Q&A with Marketing Leaders: James Winter, VP Marketing at Brandfolder

Welcome back to Q&A with Marketing Leaders, our interview series built to provide SaaS marketing leaders with the best insights and actionable tips on how to improve their marketing planning by learning from the best marketers in the industry.

This week, we got to sit down with James Winter, VP Marketing at Brandfolder

Brandfolder is the world’s most powerfully simple digital asset management platform for storing, sharing, and showcasing assets. Organizations like Slack, OpenTable, Shazam, and HealthONE rely on Brandfolder to deliver consistent, organized, and efficient brand experiences.

James is an experienced B2B marketer with a strong product background. Prior to Brandfolder, he was the Director of Marketing at AspireIQ and was the first product marketing hire at Dialpad.

Did you always know that you’d go into marketing? How did you get into it?

I don’t know if I always knew, but I would say I knew pretty quickly upon entering university.

I was originally considering going into the medical field in physical therapy but I realized that I didn’t really want to do it as a career. I discovered that marketing was really the best fit for me because it’s super interesting and very dynamic. If you look at other disciplines, like operations, HR, finance, or accounting, they all are fairly narrow. As someone who really likes to learn and dive into different things, marketing was a natural fit. There’s no way I would have had the patience or the attention span to do something like accounting or finance. Marketing is great because you get to be both creative and analytical and you get to interact with people…it’s collaborative. There’s never a dull moment.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

The biggest influence is definitely my old CMO from Dialpad, Morgan Norman. He was one of the first really good leaders that I had a chance to work for. He showed me that it’s possible to be very well-rounded and have an intelligent conversation with everyone on the marketing team.

Whether he was talking to the SDR manager or the Marketing Ops manager, he really knew a lot about the various functions of marketing. That was super motivating for me as someone in product marketing. A lot of times, Product Marketing can be a little bit removed from some of the things like Demand Gen and Community. There really isn’t much of an opportunity to dig into the other functions of marketing. Morgan inspired me to try and learn about the other functions.

When it came time for me to decide whether to join AspireIQ, my previous company, as Head of Marketing and first marketing hire, it gave me the confidence and drive to dive in and use it as a learning opportunity. If you’re building a marketing organization from the ground up with very little budget, you really need to get your hands dirty and wear multiple hats. I learned a lot about Demand Gen and Marketing Ops at a very tactical level because I had to. I don’t think I would have known what that would look like if I hadn’t worked for Morgan.

B2B Marketing is a lot more complex than it used to be. What skills do you think are important to have as a B2B marketing leader?

I think the number one skill is the ability to hire well. This is especially relevant if you’re building out a team for the first time. As you said, marketing is so multifaceted and complex that there’s no way you’re going to be able to do everything well so it’s really important to bring in the right people who can excel at the different things that you need depending on the stage that you’re at.

The second skill is the ability to build relationships. It’s very important, especially as a marketing leader, that you have a good relationship with your CEO and whoever is running up the sales and revenue organization. What you’re doing doesn’t really matter if those two relationships are frayed. I’ve seen amazing people get fired or get frustrated and leave an organization because there wasn’t a good relationship with the CEO and/or the Head of Sales. It’s crucial to get everyone to buy into what you’re doing. You could be doing an amazing job but if other people don’t perceive it that way and aren’t bought into your vision, it’s not going to make a difference in the world.

Do you have any pet peeves in marketing? Like, do you have anything that you see marketers are doing that kind of makes you cringe?

Gal Fontyn already took my initial answer, which is marketing to everyone.

I’ll give a different answer that might be a bit controversial… being overly metrics oriented. I strongly believe that data is critical and marketing ops is probably the first person that I hire at a company, but there has been way too much of a shift towards “focusing on metrics”. It’s almost become this holy grail that people believe will lead to better marketing. Honestly, I think a lot of it is bullshit. At the end of the day, not everything that can be tracked is worth paying attention to and oftentimes, the things that you are tracking aren’t really giving you the full picture.

It’s really important to understand what metrics are worth tracking and paying attention to and not getting lost in the noise of everything else.

How do you create the marketing goals for Brandfolder?

We always start with the company goal. Let’s say that we’re trying to get from X amount of revenue to Y amount of revenue in the next quarter, what is it that marketing needs to contribute as far as the pipeline numbers go? Additionally, we need to account for other initiatives, even if they’re not necessarily quantitative. An example could be if we want to target a certain industry or if we want to raise our brand awareness with designers. We create our marketing goals by understanding the broader company objectives and working backward from there.

Once we understand what marketing needs to contribute, we start looking at channels. How much do we need from events this quarter? How much we need from paid spend this quarter? How much do you need from content this quarter? Essentially, we’re making sure that the goals are aligned with the rest of the organization.

You also need to make sure that you’re talking to the other people on the leadership team and understanding how they view success because it differs based on the role. A good example of this can be seen here at Brandfolder. Our CEO obviously cares about revenue but he also cares a lot about brand equity and building awareness of the product. Our CRO, while he would like to have those things too, really only cares about is how many opportunities that we’re generating for the sales team. Our finance person is going to care about things like “when can we expect payback from the customers who were acquiring?”, “what’s our magic number?” or “are we spending efficiently?”

It’s very important to understand how everyone views success. You can’t please everyone and no one’s going to be 100% happy but understanding how people view success is an important aspect to tie into your goals.

How do you align your marketing organization around your goals and what you need to achieve?

Once we have the leadership team agree on the goals, I’ll typically sit down with the marketing team and sort of explain everything so they have a context of what’s happening. Then I’ll ask everyone to take a first pass of actually building their own goals. Obviously, there are certain things that I like to delegate but I also like to make everyone on my team, whether they’re more senior and more junior, think for themselves about what they can do to help contribute towards the goal. That way, they feel empowered and they get a chance to ask themselves, “Okay, how is my work actually impacting the organization overall? What can I do to better support that this quarter?”.

As I mentioned before, we also go through the exercise of “what are our conversion rates?”, “What sort of spend do we have with our budget?” and “What are the levers that we can pull?”. If we have a goal to increase enterprise SQLs, we’ll ask “where did all those SQLs come from last quarter, two quarters back? Can we easily replicate that?”. Everyone sort of aligns around that to understand what kind of milestones we’ll need to hit to achieve our company objectives.

How often do you go back and review your marketing plan?

As an organization, we go through the budgeting process at the beginning of the year and that sort of gets locked down. Our quarterly budget doesn’t really change much, but at the same time, I like to leave myself enough room to adapt and adjust because things change so quickly. If I see a channel that’s working really well, I’m not going to stick to my arbitrary plan that was put in place nine months ago when the landscape has changed dramatically.

So while there’s a high-level plan in place, I’m not going to necessarily hold myself to that if there’s a good opportunity to increase performance or reduce costs. Marketing is all about being able to find those wins, especially for a growth-stage B2B SaaS company like we are. The key is to find out what works and double down on it.

How do you know if you’ve planned well?

I think it’s really three things:

  1. If you’re on budget
  2. If you’re on target to hit whatever goals you’ve set
  3. Everyone’s happy.

What advice do you have for like other marketers leaders looking to improve how they build their marketing strategies and plans?

Number one is leaving room for experimentation and growth.

I think you should always be trying new things, especially if someone tells you that something doesn’t work! A lot of times, its because either you’re inheriting something that wasn’t set up properly or it wasn’t approached with the right mindset. You always have to be on the lookout for the Zeitgeist of what’s happening out there. A good example of that is how, for a long time, a lot of marketers didn’t really see the value of paid social on Facebook and Instagram for B2B. That’s changed pretty dramatically over the last couple of years.

Always be experimenting and give yourself enough room in the budget so that not every dollar is accounted for. Doing this will allow you to take advantage of opportunities that will inevitably come up.

The other advice that I have is learn to strike the right balance of gathering feedback from the leadership and the company and not just listen to everything that everyone says.

A lot of times, especially for first-time leaders or people who may be a little bit insecure in their position, it’s easy to fall into this trap and become an order taker. At the same time, you can’t just ignore what’s going on in the rest of the organization. Input from sales and finance can be very valuable. Just don’t fall too far in one direction. Most people either don’t listen to anyone or they listen to everyone too much. One of the hardest things is striking a balance of having firm data and gathering that feedback, but still coming in with your own point of view.

You can follow James on Twitter and LinkedIn