Clientside hero banner image

“To be relevant, every business must be a disruptive business. If you’re an agency and you’re not disruptive, then that means you’re pretty quickly becoming irrelevant.”

Welcome James McCarthy

Chief Marketing Officer

Exonar

View LinkedIn Profile

James McCarthy has worked at some of the most influential tech brands in the world, such as Microsoft, Vodafone and now, Exonar.

Listen now, as he discusses the digital data revolution, the importance of a strong brand proposition and why CMO’s need to be in the boardroom.

Transcript:

Nathan Anibaba:

James McCarthy is a tech advocate and Chief Marketing Officer at Exonar. He has over 20 years of experience in marketing the propositions of some of the most influential B2B and B2C tech brands in the world. He helps audiences to embrace change in a positive digital future, alongside the challenges that that represents. James McCarthy, welcome to ClientSide.

James McCarthy:

It’s great to be here, Nathan. Thanks for inviting me.

Nathan Anibaba:

Absolute pleasure having you on the show. You’ve got a really interesting career journey. You’ve worked at some of the biggest and most prestigious B2B and consumer brands in the world. But you start your professional career as an engineer. That’s not the typical career journey of a marketer. Is it?

James McCarthy:

I know a few people that have actually but yeah, it’s definitely not what people think is the is the traditional journey for a marketer, no doubt. Engineering is all about problem solving. Typically engineers are quite left brained, they’re quite rational. They love solving problems and that’s not something you always associate with a marketer at first glance. Typically you think marketers will be more right brained. But it turns out, you can be a little bit of both. And it turns out that applying a good dose of left brain thinking to marketing particularly in the strategic sense, is obviously no bad thing.

Nathan Anibaba:

So talk a little bit about what that left brain thinking brings to your role as a marketer then, because what does that engineer mindset bring to your role that people from more traditional marketing backgrounds wouldn’t necessarily have.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, we all know what what marketing is about, right? It’s trying to drive demand, attract people to your brand, get them to behave in a popular way and move in your direction with you. There’s a massively important creative element to that. But there’s quite a lot of structure and rational thinking about how you construct your messaging framework even at that level. How you think about going to market, how you think about looking at your audiences from a rational perspective, of course, then what you need to do is throw in a damn good dose of emotive, emotional stuff as well when it comes to actually building out the marketing plans. But I like to think of marketing as a science as well as an art. And the science bit is all about problem solving.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. And maybe this is something we can get into a little bit later. But it seems to me that marketing needs to have more of a seat at the leadership table. And having that left brain, the way that you think from a rational left brain perspective, probably plays well if you’re on the leadership team of a large organization, because they’re generally led by left brain thinkers, they’re [crosstalk 00:03:08].

James McCarthy:

Or at least they think they are. I’ve seen some pretty emotional board members. But yeah, absolutely. You’d think so. And absolutely, that’s true. If you go down the route of thinking about how you think companies make decisions.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

Then yeah, they make them rationally, when you’re talking about the organization and business objectives and all of that stuff. Again, it’s problem solving, right? So if we want to make the business grow, if we want to drive the business forward, then it’s a set of decisions. Those decisions are driven by a fairly logical rational way of thinking, I guess.

James McCarthy:

I suppose in the boardroom, maybe you leave your right brain outside the door, because maybe that’s not the way to endear your colleagues a lot of the time. As soon as they start seeing you getting fluffy, then you tend to lose their attention somewhat.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right, yeah. Just after the start of the millennium, you started your journey from the engineering left brain world towards more of a commercial and marketing world. How did that happen and what was the transition like?

James McCarthy:

Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s actually to do with the Millennium Bug, which I doubt Nathan, you are young enough to-

Nathan Anibaba:

I was there.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, well you were there. Were you?

Nathan Anibaba:

Just about.

James McCarthy:

So I was at Vodafone in those days and in a technical role, and my job was essentially to figure out how we were going to convince people that we weren’t going to fall over as a network on the first of January 2000. So everyone was going around thinking that somehow a clock within the Vodafone network was going to mean that everything falls over. And I started working with a couple of big customers who were very valuable to the business and who had business critical technology running off the Vodafone network. And it turns out that a couple other guys in the commercial part of the business heard about me and heard that I could string a couple of sentences together in front of a customer and decided it’d be great if James McCarthy is the guy who is going to be our face of technology into customers to allay their fears and reassure them that everything was going to be fine on January the first.

James McCarthy:

And so I ended up working really closely with those customers helping them to, in fact structure the arguments internally into their organizations that they’d done the due diligence, and hey presto, suddenly, I was marketing business continuity at Vodafone, if you like. My technical background, obviously was required because I had to be able to talk the technology.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

But that then led to the transition. Of course nothing fell over on the nights and everything went brilliantly. And then I had my relationships with the commercial parts of the organization and they started saying, “Hang on, this guy can talk tech, but he can also talk to customers. And he seems to like that stuff and they love him, so let’s have him on this side of the business instead.”

Nathan Anibaba:

That left brain right brain thing again. So you talked about your experience with Vodafone. From Vodafone, you went to Microsoft, where you held several leadership roles there. Why did you leave Vodafone for Microsoft at that time? And what was that transition like?

James McCarthy:

We were working with Microsoft at Vodafone. So I was working quite closely with them. They had a thing called Windows Mobile, which anyone who follows technology will know that in the end, didn’t do that well, and got thoroughly taken out by a combination of Google and iPhone, I think it’s fair to say. But at the time, they had this strategy around mobile, I was really keen to work with an actual manufacturer, if you like. Someone who actually creates stuff and of course Microsoft creates software in bucket loads. And so the appeal was to help them build a new market in that Brave New World. We got to remember we were in that .com revolution that was going on at the time.

James McCarthy:

So Microsoft hadn’t made some of the mistakes yet that it was going to make, potentially. And it’s really interesting to be part of a global monolith, when it tries to change a market, and I was really drawn with that mission.

Nathan Anibaba:

Well, let’s talk about some of the mistakes that Microsoft made. That’s a nice segue because you were at Microsoft, as you said in the early 2000s, when smartphones and social was really becoming a thing, and they were really in prime position to really lead and dominate the market as subsequently, we’ve discovered that Apple and Samsung and Google have, and Bill Gates actually cites that as one of his biggest missed opportunities. How did Microsoft miss that boat?

James McCarthy:

There’s several things right. So there’s lots of headwinds, tail winds, different factors in this. There’s no one single strategic decision, but I think if you look, I’m a big fan of a guy called Simon Sinek, if you know him?

Nathan Anibaba:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Start With Why.

James McCarthy:

He wrote a really good book recently The Infinite Game. It’s one of his latest ones. I don’t know if it’s his latest book, but The Infinite Game, he talks about how brands can make the mistake of thinking that business and I suppose marketing to an extent is a finite game. In other words, there are set competitors, and there are set rules, and there’s a winner and a loser. Basically, he holds that in fact, business like many things in life is actually an infinite game. It keeps going. The rules keep changing, the players keep changing. There’s no set competitors, but the one thing that really matters is the direction you’re going in the vision, the purpose, etc.

James McCarthy:

And I think what Microsoft did is they failed to remember that. And so in their determination, and by the way, loads of tech companies did the same thing. And loads of companies continue to do the same thing. So it’s not just Microsoft. But what they began to become obsessed by was the competitor and winning, this concept of winning in the short-term and that led to a bunch of decisions. What they perhaps should have done is focus more on the end customer, the vision and what they wanted to create, and they would have found their way through.

James McCarthy:

And if you look at that and Sinek talks about Microsoft and Apple at the same time, and then when he got invited to speak to the leadership teams of both organizations. This has become a myth, I guess. But apparently, in the halls of power in Microsoft, everyone was focused on beating Apple.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right.

James McCarthy:

And meanwhile, and I think I can probably agree with that to an extent based on my experience. But at the same time in Apple’s equivalent leadership meetings, they were completely obsessed about how to do things better, and how to make things simpler and how to make things more customer-centric and how to make things work better for the customer and we know what happens since, right?

James McCarthy:

So yeah, a whole bunch of things but that encapsulates it, I think. And then all the decisions inside of that you start to realize actually, were about playing a finite game, not an infinite game.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. Well, the most valuable company in the world amazon.com, which Bezos says adopted the same approach by being fanatically led by the customer. Apparently, he has board meetings or leadership meetings where he has an empty seat at the table, and so that everyone on the leadership team recognizes to always remember the customer. That’s who they’re focused on. They’re not focused on a competitor, or another entity. They’re always focused on doing things better for their consumer.

James McCarthy:

And actually, interestingly, just around that point, you talk about Amazon. Actually, Microsoft now has had a massive renaissance in the last few years under Satya Nadella.

Nathan Anibaba:

Nadella, right.

James McCarthy:

It is now, or it has been in the last few months the world’s most valuable company. In fact, more valuable than Amazon.

Nathan Anibaba:

All right.

James McCarthy:

And the interesting thing about that is that Nadella whether or not Simon Sinek, has the ear of Satya Nadella is a different story. But if you look at the way he’s been the CEO, amazing guy. And if you look at how he’s affected the turnaround. I wonder whether Mr. Sinek will be claiming soon, it’s no big deal in that, right? Because literally, Microsoft now is becoming “Hey, guess what?” Obsessed by the mission that they’re on, their purpose, their why? Rather than immediate competition. And guess what, they’ve transformed themselves and they’re out now going blockbusters and doing some really, really good stuff. So really interesting how that all works.

Nathan Anibaba:

Fast forward a few years and you set up Bright Fly Digital, a digital demand generation and CRM agency in the technology industry. So you’ve got both ClientSide and agency experience, what perspective does that experience give you?

James McCarthy:

It’s fascinating time, right? Really enjoyed it. We did some really good stuff. It’s also really, really hard being an agency, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Right.

James McCarthy:

So the problem with being an agency is you’re only as good as your last projects.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

You’re all the things. You’re very dependent on marketing cycles, budget cycles, there’s many, many things that can come and swipe you that have nothing to do with the job that you’re doing, and how well you’re doing for your clients, which is the bit that really frustrates me.

James McCarthy:

And I think along with that, the thing that became very, very clear to me is how hard it is to influence good strategy in a client. The agency often ends up having to execute and make good without the right fundamentals, the right foundations. So you’re given a brief which is based on a potentially flawed proposition. You are not given the brand guidelines, the brand strategy that you would like to take the market on behalf of your clients, you’re then in to try and create something out of something where there are fundamental strategic issues your client needs to solve. And yet you’ve still got to be successful and making the campaign amazing or whatever.

James McCarthy:

So it’s really, really tough. I think that’s the biggest thing that I that I found. And ultimately, one of the reasons that I’ve gone back to being client side is not because I didn’t love being agency side, because the diversity of what you get to deal with is fantastic. And I had some really, really good times and did some amazing work. But the reason I went back to the other side, I’m now on the CMO side of the fence is probably because I love building the strategy and making sure the strategy is right. Before I brief my agencies.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super fascinating. Wouldn’t the pushback from that be if the brief is not as good as it should be from the client, a good really good agency should push back on the client, interrogate the brief further and say, “Hey, we’re missing some fundamental pieces here. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and look at your strategy?”

James McCarthy:

Yeah. I’m not going to mention any names, but I had a few clients where, they were broken, frankly. And their proposition was broken. It was uncompetitive in the market. They were a bunch of things they were doing at the corporate level that just weren’t going to help us. So now, it doesn’t matter how good the brief is Nathan, you can’t polish it.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah, it’s a family show.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, exactly. And I think you end up writing a brief and I’ve been on both sides of this. Of course, I’ve worked for organizations which from time to time, haven’t had a perfect proposition either, right? And you have to write the brief. So if you’re in that scenario, even if you’re great at writing briefs for the agency, even if the agency is great at interrogating your brief and making you work really hard to clarify it. Fundamentally, you’ve got to have the right product, with the right proposition targeted at the right audience in a compelling way, in order for any brief to come and sing and deliver a fantastic campaign.

Nathan Anibaba:

Quite fascinating. In May 2019, you became the CMO of Exonar, a data discovery business helping businesses to find and understand the billions of items of data and information they’ve got, and then use it better. Talk a little bit about the problems you help your clients solve.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, so basically, these days has been an explosion in data, right? So data has happened as a result of the digital revolution, the information revolution that we work in. And the challenges is that every company is now a data company, whether they like it or not. And there’s a lot of traditional companies out there. Of course most companies are traditional companies, struggling with the fact that they now have this huge amount of data that they never had before. They’re not tech companies, they’re quite traditional in their outlook and the way they operate. And yet they’re flooded with data and information, some of which they can ignore. But some of which contains, their customers information, and some of which holds them back in terms of delivering a great customer service. And all of those things that go with it.

James McCarthy:

Of course, some companies were born in data. And so some of the most challenging disruptive organizations out there so your Ubers and and the like, were born in data, they’re born in digital, they only exist because of digital. And of course, that changes the game. And if you’re a traditional company that has a bunch of data. So if you’re a bank or insurance company, you’ve got petabytes of stuff, billions of items and you have no idea what you’ve got, let alone what you can then do with it. So our job really is to expose and uncover all of that. So we go tunneling into people’s data at scale, and we help them make sense of it. So we index it all into one place. And we give them literally for the first time, proper insight into the volumes of data that they’ve got. And then we help them start to use it to protect and to power their organization.

Nathan Anibaba:

Quite fascinating. So talk a little bit about your role now as CMO, what are the main business challenges that the business is struggling with right now? And how are you working with agencies to help you solve those challenges?

James McCarthy:

Yeah. For me, this is the perfect role, right? I literally am a kid in a toy shop, not because of the amount of budget I’ve got, because I haven’t put a huge budget to deal with, unfortunately, sadly.

Nathan Anibaba:

It’s unfortunate.

James McCarthy:

I know it is. I know, that’s where you were going Nathan. [crosstalk 00:17:45] if you did. But in terms of, going back to that strategy thing, I’m the first marketer on the board. The business got to Series A venture capital funding, so we’re funded by some really, really good VCs based in London.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

James McCarthy:

Very well respected, which is fantastic. The company’s got itself to where it is on some great software, which is going down a storm is really, really exciting. But they had no marketing on the budget. Not on the budget, on the boardroom. And so I had that wonderful experience doesn’t happen very often, where you get to join a company where literally they’re all ears because they knew they were hiring a CMO. And they actually understood and our CEO believes in the power of marketing, and he understands that in order to build 100 million, 500 million, billion pound business, it largely comes down to how we position ourselves and how we build that brand, which literally means I’m in my element. I get to define everything from our product strategy to our go-to market strategy, and very little damage has been done before I arrived if you like.

Nathan Anibaba:

Interesting.

James McCarthy:

So that’s fantastic how [crosstalk 00:18:58].

Nathan Anibaba:

You’re not inheriting any legacy.

James McCarthy:

No, really not. In fact, I’m inheriting virtually nothing. They’ve done the traditional things that most organizations have done. They’ve tried a bit of email marketing, they’ve tried a bit a bit and a bit of that, but nothing coordinated, nothing structured and most of it didn’t work.

James McCarthy:

So I’ve got a decent budget. And the way that I’m looking at it is that at the moment, we’re probably spending the next six to 12 months really building the strategy correctly. And I am using a number of agencies who are utterly specialists. And that’s where I think agencies are fabulous is when you find specialist agencies, they don’t have to be big in any way at all, that have really strong perspectives, really strong experience in very specific areas.

James McCarthy:

So for example, wanted to build and influence a strategy and think about how we were going to go-to market with thought leadership, etc. A lot of our audiences are in very big companies, and they’re very senior on the board, so engaging those audiences is pretty difficult as a marketer. And so we wanted to use an influencer strategy to help us do that. And I went to who I believed was one of the best out there at influencer work. So yes, there are more general agency, but I happen to have a tip off that they’re very strong in this one area. And that’s just an example.

James McCarthy:

I think for me, if you can get it’s not about finding one agency and then being lazy and just getting them to do all your work for you.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. Okay.

James McCarthy:

That’s not what it’s about. It’s about engaging a small number but the most specialist and the best people, the people who are famous for something, right? And if they’re famous for doing that one thing, then you go there. If you’re going to build a burger joint, and you want all the components to build the best burger in the world. When it comes to getting your sauce. You’re going to go to the people that are famous for the best burger sauce, this is an analogy that’s going to go wrong in [crosstalk 00:20:57].

Nathan Anibaba:

I’m with you so far.

James McCarthy:

I’m like let’s just go with the best of everything. And I think that’s really my approach with it. What I’m also doing is building an internal team because I do believe that you need to have some executional muscle internally as well. And whilst agencies obviously, to some extent thrive of outsourced delivery to an extent, it’s low margin compared to the really strategic specialist stuff. And I believe as a CMO, I need to have my team around me as well, who live and breathe my brand and execute it at the grassroots level. So that’s why I believe we bring agencies in and we pay them good dollar, to do the impactful strategic stuff that they are no doubt best place to do, and I don’t mind paying people a good wedge of money to do that. But when it comes to business as usual, I would rather try and insource where I can and build an organization that is powered by some great agency minds around the outside.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. So let’s take that one step further. Let’s say that you’re looking to build a really specialist team of agencies around you, to support your internal team in those specialist areas. Selecting an agency partner is probably one of the most important decisions that any CMO can make. It’s very easy to pick up the phone and hire an agency on the spot. It’s far more difficult to find the ideal partner to reshape your approach and your marketing strategy and propel your business forward.

Nathan Anibaba:

Strategically, what’s the best way of finding appointing and choosing an agency? Let’s say that you’re looking at a cross section of maybe three or four really great performance agencies or SEO agencies or creative agencies. What’s your approach to choosing and selecting an onboarding a winning agency?

James McCarthy:

Well, I think the first thing is that the agency themselves don’t have a website that pretends that they do everything brilliantly. So I would much rather end up and this is … but we’re turning the mirror on ourselves as marketers here, right? As to how to market your business.

Nathan Anibaba:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James McCarthy:

So the first thing is, like if any anywhere else, what you want to do when you hit someone’s agency homepage is obviously you expect it to be beautiful, you expect it to have all sorts of wizzy stuff and look finely manicured, and creatively brilliant.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

But what you really want to see there in a nutshell very quickly is what they’re famous for. And the more specific that is, the better. Now, I’ve run an agency, and I know the temptation to go, “Oh, yeah and we do this-

Nathan Anibaba:

And we do this.

James McCarthy:

… and we do that and we do this.”

Nathan Anibaba:

And a bit of this.

James McCarthy:

Oh, yeah and course we’ll offer a full managed service for you. In fact show just take it all off your hands. We’ll do it all for you. We won’t make as much margin on the low end stuff. But hey, if we wrap it all up, then there’s some stickiness there, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

And literally, it puts me off. So I tried to use word of mouth. So I’ve got a decent network in the marketing space. I pick up the phone, I ask people. But I tend to ask people, do you know a good agency that does this very specific thing really well? Because I think every agency I’ve worked with has done some things really well. And they are famous for something, even if that’s just in my mind, and even if they don’t major on it on their website. But I think there’s a massive, massive opportunity for agencies to be the best in the world at something.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure, at something really fascinating.

James McCarthy:

And you have a lovely idea as a CMO that there’s this little group of people in an office somewhere in Soho. And if I ask them the right question. They bloody know the answer. I’m sorry. It’s a family show. I shouldn’t be doing that.

Nathan Anibaba:

Bloody is acceptable.

James McCarthy:

Okay, that’s fine. We’ve now got a benchmark.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

James McCarthy:

Okay. That is very appealing to know that somewhere there is the superhuman superhero agency that will take one look at my very specific business problem and go, “Ah, we’ve seen that before.”

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

James McCarthy:

Now we cost 3000 pounds a day. But we’ll absolutely have you nailed by the end of the week. And that, there’s a lot to be said for that.

Nathan Anibaba:

That’s super fascinating. What if there was a really … I’m resisting the urge to swear, a really, really good B2B tech agency? Maybe they’re a performance agency, let’s say for argument’s sake, but they’re not on your radar at all. You have no idea that they exist, but they’re absolute specialists, very strategic and they know that if they work with you, they can deliver a tremendous amount of value to Exonar. What’s the best way of them getting on your radar and creating that value for you?

James McCarthy:

I said that there’s a few bad ways of getting on my radar. First one is in mail in LinkedIn.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay, I’ll stop that.

James McCarthy:

Okay. Yeah, you stop that Nathan. You’ve been doing it to most recently, come on. That’s the first one. Cold calling. Those emails. Nathan, come on.

Nathan Anibaba:

Dammit, this is my whole business development strategy.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, I know exactly. That’s your marketing plan out the window. Any of those things are really not good. Unless you had a magic bullet about how you were brilliant at this one thing.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

And you look no further. We are the people that can help you do this very specific thing because. I think that realistically, it’s going to be inbound to an extent. I like anyone else I’m going to Google search what I need. I’m going to talk to my friends, I’m going to do all the things that you would expect in an integrated marketing mix. But what I’m not going to do is respond to an agency. You mentioned performance agency, which is quite interesting. And the first reaction I’ve got is, “Well, what what’s a performance agency? I’ve got performance, we perform. I don’t think I need a performance agency, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. Okay.

James McCarthy:

So that would be my first thing is like, “Well, performance agency, I don’t think I was looking for one of those.”

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

James McCarthy:

And that’s certainly not an SEO optimized search term that I’m aware of. So I think it’s really simple. And actually, you know what? If I was going to go and build an agency for myself again, and start again. I think the thing that I learned or one of the things that I learned that I would do differently is to seek to become the best at something. To be a bit Simon Sinek actually, and to think of a really worthy purpose, a really worthy vision, and understand what my why is and then define everything around being that person because that will attract if you listen in the church of Sinek, then that will attract people to join your tribe effectively, to join your path. They will find that that idea resonates with them, and they will be drawn alongside you, and they will go with you on that journey. That’s really really important stuff to think about for any agency and any company, right? Same thing, we’ve got to do the same thing for our customers too.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about working with agencies, because you mentioned earlier, the client agency relationship has been likened to a marriage right? It’s a very close intimate relationship, emotionally at times. But you mentioned earlier the fact that expectations sometimes can be misaligned if the brief or if the the product and the service offering really hasn’t been articulated well, you can’t polish an expletive. How do you make sure that everyone’s expectations are aligned when you’re working with a new agency?

James McCarthy:

Well, it’s about great briefing, but it’s also about locking down objectives and making those realistic and deliverables, right? So this in a way goes back to the left brain, okay. As a left brain problem solver, I’ll break things down into what needs to be done and then of course, what success looks like and what quality actually means. So quality for an engineer is actually a term that you learn in your first year of your degree. Quality is fitness for purpose as an engineer, which means have I designed something that doesn’t do more than it has to, but it’s fit for the purpose for which it’s going to be used?

James McCarthy:

And it’s very similar to that where, you have to figure out what success looks like, what do we need out of this engagement? What is the objective that we’re looking to hit? What are the deliverables that we’re going to get? And how are we going to know that we’re on the right track? What are our KPIs? So whether it’s PR or whether it’s … a campaign is a bit more obvious, because you tend to have very specific deliverables and everything else. But let’s take a more ongoing engagement between an agency and a brand, then you’re going to have quarterly, monthly, whatever rhythm going on. And you’re going to have the need for X amount of deliverables so that we can drive a return on investment. And of course, ROI is important for everybody these days.

James McCarthy:

So it’s about defining those things really clearly, making them achievable. Because if it is a marriage, but you set unachievable expectations, it might be an awkward conversation, right? But if you set on unachievable expectations, then it only leads to disappointment.

Nathan Anibaba:

On both sides.

James McCarthy:

On both sides. And of course that happens, right? And it’s happened to me as an agency, it’s happened to me as briefing an agency, as being a client where the question’s been dodged a little bit in terms of what the measurables are going to be out of something. And it’s been dodged because the agency are slightly uncomfortable with setting those things, because they don’t want to be hung up by them.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

And I don’t know whether they can be achieved because you haven’t done the work yet. So everyone’s very cautious about setting the deliverables. If they are set, then normally, the client probably errs on the unrealistic side in order to get the agency to agree a number and then worked really hard to hit it. So it’s all around expectation setting. It’s all around being really clear about what success looks like, but being realistic, too.

James McCarthy:

And I think, ClientSide, sometimes it’s the client that’s doing the briefing that’s unrealistic about the expectations. Sometimes it’s just that they’re working in an organization where there are unrealistic expectations upon them. Either way, finding what success looks like and agreeing early, and then tracking towards that. And of course, delivering it as an agency is is really important.

Nathan Anibaba:

You said earlier that you’re happy to pay a 3000 pound a day, day rate for an agency that [crosstalk 00:32:35].

James McCarthy:

Which has gone in your little black book.

Nathan Anibaba:

I’ve just written that down. Thank you very much.

James McCarthy:

Include expenses by the way.

Nathan Anibaba:

Oh, damn it. Okay. But you were willing to pay premium for a really hot strategic agency that delivered a lot of value. How do you know that you’re not overpaying for agency services?

James McCarthy:

That’s a really good question, isn’t it? And so much of marketing is not as measurable as we would like it to be, right? So if you were going to go to a brand agency for some kick ass creative, and you want to go for something really fresh, and you want to go for an organization that worked in your sector, and you can see some of the evidence of their other client work that they’ve done, and they’ve been associated with another startup that’s gone stellar, and has an amazing, you know what I mean.

James McCarthy:

You take a leap of faith based on evidence from people’s previous work. And I don’t think marketing’s ever going to change in that respect. Sometimes you’re not buying stuff that has numbers attached to it, you’re buying into brains that have ideas, and sometimes I don’t have a problem with that as a CMO because everything has an exploration in marketing. You don’t know what the answer is. You’re always looking to improve and to uncover and to drive value and sometimes you’ve got to take a punt.

James McCarthy:

I think what you do in that scenario though, is you brief it in such a way as you make it easy for both sides to show success. So even if it was 3000 pounds a day, then you brief a small piece of work to start with, that has very clear definitions around it.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure, okay.

James McCarthy:

And it allows you to even if you can’t measure it in pounds and pence, or leads generated, or or whatever, you can at least measure it in terms of does this feel like it’s taken us forward in the way that we thought it was going to take us forward? If you break it down in that way, then great.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. So let’s say we find a really strategic agency that you’re happy to work with, let’s say they come in and deliver a fantastic pitch presentation. The problem with some agencies not naming any names is that they pitch with the A team, but they deliver with the B team or in some cases, the C, D and E and F team.

James McCarthy:

Or whoever turns up for work.

Nathan Anibaba:

Or whoever they can find that’s alive. How do you motivate your agency to put their best people on your account?

James McCarthy:

Well, and so this is it, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

So we’re really getting into the nub of this because on the back of the previous thing that we were talking about, we were talking about that 3000 pound a day, day rate, right?

James McCarthy:

Sure.

Nathan Anibaba:

Where it’s that short, punchy little projects. So they are 10K pieces of work. Aren’t they?

James McCarthy:

Sure. They’re not ongoing 100K full year engagements, okay? If you orient your agency around that, then you’re going to have to run pretty hard because you’re going to have to have lots of 10K engagements in order to make money. But you can’t afford to subcontract or rather to delegate much of that 3K a day work because at 3K a day, your client is going to know full well, that it’s going to be the brains of the outfit that are delivering on it. So there’s nowhere to hide on that.

James McCarthy:

I think most agencies then try and do, of course, to make life a lot easier, make the business model a lot easier. You look for the bigger projects, you look for the retainers, you look for the long engagements, and that’s where the problem starts in terms of being able to maintain the A team on the engagement because you can’t spread the A team that thinly. So it’s a really difficult paradox where the client is buying the A team.

James McCarthy:

If they buy at 3K a day in short chunks, then they get the A team in short chunks, but that isn’t sustainable. It isn’t sustainable for the agency either because they don’t get the benefit of longer pieces of business for which they can do some execution and deliver probably at a lower margin, but they can definitely use B and C level resources in order to do that. So it’s a real paradox. I’m not saying I’ve got the answer.

Nathan Anibaba:

It’s an interesting one, because I guess you’re paying the 3000 pounds a day for the strategic thinking.

James McCarthy:

Correct.

Nathan Anibaba:

The nuts and bolts can really be done not by anyone, but that can be outsourced to a number of agencies that have the technical duty and capability.

James McCarthy:

Yeah. Or to an extent, as I said at the opening of the conversation, my own team, because I’m building a team too of happy, eager, young things who want to have a career in marketing and want to learn. And I’d like to think that we can operate and execute our own marketing digitally and not digitally, on our own to an extent but the strategic strategy is worth paying for.

James McCarthy:

Now, that’s not to say we don’t use production agencies. We have we have a production agency that literally produce content for us once we’ve written it, if you like. It’s not to say we don’t have that. We do have them on a retainer as well. But I’m being very, very clear about what I’m paying for, that I am paying for execution. And therefore the day rate is according right. So it’s not strategic. It’s executional, because I haven’t yet had the ability to recruit as bigger team as I need in the long-term.

Nathan Anibaba:

Now, agencies all want to hold on to their clients forever. But the reality is that, that doesn’t always happen and clients replace agencies with increasing regularity. What are some of the most common reasons agencies lose their clients and what can agencies do to stop it?

James McCarthy:

Well, comes off the last question as well. So if you line up your B/C team to deliver, and your A team aren’t 100%, front of mind with the senior leadership in your client, then that’s what’s going to happen.

James McCarthy:

So I think there are things you can do. I think that the the A team have to make sure, even if it’s slightly uncomfortable, that they are in regular contact with everybody. I would expect to get an email every few weeks, the more the better. Frankly, the odd phone call here and then from the CEO of the agency going, “Hey, how’s it going, James? How’s your strategy working out? Is it blah, blah, blah?”

James McCarthy:

Now, I have to admit, I didn’t get that as often as I’d like. And if I feel like … it’s like anything else, it’s like any human engagement. If you build a relationship with the CEO of an agency, it doesn’t have to be the CEO. But let’s say for sake of argument it is. And they are there for you. And they pick up the phone and give you a call every so often, not because they’re fishing for business directly, but because they’re keeping up with you.

Nathan Anibaba:

For relationship, yeah.

James McCarthy:

They’re building a relationship. And then if I’ve got a question, and I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “How do I do that?” Guess what, guess who I’m going to pick up the phone to?

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

So it’s one of those things where agencies need to work out how they can continue to be the shiny new thing, even when they’re not the shiny new thing. So they need to be continually bringing new insights, new value, pushing the boundaries, bringing that right to your door. Because that’s where interesting stuff happens. And it’s where the agency becomes if they become the people that you pick up the phone to, when you have something you can’t quite put your finger on, but you want have a chat with them about it, then that agency is staying around.

James McCarthy:

If they get tied up on the on the executional stuff and to an extent have made a rod for their own back by having this C level team running an execution or production, business as usual type thing, then that’s not where the thinking of the CMO is. The CMO’s not thinking about that stuff.

Nathan Anibaba:

Let’s talk a little bit about performance reviews because we know it’s important to conduct effective performance review so that both client and agency both have feedback and they know how to improve their work and the relationship. How often should we conduct performance reviews? What’s the best way that you’ve seen them done?

James McCarthy:

That’s a good question. I would say that what would be really good is a phone call every month, right? That isn’t in an organized meeting. It isn’t in a set agenda calendar appointment in your diary sort of thing. Just an informal call every month, at the senior level, just to check in and go, “Hey, I’m not involved in all the detail, but I just want to make sure everything’s going okay for you guys. Are you getting what you need? Does it feel good? Is there anything we can be doing?” And if the answer to those things is all. “No, that’s great. Have a great day. Have a nice weekend, etc.”

James McCarthy:

And of course, if any issues are there than an informal conversation, it’s much more like you go, “Actually, you know what? It’s not going quite as well as I thought it was going to go.” And it’s a much easier conversation to have if you’re not put on the spot.

James McCarthy:

So I think that’s the first thing and then probably quarterly on a more structured basis. Just look at the deliverables that were agreed to look at, where things are going. Step back from the detail and just make sure that everything’s still on track. I think that’s probably the rhythm.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. Just coming towards the end of the interview. Now, I want to ask you a couple of questions based on some of the things that you said in our pre-interview. One of the things that you said that really stood out to me was, you said, “Every business wants to be a disruptive business.” Explain that.

James McCarthy:

I don’t remember saying that. Thank you for putting me on the spot.

Nathan Anibaba:

That’s what I wrote down.

James McCarthy:

Every business wants to be a disruptive business. I think every business has to be a disruptive business.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

James McCarthy:

Because otherwise they will be disrupted. Again, it’s back to some of the things we were talking about earlier on. Marketing brands, the world is an ever moving thing. It’s an ever evolving thing. So you have to be disruptive. And if you look at who the winners and losers are going to be over the next few years, it’s going to be the brands, the organizations, whether they’re agencies or vendors or whoever they are, that are able to understand how the world is moving and move themselves towards a vision that they’re comfortable with, and they can take their customers on a journey with.

James McCarthy:

So you need to be disruptive to be relevant. And if you’re relevant, you’re front of mind, if your agency and you’re not disruptive, then that means you’re pretty quickly becoming irrelevant. And then, all the conversation we’ve had today has been about, finding that agency because of their superpower, because of the thing that they’re really, really good at. Well, you could put it another way, you could say, I want to seek out the agencies that are disruptive.

James McCarthy:

Because if I can find an agency that can be disruptive on my behalf in the marketplace, well, that’s the agency I want to be working with, isn’t it? I don’t want the agency that shys away from disruption or doesn’t seem to be keeping up with where the world has got to. I want to feel like I can buy into some disruption, if you like. As a CMO, hell yeah. Give me a disruptive agency every day of the week. Particularly if they’ve been disruptive in a positive way. Obviously you have to qualify that statement, right? There’s being disruptive and then there’s making a noise.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right, making a mess.

James McCarthy:

Yeah. So I think, we all should try and be disruptive. I think people hate change, right? Which is a shame because that’s one thing that’s pretty much guaranteed and if you’re trying to go out and market your products, you’re trying to find your USP, you’re trying to differentiate from the rivals around you, the best way to differentiate from the rivals around you is to be disruptive. Because you can’t do it by having … People talk about sustainable differentiation. Well, sustainable differentiation is continual disruption. Otherwise, that differentiation isn’t staying is it? It’s going to stop being differentiated, because the world is going to move on and suddenly doesn’t make you different.

James McCarthy:

And I think the more that people can embrace disruption not in a negative way. It’s quite a negative word. But the more people can embrace disruption, the more we can look positively at change and as marketers we can be on the front end of that, we can lead the change. Actually, it’s interesting. You talk about podcasts interviews, I interviewed a guy from EY recently. Who’s a partner there who’s in data governance, and I won’t go into it now. But the point he makes is that the marketer should be in the boardroom, the marketer should be defining how the brand goes and does things, particularly around data and around technology and around the way the world’s changing.

James McCarthy:

People say that the marketers are the voice of the customer in the organization. So if I’m the voice of the customer, then I got to keep transforming the business on behalf of the business as fast as the customer’s life is being transformed in front of them. So yeah, CMOs do need to be in the boardroom. They need to be disruptive. Marketing needs to be disruptive, because our customers demand us to be disruptive.

Nathan Anibaba:

Absolutely fascinating. Here’s something else that I wrote down that you said in our pre-interview. I have no idea whether or not you said it, but I’m going to go with it. You said, “There’s no such thing as digital marketing.”

James McCarthy:

Oh, yeah. Get me on. I thought you were trying to draw this interview to a close Nathan, but anyway.

Nathan Anibaba:

In about an hour and a half.

James McCarthy:

Yeah, that’s right. Great. So no digital. This is a bit of a frustration of mine. Digital marketing was the shiny new object a few years ago. And the thing that irritates me about it is that it’s just marketing. It’s just marketing using a particular set of the mix, a particular part of the marketing mix, which happens to be digital or technological in the way that it’s delivered to the customer, or the audience.

James McCarthy:

So digital marketing is not a thing anymore. And particularly even if it was a thing because it was so different. Hey, maybe it was disruptive to our previous point.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

Even if it was a thing, because it was different, and people didn’t understand it, and they’re trying to get their heads around it, and it was changing the world. But we’re now in 2020 and digital marketing is not a form of marketing, it is marketing.

Nathan Anibaba:

Table stakes now.

James McCarthy:

Digital is just a way that you get to your audience and influence them. It’s as simple as that. The reason it annoys me so much is I get … we recently advertised a couple of roles in my team. And I was reading people’s CVs, to screen them on the way in and so many young people are looking for, “I want to go into digital marketing.”

James McCarthy:

Well, okay. What does that mean? Does that mean you want to spend all day doing social media? Or does it mean you want to be a marketer? Because to be honest with you, if you want to be a marketer, then you love marketing and you love the way that you can move people. And that’s a brilliant discipline that we all love, or I certainly do.

James McCarthy:

If you want to manage a social media account on behalf of a company then yeah, sure. Be my guest, but that is not what you should aspire to be. You should aspire to be a marketer and understand how to move people in all the channels. And if you’re a good marketer, you will understand digital marketing along the way, because you’ll have to understand how that’s going to help you move your audience.

James McCarthy:

And that’s what I just wish. I’ve had some really good people apply for jobs who think they want to be a digital marketer, that you then get talking to them and they actually go, “Well actually, I love marketing.” “Okay, so why do you want to be a digital marketer?” “Oh, I don’t know, really.” “Well, okay.” “So what is it that you’re passionate about?” “Well, I’m passionate about customers. I’m passionate about brands. I’m passionate about advertising.” “Okay. So you want to be a marketer?”

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. You haven’t mentioned digital at all in that sentence, right?

James McCarthy:

Correct.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Okay, I am actually going to bring the interview towards a close now. But this is our speed round. These are the questions that are a little bit more fun. We will learn a little bit more about you. So I’ll pick a number of these and fire them at you. If you can find some short, sharp answers back, that will be fantastic.

Nathan Anibaba:

Which CMO has the hardest job in marketing right now?

James McCarthy:

Which CMO has the hardest job in marketing? Okay, it’s a bunch of different ways of answering this. I believe it depends what you believe the CMO should be.

Nathan Anibaba:

Oh, interesting.

James McCarthy:

And what we have at the moment is problem where different types of people are being hired as CMOs, some of them are right brain, some of them are left brain, some of them have a bit of both. The most difficult job as a CMO is to be a right brained CMO, hired into a boardroom of a company that expects you to be left brained, or vice versa. And I’ve seen both scenarios.

James McCarthy:

When I was looking for this job that I’ve taken now, I had some really interesting conversations with a bunch of different companies at the very early stages about what they wanted their marketing leader to be. And actually, that’s the most difficult job. The difficult job is to live up as a CMO to the expectations of the organization and what they think marketing is. And to then be fitting into that vision of what they want it to be.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. You haven’t actually answered the question but you’ve sidestepped it nicely I appreciate it.

James McCarthy:

I answered a different question.

Nathan Anibaba:

You answered a different [crosstalk 00:51:22].

James McCarthy:

I should get a career in politics next, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Exactly. You answered the question that you wanted me to ask.

James McCarthy:

You wanted me to find a brand or two, you wanted me to think of a brand or two?

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. Think of a brand or two that may be going through some difficult challenges or difficult times at the moment?

James McCarthy:

Yeah, so I’m going to come up with Facebook as a difficult one. Difficult job being a CMO of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a particular view of what he thinks the brand should be. I think the rest of the world might have a different view of what they would like the brand to be. I think there are some really interesting challenges in Facebook right now.

James McCarthy:

Which CMO is doing the best job in marketing? Elon Musk.

Nathan Anibaba:

Well said, although he’s not quite a CMO, but you’d argue that maybe he is actually because he’s doing a fantastic job.

James McCarthy:

Well, I don’t know whether he’s got one actually I haven’t looked. But, yes-

Nathan Anibaba:

They’re doing pretty well.

James McCarthy:

Yeah. You’re right. Assuming he is wearing the CMO hat as Well as the CEO hat, he’s nailing it.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah, he is. What’s the single biggest thing that you love most about working with agencies and what do you dislike about working with agencies?

James McCarthy:

I love ideas. I love it when people bring ideas to the table and are disruptive I suppose. Again, I love it when you bring brains together, and you really crunch through some really, really good ideas. I find that hugely energizing.

James McCarthy:

The worst thing about working with agencies is probably the thing you were talking about earlier on in terms of when you end up with the C …

Nathan Anibaba:

The C team?

James McCarthy:

The C team, not the A team.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah, really interesting. What should agencies be thinking about doing now to ensure that they can continue to drive better value for you, serve your needs both now and into the future?

James McCarthy:

Be inspiring, be disruptive.

Nathan Anibaba:

Love it. At times, we will hit low times from time to time, especially in this current context actually of COVID-19. How do you motivate yourself when energies and motivation is low?

James McCarthy:

Generally through exercise or going off and doing something completely different and coming back to it. People hate me because I’m very positive and so I’m very, very, very lucky in that because I know a lot of people struggle a lot more than I apparently do. And so I am blessed and I’m very thankful for that.

James McCarthy:

But I think if I’m not feeling it some days as it were. When you get to doing something and you’re not there.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

James McCarthy:

The first thing I do is just do something else. As in, whatever it is right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

James McCarthy:

You can’t make the magic happen if it’s not happening.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. Which books have most significantly influenced the way that you think about marketing?

James McCarthy:

Probably Simon Sinek.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay, The Infinite Game.

James McCarthy:

The Infinite Game.

Nathan Anibaba:

Start With Why.

James McCarthy:

Start With Why. I’m not a big reader of business books.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

James McCarthy:

I have to say I’m not. I quite like the tribe by Seth Godin, or Tribes, I think it’s called-

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

James McCarthy:

… quite like that. I’m not a big fan of reading books like that because they tend to be, it’s not my format. I there’s a lot of waffle out there. And in general, but there are some good ones. I’m not a big reader of that. I read fiction a lot more.

Nathan Anibaba:

And my final question. What’s the single biggest thing that you have yet to achieve that you would like to achieve in your career?

James McCarthy:

Well, I want to build a billion dollar brand.

Nathan Anibaba:

A scale up?

James McCarthy:

Yeah, which is what Exonar is today. So I am at a scale up. We’re only Series A, we’ve got a long way to go but I’ve said this to the business, right? So I want to build a billion dollar brand, and I don’t mind doing it from day one. I can jump in about now Series A level 30, 40 employees, but I want to build a billion dollar brand.

Nathan Anibaba:

And what is it about that, that excites you?

James McCarthy:

It’s just taking it from scratch and making it happen. Obviously, you’d hoped the brand would go to 10 billion or hundred million, whatever.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

James McCarthy:

The point is, by the time it got to a billion, then all the cogs have dropped into the right place. So billion dollar brand for me, you’ve created something that’s bigger than yourself, right?

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure. Just a little bit.

James McCarthy:

Yeah. Just a little bit, certainly more affluent than yourself.

Nathan Anibaba:

Definitely. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Great having you on the show, James McCarthy. Thank you for being on ClientSide.

James McCarthy:

My pleasure, Nathan. Great to talk to you.

Nathan Anibaba:

If you’d like to share any thoughts on this episode or any episode of ClientSide then find us online at fox.agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email Milly@fox.agency. The people that make this show possible are Milly Bell and Natasha Ruzich, our Booker/researcher. David Clay who’s our head of content. Ben Fox is our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba. You’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency.

 

Available On:

Clientside guest image

Be our guest

If you’re a world-leading B2B marketeer, or you’d like to suggest a guest for the show, we’d love to hear from you.

Get in touch

Get ClientSide in your inbox

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.