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4 Under 40: Ushering in a New Era of Marketing

Sarah Steimer

illustration of four different plants in circles

The dynamic future of marketing: lessons from the Teacher, the Optimist, the Revisionist and the Connector

Thinking about the future is daunting. There’s no way to precisely predict new developments in the marketing pipeline, whether in technology, theory, practice or career trajectory. But even if the details are unclear, we can always find solace in strong leadership.

This year’s batch of 4 Under 40 Emerging Leaders suggests a boundaries-defying future for marketing. The most striking characteristic of the group is perhaps how each individual represents four very different aspects of marketing. As the industry becomes more dynamic, so do its practitioners.

The AMA’s 2019 4 Under 40 group, narrowed down from a list of 87, consists of a teacher, an optimist, a revisionist and a connector. They’re each highly accomplished in their own right and are redefining what success in marketing means.

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illustration of Mary Owusu

Mary Owusu: The Teacher

Mary Owusu isn’t just interested in solutions. She’s interested in the process—a trait that makes her a natural teacher. She muses on the lessons learned, a strategy she’s perfected as a search marketer, analyst and adjunct professor. Owusu wants to know what’s driving the customer or keeping a B student from becoming an A student. Her full story—professionally and personally—is rife with tales of “figuring it out.”

Owusu, who serves as vice president of analytics and digital strategy at Mower, says her transition from search marketing to analyst was prompted by a hard lesson. In the first paid search campaign she ran, Owusu forgot to cap her budget. She went away for the weekend, and upon her return found that the entire month’s budget was spent over that short period. “I had to call the client, tell them what happened, but also offer some solutions. ‘How many phone calls did you get over the weekend? How many different forms have been completed on the site?’” Owusu recalls. The mistake prompted her to ask deeper questions about data and analytics. “I realized there was so much more. I took that and started using it for other clients.”

Her future as an analyst was set off by recognizing a teachable moment, and she’s spent her career sniffing out and pouncing on such opportunities. Her clarity and ability to make sense out of problems and data compels you to want to understand them better. You want her on your team.

“Sometimes, analysts are stereotyped as number crunchers who find it really difficult to socialize with people,” Owusu says. “But I think the glue that defines 99% of analysts is we tend to be very literal and highly logical people, very logic-driven. You present us with a situation—like can you solve X or what is the outcome of Y—and we’re thinking of all the factors that might affect the outcome of that situation. We’re inclined to peel all the layers back until we get to the root cause of something. Ultimately, the analyst’s desire is to understand how things converge: What is the final result we’re trying to produce? That holds true for teachers.”

Prompted to describe an example when she helped a client refocus on the consumer, she gets right to setting the scene—because a good teacher is also a good storyteller, and you become transfixed by the experience of solving for X along with Owusu.

The client in her example is a museum, and she pauses to note how tricky it is to attract people to touristy venues. She presents the goals: “You want to get people aware, then you want them to plan a vacation in the city and then you also want them … to actually go to the museum while they’re there. You want the museum to be the hook.” Next, she outlines some typical missteps a marketer could make at this stage, such as setting up a landing page that requests information from the visitor without offering them value. (She even admits to using fake email addresses in these situations herself.)

Now, the solutions: In the lead-up to an opening or release, marketers have an opportunity to create urgency and scarcity. Perhaps the museum could offer free admission to anyone who signs up in March. Maybe, in addition to a countdown clock for the grand opening, there’s one for when the offer of the month expires. But there are also bonus points. “People will self-select out of the process if the reward is not relevant,” she says.

Her careful breakdown illustrates just how much Owusu thrills in the opportunity to teach. In addition to her work at Mower, where she’s served for almost five years, she’s also an adjunct professor at Canisius College and is frequently asked to speak at conferences. It’s not just her natural ability to educate or her search marketing and analysis expertise that move her to participate in events—she also sees her presence as a teachable moment.

Owusu’s family came to the U.S. from Ghana, and 10 years later her parents both had to return to their home country. Owusu and her siblings had to support one another, work hard, become vulnerable and rely on a network of friends and strangers. “It’s about stepping away from homogenous thinking,” she says. “And realizing that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, and that when you are operating within your own sphere of what you know, you won’t have those ‘Aha!’ moments. Somebody else might have a very unique approach.”

Having seen the benefit of diversity in her own life, she tries to highlight the perks of broad thinking when she steps onstage.

“When you have [diversity and inclusion], it opens up the conversation and possibilities become endless,” she says. “You find yourself being able to do things that you thought were impossible. You find yourself stepping outside your boundaries. You find yourself thinking differently. I put myself out there because I know that … I’m different, I know I am an immigrant, I’m a black woman, I’m in a unique field. Sometimes I talk about diversity but sometimes I just talk about analytics and best practices.”

Owusu says her presence is important for the people in the audience, some of whom are in the minority themselves, to witness representation. But it also benefits the people who cannot relate to her gender, race or immigration story. She wants to trigger people to talk about inclusion within their company.

Wherever Owusu shows up, she does so to learn and teach. She has her own arsenal of mentors from diverse backgrounds, and she plays the teacher in the office, at conferences and in classrooms. People have a lot to learn, but she’s happy to make the time.

illustration of Pranav Yadav

Pranav Yadav: The Optimist

Everyone wants to believe that, on some level, what they do or the way they work will make the world at least a slightly better place. For Pranav Yadav, that may actually be true. It wouldn’t be fair to call him an idealist, because he’s realistic about what currently motivates companies and their marketing departments. (Spoiler: it’s profit.) But he also sees what the role of marketing could be, and he’s optimistic about that.

Yadav is the CEO of Neuro-Insight, a neuromarketing and neuroanalytics company that helps organizations find what subconsciously drives consumers. “Eighty to 90% of your decision-making takes place in the subconscious,” he says. “Now think about the $500 billion that [is] spent every year in the world of advertising globally. The whole purpose of advertising is to influence people to be doing things that the brand wants them to do. … If the only way we are trying to measure how people would react to things in the market is a conscious way—which scientifically and philosophically we know is only 10% of decision-making—there’s something very broken in that industry.”

What Neuro-Insight does, according to Yadav, is decode human behavior. He’s been digging into the core of what drives people since he was young, pinpointing his first appearance in a play at 8 or 9 years old as the root. He played the role of Ram, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, who solves for humanity before solving for himself. Yadav was asked to act empathetically toward the other characters in the play, as well as the crowd. “That turned into a basic interest in the study of human behavior,” he says. “How do people react to things? What makes them tick?”

Early in his career, Yadav worked for Danish innovation strategy consulting firm ReD Associates, which purports to use “human science to put people back at the center of business decision-making.” The job launched him into the practice of getting at the heart of why people did—or didn’t—act in a certain way. He was sent to India to find out why people didn’t buy air conditioners, despite temperatures hitting 120 degrees in the summer. He traveled to Las Vegas to understand the gaming industry and to Copenhagen to work on city design. At the heart of all this work was social scientific research: He would sit and talk with people for hours, trying to decode not what they were saying but what their actions suggested.

Yadav wanted to take his research into decision-making further, and that’s when he learned about neuromarketing. “I became obsessed with the idea of, can technology actually provide a solution to understanding the human subconscious, the root of all greatness, that we have seen for the past few thousand or million years in mankind?” he says. It led him to an Australian company, Neuro-Insight, which invented technology that could predict human behavior by looking at brain activity. Turns out, they were looking for a CEO.

“We come in and try to understand how people would react to certain ideas, storyboards, strategy or even to finished commercials in the real world—before the company actually spends all of the money on production or media buy,” Yadav says. “Brands commonly use us to figure out how consumers are likely to react in the market so they can come up with products that consumers would want, and they can communicate about their products in a way that the consumers will understand and react to.”

One of the great disconnects Yadav sees is between narrative and brand. He gives the example of the 2015 Budweiser lost puppy commercial that ran during Super Bowl XLIX. The spot—in which a puppy makes a special connection with Clydesdale horses, who rescue the pup from a run-in with a wolf—was a top-ranked ad, but it didn’t lead to higher sales. Yadav identified three problems: First, advertising is not consumed in isolation, but ad testing is. Second, consumers engage in post-rationalization of why they did or didn’t like an ad, which doesn’t get at the subconscious reasons they found it appealing. Third is the myth that emotional advertising works. Yet here was a highly emotional ad, and it wasn’t driving beer sales.

“Unless and until a particular piece of information goes into your long-term memory, you don’t have the information to react tomorrow, the day after or a year later when you actually want to tap back into it,” Yadav says. The mistake many brands make is to tell a compelling narrative, bring people to an emotional crescendo, but then the music ends and another screen takes over with the branding. It’s a conceptual closure. “If the brand only shows up after that point, your doorway of memory is no longer open to consume any new information,” he says.

Another problem Yadav sees is when brands try to be the hero of the consumer’s story by listing all of its benefits. Imagine if humans did that to one another. “If I were to meet you on the street and go up to you and say, ‘Hey, by the way, my name is Pranav, I’m the CEO of a neuromarketing company and here are the 10 accolades that I have gotten—I’m worthy of your time. Please give me the attention that I deserve,’” he says, “you’d be like, ‘What a weird character. I certainly don’t want to give him any attention.’” Soap or toothpaste may play some role in our lives, but they aren’t the heroes of our stories—yet brands’ communication strategies often depend on the product being the hero.

Yadav says the most effective strategies are those that include the branding within the narrative and center the consumer at the heart of the story. He uses the “Google Search: Reunion” ad as an example. The platform is used throughout the spot to help bring together two old friends in separate countries. The characters are the heroes, Google simply helps facilitate the emotional reunion.

Yadav doesn’t just see his work as a way to help companies make more money. Instead, he sees it as a way to help marketers have a greater understanding of the human subconscious, to better understand them and become more empathetic. Right or wrong, he says, marketing was handed the responsibility of setting culture and propagating behavior.

“We as marketers have the power and the money to influence culture and society and figure out a way and a direction in which to move the world,” he says. “We have a responsibility, a fundamental one at that, to be able to set culture a certain way so we as humanity can move in a certain direction, rather than thinking more short-term about the month or the quarter and the profitability and stock price. Those needs will be taken care of if we’re actually solving for the greater picture.”

illustration of Erik Huberman

Erik Huberman: The Revisionist

Marketers have learned that people want options and flexibility. Gone are the days of being locked into a contract with your cell phone company. We’re entering the era of on-demand music, movies—everything. But somehow this new pick-and-choose economy hasn’t trickled into the B2B market.

“How is it that all these marketing companies that always talk about the customer have never built a customer-centric agency where it’s about their customer?” asks Erik Huberman. “If you think about all the things that make agencies annoying, it’s to protect themselves, not the customer. Signing a three-year contract isn’t for the sake of the brand, that’s for the sake of the agency. That’s crazy to me. Can you imagine you walk into a restaurant and they say, ‘OK, you can only eat if you’re going to eat here every week for the next three years?’”

Huberman saw a gap in the market, for which he introduced Hawke Media, an a la carte marketing solution. Whatever a company’s need, it can choose that exact solution from Hawke’s menu of marketing specialties.

It helps that Huberman doesn’t come from a traditional marketing background himself. (He initially thought he’d pursue real estate.) But after building a few e-commerce companies, he saw a need to tweak how the marketing ecosystem works. The operations side, which he calls reactive, was the easy part. But he found himself drawn to the challenge of marketing and sales. He dove into the profession and made a name for himself helping other companies with their branding strategies. Huberman became item No. 1—an outsourced CMO—on an eventual full menu of marketing capabilities that he would offer through Hawke.

“I had a bunch of clients, both big and small, that I was consulting for,” he says. “When I’d try to hire people that execute for them, I was disappointed over and over again and got sick of it, and decided to hire my own team. I grabbed a bunch of really good marketers in their specific fields. I got a Facebook marketer, an email marketer, web designer, etc. But I kept everything a la carte, month-to-month. The idea is we’re cheaper than hiring in-house, but you can spin off exactly what you need, when you need it and you know that they’re managed, trained, peer-reviewed and constantly learning more.”

Hawke Media is essentially the streaming video service of marketing agencies: You watch what you want and get personalized recommendations. Because Hawke has managed more than 2,000 companies’ data—in the same way streaming services have viewers’ data—the agency has done well using insights to know what works and what doesn’t.

Huberman doesn’t seem to take anything too personally. Maybe you need his company this month, but you want to get a marketing team in-house by the end of the year. That’s OK with him. Perhaps you’ll need some specialized digital marketing assistance for next year’s holiday season. Give him a call then, no pressure. Everyone needs something different at a different time, and he’s willing to be flexible.

This approach is undoubtedly disruptive, and it replaces the way a lot of firms used to do business. But it’s also disrupting the way marketers themselves work, as his employees are essentially menu items. “It appeals to the person who wants to work on a diverse group of clients,” Huberman says. “If you’re an email marketer, you can go work internally at a company, do the same stuff every day and build out emails for the same fashion brand that look the same and do it for three years until you get bored or want to go to the next one. Or you can come here and, on average, work on six to eight companies at a time. Those also rotate out. You’re constantly changing what you’re doing. The person who likes a little more diversity in their work, it’s a huge opportunity and the right people seem to love that. It’s a preference.”

As he reimagines the marketing ecosystem in an on-demand world, Huberman’s approach also opens the opportunity for greater accessibility. He looks to the big consultancies, such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young, as models. “For them, it’s accounting and management consulting,” he says. “What I want to build now is the same thing, but on the growth and marketing side.” He wants Hawke Media to be a place where a company, an entrepreneur or marketing lead can seek help for a strategy or individual execution items. “Our full mission is around making marketing accessible and really helping companies get access to that. And that’s for anyone, whether it’s a Fortune 100, a tiny startup or anything in between.”

If Huberman sounds as though he’s rushing toward the future, riding the on-demand trend, trying to fix a broken system—he strikes a balance with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yes, he believes in a more flexible future, a combination of agency and in-house, but he doesn’t think freelancing is part of the solution: “I’ve watched the frustrations and problems that come from that. That’s not scalable.” And while Hawke Media has an initiative of becoming 5% more tech-enabled each year, he’s cautious about how beneficial cutting-edge technology is. “There’s no artificial intelligence yet,” he says. “In fact, machine learning and automation are still not even at a point that it’s actually more lucrative than having a manual person do it.”

Huberman is poking at the status quo, seeing what works and what doesn’t. His solution isn’t exactly new, but it has been reimagined. He thinks it could work for you, and if you change your mind—no problem. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think the way everyone else is doing it is wrong, it’s just different,” he says. “I don’t agree with it, I don’t prefer it, but I’m not the only opinion in the world.”

illustration of Carolyn Tisch Blodgett

Carolyn Tisch Blodgett: The Connector

People love to talk to Carolyn Tisch Blodgett about her work.

“I go to kids’ birthday parties or dinner parties, and all anyone wants to talk to me about is Peloton,” she says. They tell her that the brand, for which she serves as senior vice president and head of global brand marketing, changed their life. With its Wi-Fi-connected stationary bikes, treadmills and digital app, Peloton bridges its users’ harried lifestyles with a love for boutique fitness classes.

“Gratifying is too soft a word, but it really does feel … I get very emotional when I hear people talking about Peloton,” Blodgett says.

The brand is personal for Blodgett, who calls herself the target audience for Peloton. (“This product changed my life,” she says.) But she wasn’t always so personally intertwined with the brands she worked for. In fact, she says she always felt that you become a better marketer when you’re not the target audience. That was certainly the case at her previous employer, PepsiCo, where she worked on the Mountain Dew brand.

“My family just didn’t have soda in the house growing up, and I didn’t really like caffeine,” Blodgett says. “Mountain Dew was sort of the last thing that I would ever drink.” Yet there she was, working on a higher-caffeine version of the beverage. Her role as a marketer comes first, though, and despite bringing Peloton into her personal life, she dons her marketing hat before she clips into the pedals.

To listen to Blodgett discuss her work, you can hear the way she can scan a table of loose puzzle pieces and snap the matches into place, watching the picture come together.

The first puzzle piece was realizing that, despite her declared liberal arts major, Blodgett found herself drawn to business. “I was always fascinated by how brands connected with some more than others,” she says. She delved into a brand she loved—American Express—and worked for the company’s advertising agency at the time, Digitas. She sought to experience being in a client-service role, something she says has helped her to understand what a good brief looks like and how good management works. She returned to school, studying at Harvard University, and returned to the client side with PepsiCo. With every experience, she found another piece of her marketing acumen clicking into place.

Her time at PepsiCo guided a lot of her work at Peloton, where she’s helped to grow the company from a small start-up to an international fitness brand. She essentially helped to start the young brand from scratch, but didn’t hesitate to use the tools she acquired while working on Mountain Dew. The difference now is her personal connection to the Peloton brand—but she doesn’t let that overpower the importance of data and insights.

“I’m not successful at my job because I’m in the target [audience],” she says. “That’s just icing on the cake. We need to use data to tell us if something’s working or not working. We may feel so passionately about some marketing, like a new ad campaign that we want to launch. We fall in love with it and we think it’s fantastic, and then we bring it into testing and consumers don’t like it. We’re not going to produce it. … That’s where having the balance of, yes, we all feel so passionate about this product and this brand and this experience and community, but we have to use data to validate whether or not we’re making the right decision every day.”

Not that an emotional connection to the brand must be at odds with datasets and customer insights—a combination of the two has been Blodgett’s strength.

Peloton is still a very young business, and that means there’s more than enough work to go around. (Peloton has filed documents for an initial public offering as of press time and is expected to be valued at about $8 billion.) But Blodgett has found her calm within the storm, often relaxing at night by scrolling through Peloton’s Facebook page to see how users connect with the brand.

As she’s connected the puzzle pieces in her own career, a fuller picture has emerged that hints at the future of marketing. Blodgett believes the best route forward, the way for companies to stand out from the crowd, is to blend performance marketing and brand marketing. “Not many companies can do both,” she says.

At a certain point, a marketer can’t just focus on brand or performance; If you want to be a senior leader, you must understand how the two work together. Everyone at Peloton is a brand ambassador, Blodgett explains. She references the company’s field ops, drivers and delivery people. Their tasks would appear to be relatively mundane: Get the product from the company to the customer. But Peloton saw an opportunity to reinforce its ability to blend brand and performance. When someone from the company shows up at a customer’s door, they spend time making sure the user knows how to adjust their seat, connect to Wi-Fi and log in to the platform. It’s another chance to make a connection.

“The future of marketing is that [brand and performance] don’t need to be in conflict,” she says. “You can tell a great story that also happens to do the thing your business needs to do. For us, that’s selling bikes and treads and digital subscriptions. For a different business, it’s something else. But the fact that you can do both of those at the same time is the future of marketing.”

Illustrations by Eugene Smith.

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.