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CMO Confessions Ep. 42: David Clarke of UnitedLex

May 6th, 2021

Welcome back to another episode of CMO Confessions, our B2B podcast with marketing and sales’ top leaders. Today’s CMO Confessions features David Clarke who is the Executive Vice President, Chief Experience and Chief Marketing Officer of UnitedLex.

In today’s episode, Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24, and David chat about his time as one of the first Chief Experience Officers in the early 2010s and how experience-focused companies set themselves apart from others.

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

You can learn more about David’s career and interests on his LinkedIn page here and Twitter here.

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

Welcome to another CMO Confessions podcast!

Table of Contents:

BGT, PWC and CXO
Experience Based Companies
Marketing in the Future
How to Build a Culture Around Experience
Pet Peeves and B2P
Reactive Versus Agile
Physical or Digital Future
The Forefront of Transformation

Transcript

Cheri Keith:

Hello and welcome to CMO Confessions, the 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’m Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24. On today’s episode, I’m joined by David Clarke, Executive Vice President, Chief Experience and Chief Marketing Officer of UnitedLex. David, thank you for coming on today.

David Clarke:

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. Thank you.

BGT, PWC and CXO

Cheri Keith:

Awesome. Well, we need to start by just understanding about your journey. You have a pretty impressive title. So, I’m curious to hear more about what led you to this point and really what excites you about your day-to-day?

David Clarke:

It is a long journey. I feel I’ve been doing it for a while. It really started back in 1997. I started one of the first digital consultancies and back then it was pretty wild. You’re selling websites, you were kind of evangelizing to advertising agencies. You were begging people to do all these crazy things that they’d never done before. And our focus was always on Fortune 500s. Big companies that we could do big things with. What we did was we kind of started to morph into this philosophy of figuring out how we drive growth, performance and scale in these larger organizations that were thinking digital was not really a core part of their organization. And then over time digital became their business strategy.

And as a large independent company, we were probably one of the largest at the time, we were competing against the McKinseys and the Deloittes, Accentures and we just needed a bigger platform. So in 2013, my company was acquired by PWC and we became PWC Digital. Over the next seven years, we grew it to the third-largest global digital network in the world and at the time I think there were about 16,000 people in digital.

I was also the digital go-to-market leader, which is kind of what brings me to this meeting today where that’s kind of like your CMO. So, I was a CMO for this large group and as digital was progressing, we evolved into what was called the Experience Center. And the Experience Center was all about anything that touches human life. If it makes someone feel good internally, externally, it doesn’t matter.

So I became the first CXO, probably one of the first CXOs in the country. It was kind of a weird title back then because nobody really knew what to make of it. You didn’t really have a team. You kind of ran across the business. That group grew to about 4,000 people , so it was a huge group. And what started happening is we were doing so much work in products We were building products for clients, so we actually kind of evolved that group and we became a PWC Product, which is there today and it went on just a tremendous amount of growth. And that’s when I started to fall really in love with marketing and products.

And then when UnitedLex came knocking, I saw this huge opportunity to build a model that includes so many things that I love and am passionate about like experience, products, demand gen and internal and external communications. And basically it was like this moment of being able to do something for this great organization that was growing so well. So, a very long answer to a pretty short question.

Experience Based Companies

Cheri Keith:

No, that was awesome. I’d love to hear more about the experience part because I think people get very caught up in the physical world. You mentioned a lot about kind of growing through the digital changes and especially working with different agencies at that time. How are you thinking about the word experience? Because I think oftentimes it gets tied in with digital experience platforms, like DXPs, but that isn’t necessarily always the way that people are thinking about it.

David Clarke:

Yeah. I think people don’t really understand how big experience is. It really is a business’s most important asset. And when I say that people are like, “What are you talking about?” Companies that embrace experiences are actually seeing like a 16% to 18% increase in margin from other companies that are competitive. They retain their talent and they get better talent. The stock market likes them better. There are so many reasons. The experience really is what makes a company great and not a commodity. People don’t see what it is until they know what it is.

So, I use the analogy of why do people spend so much time in Trader Joe’s? They explore and spend money and they drive an extra five miles to get there. And you never see a Trader Joe’s commercial. Same thing with Starbucks. You rarely see a Starbucks commercial. Yet people pay a tremendous amount of money for a cup of coffee. Or you never see a Tesla commercial, but yet it’s so easy to buy a car.

That’s the experience, but it also is the experience of internal and external. I find that companies are almost bipolar. They have one experience internally, and then it’s totally different than the external experience. And in many ways, you’re not being true to your brand. You’re actually lying. You’re saying, “I’m this way internally. I’m that way externally.” And it doesn’t really combine. But great companies know that the experience is their innovation engine. It is the future of marketing. It is the future of sales. Like I would say, “Who sells Tesla cars?” Well, people that bought Teslas sell Tesla cars. That is the experience that people are having.

I used to always question clients and I said, “Do you have an experienced budget?” And they look at me and go, “What are you talking about?” Because experiences run horizontally across the business and they’re budgeted by everybody. Everybody has to pay into them. If operations, sales and marketing don’t believe in the experience, they don’t contribute to it. They don’t own it. They don’t do anything with it. So, I would say that the best companies in the world are experience companies. The ones that are traded for the highest multipliers are experience companies. The ones that your kids want to work for or the ones that you want your parents to be nurtured at? Those experience companies.

Cheri Keith:

That’s really interesting. I would even say though, there’s a difference in experience, not just internal and external, but pre-sale and post-sale. Especially if you think about that journey to actually buying something. Once you become a customer, it can be even more frenetic and feel very different than what you saw through the buyer journey. Is that something that you look at too?

David Clarke:

Oh yeah, absolutely. And look, there are a few companies out there that have absolutely mastered it, but you kind of have to look at the word “experience” as the same word as “innovation” and the same word as “transformation.” They all kind of mean the same things, but what’s super interesting about the experience is when you’re a company like Apple, it’s really a platform. It’s a platform for treating yourself. It’s a platform for self-expression. That’s why you buy these products. But it also allows them to try new things. It allows them to make mistakes. They roll out an update and the update crashes everybody’s iPhone and it’s okay. You know why? Because it’s progressive and they’re pushing, they’re pushing, they’re pushing.

So experience companies really have a different take on how they operate. They don’t apologize for trying great things. They don’t apologize for failing. It’s just who they are. Same thing with innovative companies. Innovative companies, don’t go out there and say, “We’re an innovative company.” They just are innovative. So, it’s part of the DNA of an organization.

Cheri Keith:

Well, that also gets to culture and like your point, it can’t be done in a silo. You can’t just say you’re doing it. You actually have to make sure that you’re reinforcing that. I mean, the Trader Joe’s example is well taken. Everyone is so happy to be working there and that’s not something you see when you roll into the other grocery chains or your local shops. So the internal experience, I think, is sometimes harder for companies to justify the investment in. Is that similar to anything you’ve found?

David Clarke:

Yeah. I think in all my years of experience working in management consulting, the one thing that you can really do is pretty much walk into any company and sense the culture. It’s almost like a sixth sense. You can be like, “This is a good culture and I could do great things.” Other companies you go into are like, “This culture is toxic. People just generally, don’t like each other and they’re here for a paycheck.” If you don’t fix the experience of the culture, you can’t really do a lot after that and you find that most companies are challenged or really struggling. It’s because people are there for the wrong reasons.

Look at fantastic companies like Patagonia. It’s like they know who they are. They know how they treat people. They’re going to treat you, whether you’re an employee, an associate, a supplier, a vendor, the same way. I think companies that are really embracing a culture that is experience-driven, maybe they don’t have to pay as much for compensating somebody because they’re offering them other levels of fulfillment and that fulfillment comes in how they exist day-to-day.

Marketing in the Future

Cheri Keith:

Well, I want to shift gears a little bit and talk to you about things a little bit more forward-looking. So what’s on your radar when it comes to the future? Obviously, there’s been a lot of changes for sales and marketing and companies in general in the past year, but what’s on your radar in the coming years?

David Clarke:

I think that COVID has certainly accelerated this, and I’ve written about this couple of times, is that I think it’s accelerated our propensity and excitement for trying new things. Like for really taking more risks. I love some of the new technologies that are coming out. I love the ability to, if you’re a marketer, you almost are as empowered as a CFO. You know attribution. You can see things faster. I think there are so many great things that are happening right now, and companies are really willing to try and they understand that if they stay sedentary, they’re in trouble. I also see that we’re bringing in talent that is unique to an organization. Like bringing in experienced talent into a company that doesn’t really have that type of look and feel, and it changes it.

I love that. First of all, for marketing, I love that marketing has kind of really risen to the top of the C-suite now. Marketing used to be kind of a second-tier C-suite. Now, some of the most powerful marketing people are becoming like CEOs. They’re becoming the demand generation. They’re becoming the culture of a business. They’re becoming the evangelists and the most aspirational side of the company. I always say marketing’s job is to always be the best reflection of the business. It always has to be the [blip]. It is the tip of the spear. It is absolutely critical that marketing is the most progressive. They have to be trying things. They have to stop apologizing for making mistakes, but they should always be looking at how they operate.

I really have a problem when marketers are latent in how they make decisions. They’re foolish and they don’t have the right technology and they wonder why they’re inefficient. Or there’s gluttony in having too many campaigns or they kill campaigns too fast. I think there’s a lot of behaviors that are from pre-COVID that are going to go away. And it’s going to go away from technology, from how people are organized, how groups are organized and it will now focus on how marketing can really create demand in a business much more so than it may have been in years past when it was looked at as more of a branding organization.

How to Build a Culture Around Experience

Cheri Keith:

That’s interesting though. To your point earlier, not all companies have the set focus on experience yet. So how would you recommend marketers who buy into that concept start to build consensus internally for more investment and more of a focus on experiences?

David Clarke:

Yeah, a good experience is probably almost the easiest thing to identify in a business. It’s so interesting because I always use Amazon as a good example. Amazon functionally hasn’t really changed in many, many years. It still looks like Amazon, but the plumbing of it has changed dramatically. The speed of it, the intensity, it’s just intelligent.

What’s going on is that businesses have to understand that the experience sometimes is the plumbing. It is how things are operating, but what we’re finding is that if your customers are not loyal to you and you’re not retaining them and you’re spending more and more money trying to get the top of the funnel filled with new customers, it’s probably because you have a lot of leakages. And that leakage is because you’re doing something. There’s a transaction that’s happening. There’s a point of friction. There’s a bad phone call. You’re not meeting expectations. And when a company like an Amazon resets the expectations of how you buy, it puts a lot of pressure on everybody else to say, “We have to do that as well.”

So, I would say first and foremost, if you look at any business and say, “What is the first point of friction?” That’s where your marketing or your experience team really needs to attack, and then you need to attack the next port of friction. And it’s very easy. I mean, look, we’re in a super judgy society right now. We love to judge. We love to cancel. We love to complain. But the companies that are really investing heavily in the human experience are the ones that are really floating to the top right now.

Cheri Keith:

You value that from the perspective of companies that are performing well, both stock price and in internal retention of talent, you were mentioning earlier as well?

David Clarke:

I mean, there’s definitely an optics to what marketing does, but then there’s where does the rubber meet the road? I think that any good story hasn’t really been created yet. And when a new or progressive company or a startup comes into the market, or even a legacy business that is trying something new, crafts a story, that doesn’t mean that they’re that business yet. They aspire to be that business. I think that’s where marketing really helps. And you need a culture that gets behind those aspirations. You need a culture that will own it. And doesn’t just look at things as a tactic, but they understand that there’s a purpose behind why these things are done. I do think you see that time and time again, purpose-led businesses usually are better experiences. They’re more innovative. They have better talent and keep them longer.

Pet Peeves and B2P

Cheri Keith:

Really interesting point. I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you maybe a little bit of a more fun question of what are some pet peeves that you see both from an experience and a marketing perspective? Having more of that view from the consultant lens inside out, are there things that you really see over and over again and keep driving you crazy?

David Clarke:

Yeah. Pet peeves, that’s like picking your least favorite child. It’s hard to just pick one thing. I think a lot of things that I’m doing at UnitedLex are really to rethink and there are no sacred cows. It’s like, “We must build the model of the future and we have to make hard decisions.” And those hard decisions sometimes take too long to make. I don’t like when companies are very reactive in marketing. Or they don’t own themselves, they don’t know themselves enough to be unique and differentiated in the market. So, they’re just kind of following someone else’s trail. I really don’t like companies that do too many campaigns or they take the campaigns they haven’t done and they don’t try them and diversify them.

There’s so much good software right now in the market that changes how we interact. A lot of that obviously is accelerated from COVID, but there are fantastic tools, like Asana, out there that do change how marketing organizations are running. It’s much more transparent. So using Kanban boards and doing Agile, that was really happening five, 10 years ago.

I think the other thing about it is, especially on the UnitedLex, where we don’t look at it as B2B. We look at it as B2P because it’s about people. There’s still a person who’s in a business or on the retail side or hospitality. You still have to treat everybody in the greatest way you’ve ever wanted to be treated yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re B2P or B2B or B2C, whatever they call it these days. It’s still people and people have expectations. It doesn’t matter if they’re at home making a retail purchase. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a business. They still want to be treated in the utmost excellent way.

Cheri Keith:

Right.

David Clarke:

I have so many pet peeves.

Cheri Keith:

Hahaha. That’s awesome!

David Clarke:

I can do like two shows just on pet peeves, by the way.

Cheri Keith:

Lightning round pet peeve was the mission!

David Clarke:

Yeah.

Reactive Versus Agile

Cheri Keith:

Well, I think the point about being reactive is interesting because a sense I have is that people think being reactive is being agile. Do you run into that ever?

David Clarke:

I think there’s a cost to being reactive that other people pay for. So, when you’re waiting for things to happen. Or a perfect example is a marketer spending too much money and not getting ahead of whether it’s attributing value or not. Or really just always looking behind them, or in front of them, to see what a competitor is doing, and then just kind of copying how somebody else is doing it. I think there are lots of costly, expensive inefficiency problems and not actually trying to find your own path to the hearts and minds of the people you’re trying to reach.

I think that there’s a risk in being proactive. There’s risk in trying new things in the market, but the risk is nowhere near what it was five, 10 years ago when it was so hard to turn things off and so hard to change things. Right now, we have such control over our marketing spending. We have such control of our metrics and our dashboards, and how we stand up a meeting. We’ve just never had that before. So we have to kind of take advantage of things that allow us to be proactive and if we make a mistake, cut them fast.

Physical or Digital Future

Cheri Keith:

Well, that’s interesting. You brought up meetings and I think that’s the big thing I’m also hearing from people right now is this idea of, “We all want to get back to physical events as quickly as humanly possible.” And there’s an element of that’s reactionary, but there’s also this element of having about a year of learnings from having more of a digital-first approach. One thing I’ve been thinking more about is, it’s not about rushing back to a Hilton with some crappy catering. It’s more about like, “Alright, what’s that experience you want to deliver to someone?” And of course, there’s going to be reasons to get together in person, but there’s also a lot of reasons where we’ll still do it digitally. Is that anything that you’ve thought about?

David Clarke:

Yeah, it’s funny. Because I’m definitely the old-timer because when I had my own agency, I was like, “You’re in the office. You’re in the office. You’re with a client.” And I ran that way for so long. And I just think that’s probably one of my bigger mistakes in my career.

I look at UnitedLex and I feel like I know my people and I feel like I am so much more proactive. I’m able to interact with them so much faster and there’s an immediacy to it. I see these faces online and I’m like, “It would be really hard to travel to everybody every moment to see all these people.” I actually love what’s going on in the world today. I love the technology that you have. We use it all the time. I think that it’s a mindset shift and I was probably one of the laggers to get there, but I feel like the team that I have at UnitedLex, I see more, I relate to them more.

We work collaboratively more. I’m a convert. And look, I spent most of my career living in hotels and doing my 250,000 miles a year. And I realized that there was probably a lot of waste in there. There’s always time for interaction. There’s always time for the human element. There’s always time to have a beer and share a pizza. But the reality is, I don’t think we’re less productive. I think we’re way more productive today. And I would go so far as I think people are happier as well, but that just might be me.

Cheri Keith:

I think there’ll be a balance that we strike where we do both because I think we’re all craving that human interaction. We can have human engagement through digital mechanisms, but yes, I think we all want to go out and have the pizza, have the beer together. I think that it’s hopefully sooner rather than later, but I don’t think we can miss a lot of the efficiencies that we’ve been able to drive.

It’s been a joke my CEO has been reminding me of everything that’s been done in the past year. He’s like, “How were we able to do this?” It’s like, “Oh, well, I haven’t been on a plane and 365 days. So not having to rush through airports definitely has changed things.”

David Clarke:

No, he’s right. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m missing much. I feel like I know people more now because of how accessible people are. I mean, I’m gobbling up all new technologies. I love trying new stuff for marketing. I just think it’s fun. It’s exciting. I just don’t feel like I’m missing anything. And I think that there’s also a health factor to it. And there’s also a factor like being a dad or mom, or being a significant other to somebody where you are recalling back time on the road that wasn’t necessarily the most productive time.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah. A colleague of mine always was a big traveler and he would just say the benefits of being home on a Wednesday or something that he hasn’t had in so long. It’s the little things of being there for the piano lesson or the softball practice. He’s always there for the games, but being there for the practices has been a different layer for him to add on.

David Clarke:

No, absolutely. Yeah and I think people are also making healthier choices where they’re compromising less about where they live. It’s interesting to see how people are moving out of urban tenders and living in their dream houses somewhere in the country and they’re having a much more fulfilled life. So, I do agree with what you’re saying. We might’ve over-indexed but I don’t think we’re ever going to go back.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah. It will never return to the way it fully was, but I just hope that everyone takes stock and learns from it rather than the rush back to normalcy when that’s not really the case anymore. It wasn’t a two-week period. It was a long time.

David Clarke:

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

The Forefront of Transformation

Cheri Keith:

Well, I want to be cognizant of your time today. Are there any closing thoughts that you want to share with the audience? I think this has been really insightful for people, especially as we try to bring awareness among sales and marketing to the importance of the experience and the value that it can drive for the business. Especially if they’re not lucky enough to have a partner in leading those efforts internally for them. What would you share there?

David Clarke:

You know, for me, I always say I’m a lucky person. I have a really good gig. I’ve been able to do a lot of fun things in my career and I get to do things that I’m passionate about and kind of love. The thing that I really appreciate about working with UnitedLex is that when you get to live through transformations, and we’re living through a transformation right now. People don’t know it, but we are going through a massive transformation. You can either be a victim of the transformation or you can be on the forefront and the tip of the spear. And when you find that opportunity, you’re able to ride that wave and really make these changes.

Marketing and experience is all about having more fulfilled engagement. It could be your engagement. It could be anybody’s engagement, but when you have that opportunity to do something you love and you’re passionate about, and you can actually make these changes, you just have to go for it. Go for it. I hope that more people do that and I think more people will now that they have more opportunities in how they live.

Cheri Keith:

That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today, David. I know I’ve enjoyed our time together and learned a lot about experiences and I think your perspective and background will be very valuable for the CMO Confessions audience. Thank you, Audience, for tuning in and thank you, David, for your time today.

David Clarke:

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.