This month marks the transfer of leadership from 15-year AMA CEO Dennis Dunlap to Russ Klein. A career marketer and advertiser, Klein started on the agency side, working on accounts including Gatorade, McDonald’s and United Airlines, and ultimately switched to the client side, where he assumed the role of top marketer for companies including Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up, 7-Eleven, Burger King and Arby’s.
Marketing News recently sat down with Klein to discuss his career, his perspectives on branding and stakeholder management, his agenda for his first year as the AMA’s chief executive, and his thoughts on the AMA’s role in illuminating the path toward the future of marketing.
Q: How did you get into marketing?
A: I think many people in marketing have their own lemonade stand stories. In my case, it was a barn sale in rural Ohio. Our family had a hobby ranch … and as time went by, we ended up selling our land and the barn was going to be destroyed. It was somewhat of a working ranch and we had a lot of inventory to sell with the objective of using the proceeds to travel someplace exotic. My assignment was to develop the signs for the barn sale and to place the signs around town to attract potential shoppers.
It was an overwhelming success. We sold everything, including parts of the barn, itself. I quickly came to the realization that if you have something that people want and you have a good message, and you put that message in places that intersect with those customers’ lives, good things happen. We were able to take a family vacation to Jamaica, where we rented a villa for a week, and it’s still probably the most memorable vacation that I’ve taken in my life.
Q: Why did you decide to start your career on the agency side?
A: My first job was in Cleveland, Ohio, for an agency named Carr Liggett, now Liggett Stashower. … I got hired into an account executive position for the McDonald’s account. It was a great way to cut my teeth. I did field area marketing surveys and pin-dot studies to identify traffic flows around a given McDonald’s in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. …
Then I took a job working for Leo Burnett for the next, almost, eight years. For me, it was a great way to break into the business. It provided variety because you could work for a different company every two years and not have to leave your own company. I had the chance to feel like I was walking in the shoes of a United Airlines employee, a Kimberly-Clark employee, a Keebler cookies employee, a Maytag repairman, on and on with different accounts.
Q: As a marketer on the client side, you’ve worked with the franchise model. What do you think it takes to create a cohesive brand experience at every customer touch point?
A: Marketing and advertising in a franchise model or any business model like it, where there might be independent distributors or a spider web of installations around the world, creates a challenge around stakeholder management, which is critical. It’s not enough to just develop the right idea. You have to convince thousands of other stakeholders that that idea is the right one for them. You have to align the organization, and you have to inspire the organization so that they believe in your idea with all of the heart and soul that the creators have for the idea.
I’ve always said that the store manager trumps the brand manager every time. That simply means that great ideas can be dreamt up upstream at a headquarters somewhere, but if they aren’t fully aligned at the front line, in the marketplace—perhaps, the example being a store manager—they won’t get executed with any clarity or with excellence. The greatest of ideas, if not properly communicated, aligned and inspired, will fall short of achieving their goal because it requires that completeness in stakeholder management to bring everybody together behind a given idea. That makes marketing and advertising in those models particularly stressful.
Q: Even well outside of franchise models or complex distribution networks, marketers are having trouble unifying their brands and their brand experiences across touch points. What works in getting stakeholders to buy into a marketer’s plan?
A: It’s always been my philosophy that there are three ways that you can change someone’s mind and bring someone into alignment: You can force them, you can persuade them or you can inspire them. You can wave a contract or an agreement at them that says, ‘You’re supposed to do this because this contract says you have to,’ or, ‘You have to do this because I’m your boss and I say you have to.’ You can pull out a PowerPoint and show them all of the rational and reasonable facts as to why they should do what you want them to do, and do it exactly the way that you want to have it done. Or the most desirable way, in my view, is to inspire alignment.
By inspiring alignment, you have people come to the idea, rather than the idea being foisted upon your stakeholders and constituents. Inspiration requires vision and relevance, and purpose. It allows constituents to buy in and makes them desire, or hunger, to be part of that vision. That’s how organizations can align effectively, when they’re doing it because they’ve been inspired to do so … when they are moved by something that is greater than themselves, by something that is authentic and that is delivered with earnestness, and something that’s uplifting, whether it’s a new marketing idea or a new product idea, something that brings excitement and hope. When you can put that together around an inspired message, it will not only align your organization upstream to downstream, it will bring together sales and marketing, and operations and finance.
Q: You’ve marketed global brands and category leaders, but you haven’t been known to just rest on the brands’ historical standing. You’ve been known to push the envelope. Now you’re at the helm of a 77-year-old organization that’s founded on a pretty straight-laced background of marketing science and marketing research. What do you plan to change at the AMA? How can the organization reposition itself to meet marketers’ needs going forward?
A: I’ve been asked whether I’m going to shake things up at the AMA. … I would only say that if the AMA doesn’t do its best to keep its brand name fresh, modern and relevant, then how could we be the resource and the definitive repository for marketing science best practices and excellence? The AMA has to be on its brand management game. If we don’t anticipate emerging markets, change around which we have to adapt to lead, the marketplace
will shake us up. I’d rather that we do the shaking.
Q: Why did you take this role on? What attracted you to the challenge of ushering this organization into its next phase?
A: The opportunity to lead the American Marketing Association into its next era is, for me, a calling. … This is a nexus of my lifelong role as a teacher and a student of best practices in marketing science, my love of originality and innovation, my practitioner experience with a whole host of brands and having been a chief marketing officer at four different organizations. For me, that bundle of both credentials and ambitions that make me tick was all wrapped up in this AMA opportunity.
Q: Previously, you’ve mentioned tastemakers who are charged with building brands. Where should the AMA’s tastemakers reside? Are they within international headquarters, or ‘IH,’ or are they at the chapter level?
A: That’s a great question. My sense of the AMA brand is that the most formative experience for someone who is engaged with the AMA comes through a connection at the chapter level. It’s at the chapter level where the content, thought leadership and marketing science excellence from the AMA comes together with the individual who is seeking a solution for his problem, a better strategy for his business, a chance to meet other marketing talent who could possibly be an alliance, a new customer, a new supplier. The alchemy of those factors happens at the chapter level. I view the AMA’s so-called ‘IH’ as a resource, a support organization to provide the content and support for that to happen at the chapter level.
Q: You’ve talked about establishing open lines of communication with chapters and being really visible there. How do you plan to incorporate their feedback to help advance the AMA brand?
A: My plan is to personally be as available as humanly possible in the markets, in the chapter meetings, retreats, regional meetings and council meetings, as much as my calendar can bear it. I can only be in one place at one time, but I will place being out in the markets as a priority. There’s just no substitute to being there. …
We are at the service of our constituents in the chapters, and both members and nonmembers who procure our work product from us are out there. They’re not in this building. We have to remember to be connected to those individuals. … We’re responsible for the AMA brand, but I believe that there are a lot of people who care deeply about what the AMA means to them at the local or chapter level, and who have a lot of ideas on how the AMA can be of greater service to more chapters, more volunteers and, ultimately, more members.
Q: You’re a newly minted AMA member, yourself. As an outsider coming in, what are your top-line thoughts about how the organization can boost its thought leadership positioning, its prestige within the marketplace?
A: The AMA’s leadership is made possible as a result of the academic consortium that is at the core of the organization. … The AMA should understand and covet the important role that the academics and journals play in keeping the AMA a cut above every other knowledge-based organization focused on marketing science. Our ability to leverage that—to, perhaps, spotlight it more effectively—will be critical for us with our growth strategies.
Q: As of Oct. 1, you’ve begun your first year as chief executive. What is your agenda for your first year
at the helm?
A: I have an agenda of theories right now and I think that I would be well-advised to keep them at the theoretical level for now. What I really need to do is build knowledge and context. Only then can I place any ideas in proper perspective as to whether they make sense, whether they’re timely and achievable, and whether we have the resources to pursue them.
I think one of our challenges will be really to simplify the AMA, in some ways, because we are a vast generator of content, which is impressive, and we have so many opportunities out there and it’d be great if we could pursue them all, but we can’t. I think that the first year for me will be focused on understanding what matters, understanding to whom it matters and sorting out a game plan that makes sense for the AMA from 2015 to 2020.
Q: What do you think marketing will look like in 2020?
A: You know, there is only six-tenths of 1% of connectivity that has occurred so far, in terms of sensors and smart homes and all of the possible things both in industrial markets and consumer markets that can be connected. Only six-tenths of 1% has been connected so far. … As more connectivity occurs, there will be a ricochet effect through marketing that I’m not sure we can even imagine, but I know that that will be the driver. Our ability to not only navigate that path as the AMA, but to throw light on that path for others, I consider that to be the AMA’s duty.
Russ regularly contributes to AMA's Blog Elevate, which provides ideas and insights to take your marketing to the highest level.
This was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Marketing News.