Mid-career: The hiring manager for my next role ended up shaping my career (all roads lead back to picking a good boss!). This was my first experience in a true mentorship relationship. Renee was so honest about my strengths, but also my shortfalls. This is ideal, someone to hold you accountable as a mentor and push you to achieve goals. Renee made it clear to me that I would have to conquer my fear of public speaking to advance in my career.

One day before a huge company-wide presentation, she asked me to stand in the Hearst Theater and present my presentation to her. She insisted that practice was the only way to get better. At that moment, I realized presenting to that one person you admire was a lot scarier than presenting to a group of 300. She was right. I tackled my fear of public speaking by practicing before every presentation. Even today, I practice until I know every line almost by heart, and every joke I hope to make along the way.

Renee also helped me draft my long term career vision and truly helped me get there. She was, and remains, my biggest champion.

Present: When I started at Intersection, I immediately gravitated to a colleague named Dave. As a newbie in the organization, I leaned on him to learn how to navigate the new relationships I was building (it was my first job out of publishing). He challenged me to think bigger, and he never let me coast. One of the many things I learned from Dave is the importance of paying it forward as you go through your career. He had no vested interest in my success or failure, he just genuinely wanted to help me. 

There are more people who deserve callouts! I share all this because I think it’s important to know that it takes a team of mentors to build your dream, an entourage of sorts. It’s an area that I now feel obligated to pay it forward in and a topic I feel passionate about. 

Can you please share your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote'? How is it relevant to you in your life? 

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is “don't run away from something, run to it.” I have used that life lesson to make several decisions. Before I consider a new opportunity or role, I stop and truly process my motives. Am I running away from frustrations or a particular situation or am I truly ready to jump to my next great thing?

Can you share with us three strengths, skills, or characteristics that helped you to reach this place in your career? How can others actively build these areas within themselves?

  • Intuitive: I rely on my intuition to guide me through big and small decisions. The way I describe this is that I “feel” the answer and having practiced this for so many years, it’s something that comes naturally to me. If you haven't, try to stop before making a decision and listen to what your gut tells you. Trust yourself. 
  • Decisiveness: I make quick decisions and my team (usually) appreciates that. People want to see their manager be able to come to a decision and take swift action to move projects and initiatives forward.
  • Self awareness: I’m a firm believer that you can't be everything to everyone. I know what I am good at and I lead there (and I also know what I am not good at and don't force control over those areas!). I pay close attention and know what people on the team are good at and I encourage them to do the same. If this is an area you’re looking to develop, try soliciting feedback to understand (or help confirm) where your areas of strength are, and then lean into them and build upon them.

Which skills are you still trying to grow now? 

Always trying to better my practice of gratitude. 

In January 2022, we were still in the throes of pandemic fatigue with the advent of Omicron. I knew we had to do something to let people express their feelings but also find a way out, a way to positivity. 

A few months prior I met Chris Schembra, the founder of 7:47, an evidence-based framework that helps leaders build community and strengthen relationships. We spent a bit of time chatting on his podcast, after which I invited him to facilitate quarterly Gratitude Workshops with the employees at Intersection. 

During the first workshop, Chris asked us to share the one person you would give credit or thanks to in your life, that you DON’T give enough credit or thanks to. It was amazing listening to everyones stories and knowing we all felt safe enough to be vulnerable. Through that workshop, we made immediate connections that bonded those on the call. 

As we planned each of the 7:47 experiences, I dug in more on the concept of gratitude in the workplace. Experts say that it not only creates a happier environment, but there is a solid business case for instilling a culture of gratitude–it facilitates employee engagement and a clear path to retention.

Gratitude is such a simple yet powerful thing to channel. When you can be grateful for the good and the not so good moments, and the lessons and growth, it can have an impact on individual happiness and the company overall.

Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?

We all know the many hats that a CMO must wear and the list of skills needed to get the job done, from being strategic and analytic, to being creative and inspirational. Those go without saying, to me, but it’s the skills not listed on the job description that can tip you from a good to a great CMO.

1. Emotional intelligence: Emotionally intelligent leaders are better at managing their own emotions and better at understanding and influencing the emotions of others. 

In the complex world we’re living in today, it’s so important for leaders to frequently check-in with themselves on this. When we lead with emotional intelligence, we create an environment where people feel comfortable with the way they are feeling. There is almost nothing more important for a company’s culture than feeling your manager has a genuine interest in your well being and an understanding of your strengths. Leading with emotional intelligence has a ripple effect from the top down, which is so important for creating a healthy workplace culture.

2. Champion of culture: I see the CMO’s role as much responsible for internal branding and messaging as I do external. We should also actively promote a company’s offerings and culture to the team that lives it everyday. Sometimes that includes fun events (like planning gatherings and team building) and other times having to tackle more challenging moments that bond the group, like the 7:47 Gratitude Workshops we hosted. 

3. Curiosity: It’s key for a CMO to have their eyes open to what’s going on around them. Soak in new technology, cultural phenomenons and keep in touch with what the next generation of consumers expects. It is critical to challenge the status quo and constantly re-think strategy. 

Right now, my curiosity leads me to all things related to the Creator Economy, an estimated $100 billion industry. I study the top creators on all platforms and am always on top of TikTok trends. Recently, #LuckyGirlSyndrome was the must-follow. This is the notion that affirmative mantras and a positive mind-set will move everyday events in your favor. According to The Washington Post, videos tagged with #LuckyGirlSyndrome have been watched a collective 149.6 million times. 

Get ahead of the trends. After all, CMOs are often asked to be futurists! 

4. Composure:  CMOs are regularly challenged by internal and external stakeholders, it’s important to remember all the folks you and your company serve are your clients. When you channel your inner salesperson, you’ll maintain composure no matter the situation. 

When I was working in publishing, I was producing a huge event and Aretha Franklin was set to perform. To promote the event, we were running a full page ad to highlight her latest endeavors. One day, my phone rang and I heard the following, “Ms. Levy (my maiden name), this is Ms. Franklin….” She then proceeded to give me all the changes she wanted to see on the creative—even though we didn't create the ad—asked me to change it, and fax it back to her. I have never been more star struck, or scared in my life, but composure…. 

As CMO, you never know what’s coming your way and from whom, maintain composure in ANY situation and expect the unexpected.

5. Authenticity: I show up as me, every day. I saw a great post on Instagram recently that said “Be your own muse. Normalize tripping out on how awesome it is to be you.”  No one else can be me, or you, and isn't that the beauty of it?

Are there any underrated skills or qualities that you encourage others not to overlook?

EQ is often overlooked when it comes to screening and hiring. As leaders, we need to find ways to ensure we surround ourselves and our teams with those who have a high level of EQ or have the desire and potential to develop in that area. Researchers have shown that our success at work or in life depends 80% on emotional intelligence and only 20% on intellect. 

What are some of the main issues that other CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?  

One of the biggest challenges over the last few years is trying to influence customers and build a brand with limited budget and resources. You have to get scrappy and often that leads to your most creative moments.

We have launched some of our best projects with limited budgets—because we dared to. Some of my favorite examples at Intersection since 2020 include: 

  • We launched a creative agency called Creative Labs with in-house talent, and executed hundreds of campaigns within year one.
  • Kicked off our first brand campaign, “Go There,” which embodied the literal and aspirational essence of the words. The intent was to demonstrate to clients that Intersection’s media could take them to the places where people were longing to return after months in isolation.

We also tried some things that didn't work (like filming TikToks talking to folks post-Covid out and about on city streets)—and that’s okay too. We learned good lessons along the way about what works and doesn't for us as a team and brand. Those lessons help guide how and where you want to spend time and budget moving forward.

What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact as a CMO?

Be fearless. 

If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would it be? 

To walk around life expecting to inspire a movement is a great deal of pressure—the kind that could distract from what’s in front of you. The best way to accidentally build a movement over a lifetime is to invest in meaningful relationships and meaningful work. Focus on doing that and building a community around you. One day, it might become a movement.

It's not worth it to live your life with the intention of "going viral"—building influence and trust amongst the people closest to you is just as important, if not more.

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! 

100% Dave Portnoy. I am so completely fascinated by the empire Dave has built, all from the ground up. More than just the business itself, he is an icon. Some of things I’d discuss at breakfast or lunch:

  • Brand on brands: Dave has launched many independent channels off of Barstool, each that hold their own brand equity and success: from pizza reviews to podcasts.
  • BFF Podcast: building this podcast with Josh Richards was brilliant. He made himself immediately relevant in the space by pairing with one of the lead creators and dishing on gen-z gossip. Dave has an ability to do this in so many different ways and permeate through culture (I don't watch a second of sports but I follow Barstool and all-things related) 
  • Response to controversy: I appreciate how Dave takes this on. Let’s be honest, we all wish we could do a little bit of this. 

Dave, send me your avails.

Stephanie Hood
By Stephanie Hood

Stephanie Hood is an experienced marketing professional and Editor of The CMO. With nearly a decade spent as Marketing Manager at Discover Holidays and Executive Editor at VIVA Lifestyle & Travel, she built her career leading editorial and marketing teams and strategies that turn six-figure budgets into seven-figure profits. She now enjoys connecting with the world's top executives to learn their secrets to business success, and shares those insights right here with her community of like-minded professionals. Curious what she’s uncovered? Be sure to sign up for The CMO newsletter.