Two by Four's Matt Scholes on How the Right Agency Can Boost CMO Tenure

Zach Brooke
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Key Takeaways

​What? CMOs need to constantly demonstrate value to their organizations.

So what? Partnering with the right agency can help CMOs prove their worth at the executive level.

Now what? If your company employs and agency, evaluate their openness and communication to ensure success.

May 18, 2017

The senior vice president of strategy and media at Chicago-based agency Two by Four believes the right agency partnership is crucial to prolonging CMO tenure

The latest CMO tenure report from executive search firm Spencer Stuart shows that average tenure of chief marketers has fallen to 42 months, down 13% over the past two years. 

One person who believes he can stem the tide of declining tenure is Matt Scholes, senior vice president of strategy and media at Chicago-based agency Two by Four, which has completed project work for Wrangler, Snap-On Tools, the Chicago Bears, the Chicago White Sox, Navy Pier and Firestone, among others.

Marketing News caught up with Scholes to ask what Two by Four can do to guarantee positive results for CMOs and keep them in the mix longer  at their current gigs.

Q: Are solutions to the challenges facing today’s CMOs as simple as finding the right agency to work with?

A: It’s hard to imagine a time when marketers have faced a more diverse and complex set of challenges: figuring out how to incorporate data—“Big” or otherwise—in real time, deeply understanding audiences when those audiences are becoming more fragmented, being able to pivot quickly to address and stay ahead of issues, demonstrating short-term ROI to their organizations and so on. In short, the expectations of marketing seem to be growing exponentially while the resources available are constantly diminishing.

Certainly not all these challenges can be resolved by simply finding the “right” agency. However, the last thing a client needs is for his or her agency to be yet another problem on their to-do list—and yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing from more and more clients during pitches.

Q: Do your CMO clients have longer tenures than average? If so, why is that?

A: Our whole stance as an agency is that the client across the table has a limited time to make an impact, both in the marketplace and also within their own organizations. Compared to 20 years ago, when many companies were led by former marketing executives, it seems that today’s marketers are having to justify their worth more than ever to their CEOs, who increasingly come from other disciplines within the company. So from day one we are thinking, “How can we help this person succeed in what they need to get done?”

There are different ways of gauging success in the role. Longevity is one of them, and certainly we’ve had relationships with several clients that have lasted well over a decade. But perhaps a better indicator is how many of our clients have won new jobs at different organizations and have re-engaged Two By Four to help them do it all over again. I guess that’s the best metric of all.

Q: What are some of the most common marketing challenges you see? And what’s the path forward?

A: We’ve already touched on some of the day-to-day challenges, but the thing everyone seems to be wrestling with is how to demonstrate marketing’s impact.

It was over a hundred years ago that John Wanamaker said that while he knew that half his advertising budget was wasted, the trouble was he didn’t know which half. Fast forward to 2016, and you would think with all the data and analytics at our disposal we would have it all figured out by now. But truthfully, it seems that for all our investment in research and measurement nothing much has changed. If that sounds a little harsh, ask yourself if the ideas you see on TV or the e-mails you receive on a daily basis are shaking your world in a way you could never have imagined before. A large proportion of these will have been produced on the basis of some positive research finding.

Perhaps the problem is that while we’ve become experts in measuring impact (or lack of), as an industry we are not spending enough time asking ourselves how you create impact in the first place. And that comes down to those good old-fashioned human skills like creativity, intuition and judgment.

When you’re called Two by Four, you have to live up to your name by asking yourselves every day whether the work you are doing will ultimately make an impact. We instill this thinking into everyone here, whatever their role. Whether you are writing a creative brief, preparing a media strategy, coming up with the ideas or even setting up a room for a meeting, the question you need to ask yourself is, “Will it matter?” If not, you need to start over.

So in terms of a way forward, I would like to see a lot more discussion about that side of the business—it seems to have been sidelined in our pursuit of all things data and technology. Agencies have a big role to play in helping clients see the value in buying more creative work and providing them with arguments they can use to defend the work within their own organizations.

Secondly, clients need to find different ways of exploring and testing ideas. With today’s technology and social media channels, the opportunity exists to try out new ideas in the real world, but to benefit from this, clients need agency partners who can produce a large volume of good ideas quickly and at an affordable price. That takes an agency with a certain blend of the right talent, the right processes, a light infrastructure and a low cost base.

Q: How are mid-size agencies like Two by Four a better value than big agencies?

A: The large agency networks are very good at what they do and have demonstrated a great capacity over the years to rise above whatever challenges they face. Already we’re seeing them experiment with new organizational structures to break down silos and inject speed and simplicity into their operations. That said, it will always be a challenge for them to be as nimble and as cost-effective as smaller shops. Clients who once would only have contemplated placing their brands with famous large networks have increasingly been introducing these smaller shops onto their rosters. And these shops are proving that they’re not only fast and affordable, but the quality is good, too.

Being a private company is also a distinct advantage in that we are often able to make decisions based solely on what is right for our clients and the agency in the long term without having to worry about short-term shareholder returns or the financial agenda of a distant head office.

Q: How is Two by Four’s strategy different than other advertising agencies?

A: We have some clear guiding principles that we believe lead to better work. The first is an obsession with simplifying, working with our clients to remove clutter and get to the heart of the issue quickly. The second is surprise, recognizing that it doesn’t really matter what channel you use to engage your customer if, when you show up, your message is dull and unimaginative. The third is a focus on selling; our focus needs to remain on effectiveness and putting the client’s agenda first. And finally support, which is the human element of treating your clients like you would wish to be treated, with support, kindness and generosity—especially when their backs are against the wall.

Truthfully, I’m not sure that it’s our strategy that makes Two by Four a different kind of agency. It’s more in the execution—particularly that final point about supporting. When we’re pitching new business, we always ask the prospect to call our clients (current and former) and ask them what we are like to work with as an agency. I think that’s what typically comes across as different and interesting.

Q: From an advertising agency perspective, what makes a marketing professional successful?

A: First, listen before you try to lead. Understanding your client’s world—both as it relates to their customers and their own organization—is so important in arriving at solutions that are ambitious but realistic and actionable.

Second, be honest and transparent—even if it’s a difficult conversation, it will save everyone a lot of pain and money down the road.

Finally, deliver your promises, all of them. It’s always struck me that what clients often remember about working with an agency is not just the big campaigns you created together, but those occasions when the agency went the extra mile to help the client out of a tight spot. That’s when a client knows the agency really has his/her back.

Q: What does Two by Four need from clients to deliver creative that generates the results CMOs are looking for?

A: Nurturing great work through any organization is an exercise in joint parenting. Clients have to be willing to share their business problems with us, rather than simply telling us what to do. It means being willing to work with us to champion great ideas once they have been born. And it means being willing to use judgment as well as data to give ourselves the best chance of doing something that will have an impact and get talked about.

A great example of this was our partnership this year with Chicago’s iconic landmark Navy Pier, which was celebrating its 100th birthday. Given Chicagoans' complacency about the pier, we challenged ourselves to build a plan that would create conversations across the city and get the locals talking again about a destination they had come to overlook. This focus drove many changes in our thinking and led to a very different kind of plan, yet our client was incredibly supportive of the vision and what we were trying to achieve.

And finally, just be nice. We have a saying at Two By Four that we don’t hire jerks and we don’t work for jerks. On occasion we have had to put our money where our mouth is and part ways with clients who we felt had simply become a bad fit. Being able to have a good debate, kick a problem about, but still go out for a beer afterward is a very important advertising skill. It’s even in our agency vision: “Build Great Relationships. Do Great Work. And Eat.”

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Author Bio:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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