Fernando Fischmann

Driving Growth Through Innovation: A Big Marketing Challenge

18 June, 2015 / Articles

What is the single biggest challenge that worries today’s CMOs? Or keeps them up at night? As part of my “CMO Insight Series,” I posed these questions to Ken Thewes, the CMO for Regal Entertainment Group, the country’s largest theater group with 7367 screens in 574 theaters. Prior to working for Regal Entertainment Group, Thewes held senior marketing roles at Brinker International and Darden Restaurants and started his career at Procter and Gamble. The following provides Thewes’ thoughts on the challenges and worries associated with being a CMO as well as some lessons learned and advice for aspiring C-level leaders.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had as a CMO?

The biggest challenge is staying innovative in a relevant way that drives business growth (i.e., sales / market share). I get dozens of new ideas weekly from different vendors trying to sell me on the latest and greatest way to innovate. The key is to find the few ideas that are meaningful to consumers, will keep us ahead of competitors, and move the ball forward. The reason this matters so much is that it’s important to be progressive and leading edge to achieve first-to-market advantages. If you aren’t testing and innovating, then you are simply following your competitors.

Q: What is your biggest worry / keeps you up at night?

In this job, the biggest worry is figuring out how to drive market share. We are in an industry which has seen a long term, slight decline in attendance. While there has been an increase in ticket revenue, the category has been shrinking in terms of ticket sales. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have a highly competitive and somewhat cluttered marketplace. And if you define competition broadly to include cable, Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, in addition to the big theaters, it is increasingly difficult to grab the consumer’s interest. So the worry is how to grow market share, in part through CRM, loyalty building activities, and innovative marketing programs that encourage new and continued attendance.

Q: As CMO, what has been a key “instrumental mistake” that you’ve had – one that provided important learning that enabled you to perform your job better? And what did you learn from it?

There are two examples that were really instrumental, and they were both related to the importance of EQ (emotional intelligence) as you move up the ladder. My background was in engineering. I went to the United States Air Force Academy and would be considered a quant jock. I was trained to have opinions but I learned that there is a fine line between having opinions and being too opinionated. At one point, I had written a recommendation, which both my boss and Marketing Director approved, and after presenting it to the Category Manager it was rejected. I had all of this data and just knew I was right so I challenged him, perhaps a little too much. The feedback I received at the time was that I needed to know when to give up.

Fast forward a few years, and in my next job (which also happened to be a promotion), I received similar feedback. At this point, I realized that I needed to internalize the feedback. I asked pointed questions to better understand what I was doing and my boss suggested that I adjust my style to the audience. Overall, the message was to be more sensitive to my peers and to understand that it was important to go beyond the data to try and create win-wins.

What’s interesting is that I’ve found over time that this is a very fine line to hit. Some people don’t support their arguments enough and back down when challenged. This is problematic. And it’s just as big of a problem if you “over-argue”.

What I did to address the challenge was fourfold: 1) agree with the feedback and commit to improving, 2) read a great book on EQ (Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Coleman), 3) took a training course, and 4) had an important mentor to bounce things off of. For people like me, who come from a heavy quantitative background, one of the biggest challenges is learning how to work most effectively with others. I feel very fortunate to have had bosses who provided the coaching, insight, and opportunity to improve.

Q: What advice would you give a current student who is aspiring to have your job in 20 years?

1) Be a Contributor. You want to demonstrate value from the very first day, especially when you are in meetings. You don’t want to just sit in meetings; you want to make a difference. The mistake is thinking that you have to have an opinion on everything. Sometimes, the value you can add is to ask a question that nobody thought about. This is about shades of gray. While you don’t want to be a wallflower, you also don’t want to be the person who dominates the conversation without adding value. My advice is that early on, ask a lot of questions. A big contribution can be driving broader / deeper understanding.

2) Build Advocates and Partners within the organization. This takes time and focus, but it is paramount. It is important to build advocates and relationships outside of your function. Sometimes, this can be cross-functional peers on a project team. Other times, it can just be people you’ve met from other functions. But these relationships can be critical in providing perspective, helping you learn, and moving projects forward.

3) Be an Idea Generator. Ideate…spend time thinking. Every organization I’ve worked for values new ideas. Great ideas rarely come when you are under pressure so if you generate new ideas or creative solutions to problems and bring them forward to the organization, you can create value for the company (and therefore for yourself). Also, leverage your cross-functional advocates and partners in the ideation process. You often get more varied and better thinking.

4) Don’t get an MS…Get an MBA. I had a technical masters degree and in hindsight, I should have gotten an MBA. I have a college age child right now and I’m realizing how important the network and social tools are that you can learn in a business program. And this is just multiplied when you attend a top MBA program.



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