Does your marketing work?


When you analyze the purchase behavior of your best customers…


Many companies produce marketing content that looks great but doesn’t get results.


But what is the secret to converting leads with marketing?


And how can you sync your marketing with your financial model?


John Harlow, a seasoned CEO and consulting leader, is here to share a CEO’s view of marketing partnerships.


Listen to learn:
  • Why you need to reduce leads to grow conversion
  • How to measure marketing effectiveness
  • The pros and cons of internal marketing teams vs. agencies
  • Why great ideas get lost in the execution
  • How to use consumer data to refine marketing
  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is a CEO’s view of marketing partnerships. Here to speak with me as John Harlow who is a member of the board of advisors at WP Advisory, a company that provides management consulting services to middle market companies. 


Advisors WP is differentiated by its industry and client focus, the significant expertise of its team members and its boutique size. John is a seasoned CEO and consulting leader with notable experience in strategic and operating direction, delivering revenue, margin and profit growth and startup growth in turnaround environments. He is a change agent whose extensive experience demonstrates the history of successfully integrating business solutions, and taking each organization to next level of performance. John, welcome to the show.


John Harlow: Well, Steffen, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about these important topics.

Steffen: Of course. Well, John, before we explore today’s topic, I would like to find out more about you. Tell our listeners about how you got started in your career, and how did you end up where you are currently?


John: Sure, happy to. Let me frame this by saying that from the beginning of my career, I’ve always seen marketing as everybody’s job in the company. I’m actually very passionate about that every person is involved in some touchpoint represents the brand. And that’s how I just how I grew up. And I believe that that’s the essence of any great company that we’re all marketers. For me though, my journey to the marketing suite, if you will, or area was a long one. I spent many years as a Chief Operating Officer, with some small to mid-sized businesses ended up as a COO and VP of Operations for some very large world-renowned brands with superior marketing functions. 


And I saw it as a great opportunity to really dig in and learn how those world-class marketers focused on the important outcomes of marketing campaigns, branding, etc. So I would say that I spent 15 or 20 years as an operator, but learning how marketers really make a difference for a brand. Where this paid off, later in my career, about 10 or 15 years ago, I became a CEO of a retail company, and also a med spa chain. And found it invaluable the experience I had at the bigger brands to really partner and be part of the marketing team to bring the vision and mission to life. 


I saw it as my primary job, frankly, to fully engage with our offer, the value proposition, the marketing team to really not only tell the story externally, but internally. And I will tell you the last 10 to 15 years engaging with marketing teams, has been a heck of a lot more fun than just the operation side. So I’m a newcomer, it was a long journey. But I’m really happy and engaged to be part of this conversation. And my hope is that people even if people can reflect on one or two ideas from this podcast, to take back to their organizations, and it’ll be worth it for everybody.


Steffen: Well, you know, John, effective marketing requires an aligned holistic approach with meaning and clarity of purpose. What are some successful strategies for effective marketing?


John: So for me, my belief, I’m a believer in, first of all, I’m very passionate about consumer research and consumer insight. I believe that whatever business, a business is in, really studying the consumer, whether it’s through tracking studies, to understand the attributes of what matters to the consumer, to consistently land and deliver the brand promise and value proposition is really what it’s all about.


I call this and this is just my own framework. I’m a believer that, you know, I have a notion that great ideas are often lost through poor execution. There are tons of great ideas and then you wonder why they don’t materialize. And often it’s because the execution failed at some level. And so I have a saying or framework that I use, I call it the three C’s of digital marketing. It’s my execution framework. The first piece of it is being consumer-centric, really studying and prioritizing behaviors, preferences, solely focused on efficacy and the value to make sure that all messaging is focused on being aligned to being customer-centric. 


So that’s my, my first C. Number two is conversion. A focus on higher levels of conversion, every period, every quarter, every year. I’ve experienced a lot of businesses, especially in digital marketing, that look to populate the top of the funnel with a high volume of leads. And what I found is that dilutes conversion, it adds cost throughout the sales pipeline. So a conversion focus to me is about being singular focus around lead quality, how do we optimize channels? How do we make sure that the funnel is really productive, and the metrics continue to grow, and to set the priorities of the marketing team and the digital approach within a conversion focus. 


And the last piece of it is, is always challenging because there’s cross-functional discussions across any leadership team. Is the notion of continuous improvement, which is the third C. My belief is that all marketers and executives really need to focus on being a student of balanced scorecards and metrics. So that the experience that a customer, client or guests has, as well as the channel and funnel performance, are continually improving and growing. And there’s a higher return for marketing spend. 


And my belief is to do that, the leadership team needs to be solely focused on, needs to be very open to testing, validating tests, refining them before they launch them. And frankly, as important to be patient and deliberate with setting success criteria. Just because a test didn’t work in any given week or month, doesn’t mean that it might not be the right thing to do. 


So I encourage people to then go back to the first C to see if the execution strategy is customer-centric, is truly driving lead quality, and continues to fuel continuous improvement across the digital marketing framework. So that’s John Harlow’s view of this, the three C’s, I believe help create a healthy digital marketing approach, and frankly, allow the business to continue to grow.


Steffen: Yeah, I love your notion about lead quality. I mean, that’s something we here at Symphonic Digital, I don’t want to say preach, but because preach might be the wrong word. But when we talk to companies that have a lead focus, you know, as as kind of a goal for their marketing activities, I quite often say to them, you know, do you like to have 100 leads that convert 1%, or 50 leads that convert and 4%? 


Because I think there is too much of a focus on, on just getting more leads in without really looking at do more of the same leads actually add to the bottom line, because that’s what it is, at the end of the day, right? If you if you do not generate new business, don’t get new logos. And then the more leads don’t do anything for you, the only thing that does probably is create additional money, because you have to have additional sales people to work for all the leads.


John: That’s 100%. Interestingly, I was part of a company that experienced wonderful growth with some digital campaigns. And we actually reduced our leads per month by about 50%, but grew our conversion 3x. And we’re able to deliver a 20% comp over the course of a year. My experience is when you solely focus on lead volume, if you have a contact, center call center or sales teams, you’re A making their job much more difficult. And if they’re incented in some way, it’s harder for them to have a win-win attaining their incentives. And then it can disengage the sales team. And so my belief is there’s an optimal lead quality in every business and finding that is a really big deal because it improves not only the funnel, but the pipeline, and I believe the credibility that you have with your customer.


Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, John, in order to run marketing successfully, there is some form of investment required. Whether it is human capital, or money. How do you develop and sync the marketing plan with the financial model of the business?


John: So first and foremost, I look at the success I’m a believer in top down bottom up approaches on these things. So when the financial plan is set for the business in terms of sales and margin targets, I always reverse engineer the dollars and ratios for marketing by channel and by subcategory within marketing, first and foremost. And so the way I do it, do this is once those targets have been set, I then work with the team to think through what are the campaigns approaches etc. that we will need to run to optimize the dollars that are spent and frankly as important more important than sales is the margin component. 


My belief is that value and pricing optimization should be part of that exercise and so when we get to a place where we’ve optimized it, if it allows us to really attain our targets based on the campaigns and initiatives that had been planned out, then we’re set. If not, candidly, we then go back to the drawing board, not only within marketing, but within other functions to see if there’s funding needed. My belief is when you’re trying to continue to grow and improve a business, finding costs and funding mechanisms as far away from the customers you can, is a great starting point and probably the appropriate one. And doing this in a way that you build a budget that’s financially sound aligned with the initiatives that matter for the business, and really deliver the message you want to to your target consumer.


Steffen: Now, in order to maintain budgets or expend budget, it is important to show marketing effectiveness. What is your view on measuring marketing effectiveness to be able to merchandise results internally?


John: So I look at it at three levels Steffen. I mentioned from a budgeting perspective, obviously sales and margin growth. But once the once the campaign or the year has started, I am passionate about making sure that we A from a top down perspective are delivering consistently the sales and margin target plans that we’ve put forth, that I think first and foremost that has to fuel the engine. But within that, really taking a look by channel, there’s always an ROI, over all channels that any business is looking for. But really looking by digital channel to make sure that we each channel is pulling their share, if you will, to deliver the overall ROI. And I see companies do that in a number of different ways. 


I only do it through sales attribution, quite frankly. I’m not sure how to do that in a financially focused way without having a sales attribution reporting tool within your within your channels. And then last is the funnel. I mentioned the quality of leads, the conversion rates. I believe that really understanding the levers within the funnel, being able to have initiatives that drive each category within the funnel is absolutely paramount to the bottom up delivery of the top down numbers within the channels as well as sales and margin.


Steffen: Now can you talk a little bit more about the attribution part? I mean, these days still, a lot of companies look at first click versus last click, or first click or last click, basically. How do you approach a more holistic approach across all the marketing to decide whether you know investment on the on the upper funnel, if we just think about a static, you know, like awareness, consideration and action funnel that investments on the on the top, and on the middle are actually driving people down to the action point, but also driving people down that have the right quality?


John: Right. A couple of couple of things, I see this, it’s really at two levels, Steffen. And depending upon the nature of the campaign, or the approach that we’re you’re trying to, the outcome that you’re seeking. I’ll give you an example from a past life. At one point in my career, I ran a med spa chain, and we launched a very, very successful laser hair removal device across the business. And so that was the first time we tried to move at just solely outside of the digital world. And we actually launched some TV. Cable TV, OTT to be able to broaden the brand awareness. 


And what we learned from that, and it actually required that we be incredibly nimble to do this. We found that all boats rose when we had TV and radio and other presence. And so we were constantly looking at each digital channel to see how it was responding, as well as the website and so forth, to make sure that we were optimizing it as we went. And what we actually found is that we were able to meaningfully change our ROI from I think it was three to about five or six across all channels. 


And that varied by channels, varied by digital channel. But the introduction of something outside of the digital framework, whether it’s TV or radio, in some cases, it might be it might be mailers. When it’s tied effectively to the right reference codes, we were able to perform sales, sales attribution very effectively. And really hone in on the campaign what check what campaigns worked, how would we tweak them? And then how, what could we do to further explode the channels that were performing the most effectively. Back then, this was a number of years ago, we were using paid search and AdWords to do that. 


We also married it up with geofencing as people were looking as you know many more people look, if I think it’s 86%, or 90%, for services online, when they’ve seen something, the geofencing component to us was very meaningful to get people to our locations. So that’s an example of introducing things that might be external to digital marketing, but then using digital marketing, understanding the notion that it brought all boats rise within digital, and being nimble enough to, to respond, react and implement ways to further optimize your ROI.


Steffen: Yeah, I love that. You know, because I think it’s so important that when you run offline activities to see what is the impact on the digital side at the time of, of running, in your case, what you said, for example, TV spots, right? Is there a lift there? And what kind of lift do you see? And does that lift translate into more orders? You know, or up engagement, for example. And then what happens with the site engagement? What are people doing, then? Where they get stuck? Or where do they leave the site?


John: And I think there’s just there would be an oversight, not to mention it. The critical component of all of that, when I say talk about great ideas being lost through bad execution or being realized. The execution in our med spas was through the roof. So all the promises made, were delivered. The efficacy, the price value, the teams in our med spas, executed flawlessly. And we delivered our brand promise, which then create, created not only referrals and other streams of leads, that were very high quality that we had never even expected. So closing the loop on execution throughout the sales pipeline, obviously, is a very big deal. And then there’s always learnings and coming back and taking those learnings and applying them to the three C’s.


Steffen: Yeah, I think what you just said, I think is also very interesting, right. Because marketing can pull a lot. However, if what you from a marketing perspective, promise is not being delivered from a solution, from a service perspective, right, then over time, marketing will fail, because then there’s a sentiment in the market about your product, your solution, your service offering, that there is a mismatch between what is said and what you actually get.


John: Absolutely. And, Steffen, if you’ll let me. Another example of where what you just said, you know, can happen to any company. A number of years ago, I was part of a major retailer with a very powerful brand. And because we we actually ran a very significant national TV launch on some things for the holiday season. And the spots were actually received creative awards were three of the top five spots for holiday commercials, were won by this company. So the entertainment value of the spots was through the roof. Consumers, everybody loved that they were fun, intriguing. It was a great watching experience. The interesting side, though, was that it did not return even a fraction of what the business was hoping to realize. 


And to this day, I said, I believe that that was because the messaging even though it was fun and exciting on the in the ads, was disconnected from the real touchpoints and experience throughout the balance of the business. And I think some of the trust was lost with the customers. And it didn’t gain the traction and certainly didn’t gain the ROI that we had expected. So that’s that’s an example of what’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about making sure that everything’s done is aligned with its with the three C’s. Customer centricity first. Because when you do that your message is going to resonate even more powerfully. And if it’s entertaining, even better.


Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, when you’re a marketing agent or you’re a digital agency, or your in house marketing team does a good job, and you know, results are really positive, how would you suggest them approaching their CEO or CFO to get approval for additional budget?


John: So I’m, first of all, I’m a believer that I used to drive my FP&A people crazy. So I believe the finance team needs to be in all of these conversations. Because one of the things I’ve learned over the years is marketing is obviously great about with focusing on brand creative, etc. But there’s a lot of science as you know, in marketing. And so being able to do the channel analysis, the multivariate analysis is critical. And I believe that ability or capacity to do effective piloting, multivariate analysis to show where there’s incremental value in doing pilots, and also being able to discuss where there may be campaigns that we discontinue, I think allows for there to be a very balanced discussion with finance and the entire leadership team. 


What I think when financing the FP&A groups are operating at that level of effectiveness, it’s pretty easy to talk through under the umbrella of how do we continue to refine and improve the return on marketing. All of a sudden, there’s a greater openness and credibility because there’s transparency in the data. And there’s an understanding of how the initiatives tied and what will resonate with the consumer.


Steffen: These days, there’s a ton of data available that can provide a deep insight into the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. How have you utilized consumer data to focus and refine marketing?


John: So I would say a couple of things. My experience is that some of this data resides within CRM and resides within marketing tools. Some of it also resides within competitive intelligence that businesses naturally do. And I think that’s one of the missing pieces. There was a retail company that I joined a number of years back as CEO. And, you know, candidly, we set all of our digital and marketing campaigns around the three things that our consumer told us through tracking studies that we needed to do better. 


And so the initiatives that we drove initially, were very focused on telling a better story about our pricing, being more reliable on being in stock, and third, having checkouts that were more consumer friendly. Now, none of this sounds like rocket science. But our relentless focus on those three areas and aligning it with all the digital marketing that we did, all the paper, the print marketing that we did, took a business that had negative five point comps for over three years, and turned it positive to about positive five for about three years going forward. 


So my belief is that the combination of data that exists outside of marketing, having that being shared to help prioritize the messaging and the approach and the not only digital but, but if there is print and other media that’s still being used, and marrying that up with the CRM data to really prioritize how we talk to best comps customers at every touch point. And those are, those are two ways that I look at it. A third dimension of it, that I think it’ll be important as we move forward. There are a lot of businesses who are now touching on AI and predictive modeling. 


My sense is that being able to use that data to anticipate where consumers are going to go next, will be infinitely, will give first mover advantage to a lot of players who can already, you know, move into that space. And so I believe that’s where this ultimately ends up going. And I think there’s tactical uses today for AI and predictive modeling. But my sense is the you know, the leaders in the industries are thinking how to strategically use that data, to position themselves in a healthier way and frankly, broaden channels and prioritize how they go after omni channel solutions.


Steffen: Now, throughout this entire conversation, you mentioned a lot of times optimization. Given the importance of optimization to create positive outcomes, what are your thoughts in the approach that you in general apply to test activities to generate even better results?


John: Sure, I’ll give you a specific example. So I’m working with a business now that has struggled a bit in the world of Facebook, if you will, and Google’s at Google. And they it’s not necessarily new. But you know, both Facebook and Google are good, really good partners as it comes as it relates to dynamic optimization of ads, which sync up more closely with consumer behavior, which I think A helps create more clarity on what matters to drive purchase decisions, but also creates a level of precision that you could never do years ago. And so those are, those are examples of avenues within channels. 


That dynamic optimization where I’d seen businesses that I’m working with, who have greatly improved the level and the quality of their funnel through the dynamic optimization, both in Facebook and Google. The challenge with that is because nothing in the world is is easy. Some of those optimization efforts, do take away some of the control for brand assets from the business itself, because Facebook and Google will, will do some of that optimization. And so there’s, that’s where conscious decisions will have to be made is the financial traction in the funnel, does that outweigh some of the I’ll call it optimization or tinkering that Facebook, Google and others may do to optimize these ads. 


And, you know, those are personal decisions that each company has to make based upon what they believe or perceive their brand reputation to be. So that’s an example of an optimization effort that I was involved with, as an advisor to accompany. And interestingly, this particular company, opted to not have the more productive leads, and opted to not have the ads modified, which was their prerogative. So we’re now going back and looking for what can we do to amp up referrals and other levers, CRM within the business to generate the same level of of traction across the funnel, but not within those channels.


Steffen: I see. Now companies have the option to hire an in house team or enlist an agency to help them with their marketing needs. When is it better to build out a team internally? And when does it make sense to bring in an agency?


John: That’s, it’s interesting. I, my experience has been that hybrid solutions typically work best in marketing. My belief is that the time and effort that it takes to build out all the functionality and talent across marketing is pretty tough. So I, I’m a believer in focusing the nucleus on obviously, the CMO. Having a, you know, a top CMO who’s a dream CMO who’s strategic, strong at execution, great with analytics, I believe, for the most part, I like to have the creative in-house and the consumer insights. And my experience has been depending upon the talent and the business, to complement the team with digital and or media and or other expertise, that we may either not have the procurement leverage or the expertise to do effectively. I think that’s a personal decision. Scanning the internal and external capabilities. 


But I am, you know, I believe when you do that, you really have to partner at a level with the agency that has 100% transparency and candor to make sure that the talent that the agency brings to the table will actually get to a different place. And I think if both if both parties can collaborate, and focus on numbers, strategy, etc. And be and be and have open, healthy discussions that are sometimes painful. That’s the ideal. I’ve not really seen any business, and I’m sure there are some, that have 100% internal marketing and are able to deliver quality talent and frankly, applications and tools across the board to do that. So that’s that’s just my view on it. I think it’s a hybrid solution. And I think it is for most.


Steffen: John, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge on marketing partnerships, or the view of a CEO and marketing partnerships. If people want to find out more about you, or your company, or the company you’re working for, how can they get in touch?


John: So I would say for now, the best way to to reach me in all candor would be through my LinkedIn, which sounds painful. I’m operating these days as more of an independent contractor. So if you look me up on LinkedIn, it’s a it’s an interim consulting title that I have. And I know that may sound cumbersome, but today I’m doing a lot of contracting work. And it’s easier than referring through my clients. I think that’s just trying to be respectful of them as well.


Steffen: Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience focused and data driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at