An honest account of being a CMO, with Tom Furr, CMO at DISCO
This episode of the FINITE Podcast lifts the veil on marketing leadership, as this guest shares firsthand what it's like to be a CMO for the first time.
If you're looking to be a CMO in the future, if you want to know more about what your own CMO might be thinking or the challenges they may be facing, or if you are already a CMO and want to see if your experiences are universal, keep listening to hear Tom Furr, CMO at legal technology company DISCO, share the things you should know before becoming a chief marketing officer.
This episode covers:
- Why Tom was hired as a CMO
- How to differentiate yourself for career success
- How reporting to a chief revenue officer affects a B2B business
- Having business-level conversations as a CMO
- Dealing with imposter syndrome
- The pressure of making big decisions as a B2B business leader
- Why CMOs come in and change everything
- Tips for starting as a CMO for the first time
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning in to the FINITE Podcast. This episode is set to lift the veil on marketing leadership as we hear firsthand what it's like to be a CMO for the first time. So if you're looking to be a CMO in the future, if you want to know more about what your own CMO might be thinking or the challenges they may be facing, or if you are already a CMO and want to see if your experiences are universal, keep listening to hear Tom Furr, CMO at legal technology company DISCO, tell us the five things you should know before becoming a chief marketing officer. I hope you enjoy.
Before we continue with the episode, I'd like to give a quick shout out to our partner, Terminus. The only account based engagement platform built to deliver more pipeline and revenue through multichannel account based marketing. As the only native multichannel marketing platform.
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Hello, Tom. Welcome to the FINITE Podcast.
Hello mate. How are you?
I very well happy to be talking. It's been a while since we've had a career focused episode of the podcast and I'm looking forward to this one. When we talked before, you were prepared to share some nice open insights into the journey to the CMO role, which I'm looking forward to hearing. So before we get there, I will let you tell us bit about your background and experience up until this point and a little bit about your current role and team as well.
Tom’s unique background in B2B marketing
Yeah, sure. I'm currently the CMO of a company called DISCO, which is a technology company based in the US, and we provide legal technology to help strengthen the rule of law. I've been in this role, which is my first CMO role, for about just over two months. It's still super, super new.
Before that I was at Mongo DB where I was VP of Brand Content and Creative. During that time there we rebranded and repositioned MongoDB, which was amazing fun. We learned a lot there. Before that I was a company called Vonage, which for any American listeners will recognise the name probably as the company that powered their grandma's telephone.
And that was a really fascinating opportunity in that they wanted to pivot to becoming a SaaS business and they sort of bought up all these different brands for the technology and really the brand job there was how do we reposition and reintroduce a really well known brand to a completely new audience for a completely different thing. So we sunset a bunch of brands and we did a whole repositioning exercise and a big, big brand campaign there. And then before that I ran an advertising agency.
And before that I dropped out of school when I was 16, which is always a funny titbit to, I should say, I now live in America, it's always an interesting part of the story to tell Americans, given how much importance is placed on education here. And it's always funny, their faces when they're talking about UTs and NYUs and all these acronyms to sort of tell them that I don't actually have much of an education.
Is a lack of formal education a disadvantage in B2B marketing careers?
I think that's great though. I think we've had everything from zero education, no university degree through to a nuclear physicist on the podcast in terms of CMOs with different educational backgrounds. But I think that's the beauty of marketing in the industry. I think there's so many different people coming at it from different perspectives.
Do you think that's more of a thing in the US? I think it's only maybe the UK where, cause I have a lot of French and European friends who massively value, it's almost unusual if you don't do like three masters after you've done your first degree in France and I guess the US is similar. Do you think it's a big focus when you are talking to people about careers in the US?
I just think in general it's a massive part of the identity in the US. It always comes up in conversation. When you observe a couple of people meeting for the first time, the first question will be like where you from? And the second question will be like, what school did you go to?
And certainly when I was interviewing for CMO roles, that was something that I had to talk about is how do you deal with the question of no degree? Not going to college? And look, I think what's important is energy and ambition and being humble. And I think that whether you go to school or not, if you can apply those three things to your career, you're going to be successful.
And I certainly look at it as the fact that I didn't go to college meant I probably had 6, 7, 8 years more work experience and hands on learning how to do the job versus some of my peers that were leaving education and then looking for their entry level role. I was a VP at 26 years old and I would not have been able to achieve that if I had spent time at at university. So I don't think there's a wrong or right way of doing it. I think what's more important is how you approach your career and how you channel your ambition.
About Tom’s first CMO role at DISCO
Absolutely good advice. Before we dive into the journey then to the CMO role, tell us a bit about, at least the current marketing org structure at DISCO. You're only two months in, so I'm not sure how much change you've made, if any yet, maybe we'll talk a bit about that, but yeah. How does marketing look as a function in the team right now?
It kind of depends when this podcast goes out, whether or not the changes happen. So I run marketing globally. I have field marketing, content, marketing, marketing, operations, demand, generation, and core coms and brand into me. And really it's today, it's about two months in, it's about what are we gonna go and drive as a team?
And then how do we then apply the resources, whether that's people or dollars to driving those results. And I think something we'll talk a little bit about later is always starting with those objectives is really difficult to do, especially when there's loads of great activity that's happening already. And I think that's where I'm currently at, thinking less about people and resources and more about what we go and drive as an org.
Why Tom was hired as a CMO
Makes sense. The first question feels like a big question, but a nice scene setter, which is why were you hired as a CMO?
Yeah, I have absolutely no idea. I think where I've benefited is the concept of awareness or brand awareness is really becoming more and more popular in B2B marketing today. I think I'm at the stage in my career that perhaps if you were an expert in digital marketing 15 years ago, you would've benefited in the same way, which is more and more brands are realising that if people don't know what you do or who you are, direct response or performance marketing, your sales team has to work so much harder than if you have a presence already within the market.
And there's a guy, I think he's head of brand at Salesforce, Colin Fleming. He had this quote, which was that in B2B two thirds of the time when a business decision maker purchases software, they already have a brand in mind and 94% of the time the buyer ends up sticking with that brand. So if you're not part of the original consideration set, there's no way you're getting bought. So when people think of what we sell, they must think of us.
And I think my experience is effective at driving that and augmenting the performance marketing piece. And the other thing I will just add on Colin Fleming is I was introduced to Colin and I emailed him to set up an intro conversation and he never responded to me. So maybe with me building my brand on this podcast, Colin will be happy to have a five minute chat with me. Because I think he's a legend.
Differentiating yourself for career success
You're leaving us with no choice but to tag Colin Fleming on LinkedIn when this goes out, but we'll do what we can. So yeah, you talked about that brand background working to your advantage.
I mean, how much, and you gave the comparison maybe 15 years ago, having a more digital marketing focussed CMO may have had an advantage? There's a balance needed, right.
But how much in your journey to the next role, how much emphasis was there on the brand versus the performance side of things? And did you still have to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge and experience on the more performance, digital side of things as well?
Yeah, it was really ironic in the end because I think the thing that gave me most anxiety about my career over the last 15 years has been the brand tag that I was given. And I think for anyone listening to this, and you're not a CMO, you are likely to be a functional expert and that tag is gonna follow you around.
But for me the brand was never really put on the same level as demand generation or field or whatever. So I used to really think about how I basically channel my experience to prove that I can do other things. There's elements of product marketing within a brand, the way we buy media, the way we build ads, the way we measure on brand campaigns is the same as what you do within demand generation.
So I'd use that as a proof point for demand generation. And it wasn't until I spoke to a very lovely man, Anthony, who used to be a CMO at Gainsight. And he said that's really your unicorn, there's lots and lots of people that have had demand experience, product marketing experience, field experience, and actually what you should do is focus on what makes you different and amplify that.
And that's ironic because that's what we have to do in marketing is focus on what makes us different, not just try to blend into everybody else. And that's what I was doing. So when actually I started to lean into what made me different and actively say, if you are looking for a CMO who is an expert in demand generation, I am not your person. Sure. There was lots of companies that said, we're not really interested in that, but there were lots that were so really owning that brand piece was really, really important.
And I was actually talking to a friend of mine the other week, who's looking for a CMO role, and he was becoming despondent because lots of companies are looking for product led growth. He's like, I don't know anything about product led growth. And my advice to him was reject those opportunities and proudly do it.
Do it in a way that lifts up what you are actually really good at. And sure there's gonna be lots of companies that don't wanna chat to you, but really you'll end up with the one that really values you.
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How reporting to a chief revenue officer affects a B2B business
I saw the press release of you joining DISCO. I gather you're reporting to the chief revenue officer. I guess whichever way we look at it, marketers are held to account by numbers in some form. I guess the decision to go with the CMO that's been more brand focused is one that reflects on the outlook of the leadership team within the business, right?
In terms of how they view marketing. And maybe that's unusual in itself to some extent, or do you think there is a bit of a shift, as you mentioned, that now people recognise the importance of brand because again, at risk of putting a chief revenue officer in a stereotypical bucket, but you might assume sometimes that they're more interested in short term demand gen and fill the pipeline with leads and actually sometimes less willing to invest long time in brand.
Yeah, I think it's a great point. And I think, Andrew, the CRO, is definitely a visionary and you can definitely use that as a tag in the post when this podcast goes out as well. My next one on one will be very, the tone of that will be very good. Look, you need to earn the right to do the long term stuff. For sure.
You need to be able to demonstrate that marketing is having a shorter term impact, but ultimately, whilst leads is something that a sales organisation cares about, the other thing that they're painfully aware of is that if your SDRs are, or sales people are going into meetings and no one knows who you are, you've got a much harder job to do.
So I think that the organisations that will be successful in the future will be the ones that are able to balance the two. Then the other thing I'll add to that is the reality is that performance marketing is commodified right now. Everyone has the same tech stack, lead scoring is not something that only a couple of companies are doing. Everyone's optimising with an inch of their lives, their LinkedIn ad spend.
So actually brand becomes much more important in terms of how you drive that short term stuff. And it's a both question. You know, we saw when we were at advantage, we saw some examples of when people saw a brand ad and they saw a demand ad 10x conversion rates versus if they just saw one or the other. And I think that the great CROs, which Andrew is one, understand that and give space for that.
What being a CMO is really like
So you've been in the role for a couple of months. What did you think being a CMO would be like? And what's the experience been so far?
Yeah, I'm not really sure I had an idea of what a CMO would be like. I've seen a lot of really, really great leaders and I've seen a lot of really, really horrendous ones. And my strategy was to really think logically about what are the elements of the great leaders I've seen and what are the ones I definitely don't want to exhibit.
So in terms of how to be a CMO or what it was gonna be like when it was starting, I always knew that that those were the two things I wanted to try and do. The biggest change is that when you're at a senior leadership level, you are the only marketer in the room and you represent an entire function versus just being a part of it.
The majority of conversations I have aren't marketing conversations, and often I'm not there to give a marketing point of view. I'm there to give a business leader point of view. And I think that's been the biggest growth area for me. And one I would very much encourage people looking for CMO roles to really think about, which is, you aren't a marketing leader, you are a business leader and you need to have an opinion on the business.
And I think one of the most fortuitous things about my career is I've been very close to senior leadership teams where I've been able to try and hone my opinions and really learn from the leaders on how they approach that bit. And I think that really the reality has been, it's not enough to just be great at marketing. You need to be able to be contributing at business level as well.
Having business-level conversations as a CMO
How much of that do you think is hard skill? I remember we had a CMO on the podcast and they talked about doing an accounting course or something just to bring their finance up to so they could have that CFO discussion in the right way. Were there any gaps that you felt like you had to fill there?
Yeah, for sure. There's an insane amount of gaps. One of the things is I'm dyslexic, so I struggle with the numbers piece, but I'm brave enough to admit that to myself, and Carson who's our finance partner, is in every single meeting with me and I lift him up and I'm very open with the fact that I'm gonna need longer than most to really get my head around these numbers.
I think the other side of that is what I've become really good at is distilling down problems to a very simple form, not through necessarily a strategic endeavour, but one that I can understand as clearly as possible. And I think that everyone has these gaps. It doesn't matter how senior you are admitting to yourself and others that these are your gaps and asking for help where you need help is the most important thing. The leaders that I've seen fail are the ones that don't know everything, but they want everyone to think that they do. And that's the quickest way to lose trust, and get yourself fired.
Dealing with imposter syndrome
When we first talked, we talked a little bit about imposter syndrome, something that I've definitely experienced at times. I know you've alluded to the same. How have you dealt with it?
Yeah. This hit me like a ton of bricks, and I wasn't even sure I thought imposter syndrome was real. I've worked with people who shared that. They felt that. And when I started in the CMO role, I turn up to the office and they show me my office and my office is bigger than my living room in my apartment.
And I sort of sat there and looked at all the different monitors that were here and sort of looked around the room and was completely ready for Andrew to come in, knock on the door and drag me out and say, we've made a terrible mistake. I'm also 34 years old, which means I'm often the youngest person in every single room, whether that's my peers or my team.
And I really found I was anxious about the job and was really worried I'd bit more off than I could chew. And it manifested itself in that I really struggled to make decisions. I really struggled to think clearly about things around brand, that when I was a functional leader I would be a thousand percent sure of, I was now having real doubt creep in.
And I think the thing that really helped me deal with that, and I'm still dealing with it today is speaking to my network, really leaning on them to play ideas back and using that to build confidence. I'm looking at imposter syndrome as essentially a bit of a journey to getting back to how confident I used to be.
And again, talking about it, I was sitting on the subway going home and really sort of playing things over in my head, but once I actually admitted it, and I've told my team, I've told the SLT, that I'm going through this right now, the support network that springs up, but also the ease of knowing that it's not a secret that you're just holding onto yourself, this has really been helpful.
The pressure of making big decisions as a B2B business leader
You mentioned big decisions there and how that can be a bit of a paralysis for making big decisions. And I know making big calls is part of the job as you said, as you get into leadership territory, and I've seen all kinds of frameworks over the years of how to make decisions. Four by four grids, known, unknowns, unknown, unknowns, all those kinds of things. How are you approaching it now? Cause I imagine we'll talk a bit about change because often comes with the territory when you're CMO, but I imagine you've got some big decisions to make.
Yeah, sure. I think less about the sort of frameworks of how to make those decisions and more about the people side. So as I mentioned, consulting your network, I think people don't do enough. I think that's a really important one and everyone can look back over their previous companies and think about people that are better at you than the thing you've gotta make a decision on.
So I think consulting your network is really important. I think the thing I learned at MongoDB was seek out contrarian opinions. That's really, really important. You know, I can be completely sure of something and have all the confidence in the world, but I need to make sure I am actually hearing other perspectives and I don't just shut them down because they're different to mine.
I really, really look at, do they have a point? What if I'm wrong? What if they are right? And then finally, I think owning it, that's the other piece. I've seen leaders come into a business and they wait six months and they haven't changed anything. And it's almost that they're scared to make big decisions. And I think that the irony is that even in pushing out a decision, you're still deciding to do that. You're still actually making a decision.
So I think owning it, and if you can be humble and take your ego out of those big decisions, then I think that's what sets people up for success. And I think in terms of what decisions you actually have to go and make, that's gonna be different to every sort of situation and example of business.
Why CMOs come in and change everything
Let's talk about that because I guess it's no secret that when a new CMOs on the scene often that comes with change, maybe there's an unfair stereotype of a new CMO comes in and almost has to change things. Do you think that's the case?
I don't think it's the case that you have to, but I agree, every single person that's been a marketing leader has experienced a new CMO coming in. And the thing you think is amazing, the thing you think is gonna add massive value to the business is paused. And you cannot understand why the CMO did that. And if you were them, you would not do that.
And you would approach you in a different way. But I think there's a couple of things that are important here. You should stop or pause things that require a lot of lift or investment from the team, you should do that. Not cause you believe what they're doing is wrong, but you need one, the flexibility to be able to go and drive the things that you need to go and drive.
And two, you need time to get your head around things. You know, if you join a company and they're halfway through a website project and they're ready to press go on that, there's nothing wrong with saying, let's go slow to go fast pushing that thing out. But I think what's important is that you have to remember, you have zero context outside of what you learn in your interview.
And I think that everyone is also experienced leaders that come in and call everyone idiots. And then finally, six months later they're on board with the project or the initiative that people were driving because they now understand the challenges and the history. And what they've done is burn this sort of trust within their team. So I think that ultimately it's really about bringing your team along with you, regardless of whether you pause something or regardless of whether you continue things to move forward.
And how have you approached the people side of things so far? Obviously new team, new environment, they've got a new leader within the marketing function, I guess. How do you take them on that journey of change without annoying them too much?
For sure. And I'm lucky because I've got an amazing team here at DISCO, but I think really what you've gotta do is make a deal and the deal is that I'm gonna respect you. I'm gonna give you the opportunity to show me what you can do. I'm gonna give you the opportunity to get on board with some decisions and directions that you might not like, I'm gonna give you the opportunity to contribute towards those things.
And in return I ask is that you give me the benefit of the doubt as a new leader. I'm going to need my time to get my head around things. And it's my right to ultimately have say of what we do and make tough decisions. And I think that the people who can can get on board with that deal are the ones that have a chance to be successful. And I think that leaders that are able to separate their teams' identity with the work, make difficult decisions, but still leave your team think respecting you and feeling like they have an opportunity to contribute.
Tips for starting as a CMO for the first time
It would be interesting to get your view on the last couple of months, but what's the starting point? Like where do you focus? It sounds like you've got some strong principles you've just talked about there. And you can be very, very clear with your team about expectations and the opportunity and be quite direct about those things. But yeah, it'd be interesting to hear where you'd recommend the best starting point to be.
Yeah, and this was something I learned really quickly was, when I was at MongoDB, Peter Yolanda joined as CMO and I really admired the way he went about taking on that role and inheriting the team and the decisions he made. I went through that process of him making decisions that I didn't like, or I didn't agree with, but I really tried to get on board.
And when I left MongoDB, I felt like I could replicate what Peter did at MongoDB and I'd be successful immediately. And what I learned was that this idea that principles endure and formulas don't, and there were some few moments at the start where I tried to do just the things I saw Peter do, because they were wildly successful. And I really respected the decisions he made.
You know, one of the things is that at MongoDB, they write memos, they don't use Google slides and that was something immediately I wanted to roll out. And the cultures here is different. The situation is different, the characters are different, the problems are different.
So I had to take a step back and think about what were the principles in what Peter did versus just blindly sort of trying to recreate what I saw him do. So I think starting with the people was really important as I've said, and then getting into the objectives always comes back down to what outcome are we trying to drive?
And alongside that the hardest lift was building peers across the business, doing over. I think I've done over one hundred one on ones in the first two months. And that's been incredibly valuable as again, I have no context. I don't understand the business. Don't understand the market. People help.
Great advice. We have packed a lot into 26 minutes, a little bit longer, but actually I think every second was worth it. So I feel like we could probably keep talking for another couple of hours, but unfortunately we don't have the time. But that's been awesome. Tom, thank you for sharing everything so openly. I think you've set a benchmark for openly sharing some of the challenges and the difficulties that come with the journey, but I'm excited to see where you take everything. Thanks again.
Thank you very much, mate.
Thanks for listening. Before we go. Just one final shout out to our finite partner, 93x, the digital marketing agency working exclusively with ambitious fast growth B2B tech and SaaS companies. Visit 93x.agency to find out how they partner with marketing teams to drive growth.
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