Jul 22, 2020

High-Value B2B and Proving Marketing’s Worth, with Susan Curhan

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Susan is a Connector...of business goals with strategies, and of people and ideas that strengthen business and personal performance. Her insights about marketing get at the heart of why and how smart marketers are valued drivers of business results. She’s led marketing, communications, product innovation, sales, and digital strategy in both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies. Before business school, she studied Pharmacy and is convinced her marketing career came from a stroke of luck that involves tennis and the U.S. Olympic team. She’s a proud science nerd, has a strategic framework at the ready for any situation, believes your resume needs work and is certain almost all communication would be better in table format.

Also, Susan believes bad creative is (mostly) the fault of poorly-trained marketers, not poorly-performing agencies. Want to know why? Follow this podcast, it will be discussed in a future episode.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How Susan developed a love of science and then decided to attend Pharmacy school on a whim before moving into pharmaceutical marketing
  • Why it is important to develop the broadest range of skills possible, and why Susan recommends you take on new projects and roles throughout your company
  • Why truly knowing what a strategy is, and how to build one, is a vital skill you need to cultivate, and why your efforts should be grounded in the needs of the business
  • Why you should focus on understanding your end-user/buyer, understanding your company's and products' capabilities and how to apply them, and how to stand out
  • Why it is important to work at a company that values your contributions, especially if you are a woman in marketing
  • Why project planning should include at a minimum a discovery phase, a planning phase, a design & implementation phase, and a measure phase
  • How high-value B2B sales differ from other sales and marketing efforts, and why working with a varied team requires you to meet people where they are
  • Why demonstrating marketing's return on investment is challenging, and why providing the sales team with tools to assist the sales pipeline is the best way to show value
  • How Susan is tracking her team's use of time on projects and on "sustaining ops", and how the information has become invaluable
  • What tools Susan finds invaluable in her work and to help streamline her workday, and what key daily habits she practices

Additional resources:  

Show Transcription:

Intro: Welcome to A Brave New Podcast, the podcast all about how brave entrepreneurial companies are unlocking their business potential using inbound marketing. Here is your marketing expert and host, Polly Yakovich.

Polly Yakovich: Welcome back to A Brave New Podcast. I'm so excited to have Susan Curhan with me today. I'm going to pick her brain about all things marketing. She has held so many titles in her illustrious marketing career and I always learn something from her. She's currently the director of marketing at Vera Whole Health, which she's going to tell us more about. So welcome to the podcast.

Susan Curhan: Thanks for having me. Looking forward to it.

Polly Yakovich: So tell me, give me just the bio. Give me the rundown of what's the career arc. Where did you start? What did you do? Where are you now?

Susan Curhan: Excellent. Well, I started in my parent's kitchen doing science experiments in the sink.

Polly Yakovich: That's amazing.

Susan Curhan: My mother went to the Bronx High School of Science. It was an elite high school in New York. She was a poor kid in New York City and got in, and she was a science freak. So we were the ones with the books in the kitchen, messing around, blowing things up, making a big mess, and she was always game for that. I definitely had a love of science from the beginning. Did really well at it in school. I just always have been curious about it and I still am. I work in healthcare. But when it got time to think about college I remember not really ... Okay, back then there was no internet, we had to write away from brochures. So me and a friend were looking at brochures and she was like, "Yeah. I'm checking out this thing called pharmacy school." And I was like, "What's that?" And I read the brochure and I was like, "That sounds good." And honestly it changed my life. It was just kind of a whim decision.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. It's crazy how that happens.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, I loved the geek stuff, I loved the medical stuff. Then what I loved also about it was when you graduated you had a job.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It was a very hard technical degree but with a vocational aspect to it.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Basically it was a guaranteed job when you graduated. So anyway, I was off and running based on that, and I've been in and out of healthcare with some side trips ever since.

Polly Yakovich: How did the pharmacy marketing crossover happen? Tell me about that.

Susan Curhan: That is a cool story. I actually was going to tell you that story. I was in pharmacy school and you had to do tons, it's a six year program, you had to do tons of internships, and one of the ones I applied for was actually in pharmaceutical marketing. So go to the interview, there was this crazy guy in a three piece suit, with long white hair. He was an old mad man, Madison Av guy. He towards the end of his career took over marketing for a small pharmaceutical company, that believe it or not, was a division of Revlon Health Care. Where was that fit, right? That was so weird.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So I'm one of a billion people interviewing for this. I went last, which maybe was a good thing. One of the questions he asks me was, "What would your dream job be? What's your dream." I think even he said, and I said, "I want to win a gold medal in tennis for the US in the Olympics." Honest to god had never crossed my mind before that. I'm pretty sure I probably even started to cry. I get misty about that stuff, and I got the job. Me and this other young woman, we shared an apartment for the summer. We worked in marketing. My first assignment was when TUMS, they had TUMS antacid, and TUMS antacid had just been sort of come out with its claim about calcium being healthy for women. We were front page on USA Today, and I spent the summer researching marketing claims, and gathering all the data to make a marketing claim about the calcium in TUMS. So that was my summer internship, one of them while I went to pharmacy school. Honestly, it set my career. Everything that came after came from that.

Polly Yakovich: That's fascinating.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Did you ever get to talk to him and see if that question is what actually got you the job?

Susan Curhan: No, but we just clicked.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It's just one of those things. I'm a chatty person. I will say a lot of the other people in pharmacy school probably were not as comfortable being personable [crosstalk 00:04:21].

Polly Yakovich: With people.

Susan Curhan: They were better behind the counter.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: And I was better in front of it, so it worked out really well for us, yeah.

Polly Yakovich: I love that. Well, you kind of talked about one of them, but I think as you look back on your career, what were some of those magic moments that you think of that sort of set you on a path?

Susan Curhan: That's funny. When I saw this question I thought about two things, and one you're going to laugh because we talk about this all the time. So let me tell a little bit of a story. So early in my career I'm at big pharma in New Jersey and I'm one of a gaggle. I mean, we had gaggles of marketers, just floors and floors of them because we had 10,000 little brands. It was a consumer products based company. It was really common to have super formal presentations. You would work them, and work them, and work them. You would make these one ton decks. By the way, you were wearing a suit and pantyhose, which is a nightmare I never want to relive. So my team was presenting a one ton deck on some topic or other, and the president of the company just stops us cold in the meeting. He says what basically has sort of been my mantra for the rest of my career. But before that, let me just step back and say in those days nobody even knew how to spell culture or empathy.

Polly Yakovich: Right.

Susan Curhan: The buzz words now, everybody is trying to do it. I happen to work at a place where they really do embody values like that, but back then business and marketing were just command and control. The person at the top, 99% of the time a guy, was walking around yelling, kicking ass and taking names, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So he stops this meeting and he said, "I don't pay you to make charts and read me findings. I pay you for your business judgment." So I think the lesson that really set my career on the current way I view it is that yeah, it's your job to dig up findings, but what really matters is improving your business and making your customers happy, and in the case I hope they're healthy. I always I talk to you, I talk to your team, I talk to my teams. Yeah, get your findings, but tell me something that's going to make a difference in the business.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I always say, "Don't read me a bedtime story with your charts. You're going to put me to sleep."

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I would say that was lesson number one. Lesson number two I would say that sort of guided my career is to get the broadest experience possible and build some skills that are relevant. We could talk for hours about how that's changed in marketing, but really you'll draw on them later in ways that others who don't have as much experience just can't. I mean, I see it every day.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, no. I was just going to say I worry about this because I also came up just slightly behind you, but I was able to get a really broad experience too. I feel like people get pushed into such kind of niche positions now. How do you get that broad experience? Do you move around a lot? How would you recommend you do that?

Susan Curhan: Yeah. Take different jobs in your company.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Where I work I do-

Polly Yakovich: That's smart.

Susan Curhan: ... a blend of both marketing and sales. I have some who works for me who is pretty much 100% sales, even though they're on a marketing team.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Take on projects, take on roles. I'm a believer that 90% of training comes from projects or work and good coaching.

Polly Yakovich: I agree.

Susan Curhan: Not from going to Salesforce Dream, whatever it's called. I mean, yeah, I can listen to webinars, yes, I read a lot, but doing beats classroom work, in my opinion, in marketing.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Ask for new assignments. Ask for new projects. Network with people, and yeah, sometimes honestly you could be in a company with very narrow roles, you're going to have to move if you want to move up or if you want to gain other skills.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. If you could go back and sort of make a different choice, is there anything that comes to mind? Is there anything that you would redo or was it all sort of net positive to the journey that was yours to take?

Susan Curhan: Actually it was funny because when you gave me this question what I thought of was I really wish I had learned to deal with conflict better.

Polly Yakovich: Wow, that's great.

Susan Curhan: Both worthy and unworthy conflict I thought of.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I made a note for myself that says, "It wasn't a skill my parents modeled well for me. Ask my brother." My brother one day when I was asking him a question about something like, "Why am I this way?" And he said, "Susan, when our parents wanted our opinion they gave it to us." I think that that was brilliant. I used to let unworthy conflict trigger me into bad behavior. I didn't even know how to deal with worthy conflict honestly, but what I discovered was that the people and the situation just weren't worth it. Unfortunately at the time I thought every issue was worthy of an argument.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I'll just say you and I have had conflict. How am I doing?

Polly Yakovich: Well, I mean, I think even with a really super healthy positive work environment you're going to have some level of healthy conflict if you are going to get a great product or idea at the end.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: People agreeing doesn't make sense.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. We could have a whole nother podcast on how I feel about working with creative agencies like yours.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: But I'll say conflict, you're raising a really good point, which is I think you know my philosophy that if a marketer feels their creative partner isn't doing a good job, they first have to check themselves, because in general it comes from bad, I hate the word management, but it comes from bad management of your creative partner. So that healthy conflict I believe good creatives value it, but a lot of other things have to be in place. It can't just be, "Hey, make me a miracle piece of marketing." And then when you hate it, it's the agency's fault.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: We could definitely do a whole nother podcast on that.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I know I wrote some blog posts for you, but I love arguing the merits of good work and even work that's in draft form that we want to make better. That's good stuff.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, I agree. So with this broad sort of background, if you're speaking to people who are maybe earlier in their career, what kind of skills do you think marketers need to be successful today? I mean, it's changed so much.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. I'm a fan of the word strategy, I have to say. Even though it's overused and I will say wildly interpreted, but I do think know what a strategy is and know how to build one. In my opinion, a lot of people say they're strategic and I haven't found that to be true. I do think I've hired one or 200 people in my career probably, so many, or at least interviewed hundreds and hundreds and hired 50. Some people are wired to think through the logic of strategy, it's a strategy and art. It's a continuum, and some people are heavy on the logic and they can't get to the art of it, and some people are so artistic at it that it's not practical. So whether you're good at it or not good at it, grind through it and learn how to do it because so many marketing efforts are not grounded in what the business needs and what the business capabilities are. I happen to call that strategy.

Susan Curhan: So number one, strategy. Number two, analytics. There is no shortage of data, and even in the olden days there was data. It was harder to get, and you really had to use it because you had so little of it, and you had to make big decisions with such little credible information. You had to use a lot more judgment.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So figure out how to use it to improve your business and your life.

Polly Yakovich: A lot of people bring data and piles of data and it's just a bunch of trivia. You really do have to learn how to glean the insights out of it.

Susan Curhan: And what matters and what doesn't. What's noise, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I'm not a fan of click-through this and whatever that. I'm like, "Who is buying my stuff? That's all I want to know."

Polly Yakovich: Exactly.

Susan Curhan: Who is buying my stuff? What do they look like and how do I find more of them?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, exactly.

Susan Curhan: I don't really care about their click-throughs, it's a path to something.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: The third thing that I seriously I'm not good at. I think I'm good at one, I think I'm good at two, I'm crappy at three. Three is learn what motivates different people and how to leverage it.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, gosh, that's hard.

Susan Curhan: I just don't see it [crosstalk 00:12:40]. Yeah, we both know the person that I work for. He's very good at it and I learn a lot from him. I don't see things that other people see, right? If you're a believer in Myers-Briggs, trust me, my Myers-Briggs would've told you that. So I just think three is a lifelong process. I'm still struggling. But those are the areas I think marketers need. It really has nothing to do with marketing skills.

Susan Curhan: Then you have to apply them, and I do think marketers have to apply those skills in ways other functions don't. So the three areas I think are understanding your end user and your buyer, because they're probably different. Understanding your product capabilities, your company's capabilities and how to apply them. Then third how to stand out, right? That's a lot of what we do as a marketer, is how to take what we have and make it appealing to somebody. Honestly, if you don't stand for something you stand for nothing these days, so find something, and then push it hard.

Polly Yakovich: I think this is all good advice for me, but particularly for younger marketers coming up because there is a tendency to chase after the platforms, or the tools, or the things, but these are foundational principles that you and I are still looking for in the people that we hire.

Susan Curhan: Yes, true.

Polly Yakovich: You have to be able to do these stuff, but I'd rather you think creatively about it as well.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: How would your advice be sort of nuanced for women coming up in marketing these days?

Susan Curhan: Yeah, that was a great question, and honestly, I'm not good at this. It bit me in the butt earlier in my career when I spoke about conflict. It was I think quite frankly influenced, you could even say unfairly influenced, by the fact that I was a woman. I didn't understand it. I grew up that everybody had a fair chance at everything and I didn't notice that stuff. So you know, I'll say it, I was ignorant and I didn't realize I was being held to a different and unfair standard of behavior. I failed for that reason in that role. Quite frankly, it led to a lot of good things, right? It is not a cliché that when one door closes another opens, it is true.

Polly Yakovich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Susan Curhan: Part of it was that I was working somewhere that had a toxic culture and they rewarded mediocrity and I didn't realize it. Somebody told me that later. They're like, "Didn't you see that? We were idiots." And I was like, "No, I didn't see it." So I was pushing hard for things. For change, for growth, for new ideas, and I didn't realize that other people were pushing for their jobs to remain cushy. Let me just say, I was in the wrong place but also it was a little bit of immaturity about the way the world works. So my behavior in the face of conflict was not ideal. I would definitely do it differently today, but the consequence I absolutely am certain was only because I was female. So it took me a while and a bunch of really good leadership coaching with a wonderful coach to understand how I was showing up. So I'll just say, think about how you show up, whether you're a man or a woman, especially if you're a woman, and if it's working for you. You know what? Everybody works the system.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Men work systems through sort of natural evolution of what has worked for their gender, women have to do the same thing. I'll just say also pick an organization where you'll be valued and I feel like I am there, that I do work at one now.

Polly Yakovich: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I think it's crazy because I imagine the people coming up now would be shocked and horrified at our stories that were just sort of normal for us when we were starting our careers.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: And I'm sure those stories are still normal at other places, but I think the thing I think about a lot is what you said at the end, which is that you do not have to stay anywhere. I mean, particularly in marketing, there should be lots of opportunities and if that's not true for you, then hopefully you can find some other options, but your career path is not tied to one mentor that promises you that it has to be this way or one boss that makes you feel like your career is in their hands, you know?

Susan Curhan: Yeah. You would ask me what values are important to me, that maybe I hadn't considered when I started out, and I just made a note that said, "Being valued is as important as delivering value."

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It's what you're saying now.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: When you're earlier in your career, depending on your life attitude I'll say, you may, if you don't feel entitled to what you're looking for, you may not recognize the importance of finding a place where what you do and how you do it is valued. So I do think it's partly a luxury, right? There are a lot of people who need a job and I totally respect that. You should take the best job you can get, of course. But when you have choice, well, it's always going to flow along a continuum of being valued and delivering value. Pick the best thing you can for yourself.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: The second thing, I think when you're younger you don't really appreciate. You might know what integrity means, but you may not appreciate what it means through different times of good and bad, especially bad in organizations, and they have them.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So I know that I just can't show up at 100 plus percent every day if I don't work somewhere where I feel, I'll say culture, but everything starts at the top. So if the leadership doesn't demonstrate honor and integrity to the workforce. Fortunately I have a choice now, I couldn't stay at a place that doesn't. Again, I work at a place that does.

Polly Yakovich: I mean, I actually still hate that this is true, but if I say think of the top five marketing gurus you can think of off the top of your head, aren't they mostly men still?

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: I mean, really the top five to 10 that come off the tip of my tongue before I start digging deep are all men, which I think is just kind of a bummer. I would really like to see that change.

Susan Curhan: In my opinion, it's because women are not as comfortable self-promoting.

Polly Yakovich: Maybe.

Susan Curhan: I mean, I think about a lot of the smartest, most successful business people I know are women, but they don't promote themselves in that way.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, exactly. I just happen to know them.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: And they're probably in every city, I just don't know them.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. Anyway, it could be that too.

Polly Yakovich: Interesting challenge for our end coming generations to try and balance that out a little bit more, I think.

Polly Yakovich: One of the things I've really appreciated about you and the way that you think and approach your work is the way that you sort of structure frameworks. You think about challenges and solutions in a framework. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you came upon this concept of frameworks? Is this just sort of naturally how you think? How did you settle on frameworks that work for you?

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: As somebody who really resists categorization but needs it desperately, I think that it's really super interesting.

Susan Curhan: Sure. I believe I came to it, it was really the result, not the start. I came to understand that I think very visually. One of the things I value about visual displays of data, thank you Edward Tufte, is I believe you can see important insights when you arrange information visually, versus ... And by visually I mean in a relational way, whether it's a graph, or a table. You know I'm a table fan. Versus in a prose format.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So I came to understand that I saw things other people couldn't see when I put them into these visual relationships.

Polly Yakovich: Gosh, that's a really interesting way to put it.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. I often will say to the people on your team and the people on my team, "Can you please put that in a table because I can tell that you're missing important concepts." How things are changing over time, how things are relating to each other. You're missing them and they are going to change what you do next if you see them differently.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So I believe that was really the start of why I started to think in frameworks, is that I started to see how data and things were relationally related, and frameworks are just a vessel to put your information in so you can see it differently and think about it differently, and quite frankly, help people learn. So the simplest frameworks I constantly say to people is pick whatever four phases of project planning are your favorite. Honestly, every time I say it I probably say it differently, but make sure you always start, as an example, make sure you always start with a discovery phase, a planning phase, a design or implementation phase, and a measure phase. If you have others, fine, use them, but I think what a lot of very young people do, junior people do, is they watch people who do this in their head and they don't understand that in our heads we're doing a discovery, then a planning, then an implementation. We're doing us and them a disservice by not writing it down, but honestly business is not as formal as it used to be and nobody writes anything down.

Polly Yakovich: You said to me before, you're collapsing steps in your mind that they're not understanding, which I think is true.

Susan Curhan: Yes. You're doing some level of discovery because you've done it a million times, and nobody knows. So discovery is falling in the woods and nobody heard it make a sound. But anyway, so that's why I like frameworks. I just think they help me organize information to think through a problem. I collect them the way some people, like you or Josh, collect wine, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: What's the right wine for the meal? What's the right framework for this situation? How do I organize thinking to help make it easier to digest and move forward? To me that's what they do.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. I think one thing that's bad for me too, or that I'm bad at, is sort of coaching people along the way that I'm thinking, because I'm going fast and I don't stop to sort of even unpack what I'm doing. So I think it's a really good reminder for coaching even.

Susan Curhan: Yes.

Polly Yakovich: To say like, "Hey, I'm approaching it from this sort of mental framework."

Susan Curhan: Yeah, write it down for them.

Polly Yakovich: And these are the steps I'm going through, and let's talk through each of them.

Susan Curhan: Yes. I often, even on a piece of paper, I'll just bang out like a table without content, in Word or Excel, doesn't matter, and give it to someone and say, "Fill this out with your thoughts for our next one-on-one and tell me why you put what you did in each box."

Polly Yakovich: That's so great.

Susan Curhan: And what they don't ... So modeling it, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Instead of telling it, model it. So I say, "In my head I'm filling out all these boxes when we speak. You need to fill these boxes out and come prepared, and then we're going to talk about why filling those boxes out in our head or on paper is important."

Polly Yakovich: That's great. Let's pivot a little bit and talk about something that you're doing now, but you've done for much of your career, and that is a really unique marketing challenge when you are marketing high value B2B products. How do you think about that kind of product sale, marketing sales relationship that's different from other kinds of, even maybe easier B2B sales that aren't such high value?

Susan Curhan: Yep. I will say think about it on two axes. Let's use a visual.

Polly Yakovich: Yes.

Susan Curhan: One axis is time, right? So high value B2B is timeframe times 10, and then the other axis is complexity. High value B2B purchase process is infinitely more complex than widgets, or I've sold yogurt, I've sold mouthwash.

Polly Yakovich: Amazing.

Susan Curhan: All kinds of things.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So the insights that I think about when I think about high value B2B are, you need intensely more rigor in your account prospect selection. I'm actually working on a project right now for my organization to redefine what does a good prospect look like and how do you go through the process to ensure the sale cycle allows time for that. I heard a great quote from my colleague the other day, it really was enlightening. She said, "Susan, the sales people don't want to waste time prospecting when they could be selling."

Polly Yakovich: Oh yeah.

Susan Curhan: And I was like, "Wow, that's backwards, but okay. Thank you." Because I didn't understand how the sales team was thinking about good prospecting, and now that I know that, my solution-

Polly Yakovich: And they want the marketing team to deliver them perfect people ready for their perfect sales process, yeah.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. It was a good insight for me to think about how do I, when I present my solution, how do I meet them where they are? Which is another thing we could talk about.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: But anyway, let me just recap. Smart account selection is number one because the sales cycle is so long that if you make a mistake early on, you can't course correct. The sales cycle is just too long and complex.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: As you well know, good buyer personas. Who are we talking to and what's important to them? And in a high value B2B the average buying committee starts at about five or six people and then to finish the contract everybody brings in legal, CFOs, so it ends up at 10.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's huge.

Susan Curhan: And you have to really understand each of those people, what's their preference, what's their power within the organization, what's their influence, and what are their met and unmet needs.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Honestly a psychologist would do better than a marketer, for sure.

Polly Yakovich: I really am interested in that business psychology of team selling like that.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Account based marketing kind of approach.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. I'm good at making marketing for it, not so much doing the selling. I haven't sold high value stuff like that. I have sold yogurt. Then all the other stuff that a lot of people know. You need a good buyer's journey.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: What's their decision process and how do you meet them where they are along it? What's important to them? Then obviously buying committees, right? Understanding that it isn't a person, it's not two people, it's not three people, it's going to be seven to 10 people. Then let's go back to strategy. You need a strategy to approach it. There is no one phone call that is going to make the sale.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It is going to be 18 months.

Polly Yakovich: It could be one phone call that loses you the sale.

Susan Curhan: That is true, right.

Polly Yakovich: The other thing I think about with that buying committee too, and this is super, super challenging for every org and every company is going to find their discomfort or place in it, but you can't answer those buying journey questions for your prospect because you may answer them wrong. You may not understand fully their motivation, so you actually do need to talk to your customers and your prospects to fill that out so you can really hit it on the nail, because you do have four or five different people with very different motivations based on their role and what they're trying to bring to the organization. You have to understand them very deeply and that's hard to do.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, especially in I would say a company that hasn't been around as long as we have, it's actually impossible, as you know.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So we use the sales team, and sales leadership, and our organization's CEO as a proxy for that.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, and I think it's fine to use proxies. Totally fine to use proxies. I do think you always should have an interior sort of caveat that's the second I can actually talk to a real person about some of these things, I'm going to have to layer that in because it's going to be better, and it's going to be maybe like a 10 degree adjustment, but that 10 degree adjustment could be a big difference in the end I think.

Susan Curhan: I wish. Believe me, I wish. It's not happened for us yet, but.

Polly Yakovich: It's hard. It's so hard.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: How do you approach then, particularly because I think you have a unique role. I think sales and marketing, there's always a rub there, whether the marketing team reports into sales, like yours, or they don't. It's just there's challenges because you're trying to solve different problems. The sales team, like I said, for good reasons, wants you to bring them perfect, ready to go leads. I've never heard a sales person not say that. How do you approach building influence and collaboration around sort of a broader team that has similar but different objectives, and then again, that doesn't report to you? You don't actually get to influence how sales follows up with the leads that you pass them. It's a big, big topic, but how do you generally approach that? I feel like you do it so well.

Susan Curhan: Thank you. I feel that I am always challenged in this area. I learned many things from the person that I report to right now, but one of them is meeting people where they are. I have to keep that in mind. I will say if we went back to earlier in this interview, that's probably one of the biggest things I learned through my current role because it's one of the underlying philosophies of health behavior change, is meeting people where they are in their health journey. But meeting sales people where they are in their understanding of marketing, their understanding of their market and their needs. I'm going to tell you, it ain't what I would've done. What I have to do for them to meet them where they are is not what I believe the ultimate solution should be, but I'm sitting in an ivory tower, right? There's many, many, it's multifactorial to get for change management, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So meet them where they are, build relevance, build credibility. Take a couple on the chin. I take it on the chin regularly. I take two steps when really four steps should be the right way to go. I build something that's good when I know something better is easy to do. Just trying to get these small wins, build credibility and influence, and then there's the whole sort of flanker strategy. How am I also building alliances with other influencers of the sales team? For example, I have a partner who runs sales operations, and she's helped me understand more about her role, and I realized gosh, I was not leveraging her role as an influencer of sales. She builds the Salesforce system. She is a direct line to the leader, the chief commercial officer. Long story short, think about how you can build credibility, but also think about other partners of influence and how you can indirectly accomplish what you want.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It's also a marathon, not a sprint.

Polly Yakovich: It totally is. I also think as you were talking, I think this is where it sounds pithy, but this is where empathy comes in too, real empathy. We talk about this a lot when we're building buying personas, right? If you actually try for just a moment to walk in their shoes and try and understand truly where they're coming at and for what reasons, and why, and what the motivation might be. It just gives you a little bit of a different approach and look at somebody that you need to collaborate with that sometimes can feel more adversarial than it needs to be.

Susan Curhan: [crosstalk 00:32:06]. Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: I do think it's helpful to say like, "Okay. We all feel busy, but if I can just step back a moment and imagine I'm you, then it does give me a little more understanding about oh, yeah, I can see that you're under these sales target pressures and so you want to put the pressure on me to bring you the perfect person because you have to speed things up, and you need to get things going." It's just it's all a cycle.

Susan Curhan: So true.

Polly Yakovich: How have you approached proving ... This is the big marketing gold standard Mecca of marketing. How have you approached proving the ROI of marketing throughout your career?

Susan Curhan: I would like you to tell me that.

Polly Yakovich: I know, right?

Susan Curhan: When you interview someone who has this answer, call me.

Polly Yakovich: I know, this is everyone.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: It's like the attribution question. When you solve the attribution, please.

Susan Curhan: Call me.

Polly Yakovich: Receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. I don't think it's possible, unless you are in an e-commerce business. That's my answer. I have spent a long time trying to find offline quite frankly pathways and proxies to ROI. I will say there are leaders who think it should be obvious and easy and it isn't, and then you are on the defensive constantly. I will say I am now.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Trying to explain why it can't be done or explain what you can do, that doesn't make people happy. I'll just say, unfortunately when we go back to where do you want to work, if you're a marketing leader, not if you're an entry junior person, but if you're a marketing leader, do not take a role in marketing leadership unless you and the leader you report to on the company have some reasonable meeting of the minds about the role of marketing and how to measure its value.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Because otherwise you're constantly on the defensive in a way for some reason no other department is.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. Maybe PR. They can measure even less.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, barely, right? But nobody is going to IT saying, "What's your ROI?" Nobody is going to the clinical team in a healthcare company and saying, "What's your ROI?" For some reason somebody gets a bee in their bonnet over marketing should have an ROI because I read it in Harvard Business Review.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Trust me, Harvard Business Review does not have the answer either.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. The thing I think is so hard for people to understand, and it makes you feel like you're just trying to come up with an excuse, is this sort of funny math of marketing, right? Where two plus two absolutely never equals four. Sometimes it equals three and sometimes it equals 10. The only way I can explain it, somebody did a study earlier in my career about the impact of some channel on their marketing efforts and they could never measure it, so they took it away and they tanked. Because the impact is so unmeasurable and unknown, the only way you can actually see what matters is when you take it away, but you have to be willing to suffer the loss.

Susan Curhan: Right. It's like goodwill on a balance sheet. You kind of derive it.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. So what do you think then is the best way to prove our value? Question for the ages, but let's ruminate on it a minute.

Susan Curhan: Right. I just go back to meet people where they are. So in our organization where I work, it's demonstrating that you are helping fill the sales pipeline and providing tools for the sales team to make the pipeline move faster, and that's the way in all the ... Let me just say, the other 72% of what I do that's required, that if it went away over time would cause an issue, I can't seem to get credit for, but it's necessary to keep all the pieces of a company running. So I'll just say meet people where they are in their understanding. Gain credibility, whether it's MQLs, SQLs, opportunities, I don't know what. Whatever you can find. For a long time I reported on what articles I got in PR, and then I realized nobody cared. So honestly, I stopped doing as much PR for the company I'm at now, because it's definitely a softer contribution, I totally get that, and it is high labor. So let's go back to our framework, right? You have effort and you have impact, and you just have to find what is the right amount of effort to get a level of impact that you think adds value and that your leadership thinks add value.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Maybe you have to put all your effort into that for that one outcome of impact, it may be it's easy. I don't know, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: If your leadership thinks it's MQLs, man, are you lucky, because that's pretty easy to do.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's hard too because I think the conversations definitely, not to get too technical here, but it's like you get a PR placement in a great article and it feels good, and everyone is so happy, and Forbes carried your article, but then it's not sending you qualified traffic. So sales is still not happy because this big splashy article that took you six months to place brought them nothing. So it does sometimes feel like it can feel like a thankless endeavor. I do think your value and effort is really important.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. You and I have talked a lot about authored content, right? I think you're 100% on point to think it could be an important tactic for the business we work on together.

Polly Yakovich: And building the brand, but.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, right, but ...

Polly Yakovich: The level of effort is so high.

Susan Curhan: A lot of effort to get built and a crapshoot to get placed.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: It cost us a lot of money and time, mostly time and opportunity cost. So as you know, we decided to reinvest that money elsewhere, but on paper it's a wonderful strategy.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. It's tough.

Susan Curhan: I don't know.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. You have to make some of those trade-offs, obviously, over time. One of the things that I struggle with a lot, I'm really impressed that you get so much done. You just get a lot done in your day. How do you approach efficiency for yourself? How do you think about your work? Are there any tools that you use to keep you on track?

Susan Curhan: I think it's a lifelong marketing challenge.

Polly Yakovich: It is.

Susan Curhan: I'll tell you a funny story. Back when I worked in a pharmaceutical company, I don't know how it came about, but somebody decided to have be a marketer day, and they set up this day, and we invited our agency in, and at that time it was big New York ad agencies, right?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So they drove out to New Jersey. So we had them and then we had people from all over our division all be marketers for the day. We set up a curriculum for them. So basically they thought they were happily ensconced in their little office working on a project, and then we threw fire drill after fire drill at them. The manufacturing plant just called the line is down and the Costco order was running, or R&D just called and the clinical study that's been running for two years, the early results just came back a tank. I mean, we did it all day long, and at the end of the day they were on the floor in a heap crying.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So I really do think it takes a really particular kind of person to be a successful I'll just say traditional marketer, because some marketers do sit at a desk all day with a pencil crunching numbers, right? Typing in, doing analysis.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, sounds nice.

Susan Curhan: Sounds pretty dreamy, right? So how do I do it? I think I'm going to tie it back to strategy.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: If you don't know what's important to drive your business you will not be able to make active decisions to do the right things.

Polly Yakovich: A 1000%

Susan Curhan: You will not be able to make reactive decisions to reject the wrong things, or at least defer them, and you will not be able to prioritize your work. So at a macro level I'll say if you don't have a strategy, you're in trouble.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: And a plan. Number two I'll say, for me, I've been struggling with the feeling. My story is that my team is doing more than their fair share of work versus other teams. It's a story, but it's been frustrating me. So what did I do about it? I built, I took a tool from Scrum and I started building monthly sprints, and I time boxed, I calculated how many hours our team has a month. I gave it what I call sustaining ops factor to each role. By the way, I've been tracking and I've been quite accurate. I've been counting the time on everybody's calendar. I've had them all just for an exercise fill in what you do every hour of the day, and I'm tracking it and calculating where are we spending more time versus in projects versus what I'm just calling sustaining ops, right? Throwing in there lunch, walking work, stuff we forgot we do, it's a big number. Okay. So let me just say, that is a big, big help in understanding what is important that we do, because now it's written down. Every iota of it is written down and every project is ranked, and everybody's hours against every project or against sustaining ops is literally calculated. We have to work eight hours times X people, times X days a month. It is changing, it has gotten us a lot of credibility with-

Polly Yakovich: That's amazing.

Susan Curhan: ... our senior leadership who didn't understand how much, I'll call it, other work that wasn't exactly what they wanted or what they thought we should be doing. They didn't understand how much other work has to get done for the organization to keep the lights on and the doors open, and now they understand it. And quite frankly, it's helping us understand are we spending our day on the right things?

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: So there's always going to be a lot of things. I think the biggest decision you have to make is find a way to make sure they're the right thing.

Polly Yakovich: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Two things that you said that really resonated with me, I haven't finished it yet, but on vacation I'm going to finish this book called Essentialism, but it gets to what you're talking about. I talk about this with my team a lot too, is especially in client service. The client is going to mess up your day. There are fire drills all day long, but you have to be pulling the thread through on their program, which is exactly what you were talking about. What is the important thing that's moving the needle forward when I had to feel 10 calls today about where is this, and this, and that. You still have to at the end of the month, at the end of the quarter, at the end of the year say, "This is how many leads I brought you, or this is what our website traffic is like." You have to keep those going.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: So you have to be really ruthless about pulling those threads through about what impacts the program, because that's how you're going to be measured.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. You do have to say no.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, you do. Or you do have to say, "Let's save that and put it on a parking lot of this call we have scheduled."

Susan Curhan: Right. I will say, the person that I report to, who you know well, does a very good job of saying help me understand why you want what you want.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I might be able to help you in a better way than what you're asking for.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's a great skill.

Susan Curhan: I imagine in client service you cannot just run around being a short order cook, or you will never get to those threads you're talking about that drive the business.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. The other thing you said that I think is amazing because I've heard of almost no organizations that do this or have taken the time and discipline, but I'm not surprised that you have, which is time tracking. I think internal teams are typically terrible at time tracking and then you just don't have any ground to stand on, or you have no proof points when you say like, in the nicest possible way, "You're bothering me all day with jump requests and I can't get to the core work that at the end of the month you think I'm going to have accomplished." But if you can actually demonstrate that with real numbers. I mean, the agency side has to do this, right? Because that's all we have to sell, it's our time.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: So we have to say to clients at the end of the month like, "You wanted all these product produced, but you called us 10 times a day, and here's the information about how if we're answering your call 10 times a day we can't actually get your work done."

Susan Curhan: Right. You will love this. A person that we mutually know said two things to me as we were working through this process. One, "Oh, I get it, it's just like when I used to do billing."

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: They came from an agency. The second thing they said is, "I did not know how hard it was to fill an eight hour day. I did not realize what it took to fill an eight hour day."

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's crazy.

Susan Curhan: And I was like, "I know. It's hard." And I'm guessing that a lot of people where we work are not filling an eight hour day.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. I would say on the agency side it's more like how can I get down to an eight hour day.

Susan Curhan: Yes, [crosstalk 00:45:10].

Polly Yakovich: An eight hour day sounds amazing.

Susan Curhan: Yes.

Polly Yakovich: Just depends on your perspective. I know you're crazy.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, you know me. I conditionally format my cells and I have been at about 110% of capacity for a long time.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, yeah. So you and I are headed for a little break.

Susan Curhan: Right.

Polly Yakovich: I just thank you so much for this conversation. A couple closing questions. Just quick answer. What tools can you not live without? What things do you absolutely need to get through your week?

Susan Curhan: Google Docs. I've become a Google Docs user. I know you use them. I've really come to appreciate that sharing. I'd lived in Microsoft Office and it is useless for sharing. Thanks, Microsoft. So I would say the Google Suite is really amazing.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I'll just say my iPhone. I can run my life from it, including I have a pretty complex personal life, and without it I literally, I don't know how anybody who is a doctor can survive, because I'm running my personal life in the little cracks of my work like.

Polly Yakovich: Totally. It gives you a lot of peace of mind.

Susan Curhan: And I can do it from my iPhone. Then honestly as a joke the second thing I wrote is my driver golf club. I'm really good with that. I'm a golfer.

Polly Yakovich: I love it.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: You stay incredibly informed. Do you carve out time in your day or do you just fit it in the cracks, like you do other things?

Susan Curhan: Every morning before I even get out of bed, this is probably a horrible habit, I skim The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post on my phone. I have apps for all of them.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Then I decide what do I need to dig into. Then I love newsletters from Harvard Business Review and McKinsey Quarterly.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I read Politico every morning. Honestly I've cut down, I took all the social media apps off my phone, every one.

Polly Yakovich: Oh nice, that's smart.

Susan Curhan: The only thing I use on my desktop is LinkedIn and a couple of health reporters I follow on Twitter, that's it. I got rid of Facebook, except for ... The only thing I have is whatever that homepage picture is and I don't even use it. I took about six hours, but I actually unloaded all my content. I was so frustrated with them.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, fair enough.

Susan Curhan: Then I'm a late adopter of podcasts, including yours.

Polly Yakovich: Nice.

Susan Curhan: I love Pod Save America and Armchair Expert.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's an awesome one, yeah.

Susan Curhan: They're my two favorites.

Polly Yakovich: Great. So you know my closing question that I ask everyone, and I love it so much for my research friend. What is your superpower?

Susan Curhan: Perfect restaurant ordering. If you don't know what you should order, ask me.

Polly Yakovich: I always want like 10 things, so this is actually a superpower to me, and then I always eat off of everyone else's plate because I wanted to try everything.

Susan Curhan: I love everything I order, and I have to say-

Polly Yakovich: Do you ever feel very torn between your choices or are you always quite clear?

Susan Curhan: Usually I like to think about a maybe list. Then if something just calls to me, and it might just be the power of positive thinking.

Polly Yakovich: Do you ask the waiter to break your tie? Do you say like, "What would you recommend of these two?"

Susan Curhan: Yes.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Yes, I do. Not that common, usually I know what I want. I have to say, it could be the power of positive thinking, but I can barely think of any times when my order came out poorly prepared or I didn't like it. There certainly might be something on the plate I'd be like, "Wow, that's a little salty. I wouldn't have done that." But that's just personal palate.

Polly Yakovich: Oh my goodness. So where can people find you, follow you? You have written a couple of amazing articles about the client agency relationship for A Brave New Blog, and I will link those in the show notes. Those are very helpful, I think worthy of maybe a podcast followup.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. I would love to talk about that.

Polly Yakovich: What else? You're on LinkedIn.

Susan Curhan: Pretty much LinkedIn. I have to say, I love to talk with people. If you want, my email is in LinkedIn. I'm happy to network with people. I really love helping.

Polly Yakovich: You're a great connector, yeah.

Susan Curhan: Yeah. That's my brand ... My brand essence is connector.

Polly Yakovich: I love it.

Susan Curhan: And I love connecting with people, hearing what they do. I'm really good at résumé writing if anybody needs help.

Polly Yakovich: Whoa, that's an amazing offer. You heard it here. You should take her up on that.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, yeah.

Polly Yakovich: All right.

Susan Curhan: Yeah, just get in touch on LinkedIn. Here's my pet peeve. Don't ask me to connect without a note.

Polly Yakovich: Oh, interesting. I don't mind that.

Susan Curhan: That's because you're in an agency business looking for clients.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: I'm on the buyer side, not wanting to buy too much stuff.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Susan Curhan: Hundreds of people who are selling things connect with me without a note or without having done their homework and I ignore those requests.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. The notes definitely stick out though, that's for sure.

Susan Curhan: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Well thank you so much for your time. I mean, obviously-

Susan Curhan: This was great.

Polly Yakovich: ... always sort of a mind bomb, but I really appreciate it. You gave me a lot to think about.

Susan Curhan: You're a great interviewer. I enjoyed it.

Polly Yakovich: Thanks. Have a good day.

Susan Curhan: You too, bye.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of A Brave New Podcast. Go to abravenew.com for more resources and advice. If you enjoyed this episode, show us some love by subscribing, rating, and reviewing A Brave New Podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Polly Yakovich

Polly Yakovich



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