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CMO Confessions Ep. 35: Jon Russo of B2B Fusion

Good morning, Webinerds! We’re back with another episode of CMO Confessions, our B2B podcast with the top leaders in marketing and sales today. Today’s CMO Confessions features Jon Russo, CMO and Founder of B2B Fusion.

In today’s episode, Jon and Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24, discuss Jon’s firm, technology and training in marketing.

As always, you can find the full episode of CMO Confessions on Podbean here an edited transcript of our conversation below.

You can learn more about Jon’s experiences and career path through his LinkedIn page here and you can connect with him through his Twitter feed here.

If you’re interested in listening to our growing podcast series, you can find all of our episodes right here on Podbean. Alternatively, you can also find us on both iTunes and Google Play stores.

Welcome to another edition of CMO Confessions!


Table of Contents:

The Road to CMO of B2B Fusion
Tech CMO vs. Agency CMO
Technology in Marketing
On-the-Job Marketing Training
Excitement for the Future of B2B Marketing
The Digital-First Future of Event Marketing
Marketing Pet Peeves
The Gym Membership Syndrome
A Groundbreaking Project

Cheri Keith:

Hello, and welcome to CMO Confessions, the weekly B2B marketing and sales podcast, where I speak with amazing guests about what it really means to be a marketing leader in today’s business world. I am Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24. On today’s episode, I am so excited for Jon Russo to join us. Jon is CMO of B2B Fusion, a strategy and execution revenue optimization firm focused on ABM.¬†Thanks for joining, Jon.

Jon Russo:

Thanks Cheri. I really appreciate it.

The Road to CMO of B2B Fusion

Cheri Keith:

Of course! We’re going to just jump right into this. I want to first talk to you about what led you here being the CMO of your own firm for the past 11 years or so, and why you decided to do that.

Jon Russo:

Yeah, great question. I’ve had a career only in B2B marketing and high-tech B2B marketing in Silicon Valley and New York City in Luxembourg. And, throughout that career, call it 20+ years. About 10 of those have been a high-tech kind of marketing. I’ve been through several situations and early on in my career in Silicon Valley where things grew very, very quickly.

I was kind of appointed to head marketing on a couple occasions. A few of those occasions, we took companies public, occasions where I helped bring companies together and combined companies. I’ve been through a couple of mergers and acquisitions as head of marketing and came out as a head of marketing on the other side, which was terrific.

I kind of stuck with that theme and I began looking around a few years ago thinking, “Well, I can be a CMO for the, as you said, the 11th year in a row, or I could try to go out on my own and help others with their journey.” And what I decided to do is build my own agency, in and around helping other marketers succeed. It’s a very challenging role as I’m sure you’re well aware. In the marketing side, it’s a lonely role. It’s a hard role and not an easy role.

Tech CMO vs. Agency CMO

Cheri Keith:

How is it going from being the CMO of technology companies to an agency CMO? Because those are very different roles.

Jon Russo:

Yeah, it definitely was quite an adjustment at first. As a head of marketing, you’re used to calling your own shots and having people do things. When you’re building something from scratch, you’re delegating to yourself. So, there’s been a lot of self-learning as part of that process.

It’s also been an adjustment too, because I had teams that were sometimes small, sometimes large, sometimes regional, sometimes global. Having to manage those global teams actually has suited me well in this new role in that I’ve got a number of people that are outside of the U.S. as well as inside the U.S., so it has helped.

But. it is definitely a different feel as an agency owner than it is working for a company per se. People always say, “Oh, you got your own job. That must be great. You can set your own hours.” I’m probably working as hard. I think the difference is perhaps in the travel side of things. Pre COVID. I was able to project out a little bit more clearly as to when I would be traveling. Whereas the CMO, I felt like I was on a plane a lot and it was a little bit more random. So that’s probably the biggest variation there.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah, that makes sense. I think it’s important though, that agencies have that role. Obviously, you have the dual role of founder and CMO. But, one thing I would always advise clients on when they were doing agencies is “Well, do they even have the role that they’re purporting to help you with within their organization today?” So, I think you must bring a lot of credibility both to that role internally, but also externally, and actually talking to clients about what they’re looking to do.

Jon Russo:

Yeah. I think you’re bringing up an excellent point and one, I probably should have highlighted earlier as to why I eventually founded B2B Fusion, was that exact frustration. I was dealing with agencies and organizations that didn’t have that operational expertise. And I was baffled because they came in with a lot of infrastructures that didn’t make sense for my business. And so, that definitely was one of the reasons or catalysts for jumping into it.

Yeah, I hope you’re exactly right. Hopefully, it does lend some credibility having been in the role and knowing how tough it is to go to a CEO or a head of sales and to have those difficult conversations or even your board of directors.

Marketing is such a unique career path, really because it can be interpreted so many different ways. And I think by being a head of marketing in different locations of the globe, it really opened my eyes to how differently people can really interpret what the word quote-unquote “marketing” really means to non-marketers.

Technology in Marketing

Cheri Keith:

That makes a lot of sense, but you mentioned technology here, and I know that’s critical to both the work you are doing today, but also why you decided to found the company. So, can you talk a little bit about weathering that change and what you saw on the client-side that led you to decide to take on more of this advisory, client-facing perspective on MarTech?

Jon Russo:

Yeah, early in my career, the first 15 years I was out in the Valley and I did a lot of high-tech marketing out there. So, I probably had it kind of infused in me early on. What I noticed when I moved to the New York City area, we were early adopters of a technology called Eloqua that a lot of people are very familiar with and I was incredibly frustrated. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get the promise of the software in terms of it measuring the marketing impact and lo and behold, what I learned probably a couple of years later was the deficiency really was within myself. I had to go to school and I actually ended up, oddly enough, certifying in Eloqua, certifying in Marketo, certifying in Salesforce, so I could really understand all the moving parts. I don’t know many CMOs who would ever go down that path. I‚Äôm a bit, probably woke in that regard, but I really want to understand, why was it so challenging for me?

Then I started thinking about a couple of things. I was thinking, “Well, if it’s this challenging for me, what’s everybody else going through?” And this is 2009-2010, very early on in the marketing automation trajectory. At the same time, I was 23 years old, I’m not 23 anymore, but I had somebody producing my marketing impact reports in Excel and the ink was still wet from my marketing impact report that I would race to the board of directors moments before our board meeting. And it just really ate at me. I’m spending all this money for marketing automation and I’m hearing about the promise of marketing impact. And I couldn‚Äôt really put¬†those two up.

That’s what kind of pushed me into that technology side. And again, earlier on in my career, because I had spent so much time in Silicon Valley with a very technical sale. I think it’s¬†lent itself very well for the MarTech world. So, for me, smashing these technologies together and APIs. To me, that’s second nature. Like I don’t really think too much about it. But for a marketer who doesn’t come from that background, I could see why it would be challenging. So, I think that probably is what kind of pushed me into this area where we’re now focused on, which is mostly account-based marketing and the technology that supports that and the strategy that supports that, as well.

On-the-Job Marketing Training

Cheri Keith:

Well, it’s interesting also, because I think your point about training is well taken. I was not a marketing major in college. I don’t run into a lot of them. But once you enter the world, there’s not a lot of places to go for training. Obviously, the technical training for you to even do that is amazing.

I think the technology providers do a good job of having that in place, but outside of that, there tends to be a gap for someone who, especially on their own, is just looking to advance their skills. I mean, yes, you can go on LinkedIn. They had acquired the LMS provider a few years ago, so there’s content out there, but a lot of marketers don’t have the time or the ability to be able to go out and stay on top of things. Does that resonate with what you see in clients?

Jon Russo:

Yeah, I think you’re exactly right that we kind of eat our own as marketers. There’s not a lot of formal training. I’m a finance major, so go figure, that finance to marketing. I don’t know. how. Somewhere along the way, I got my wires crossed. But that helps me a lot to have credible¬†conversations with the CFO side because I can go toe to toe and really go down deep into financials. But, that’s me.

Let’s talk about the industry. I agree, the industry as a whole, they don’t really place a premium on it. They seem to place more of a premium on the types of companies and the types of experiences that you’ve had. And really the only way to do it is¬†learn by doing it. Trial by fire. You have to keep doing and repeating and making mistakes and hope that nobody sees those mistakes. Or they’re not too egregious. It’s on the job training.

But I still think today, unlike maybe the years prior that we grew up in, there are a lot more online resources today to do that training that didn’t exist before. I was spending my time over the weekends or at night going through cram courses on some of these topics. And a lot of this stuff is common sense. So, it wasn’t like it was too tough, but there’s still a lot of online work that didn’t exist back in the day. Marketers do have that kind of opportunity, whether they are able to take advantage of that. That might be a different issue.

Cheri Keith:

But also, are CMOs investing in that? I think I’ve run across data that says training’s a priority, but then you don’t see that really coming to fruition. I think people say they want to do it, but because it’s so fragmented where to go to get that, to do it in a systematic way can be a challenge. And to be honest, I’m a French language and literature major so my major’s definitely not helping me out today.

Jon Russo:

Keep this one in English for the rest of the way, if that’s all right, because I can’t speak French.

Excitement for the Future of B2B Marketing

Cheri Keith:

Hopefully my employer doesn’t find out that I definitely have not qualified for my [inaudible]. A little self-deprecating humor. All right. I want to shift gears now. I am curious, you have such a good vantage point both on what you’re doing, but also what clients are doing. So, what’s really exciting you about B2B marketing right now?

Jon Russo:

Well, this is a really unique time in history. If you think back over the last, particularly the last 20 years, we’ve seen this kind of dip in activity a couple of other times. We saw it in 2000-2001, particularly in Silicon Valley where the bubble popped, and a number of companies consolidated and like tumbleweed was blowing in the streets. We saw it again¬†in 2008 with the financial crisis. And even as a head of marketing at the time, I was an interim head of marketing for a company called Gartner Group. They ended up cutting a third of their division right out of the gate because of the financial institution. I had just started my role there and the last¬†one was the first¬†one out.

Cheri Keith:

Yep!

Jon Russo:

So, a lot of companies right now are kind of in that same situation where I’m hearing that there’s been a little bit of a pause for some companies. It really varies by industry. The travel industry, as an example, where they’re feeling that same kind of downfall.

Now that wasn’t your question, your question is what excites me and what excites me is what’s about to come. What I’m hoping has happened is for the last 90 days or so, at the time of this recording, there’s been kind of a pause on a lot of decisions. We’ve all stopped traveling. We’re not going to events. Everything has been paused. Your prospects or the prospects that I’m seeing or talking with, they’ve all paused a lot of those decisions. Unless it’s a mission-critical decision that goes through the CFO, it’s probably getting paused.

What I think is going to happen in the¬†back half of the year, particularly industries that would benefit from more acceleration like security, maybe pharmaceuticals. I think you’ll see an acceleration like you’ve never seen before in the second half of the year because there’s so much pent up. People can’t just be in this idle stage forever. So, I think there’s going to be a pent-up period, and I’m hoping it’s going to be the second half where people really start getting re-engaged globally.

Now, I will say there is one difference this time that didn’t exist in those prior years. One of the ways that this has kind of manifested, the Silicon Valley bubble really impacted Silicon Valley. The 2008-2009 crisis was felt most acutely, naturally, when I was on the East Coast. It was most acutely felt in the New York City area, in particular.

This is different in that it’s global. So, what I hope happens here is, globally, we somehow solve whatever this issue has been the last six months and pockets will start seeing these rapid rises or rapid decisions. And if it doesn’t happen the second half of the year, it will happen. It’s just a matter of time.

Companies are not built to withstand this amount of indecision for extended periods of time. And I think you’re starting to see that in pipelines today. So, I’m really excited about what the future holds for a lot of us and B2B marketing.

The Digital-First Future of Event Marketing

Cheri Keith:

Hmm. Well, what I would add to that is the marketers‚Äô day-to-day life had such an abrupt change to it and everything over the past 90 days was all reactionary. What’s going to happen once marketers actually have time to plan for it?

I think we’ve seen some great marketing over the past three months, but now that people can plan for the fact that there aren’t events, that it is a digital-first future. I’m excited to see what people can actually start to do when they’re not in the pure chaos that was going on anymore. And yes, obviously we’re all hoping that we moved out of that indecision phase because, you’re right, no one stagnates very well, especially at the top level of organizations. So, I think that’ll be interesting to see and obviously hopeful to watch it change.

Jon Russo:

Yeah. You may even see, too, a hybrid which benefits you guys at ON24 without a doubt, where you have this hybrid environment, especially as it relates to events because now I’m spending the majority of my day in front of my webcam, which I didn’t normally do. And perhaps events become almost a hybrid event where it becomes a little bit more regional with regional people getting together and you’re augmenting that with a virtual experience or kind of a real-time experience. So, that too could be pretty exciting.

I think the whole virtual event piece has also gone through an evolution over the last 10 years. But in the last 90 days, marketers have had to really get schooled on this in a big, big way. So yeah, I agree with you the second half of the year, I think will be really interesting because now we have even some learnings of the last 90 days to build from in the second half of the year.

I think ON24 is really well-positioned to take advantage of that in a positive way. I don’t think ON24 is doing anything that they shouldn’t be doing, but you will be able to continue to ride that wave as it goes forward.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s changed marketers’ lives, but it’s changed the event team’s life too. I have a close friend who’s the head of in-person events and I admire her. I do not know how to manage the logistics that she does of events that are thousands of people. I do not have the patience, the like anything of that make up, but overnight she has become an expert.

Let me tell you, I got a text message. She’s like, “We’re in, let’s go.” And she was able to turn this massive user group into a virtual event and it looks amazing. But technology was the furthest thing that she dealt with aside from bad lead scanners and all that. She had never even done that, but I was so impressed to see it.

And that’s just one example, a personal example of someone who had a 20+ year career had never once done one of these. And she was like, “I’m going to learn because I have no choice. If I don’t adopt right now like there’s no future for me.” So, I really think the event marketer, event planners, whatever their titles are within organizations, their toolkit has forever changed as well. Where they used to be off in a silo, like they’re integrated now.

Jon Russo:

Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. A hundred percent right. That’s exciting to hear and think about how that person, your friend, can potentially share that knowledge with others because they’re probably doing things at a scale and scope that they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to learn.

So, in a way, this situation, or this virus has actually been helpful because it’s helped round out skills. And in this next evolution of this hybrid in-person and virtual event, what better person to leverage or lean upon is somebody with that kind of experience. So, yeah, I think that definitely is a future of marketing without a doubt.

Marketing Pet Peeves

Cheri Keith:

Exactly. So, tell me what your pet peeves are in marketing and you don’t have to name clients or anything like that. The clients aren’t listening to my feedback out of this one.

Jon Russo:

I need another hour on that! No, I’m kidding about that. But yeah, pet peeves. The big thing, because I’ve studied so much on marketing attribution and being able to connect that marketing investment to new revenue, whether it’s account-based marketing or lead generation.

I have studied a lot of the models, probably more so than most, and the common denominator in all of that is data and what I’ve noticed with data, meaning the data quality, quality of your contact information, the quality of the account data. It’s the least sexy part of marketing or sales operations, or marketing ops, or whoever owns it. That’s a whole different podcast, but it’s really the gas in the engine.

We’ve just gone through an event here where 15 million people are unemployed and what I’ve noticed, even in our own clients because we try to help them with this journey with processes and best practice approaches and the right software and the right tools and the coaching, so to speak. What I’ve noticed is people underestimate the impact that data has on your measurement, on your productivity of your sales and marketing teams that you’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars on and your technology. You can have the best people in the world. You can have the best technology in the world, but if your data and your database is stale or wrong, then you’re wasting money everywhere else.

So, I don’t know if it’s a pet peeve, it’s probably like an order of operation and now is a really good time to be getting the digital shop in order. And even we’re doing this within our own business. I can’t say I’m lily-white here and I’ve solved everything. But it has to be a priority at some point in time. And why not now? Why not now, instead of going out and shopping for the new technology, take advantage of what you have and make it work better.

One of the ways that you can do that is through cleaner processes in and around your data. Marketing should have a vested interest¬†in this, as should sales. It’s almost equally vested. It’s just that the salespeople are probably not and, no disrespect to sales, but they’re not cognitive people. They just want to go, go, go.

Marketers are probably in a really good position to take a step back and figure out what it is¬†that they need. So, I think that would probably be a pet peeve is really investing that time and finding companies that value that as an activity. It’s very difficult and very challenging.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I think it’s a Gartner study that shows that 50% of marketing technologies … marketers are only using 58% of the capabilities of the technologies they have today. I just don’t even understand.

I kept that analogy only somewhat resonated with my team when I was taught it. This is if my son comes to me with his drink juice box and asks for another one, and he has one that’s pretty well full in his hand, I’m saying no to that. Like, you can’t go out and buy more if you still have what you haven’t even used.

I mean, gosh, the failure of so many technologies isn’t the technology. It’s either the user or the training like we talked about earlier, or the fact that it’s not integrated within the rest of the MarTech stack. So, therefore, there’s no data. It’s a challenge for people to really understand that.

The Gym Membership Syndrome

Jon Russo:

Yeah, you’re exactly right. And by the way, I was guilty of that too as a CMO. I was yelling at my team saying, “Move faster, move faster. Why is this hard?” They’re coming to me saying it’s difficult. I’m like, “What do you mean it’s difficult?” Well, you know what? It is difficult.

It took me years to really understand that after a lot of studying. I call it the gym membership syndrome. A lot of companies typically go in and they buy the gym membership. They buy the technology thinking that they’re going to get in revenue condition. And lo and behold, the gym membership is like the price of entry. You have to actually go in and do the work.

Now it’s somewhat self-serving, I’ll take it a step further and say, we’re the certified personal trainers that’ll help accelerate you in your progress in that gym. But the analogy I think still holds true.

A lot of these companies are buying the gym memberships thinking it’s automatic, that they just kind of mail it in, “Oh, I’ve got Salesforce. I’ve got Marketo. I’ve got Engagio¬†or Demandbase.” Whatever the product or technology of the month is, but they hadn’t really thought through the data that connects all that or the processes to drive the systems. They get upside down very quickly and usually, that bears out in their revenue performance.

If they take a step back and really think through the processes and this is where we help them with that process because we’ve seen it so many different times. We’ve seen it probably close to a hundred plus times¬†in account-based roles where we’re helping with the strategy and then kind of bringing that back into “Alright, well, this is what we want the systems to actually go do for us to support that strategy.” That to me feels like a bit of a missing piece.

A Groundbreaking Project

Cheri Keith:

Hmm. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, people are definitely struggling with it. I think it’s hard because vendors want to sell themselves as the silver bullet, but no one ever is. And it’s also okay not to be that silver bullet, but we’re here to solve for that today.

So, we’re entering an interesting time of year. Hopefully, you have some time off or at least some downtime to relax. But are there any projects that are coming up that are really exciting or you’re looking forward to taking on either on behalf of clients or for your own organization?

Jon Russo:

Yeah. It’s funny, you mentioned that and it’s a thoughtful question. We’ve just come out of a really interesting engagement where we helped create the right dashboard for true marketing measurement at the account level and we’re able to tie leads to that as well.

What we discovered from our data and from that dashboard was there was a new target market that was emerging that our client wasn’t focused on, but the data supported that they ought to take a second look at it. Not only did they take a second look at it, but the entire company, and they’re probably not a large company. Call it around somewhere between 100-200 employees. But the CEO of the company got wind of it and pivoted the entire company toward this new segment. So, for us it was very groundbreaking.

Now we had spent several months laying the foundation to get to that point. That was not an automatic thing, but it was really exciting to see that at that level. And at our recommendations that they’re starting to really carry some significant weight and in a meaningful way.

What I attribute that to is getting the systems to perform the way they’re supposed to perform it and laying it out. And it’s not easy work. It is not easy work. So, it’s not surprising that a lot of companies are struggling with it. But somehow, we were able to piece this together in a way to present, “Here are the accounts that are showing engagement. Here are the accounts that are showing engagement from marketing. Here are the accounts that sales is engaging.” So, we could kind of see the delta between what sales was doing and what marketing was doing and what the prospect was doing. So, it gave us some really clean insight that we didn’t have before. To me, when I was able to see that and then hear how the company was pivoting their strategy as a result, that to me was exciting and fulfilling.

Cheri Keith:

Oh my gosh. Yes. How rewarding not only to be able to make a client happy but make the highest level of the organization happy. That’s great. Congratulations.

Jon Russo:

Yeah. Yeah, no, thank you. It was a lot of hard work to get there. It was a lot, a lot of hard work. I won’t kid you, but they were at a stage where they were willing to shift.

A lot of these companies, sometimes they have, you’ve probably heard the term technical debt where they’ve¬†built their processes in a way that are¬†so unique and so proprietary. In this case, this company was like, “We’re not wed to that. If there’s a better way, we’re open to that.” So, we were able to convince them and show them that better way and now it’s really paying off.

But that’s a really difficult decision for companies to make because it’s just easier to keep Botoxing. “I don’t want to, I don’t want to tear down. I want to Botox.” And you Botox something to death and then it becomes unrecognizable on the other end after a few years. So, I give him credit for kind of acknowledging it and then moving in that direction.

Now they also did have a lot of investment in the right technologies for account-based in this case. That also helped. But it’s the gym membership just because you have the right investments doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to leverage it the right way.

Cheri Keith:

That’s awesome. And I know our audience is going to take that into their next board meeting to make sure you those adjustments and why doing it right from the start is the best way to go.

Jon Russo:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Cheri Keith:

And I’ve learned so much and I’m sure our audience has as well. Thank you everyone for tuning in and have a great day.

Jon Russo:

Cheri, thanks for having me. I’m really excited.