Career Journey with Marketing Leaders – Alison Ehrmann, Chief Marketing Officer

Welcome to the next edition of the second season of Career Journey with Marketing Leaders. 

 

I’ll be interviewing top-class Chief Marketing Officers and senior marketing leaders working in the consumer market, focusing on the D2C space throughout the United States. 

Each episode will ask questions to uncover how they got to where they are today, challenges faced, emerging trends, biggest failures, and a moment of reflection. 

 

I’m delighted to welcome Alison Ehrmann – a full-funnel consumer marketing leader with digital, e-commerce, customer journey, and subscription roles at start-ups, Retail 100s, and Fortune 500 companies. Until recently, she was CMO at Nom Nom (acquired by Mars) and previously worked at Thirty Madison and FreshDirect, among others. 

Alex Marriner: Tell us a little about your marketing career and journey to where you are today.

 

Alison: I am a Chief Marketing Officer who didn’t take a single marketing class in college. Nor did I have any related internships. Like most people, my career evolved – rarely are careers neat, linear progressions.

 

I started on the ad agency side but soon realized that things were “better” in-house and made the switch after two years. My first in-house role was at Time Inc. At that time, it was one of the most coveted companies, working for iconic magazine brands such as People, Sports Illustrated, Time, Fortune, and others. Working on the consumer side of the business (as opposed to ad revenue), my job was to generate profitable magazine sales through subscriptions and retail.

 

In this role, I had the opportunity to own a P&L at a very early age – setting my own budgets, generating projections, and promising to deliver a certain amount of customers and profit. We did this through direct and database marketing, which in many ways is the precursor to what we now call performance marketing – utilizing data analytics and robust testing agendas to understand customer behavior, preferences, and trends for more targeted campaigns and improved results.

 

It started as direct mail, telemarketing, and targeted ads and inserts in the magazine – we used selects and models to mine the database for customers most likely to be interested in our product/offer. Sound familiar?

 

As digital exploded, we simply added more tools to the toolkit – ads on our magazine websites and email marketing; Eventually, we started buying inventory beyond what we owned through programmatic networks, SEM, paid social. But the fundamentals of ad creation, conversion rate optimization, test and learn, data-driven decision-making remained constant. And we still owned the 1:1 relationship with the customer: DTC marketing.

 

Eventually, I applied these honed skills to other companies such as FreshDirect, Toys R Us and then start-ups like Rockets of Awesome and Thirty Madison where I continued to drive growth.

 

As I progressed in my career, I took on broader responsibilities, including brand building and management, consumer insights, product development and innovation – skills I learned from many, many talented partners along the way.

 

Today, I consider myself a full-funnel marketer leader who can accelerate growth and profitability through creative integration of performance and brand; leveraging data, insights and technology; an obsession with consumer behavior and trends; and a relentless commitment to success.

 

As an insatiably curious person, I’ve worked across many different companies and industries – media, e-commerce/retail, grocery, fashion, health care, pet; but there are common threads – they (mostly) own their relationship with customers, and they rely on a combination of performance and brand to fuel growth (HINT: you need both!), and have cultures of risk-taking. I’ve always been attracted to people & organizations that swing for the fences and aren’t afraid to fail (but learn).

 

Right now, I am looking for my next adventure, where I can continue to make an impact. More importantly, I am looking for a visionary team of great people. I have found that culture fit is usually the most significant single determinant of success in a role. Cultures are varied, and there is no right or wrong – just right for you.

 

 

Alex: What’s the one marketing campaign that you are most proud of and why?

 

Alison: Back in 2014, during the first months at FreshDirect, I got a call (when people actually called, on your work landline!) asking if we wanted to buy remnant space in the NYC subway cars. This was before every start-up ran these campaigns and when inventory sometimes went un-purchased. As a result, the price was incredibly low and the reach large. The catch: We had 48 hours to deliver creatives, and we had none. We were in the middle of a brand refresh, and the company hadn’t had an awareness campaign in years.

 

After deliberating with my Brand counterpart (who is still a trusted advisor and friend), we decided to go for it. The immensely talented team got to work and miraculously delivered something we felt good about. It wasn’t a creative that would necessarily win awards, but it was mighty impressive given the constraints. And it worked. We saw traffic spike and an influx of new customers. The unexpected outcome was the excitement of our associates seeing their company in such a visible way and having their friends and family mention the ads as well. It was a boost of energy we didn’t know we needed.

 

Not only was this a proud moment, but a pivotal learning one:

  • Get buy-in before committing: Saying “yes” without conferencing the key stakeholders could have created resentment for signing up for something they (a) couldn’t deliver and/or (b) weren’t excited to take on.
  • Wins are always a team effort: We all came together to solve the problem; not one person could have done this alone.
  • Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough; Had we strived for perfection, the opportunity would have slipped away. Always remember the “70-20-10 rule”: 70 percent of your attempts will be mediocre, 20 percent will suck, and 10 percent will be amazing.
  • Don’t overlook the secondary benefits: Looking back, the energy this campaign generated in the creation and in seeing the ads IRL was reason enough to say “yes.” While business KPIs are important, they are not the only thing that matters.

 

 

Alex: What are the key challenges facing D2C CMOs in 2024?

 

Alison: Good timing! I just wrote a LinkedIn post about balancing short-term performance marketing with longer-term brand-building activities. Both are important, and one rarely works without the other. So many DTC marketers are challenged with being on the hook for year-over-year growth, with shrinking budgets and more expensive/less effective levers to pull. It often feels like a no-win situation. We want to invest in the brand and know we have to but often don’t have the time, commitment, or money required.

 

As I said in my post: “We’ve become impatient and addicted to constant gains. Success is often measured and rewarded in near-term sprints – growth at all costs, getting the next fundraise, putting up numbers for an exit, etc. It is often hard for marketers to make the case for brand investment even when they know it is the right decision – when we know that there is no blood left to squeeze from the proverbial DTC stone. I have been guilty of trying to appease the DTC powers that be and do the impossible: eat & lose weight. TL:DR – it doesn’t end well. But I am committed to finding new roads in, communicating differently, and being a stronger advocate for brand resets.”

 

 

Alex: What emerging marketing trends do you anticipate will have the most impact on D2C businesses in the coming year?

 

Alison: It’s AI, right? Everything is about AI, right?

 

It’s absolutely coming. It’s here. It’s not going away.

 

Our jobs as CMOs will be to sort out what has real business impact and what is simply a distraction. I don’t have the answers yet. But I would love to hear from fellow marketers if they do!

 

 

Alex: What has been your biggest marketing failure? And what were the key lessons you gained from that experience?

 

Alison: As a DTC marketer, there have been too many numerous test failures to count. It’s part of the job. After all, if you’re never failing, you’re not taking big enough risks and are unlikely moving the business forward fast enough.

 

But one mistake I have made in the past and continue to find ways to improve is internal communication. It is an often overlooked skill that many CMOs haven’t mastered.

 

As marketers, we know what to do and how to get it done. Our teams do, too. But the rest of the company needs education. Despite how much they THINK they understand marketing. Everyone is a marketer, right?

 

We need to think of our company as a secondary audience that needs to be marketed to. We need to define what success looks like and why. We need to say “no” more often and explain the impact. We need to publicly share our goals, results, and progress. Regularly, in highly visible ways. CMOs need to become internal marketers and let the team focus on marketing to our customers.

 

My less successful roles have more to do with falling short of this internal marketing and little to do with brand direction, marketing spend allocation, KPIs and the like. It’s a hard lesson to learn, one I am still learning.

 

 

Alex: What would you tell your younger self?

 

Alison: Things will NOT go as planned. And that’s ok.

Expect failure, but learn from it.

Say “YES.” Beautiful things happen when you open yourself up to the universe. Plus, you won’t get different results doing the same thing.

Enjoy the journey. But buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Invest in yourself. Have a growth mindset.

It’s just a job. Like what you do, be good at it, but remember that friends and family come above everything else. Give love, receive it, cherish it.

 

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Alex Marriner is the Founder & Managing Partner at Acquire Digital Talent. 

 

Acquire Digital Talent is a people-first Leadership Search & Recruitment Firm that exclusively partners with Direct-To-Consumer (D2C/DTC) companies to build Digital & Growth Marketing Leadership teams. Our expertise and reputation ensure successful delivery across niche, critical and executive appointments from Seed to Series A and beyond.