Career Journey with Marketing Leaders – Aaron Magness, Chief Marketing Officer at Thistle

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

 

Following last year’s mini-blog series that included hearing from eight CMOs and senior marketing leaders from the CMO & Marketing Director Forum in the UK, this new season will see us travel stateside to the USA.

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 thrilled to welcome Aaron Magness, CMO at Thistle, to kick the season off in style.

Thistle is a modern, tech-enabled, organic food and nutrition company that develops and delivers fresh, fully-prepared, delicious and nutritious plant-forward meals, juices & snacks right to your door. They make it incredibly convenient to get and stay healthy by eating more plants.

 

Before Thistle, Aaron worked at brands such as Brandless and Betabrand and is an advisor to several high-growth companies.

 

 

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

 

Aaron Magness: I often feel I’m the luckiest person alive. Even though I graduated with a Marketing degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!), there is no doubt that I lucked into my career trajectory. I moved to San Francisco in August 2001 in the thick of the dot com crash. I had no job, had only been here once, and had only a couple of people I knew out here. Then, September 11 happened, and things went from bad to worse. No one was hiring, there was uncertainty ahead, and tons of overqualified employees with MBAs were now vying for the few jobs I was looking for.

 

I started taking temp work gigs and working at a few different bars, taking advantage of the opportunity to meet people and expand my connections. I then lucked into hearing about a contract opportunity at Williams-Sonoma, Inc. through one of my friends. They were seeking some help to build a B2B/Corporate Sales offering. I jumped at the chance because I needed a steady income, but I quickly realized that I loved everything about it. Building from scratch was amazing, solving complex problems was exciting, and building a team with such a great intersection of sales, marketing, and operations taught me so much. It was like working inside a startup inside a large corporation. And I really learned how much I loved consumers.

 

After that, I moved to Las Vegas to join Zappos, where I was surrounded by passionate people who were actually changing the way e-commerce (and commerce, for that matter) was done. We certainly moved fast and broke things, and in the process, I took on roles throughout the marketing organization, learning the importance of building a brand and helping people understand why they should shop with you rather than one of your competitors.

 

Following that, I was fortunate enough to work with several startups that were redefining the categories they were in, from Coastal.com being one of the leaders moving prescription glasses online to Betabrand using data to reduce the waste in the fashion industry to Brandless redefining what it means to be a brand in modern times.

 

I’m currently loving my experience with Thistle, where we have a mission to help people get and stay healthy while improving the sustainability of our food system. It’s been amazing taking on new challenges and learnings by dealing with 1) fresh food, 2) subscriptions, and 3) regional growth (rather than national coverage). It’s also really taught me the importance of being at a place that actually helps people and the planet the more we grow. It’s not just about selling one more widget; it’s about helping people eat delicious food that happens to be plant-based and is way more convenient than shopping and cooking for yourself.

 

 

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

 

Aaron: I tend not to think of things being specific campaigns; it’s more like continued ways to find value for your potential and existing customers. I’ve been lucky to work on big campaigns covered by NY Times and ad industry publications that helped people understand that Zappos sells more than shoes. Still, I also love the smaller campaign shifts that we have done at Thistle that have moved our focus from trying to convince people to eat a plant-based diet to helping non-vegans/vegetarians realize that plant-based eating can be delicious and healthy. In addition, we just rolled out a complete brand refresh at Thistle, which took a year of hard work, planning, and cross-team collaboration. Seeing it all come together has been amazing.

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

 

Aaron: The world has so much uncertainty as we go into 2024. Marketers have to navigate a constantly changing ecosystem, from the state of the economy and general prices to the ongoing wars to the election year. Because of that, budgets are shrinking, expectations are higher, and you have to find a way to break through the chaos to give your customers a reason to believe in your brand vs everyone else. In today’s always-on mindset, you’re not just competing with businesses in similar product lines; you’re also competing more and more with attention overall. Then, when you pair all that with reduced resources and a focus on profitability, marketers have plenty of challenges ahead! That’s why it’s essential to surround yourself with a fantastic team and give them room to shine.

 

 

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

 

Aaron: If nothing else, 2023 taught us that the days of free money are gone. We need to ensure that every department understands how they are helping the business from a profitability standpoint. I feel we’re continuing to move in a positive direction where brands that can continue to find ways to drive value for their customers will win. They’ll need to do this by being authentic, clear about what problems are solved with your offering, and striving to meet your customers’ high expectations. The trends I see standing out are:

  1. Creators over influencers.
  2. Using AI to ideate and improve what you’re doing.
  3. Involving and rewarding your customers along the way.
  4. Understanding how your actions are driving profitability will be key.

 

 

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

 

Aaron: Testing too much when it’s cheap and testing too little when it’s expensive. Every marketer wants to constantly test new things and ideas to find the next unlock. Timing and investment are always the challenge. When it feels like everything is going sideways, it’s easy to want to run a bunch of tests (it feels cheap compared to the risk of it not working), but that makes it hard to understand which tests are moving the needle. However, when the business is dialled in, and things are humming along, it’s hard to peel that hard-working money away to try something new (it feels expensive because it probably won’t initially work as well as what you’re doing right now).

 

 

Alex: What would you tell your younger self?

 

Aaron: Always take the chance. Say yes more and lean into new opportunities. I believe in the power of luck, and as a good friend told me, lucky people put themselves in a position to be lucky. So, always put yourself out there, find ways to provide value to others while expecting nothing in return, and build true relationships. In addition, it’s always a good reminder that you’re probably not the smartest person in the room, so ask questions, learn from others, and always be open to new and different ideas.

 

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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.