Marketing Leader Interview with John Ellett

John is one of the smartest technology marketers I know.  I met John back in 2001 when his company was helping us in a subsidiary of Motorola. I am delighted to have him participate in this series.

John is an advisor to CMOs, author of the CMO Manifesto, contributor for Fortbes CMO Network and CEO of nFusion, a digital marketing and advertising firm based here in Austin. John worked on the famous Charlie Chaplin advertising campaign for the original IBM PC and later was a marketing executive at Dell.


1. What company is an example of good marketing today? Who do you admire?

MasterCard’s Priceless Surprises, Smirnoff’s Nightlife Exchange, GoPro and RedBull all come to mind. But Samsung is my favorite because of the huge strides they’ve made and because we get to work with them.

2. Did you have a mentor or a person you learnt the most from? What was a key lesson?

I was fortunate to have several – primarily bosses who believed in me and continuously provided me with challenging opportunities. I learned that initiative is often rewarded. Opportunities don’t come for those who wait for them.


3. What story of a successful marketing strategy could you share?

During the early days of Dell (early 1990s) we were trying to figure out a lot of things. Having a distinctive value proposition (better PCs with better service and lower prices) got us to be a billion dollar company pretty quickly. But to become the #1 PC company in the world, we needed to evolve our strategy. Not everyone’s value equation was the same.

When we optimized our products, marketing approaches and sales strategies for different segments, we propelled the company to $25 billion before the end of the decade and had it well on its way to becoming the global leader.


4. What is your marketing superpower, the most important skill that makes you a great marketer?

Synthesis. Michael Dell is fond of saying “If you are the smartest person in the room, you don’t have the right people in the room.” I seem to be able to take customer insights, market data and the divergent ideas of smart people and synthesize them into a coherent strategy. It turns out not everyone is good at that so I found a way to add value without being the smartest person in the room.


5. What interesting book have you read recently?

You mean besides The CMO Manifesto? Probably Seth Godin’s Tribes, primarily because it help me realize that my tribe is marketing change agents – courageous leaders who are willing to challenge the status quo to do bold and remarkable things. That insight led me to writing my book and blogging for Forbes CMO Network. These are ways I can contribute to my tribe.


6. What new, modern tactic, tool, or aspect of marketing should marketers pay more attention to?

There are so many great tactics in the data, digital, social and mobile domains too mention. But the big deal I believe marketers need to get better prepared to address is what some call the “marketing cloud”. Oracle, Adobe, SalesForce, IBM and Marketo are making big bets to unify the tools needed to provide highly-personalized customers experiences across all digital touch points – paid, owned and earned.

To take advantage of the marketing cloud’s potential, marketing functions will need to work more collaboratively across current silos. That level of organizational change may be unprecedented in my lifetime.


7. What good aspect of basic marketing have marketers neglected in recent years?

Being both-brained. With the focus on data and ROI, some marketers have swung the pendulum too far and are missing the passion and inspiration that moves customers. Others are still missing the fact that data and insights can inspire for effective creativity. Marketing is a both-brained discipline and some marketers tend to forget that.


8. What skills will marketers will need in the future? How do you stay sharp?

I’m blessed to be in an agency where I am constantly being “reverse mentored”. The speed at which digital and social tools are changing is mid-boggling. I encourage CMOs to learn to become digital immigrants by doing. Get a tablet. Download apps you use personally. Tweet things that interest you. Post your thoughts on a blog. Share pics on Instagram. Produce vines for fun. Write a review on Yelp. I don’t believe marketing leaders can be effective in the digital age without being personally immersed in how consumers are living their lives.


9. What was the turning point in your career?

I’ve had three big turning points. The first was when I transitioned from being a field sales rep for IBM to becoming an advertising manager on the original IBM PC. That gave me a start in marketing. The second was when I left IBM to join an early stage PC company started by a ”college dropout”.

Orchestrating the name change to Dell and pioneering so many things over the next seven years was a lifetime of experiences condensed into seven years. I learned to become a marketing leader there. The third was starting my own company when I left Dell and eventually morphing it into nFusion. I’m continuously learning what it takes to be a CEO.


10. How do you increase marketing’s relevance and influence in the organization?

By positively impacting the business. One of the best ways to do that is by channeling the voice of the customer into programs that are effective. That often means new channels of communications, enhanced offerings and better customer experiences at every touch point. Being a change agent is risky but it’s the only way to significantly impact a business and get a seat at the table.


11. What blog would you recommend?

I enjoy reading stories from my fellow contributors on Forbes CMO Network. Avi Dan, Scott Davis and Jenny Rooney always have interesting things to share.


12. How would you summarize your digital marketing strategy?

Add value to the people I’m connected with across multiple channels by sharing useful content (sometimes original) and interact with them when they are interested.


13. What experience in your past has best prepared you to be a marketing leader?

Other than the professional experiences I mentioned earlier, it was probably my summer job as a swim team coach. As a coach, you realize your job is to develop the talent of your swimmers and help them perform at their best when it’s time to race. Being a marketing leader is very similar.


14. How can marketing leaders can be better mentors and true leaders of their teams?

I constantly reminded by my team that they want to know that I care and that I am interested in their growth. And they want to be inspired, to be reminded that what they do each and every day matters.


15. Any final thoughts or anything else you would like to share?

There has never been a more interesting time than now to be a marketing leader. Enjoy this unique opportunity to bring focus where there is ambiguity, clarity where there is confusion and inspiration where there is doubt. Have courage and remain resilient. And you will succeed in spite of the obstacles you will encounter.



I appreciate John’s time to share his thoughts on this interview. I suggest you follow him on the Forbes CMO Network, read his book the CMO Manifesto and the blog post where I summarize the key points in the book, and follow John Ellett on Twitter.