The marketing profession is stacked with impressive résumés and experience from fresh-faced entrepreneurs, high-powered CMOs and everyone in between
The AMA’s 4 Under 40 Emerging Leaders Award recognizes mid-career professionals with impressive experience under their belts, who still have many years ahead of them in their field.
The 2018 winners were chosen by a committee that included representatives from the AMA’s advisory councils and the Marketing Week Live conference committee. Winners consistently demonstrate a commitment to their industries, contribute to the advancement of marketing, serve as passionate leaders, provide mentorship and take risks to achieve desired outcomes.
Of this year’s 67 nominees, the committee chose four outstanding emerging leaders: Andrew Malcolm, Liliana Ciurlino, Chris Smith and Bobby Singh.
Andrew Malcolm appears perfectly at home on his trip to Chicago. He’s quick to chat about his two children and their many trips to the Shedd Aquarium, and he jokes about his penchant for free T-shirts and “South Park” references. It’s almost impossible to picture him in Silicon Valley, where he works as CMO of note-taking software company Evernote. He is the antithesis of California-slick, and his self-awareness may be what keeps him grounded in the land of Facebook and Google.
“We’ve talked for years about whether we should just move back (to the Midwest) because there’s no way I don’t feel a little bit out of place in Silicon Valley,” Malcolm says of conversations with his wife. “If you look at our résumés, a lot of it looks very Silicon Valley, but within a five-minute conversation we try so hard to break down that perception of who we are.”
While he maintains a Middle America vibe, Malcolm’s career story reads as pure West Coast success. After some stints on the East Coast and Texas, he moved to California about 15 years ago with the intention of consulting for a few years before becoming a “golf bum.” Once he realized a golf career was hardly in the cards for him, he enrolled in business school at Stanford University.
At the start of the Great Recession, Malcolm worked at private equity fund Silver Lake Partners. He remembers spinning in his chair, wondering if he would still have a job as the economy took its own turn. A new opportunity soon arrived in 2009: Malcolm’s firm, along with Andreessen Horowitz and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, acquired 65% of Skype from eBay—Malcolm hopped aboard the telecommunications company.
Skype’s CMO was let go and, as Malcolm tells it, company management believed the business could be sold again and didn’t want to pay a seasoned executive. Instead, they hired him as CMO. He was 28 years old and had never managed more than six people.
“Next thing I know, I had a team of 80 people,” Malcolm recalls. “I’ll never forget the fear that first day of speaking to all these people and saying, ‘I believe in the team, and I’m going to be quite transparent. I don’t know much about this stuff, but we’re going to figure it out together.’”
He admits that he wasn’t the greatest leader, at least not at first. Two of his coworkers had to approach him about his habit of not taking notes during meetings. But one of the pros of his lack of experience as a marketer was being unburdened by traditional practices.
“We had little choice but to simply apply logic to the problems we were facing,” Malcolm says. “If we could marry this deeply analytical thinking that comes with being a nerdy data guy from a private equity background with the things that [Skype] was incredible at—storytelling and putting systems in place that work at scale—then we could build a creatively analytic approach.”
The first year was tough, Malcom says. Many employees were reticent and skeptical of him. But then his team started succeeding. One of his team’s first wins was communicating the platform’s use for long-distance calls. The challenge was to market the service without using the phrase “phone call” because Skype isn’t a regulated telephone company. Malcolm’s team used an image of a dial pad to convey the program’s capabilities, and subsequently, the lifetime value and expected value of Skype users increased 11% during users’ first three days on the platform.
After that, Malcom says the rest of the team looked at marketing differently; they were “growth hacking” before it became a popular term.
Malcolm spent more than four years at Skype before heading to HP for two years. He then reached out to Chris O’Neill, whom he had worked for in 2002 and who had recently replaced Phil Libin as CEO of Evernote. “I called him and said, ‘Without seeing a line of code or a metric of your business, I can probably tell you the nine things you have to fix because they’re the exact problems that Skype had’,” Malcolm says. “I was right on maybe six and a half of those things.”
O’Neill hired Malcolm as senior vice president for marketing. Around the same time Business Insider deemed Evernote the “first dead unicorn,” adding, “The seeds for its long-term demise are already well under way.” Evernote had about 12 months’ worth of cash left, some illogically placed global office locations and no successful pricing mechanism. Malcolm had to make some creative—and uncomfortable—decisions.
The Evernote team used behavior data to design a paywall. They found that adoption across multiple devices was one of the best indicators of customer interest in paying for service in the future. The model the team created asked users to pay if they synced more than two devices to Evernote. The decision saved the company, but there were still some long-term employees who felt the move went against Evernote’s mission. Malcolm says that one of his biggest regrets was not using his personal Evernote story to better convey why he cared so much about saving the company. He created his first note on his birthday in 2011. Later, when his father had a stroke, Malcolm kept his father’s medical records on Evernote, and later his legal documents after he passed away. He even wrote his father’s eulogy on the platform, where he also stores his children’s sonograms and letters he wrote to them.
“I had this relationship with Evernote that I don’t think a lot of brands can sustain. It’s both professional and very personal,” he says. “Making sure that story lives on is the most important thing we can do for our users.”
Evernote spent only $3,600 on media in 2017, allowing personal anecdotes to tell the brand story. Malcolm now tells his story at new-employee meetings, and he talks about how the team has to honor what they’ve been entrusted with.
As for the future, Malcolm is content in the software industry. He’s excited to start working each morning—which, for him, begins at 3:30 a.m. for “uninterrupted thinking time.” He insists this schedule gives him a minimum six hours of sleep if he keeps the same 8:45 p.m. bedtime as his kids. At least until the Midwest pulls him back, he’ll keep working at West Coast software businesses.
Privacy and Security Communications Manager, LoanDepot
Liliana Ciurlino says that she has been learning to play piano for about 10 years. Most people would use the term “playing,” not “learning,” after the first few years, but Ciurlino insists on being a perpetual student. As we chat over the phone on her drive to work (one and a half hours between her home in San Diego and loanDepot’s Orange County, California, office), she emphasizes her love of learning. On top of her lengthy commute, full-time job and hobbies, she’s also finishing her MBA at Missouri State University and hinted at eventually getting her Ph.D.
Ciurlino doesn’t slow down. Rather, the process of moving forward seems to be a core part of her problem-solving process. Watching her answer questions in person, you can almost see her thoughts forming as she weighs her options, reacts and revises. “I bring tons of ideas,” she says. “Use them, keep them, discard them—I’ll have more tomorrow. It’s wired in me.”
Ciurlino’s career began in the arts. She taught and choreographed in professional dance companies in San Diego before deciding to start a nonprofit called contACT ARTS. “I remember calling the IRS. I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “Back then it was $500 to set up a nonprofit. I wasn’t a businesswoman, I just wanted to dance and be with my friends. I was learning how to grow this nonprofit by my mistakes and by my experiences.”
This was Ciurlino’s introduction to marketing: Taking fliers to coffee shops, making a MySpace page, creating social media accounts as platforms became available and exploring digital marketing and editing tools. “As I was growing, so was the world of marketing and the technology behind it, enabling me to start exploring and building this company,” she says.
The experience pushed her toward marketing; she earned a business degree from the University of Phoenix with a marketing concentration. While her music and dance background might suggest she’s predominantly interested in the creative side of marketing, she’s also fallen in love with data-crunching. She worked as a marketing manager at a structured settlement company, followed by the same role—in a regional capacity—at H&R Block. She then took on technology and marketing engagement at Managed Solution, a B-to-B brand management firm. There she founded Tech Spotlight Magazine and served as its executive editor, interviewing tech giants such as Vint Cerf, who is recognized as one of “the fathers of the internet,” and Martin Cooper, who is considered the inventor of the first handheld mobile phone.
“I’m a sponge,” Ciurlino says. “I want to learn from everyone and meet incredible, talented people.”
One of her interviewees at Tech Spotlight was a magnet to her sponge, inviting her to come work for him at loanDepot, an emerging-growth nonbank consumer lender. There, Ciurlino works as the security communications manager, sitting in a sea of IT professionals. Unlike her previous roles, where she did external marketing for new-client growth and worked with sales teams, her work focuses on internal marketing at loanDepot, helping the company become more privacy- and security-aware. She takes technical-heavy concepts and jargon and simplifies them for the company’s 7,000 employees.
As with contACT ARTS, Ciurlino is interested in more than just the final production—she wants to be involved behind the curtain. “I like the entire strategy from conception to execution,” she says. While her career is technical, her personal life remains as creative as ever. Ciurlino plays piano and writes music on the side and says her hobbies influence her career—in the future they might overlap.
“I keep joking that one day I’m going to write jingles,” she laughs.
If a LinkedIn profile could come to life, it would be Chris Smith. The co-founder of digital marketing and sales platform Curaytor, he knows precisely what makes him professionally valuable, and he has two books, a podcast and a carefully crafted social presence to back it up. His signature red Jordans and self-certainty suggest that he’s spent some time polishing his image. When asked to describe his personal brand, he took a few takes that were reminiscent of a copywriter perfecting a tagline.
“My brand is confident and relatable—and I’m an expert. I’m an expert that’s confident, yet relatable, and I think I’m edgy, sadly, in the business world,” Smith says, referring to his penchant for wearing sneakers onstage or drinking a beer while filming. The effort to relay the perfect definition of his brand comes from knowing that his clients and audiences aren’t just buying what he’s selling, they’re buying him. It’s this awareness that led him to start his own company, Curaytor.
“Your audience is your equity, and that’s the one thing that big companies I worked for didn’t quite understand,” Smith says. “They didn’t realize that I was the brand. As soon as I went out on my own, because I had grown my personal brand while I was working in corporate America, I had gigs right away.”
Smith’s early entrepreneurial ventures were youthful hustles: buying Blow Pops in bulk to resell individually at school and making cassette tapes from CDs to sell to classmates. His entrepreneurial spirit took him to business school at Florida State University, but he failed out before correcting course and graduating with a degree in sociology. He credits his deftness with social media to this change of major.
“I think [sociology] taught me a lot about people and the way the world works, probably more than a business degree would have,” Smith says. After a stint in Los Angeles, where he dipped a toe into the entertainment industry, Smith returned to Florida. He worked in sales but faced a tough customer base: No one wanted to hear his sales pitches, they only wanted instruction. “Anyone could come in and do a class on Facebook or Twitter,” he says, so Smith repackaged his pitch for his audience. He also presented his marketing know-how in the form of a website called Tech Savvy Agent and trained real estate agents on using social media.
At Curaytor, a real estate digital marketing and sales platform, Smith touts his team of millennials, insisting they—and his own two children—keep his digital knowledge fresh. In addition to starting his own company, Smith published The Conversion Code in 2016 and co-authored 2014’s #Peoplework with Dotloop CEO Austin Allison. He also hosts the podcast “Calls with Chris.” One of the biggest payoffs to teaching others, he says, has been the social currency: the gratitude from and interaction with others. Calling himself a typical Leo, he says that vanity metrics are important to him, they prove that people are really tuned into his work and are sharing his insights.
A quick scroll through Smith’s social media accounts emphasizes how certain he is about his brand: It’s Smith in T-shirts and blazers, clips from his presentations and inspirational quotes (often his own), and it’s all tied together with Curaytor’s signature red. In fact, his accounts could pass for those of an ESPN show, which makes sense when you learn Smith once dreamed of being a basketball player.
“My earliest memories are sports and entertainment,” he says. “For whatever reason I never gave up that belief. When I got into sales and marketing, I still wanted to be famous, be an athlete, win an Oscar. But what’s the business version?”
Senior Vice President and Head of Digital, BET Networks
Bobby Singh looked perfectly at home in the “Mad Men” room at the AMA support center. He wore a stylish three-piece suit that could have given Roger Sterling a run for his money—but he hardly has time for the long, tipsy lunches the fictional Sterling indulged in. Even Singh’s brief trip to Chicago for the 4 Under 40 photo shoot was filled with meetings at BET’s satellite offices, and he ducked away between photos and video to tackle e-mails. To say he has a busy schedule would be an understatement, but he presents nothing but stylish ease—his days coordinated as well as his clothing.
Marketing comes naturally to Singh. It may even be hereditary. His father ran a radio show as a hobby, and Singh would join him at meetings to sell ad space to vendors in Southeast Michigan. He and his siblings, who are first-generation Indian-Americans, also helped in the family store. Like their father, the Singh kids had both an entrepreneurial streak and a love for music: The siblings started Hype Productions as a way of connecting to their culture, and the company hosted South Asian dance events such as the Bhangra Fusion competitions, which ran for about a decade in the early 2000s. (During the same time, Singh also performed as DJ Divine—but proof of this wasn’t easy to track down, despite earnest efforts.)
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Singh’s career took a decidedly nonentertainment turn. He moved to Minneapolis to work in operations and analytics for Marshall Field’s, followed by a stint back in Michigan to work in supply chain finance for Kmart before landing in financial planning and analysis at Limited Brands in Columbus, Ohio. “I found myself pigeonholed in this industry and this function,” Singh says. “I was in the retail industry and specifically in a function of financial planning and analysis. I just wanted to broaden my options.”
Broaden he did: Singh enrolled at Columbia Business School, taking him to New York, where he still lives. MBA in hand, Singh worked for Boston Consulting Group before launching his own business called KashPile, a money management and shopping site that teaches kids how to earn, save and spend responsibly.
In 2013, Singh joined iHeartMedia as director, then senior director, of strategic initiatives. He worked to get on digital projects while at iHeartMedia, but the company wanted to focus on terrestrial radio. When Viacom came knocking with a role at BET Networks, Singh was ready to listen. He joined the entertainment company in 2015 as vice president of digital strategy, operations and business intelligence before being promoted in 2017 to senior vice president and head of digital.
Singh will graciously answer personal questions, but he’s noticeably passionate when discussing the nitty-gritty of his job. He says the success of his digital work at BET is based primarily on his own use of and curiosity about social platforms. “BET needs to cater to these audiences in a very platform-, occasion- and device-intentional manner,” Singh says. “It’s not sufficient to try to get everyone to go to our owned and operated sites and apps. There’s too much other content out there for us to not be natively serving our audiences on third-party platforms to generate a relationship with them.”
Before Singh joined BET, the network largely ignored third-party social platforms. For example, the company didn’t program any original content on YouTube and published barely any video clips prior to 2015. BET’s channel had about 150,000 subscribers when he started and has since grown to 700,000. “I plan on tripling that growth over the next year,” Singh says.
In addition to his role at BET, Singh volunteers as an ambassador for Columbia Business School, mentors on digital media for Harvard Business School’s Startup Studio and serves as an associate member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, through which he judges the Webby Awards. In the future, Singh says he might consider teaching, not only because he has something valuable to share with others, but because it offers him an opportunity to learn as well. “I prefer speaking engagements where there can be a conversation, where I’m learning at the same time as presenting my views and thoughts,” he says. In an ideal world, Singh says that he would just drop in on business classes any time he felt the urge.
As scheduled as his days are, Singh appears drawn to the less-structured opportunities to learn and muse—evidenced by his willingness to chat off-topic over breakfast about HBO’s “The Defiant Ones” or listen to a story about celebrity tattoo artists in New York. He makes the time for those unscheduled moments, and you have to wonder if his strength while DJing years ago in Michigan may have been improvising between sets.