Winsper (www.winsper.com), based in Boston, MA. is redefining the discipline of marketing and the role of CMOs on the global scale. President Jeff Winsper (@jeffwinsper) took some time to chat with Ascent Advisor (@AscentAdvisor).
Ascent Advisor – Bruce Jackson: What led you to found Winsper (@winsperthinks) in 2002?
Jeff Winsper: Just to give you some context, I graduated from Providence College, which is a small college in Rhode Island, and I got a BA in History. I joined a small firm, a group that claimed to be the first B2B technology agency in the country established in 1969. I had no idea about the industry, and I really had no idea about B2B and technology, but I really fell in love with technology and everything about it.
I had a chance to take ownership in that company but I elected not to, and I went to cofound a firm/agency. A couple other partners and I did some homework and we decided to focus on B2B in tech because we felt it was a very underserved industry, and we had a business model that we felt would give us a competitive advantage against our counterparts. We grew it very quickly, and part of that growth was due to expansion throughout the Americas and London. So we had service centers to take care of the tech centers across the country. We built it and then we sold it to Leo Burnett. After you sell your business, it’s not really your business anymore, so I hung around for 4 years, then I went over to Mullen to build out a B2B practice, help organize it, but that was a really short stint.
In the back of my mind, I was thinking I could start up another firm. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to be an agency per se, so I did a lot of homework to discover some of the gaps. Fundamentally, in almost every agency, they focus on industries, not on audiences. It puzzled me to think that we are hired as an outside consultant, to determine how to position clients’ brands/products /services, where people want to buy from people, and most of the agencies are focused on sectors, like healthcare, or technology, etc.
If I could find out how and why someone would open up their wallet to pay for goods/products/services, that would be a better way to have a dialogue. I cut across audiences, and we focused on two at that time; one audience was C-Level, and the other was affluent consumers. In other words, if you are a company and want to target any one of those two audiences, we wanted to make sure we had best practices, complete insight into their buying behavior and their needs, wants and desires, and that is how we built Winsper in the very beginning. Since then, we have evolved greatly, but still remain customer-centric.
Ascent Advisor: It sounds like you are still enjoying your work.
Jeff Winsper: Every day. Our industry is one of the very few areas in which you have the opportunity to learn and understand a myriad of industries and consumer sets. If you get stuck into a category, like healthcare, you don’t have an opportunity to have the understanding of how businesses operate across multiple industries. As we evolved, one of the things we found that happened in the last 5-10 years, and looks like it is going to happen for the foreseeable future, is that marketing itself is transforming, and so what we want to do and have to do is stay ahead of that. The notion of business in marketing is really interesting. Marketing doesn’t always run and operate in an organization like a business. Part of that is because of the history of the last 20-25 years, but fundamentally moving forward it needs to evolve very quickly into a more structured, organized, disciplined profession. We help C-level leaders, CMOs, CFOs, COOs, transform their marketing department into a business. From a visionary standpoint, we want to be a source for competitive advantage.
If you understand how to transform a marketing department into a business, and know everything about the consumers and why they buy, and why they don’t buy, where are the opportunities, where to avoid and mitigate risk, then you are becoming a partner.
We actually have technology that is our own IP that we use to show a measurable positive economic impact for our clients’ business. If we cannot prove that we are moving the needle on behalf of our clients, then we are a cost, and we are no longer an investment. We have solutions, technology, and services combined to help get these organizations operating like a business. That is the current vision and goals and objectives.
Ascent Advisor: Do you tap into some of the best practices of Google and Facebook to see the kinds of principles they use to customize how they get their data?
Jeff Winsper: I wouldn’t say that those are the two we would lean on. If you are talking about analytics, that is a separate point. When I meet with clients, they are C-Level people, business unit leaders, I ask the simple question: “For all those at the table, raise your hand if you think you are in control of the customer.”
What usually happens is people give you the crocodile arm: CEO raises his/her hand a little bit, finance kind of raises their hands. Ultimately they all raise their hands. “We are all in control of the customer.” Owning the customer is the collective process we all have to consider, and the data being collected by our entire enterprise, regardless of the point of entry (Google, Facebook, call center, retail POS), our job in marketing is to take the information and distill it down into very important and key insights to drive initiatives that make sense.
I have been in marketing for 25 years, and I would say this is probably one of the most exciting times I can remember. The only other time I can remember with a similar rate of change was around the dot-com era. The difference this time is that the change is more substantive and meaningful. While I’m not saying that the internet and web did not have a profound effect on the socio-economic business climate, but now we are collecting all this big data and the consumer engagement model is much more customer-centric as opposed to a push model. The explosion and adoption of marketing technology is crazy.
The CMOs today are fundamentally different than they were 10 years ago; they definitely want more science with the art. I am not saying it needs to be one end or the other of the spectrum, you don’t want to swing the pendulum too far. CEOs are putting tremendous pressure on CMOs to prove their value every day. When you are in the meeting in the boardroom, and you are going through the numbers, and the CEO looks to the person in charge of revenue and says, “How is it going?”
In the past, the sales guy or the revenue guy says, “We are going to be off by our numbers by two points, but don’t worry I’ll pull it through.“ In the same meeting, if the CEO looks at the CMO and says, “How’s it going?” which is code for, “I’m not sure what I’m after because I’m not quite sure what you do,” the CMO of the past said, “Excellent, our awareness is up and our last campaign was a success.”
This is a disconnect because the CEO is thinking, “I give you a boatload of money and you gave me a qualitative response, and I give the sales guy money, and he gives me money in return.” This is why Winsper exists.
Not only do we give you the best practices, the processes, we actually execute against it. We actually deliver the goods. The challenge in the industry is there is a massive blurring of the lines between these categories (agencies, consulting firms, and technology groups) – part of it is their legacy and part is what the clients are asking for. We’ve invested in building our business – our business unit called Black Ink. Black Ink provides business customer and marketing analytics, but it’s wrapped around software that we have called Eye On Enterprise Marketing ROI. We believe that at the end of the day if you can’t prove the incremental difference in the value of marketing, then you are still a cost.
Ascent Advisor: What do you think are the biggest challenges with all the growth facing Winsper?
Jeff Winsper: A main challenge we are facing is that you can try to lead ahead of the market, to a certain extent, so therefore potential clients “should” follow where your vision is.
That is interesting for us because in some cases, our top track of what we can deliver is to a smaller target market universe: people that do fit that profile, a CMO that is willing to change and take a risk. We are trying to talk to a group that are leaders, and for laggards – this is very foreign to them. Some people do stuff, day in, day out, and good is good enough. That is not really our target market.
Our target market is very finite because we are looking at companies that are half a billion to 2-3 billion dollars in size, but even within it, the company needs to have a certain profile of CMO, and that profile includes understanding science, art, and owning the cost centers associated with the ROI, and they need to report into the CEO or CFO. Absent of that it’s challenging because they tend to still be considered not an officer of the company. Only 7% of all officers in Fortune 500 are marketing people. The challenge we face as an organization is that marketing by definition, in the eyes of CEOs and CTOs, is something they learned 20 years ago in a textbook. This becomes a real gap for a marketing person to help redefine where it belongs and elevate it to a higher order in the institution. CEOs are struggling to understand it.
In my work on the Marketing Accountability Standards Board (MASB), we are trying to standardize the way we talk about and account for marketing. Think GAAP and FASBE for finance, MASB is for marketing. For example, when a CFO leaves a company, all the metrics stay the same. Every time the CMO leaves, all the metrics change. And because the CMO’s tenure is usually similar to that of the gestation of an elephant, metrics change all the time.
Ascent Advisor: How would you describe the culture of your company? How did you decide the culture you wanted to build around it?
Jeff Winsper: Culture is an interesting thing. If you study how cultures evolve, it’s like a gene pool. We have set values and personality for our own brand. The values are very straight-forward. We are very open-minded, there is no BS allowed, be smart, diverse, and creative. As such, we created an environment where personality comes through. I can use a couple words to express it: our personality is energetic, confident, highly curious, we challenge the norm, and it’s a very open environment.
When I reflect on this now, I have to believe that much of the culture now probably comes from the top down, from me. But that isn’t good enough. We still have to demonstrate it. It’s an environment where you either get it as an employee and appreciate it and embrace it, or fundamentally you are going to be called out by your peer set and you aren’t going to last very long.
Let’s use the example of Bill Parcell. He created his own model, and then he had 3-5 lieutenants, or disciples, and he brought those same guys from team to team, even if they weren’t starters, and it was because those guys understood and appreciated what Bill Parcells did, they breathed it, they lived it. When Bill was not around and things got out of hand in the locker room, those leaders could manage.
I believe in creating the environment where people can be leaders unto themselves. You don’t see statues for committees at parks. Most employees care only about 3 things: Respect, Responsibility and Opportunity. If you can provide those three fundamentals, you don’t have to be involved day in and day out with everything they need to do. You need to provide the environment for them to grow and thrive. I am actively involved to make sure the train is on the right track, and I try to help where needed.
Jeff Winsper: Simply, continuously evolve or else. Evolve or die. You have to evolve. I would tell them to role-play for a minute:
If you had to walk out of the door of the company you built, and start all over, what business would you want to be in and why? If it is your very own business, great. If you’ve had your head down for so long and the company has evolved in a way that doesn’t meet the clients’ needs, you may need a change.
The follow up question to that is: If you had to start over at a new company, who would you take with you and who would you leave behind? Even in companies of thousands, there is a very small group of change makers, people that make a difference.
The third question I would ask is: If you started a new company, what is or what should be your source of authority? Are you an expert, so much so that you can’t be ignored by the marketplace?
Last question: Is it sustainable? Who cares? Why do they care? And for how long? If you can answer those questions, then you have a construct of the purpose of your business.
Ascent Advisor: What is the one challenge you and your leadership team face that you wish employees understood better?
Jeff Winsper: It’s going to sound very basic, but it’s taxes. Interestingly enough, we work day in and day out to help our clients grow, but not everyone here understands how we make money or how we use money. It’s not their responsibility, but we try to help them understand that the choices they make every day, however minor they might be, have an impact on our own business
Ascent Advisor: What is the next hurdle for Winsper?
Jeff Winsper: I have enough hurdles on my plate right now, I haven’t thought about the next one. My hurdle is taking this notion of advancing the cause of what marketing can do for the higher benefit of an organization. For growth, we need to have the next level down adopt and understand where the marketplace is going.
All marketing people believe every day when they wake up that they are doing what is right. They want accountability, they want responsibility. Our clients want that. The challenge is trying to connect the dots for them and understand the partnerships required within an organization in order for them to be successful. We want to celebrate what marketing can do to be successful and move it away from where it’s being marginalized by the C-suite to another level, where, candidly, it rightfully belongs. We need to get it back to a critical, important seat at the table.
One thing that has always been a stone in my shoe over the last 25 years is when you look across the table at a CEO and you are about to try to secure the business, and the CEO asks the question: “Is this going to work?”
It’s a challenge. You had to say “Oh yeah, don’t worry, it’s going to work, we have done it for others and we can do it for you.” That bothered me a lot, but as we are moving our company into this notion of providing positive economic impact, I like being able to sit across the table today and say with confidence “Yes, marketing can make you money, save you money, or both.” I have a much greater degree of confidence because now we have all the analytics and software. Our agency friends will try to get as much money out of a client for a TV ad because they are special, but the more you pay, the lower your ROI. We have the opposite view – what can we do to achieve the same objective, with the highest efficacy rate and effectiveness, and price is a component of the return. I am more confident now than ever before.