Building a marketing and communications org that can weather the storm

An interview with Shannon Stubo Brayton

Shannon Stubo Brayton (@sstubo) is currently the CMO at LinkedIn. Previously, she was senior Director of Corporate Communications at OpenTable, Inc. She joined the company when it was private and helped lead the communications efforts for the company’s IPO in May 2009.

Prior to joining OpenTable in September 2008, Stubo spent nearly seven years at eBay Inc. where she was most recently its Vice President of Corporate Communications. Before that, she spent several years at Yahoo!, on both the public relations and corporate communications sides. Prior to joining Yahoo! in 1998, Stubo spent four years at Intuit Inc. in a variety of roles.

For over two decades, Shannon Stubo Brayton has crafted narratives for some of the largest and fastest-growing companies in tech, tackling everything from crisis management to product marketing. So when I was looking for someone who could give even the most technical founders a rundown on how to spin up a marketing and comms org, it’s no surprise that all recommendations led to Shannon.

Shannon sat down with me to share what she’s learned about building agile, efficient teams—and filling them with leaders who are equipped to thrive through all the shifts and re-orgs of hypergrowth.

Elad Gil:I’m sure you’ve seen a real evolution in best practices during your time as a marketing/ comms leader in tech. You run an organization responsible for product marketing, branding, PR/communications, and other areas. What has been the most significant shift the role of the CMO and of a marketing organization at technology companies in recent years?

Shannon Stubo Brayton:
One thing that has really evolved over the last ten years is the importance of internal communications. I spent seven years at eBay beginning in 2001, and internal communications was essentially how do we write emails about org changes and executive departures. It was a very different vibe than now. Internal communications and really getting your employees to be your best brand ambassadors was never in the forefront. People considered internal comms as an afterthought.

“One thing that has really evolved over the last ten years is the importance of internal communications.”

– Shannon Stubo Brayton

Once you get to a company size of 100 people, it’s one of the first hires you should think about making. A good rule of thumb is one internal comms person for every hundred people.

It’s important to make sure the brand message resonates internally with the same thing you’re saying externally. It’s taken on a very different flavor than “We need to help write an email about this exec who’s leaving to spend more time with their family.”

Elad: What do you think are the main components of internal comms? It really starts to tie in some HR and culture-related things as well, right?

Shannon: Absolutely. And I think it starts even earlier now, including recruiting and employee onboarding. During the recruiting process, the internal comms team should already be involved in what that experience looks and feels like—everything from the emails you get from the hiring manager or the recruiter to what kind of paperwork you get before you come in. You want candidates to experience a consistent brand from the very beginning, whether you hire them or not.

It’s super important that employees have a great experience from week one and that includes everything, from making sure the laptop actually works to making sure they are invited to the right meetings. All the little things really do add up at this stage. Internal comms is playing a much bigger role in employee engagement and satisfaction than it ever has.

No offense to young male founders, but that special-touches thing is not something that is always their sweet spot. An experienced internal comms person will help make that a reality.

Elad: How would you think about those activities when it comes to HR versus comms? Do you think it matters where the person sits? Is it a collaboration?

I’m asking because one of the most common things first-time founders ask me about is how to set up an org. Who should be doing what? How do I create clarity? Because everybody has every role early on. So I’m curious how you think about that organizational setup?

Shannon: Before social media, I would say a lot of internal comms functions reported to HR because it was really just an extension of HR, right? I need an email about the benefits policy or the 401k or whatever.

The evolution is that internal comms is now helping people figure out what do I say online about my company? What do I say about my experience? How do I respond to negativity that I read about me or my founder? Because of social media, everything is a communications vehicle now. And so you need a comms expert helping steer you through that, which is why I recommend internal comms being part of a broader communications team. At LinkedIn, internal comms is part of the broader marketing and communications function, as opposed to an individual team.

Where you put them also really depends on the output you need. A company like IBM is probably not thinking as much about the employee experience from day one because of their size and their scale. At LinkedIn, because of what we’re doing and trying to recruit people—and the competition is so intense for the top people—we want that experience to be the best from the very beginning and that really comes down to how we communicate. How do you experience my company as a brand?

Elad: A lot of people struggle with figuring out who the right leader is to drive marketing broadly for their company, which, to your point, may include internal marketing and communications, traditional PR and communications, product marketing, branding, etc. What do you think people should be looking for in a CMO, and how should they go about that search?

Shannon: For most of the 23 years I’ve been doing this, the lines between PR and marketing were so unbelievably clear. PR people talked to reporters and marketing people bought ads—that was the split. It was “stay out of my business, I’m buying these print ads” and “stay out of my business, I’m talking to People magazine.”

It’s so different now, and what I’ve talked about quite a bit in some podcasts recently is that a CMO has to be such an agile, versatile player. You have to be good at a hundred different things and your CMO could come from a number of different backgrounds. I’m a CMO, but I’m an expert in comms. I’m not a demand gen expert. I’m not a brand expert. I’m not a product marketing expert. There are lots of CMOs who are and have that piece of expertise.

The number one thing you need in a CMO is somebody who is an excellent leader. Because you’re never going to be an expert in the hundred things you now need to be good at, and I’m not being hyperbolic. To be a successful marketing leader, you have to have a little bit of knowledge of a hundred different skills. Everything from copywriting to creative to research to NPS.

Leadership is super important. Decision-making: super, super important. And then knowing how to tell your company’s story. That narrative is incredibly critical because whatever you’re experiencing and creating on the ad side or on the demand gen side or the customer side or the events side, it also needs to dovetail with how you’re talking about the company to reporters or on Twitter or wherever you’re sharing your story.

Elad: In a very enterprise-focused company, would you look for somebody with a product marketing background versus a comms or growth marketing background? Or do you think it’s just a matter of finding a great person from any background who can then generalize?

Shannon: I think it’s more the latter than the former, and I think it’s awesome to have an area of expertise, but what area of expertise you should be amazing at really depends on the company. For us, it worked that I had comms expertise, but at a company like Salesforce, a demand gen expertise is going to be incredibly important. For a DoorDash, it’s going to be product marketing expertise. It depends on your company.

Ultimately, you really just need to be an agile player with a whole bunch of knowledge—or a little bit of knowledge about a whole bunch of things. Have an area where you really consider yourself an expert and then focus on learning the other areas. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the last three years.

Elad: How can a founder who has never worked in marketing identify people who would be good for this role? Are there specific things that you look for? Is there a process you would follow? Is there an exercise that you would do? What do you view as a good process, and then what do you view as positive or negative signals?

Shannon: Number one, I think you’ve got to have chemistry with that person, especially if it’s a CMO or a comms leader. Those people end up having to be pretty honest with the CEO about what’s working and what’s not, what they’re doing well and what they’re not doing well. That’s the nature of the job and so that chemistry has to be there from the beginning. You don’t have to love each other right away, but you at least have to have some connection or a shared set of values. In my experience, that’s something you can tell within the first hour of spending time with someone.

You also really want to understand how people approach their jobs. If you are hiring a general counsel, you’ll never be able to say very specifically, “Hey, I need to understand your legal prowess in this very specific area. What would you do in this case?” Instead it’s, “If I had this problem, how would you go about approaching it?” Then make sure that your approaches are somewhat close. Because if they’re super disparate, that’s going to be a really hard gap to close when you’re in the trenches, in the job, in the middle of a problem, which we all are nearly every day.

Elad: What are the most common mistakes you see high-growth companies make on the marketing, communications, or branding side?

Shannon: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is falling in love with a super creative person who has zero operational expertise or interest in management and putting them in a CMO role. It’s really easy to get some flashy person out of New York or wherever and bring them to the Valley, and say, “Here’s your huge marketing team to manage and your budget.”

“The biggest mistake I’ve seen is falling in love with a super creative person who has zero operational expertise or interest in management and putting them in a CMO role.”

– Shannon Stubo Brayton

I don’t think that founders really double down on figuring out, “Can this person manage this team? Can they eventually scale? Can they learn demand gen? Can they learn product marketing? Can they understand communications? Do they know how to administer an NPS survey?” There’s a lot of “I fell in love with you because you did that amazing campaign at company X.” You know, Pepsi, Apple, Nike—all the brands that people go after. It’s often really hard for them to make that switch to management.

Elad: How do you think marketing should optimally work with other parts of the organization? So obviously product marketing and product management overlap, or sales and marketing overlap. Are there any specific best practices you point to there, or specific ways that you as a leader tend to work with other functional executives? Or how do you think about coordination cross-company?

Shannon: At big consumer companies and retailers, marketing is the king of the castle. They’re the general manager. If you work at a General Mills and you’re a marketer, you run the whole shebang. Then you move out here and you’re like, “Oh, I’m in charge of this tiny little pixel? Really? I have to listen to product and engineering?”

In the Valley, marketing people have fought hard to get a seat at the table. A lot of times, you’ll get that person who relocates. They come out and they think that they’re going to be running a business line and actually they’re just there to enable the sales team. It’s up to the marketer to make sure that the value that marketing provides is really clear up front. Make sure that you’re constantly adding strategic input to this team, as opposed to investing a ton of money in that one creative hire. That’s really important and hard to do.

Elad: How do you think about structuring your marketing org? There’s so many different types of marketing that companies can engage in across growth marketing, different channel marketing, comms, etc. Do you try and cluster things under specific leads for broader areas? Do you think those are good standalone units that should then report in?

The reason I’m asking the question is in a high-growth company, you’ll end up with maybe one person working on the PR/communications side, and then you’ll have one person who starts helping out with marketing. And the way that that org grows is typically very organic and often a little bit sloppy until you bring a leader in to make any sense of it. I’m curious what you view as some best practices there.

Shannon: I always tell my teams this too: If you were to start with a blank slate, what would that team look like? Don’t optimize for one person. It’s very easy at times to say, “Well, we have to have Stephanie in that job because she just relocated. So let’s figure out what she can do, even if she’s not the right person.” But you need to think about what makes the most sense for the company structurally, and then figure out if you’ve got the right people. And if not, there are people that need to move out and there are people that need to be hired.

“If you were to start with a blank slate, what would that team look like?”

– Shannon Stubo Brayton

In a marketing function organized by line of business, what you definitely do not want to do is create big, full teams without any horizontal shared resources. That was a little bit of what happened at LinkedIn. We had big teams that were supporting individual business lines, but there were redundant functions. There was no horizontal function that you could go to and say, “Here’s my campaign. Please help me.” It was all done vertically. What we ended up with was a huge team, but not a lot of best practice sharing. People had the same job in different business lines and didn’t know each other.

In marketing, it’s a best practice to have shared services. You need a structure where every business line works with this one team to help support their campaigns—like an ops function or a creative function. Something that’s not 100% vertical, but that really is shared among all the business line leaders. I think that’s a great way to set things up from the beginning.

And not everyone wants to do that, because they may have to give up dollars or share control of the final creative, but you’ve got to build that trust. You’ve got to make sure that you know there’s a centralized group that is going to make you successful and get you to where you need to be.

Elad: So when you integrate those functions into a single team that’s supporting everybody, you’re going to share messaging, you’re going to share approaches, you’re going to share resources, you’re going to share tools, whatever it is. You end up with one org instead of multiple orgs.

Shannon: That’s exactly right. And what you avoid is getting too bloated and having too many people, and the massive redundancy that comes from that. On top of it, if you’re not all using the same support, you don’t build trust in the same way. Those are the benefits of doing what we ended up doing, longer term, but we didn’t get there from the very beginning.

Elad: And that’s a great point. A lot of the effort of a high-growth company goes to changing the org structure as you scale. You have a different company every 6–12 months, and you need to adopt different functions and different processes. And then a year later you do it again. And for the average employee, that’s very discombobulating. I think most people find that a very disconcerting experience the first time they go through it, and then the second time they think, “Oh, this is expected.” That’s why for high-growth situations I like to hire people who’ve been through it before, because they know that it’s normal.

Shannon: And I will tell you, it becomes really obvious when you run into someone who was great for a period of time but is having a hard time scaling. Those signs of somebody who’s really hitting their ceiling, they quickly become very obvious. The tendency is to trust them and hope it’s going to get better and try to coach them, but usually the person is not happy. If you get them to admit that they’re struggling with the scale, you end up in a much better spot.

Elad: What do you view as the main signs that somebody isn’t scaling?

Shannon: Exhaustion. Tardiness. Showing up at meetings completely late and discombobulated. I always tell people, “If you are having a hard time scaling, the best thing to do is to try to be on time so that you’re hiding it a little bit.” You don’t want it to be this completely obvious thing. I think when people aren’t scaling, they micromanage in an incredible way because they feel like that’s the only thing they can really control. They can also get really tactical, really quickly. It becomes, “Well, I can cross that off my list,” as opposed to, “I’m going to tackle this big, chunky strategic issue.”

Those are the things to look for, so when you start to get signals from the team—“This person is micromanaging me. They seem really tired. They’re constantly late. They’re hard to reach.”—those are usually signs that the person is over their skis.

Elad: And how often do you think people who are in that situation can course correct and be coached?

Shannon: I have infrequently seen it improve rapidly enough to be successful.

Elad: So in the majority of cases, it usually is a sign that it’s the wrong role, wrong person, at that time?

Shannon: Yes, at that time and it’s not a knock on that person. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart. This just might be somebody who thrives better in a smaller company and that’s perfectly okay. That should also be the message: You didn’t fail. This just isn’t the right job for you or it’s not the right company.

Elad: I think that’s one thing a lot of founders struggle with, because often those people who are having trouble scaling are people that they hired early or that they’ve depended on for a long time. Now they’re in a situation where they want to do right by that person. But doing right by that person is everyone acknowledging that it’s not the right situation. And to your point, I think emphasizing that it’s not a failure but rather an evolution of the organization and an evolution of that person’s role is really important. Because founders sometimes fight really hard to keep people in spots where they’re just not going to be great, or happy.

Shannon: Absolutely. And a lot of times people don’t raise the issue— founders especially—because they don’t want to have the awkward conversation and it’s just easier to ignore it. But if you really do notice the signs and you get the person to open up about what they’re experiencing, you oftentimes find that they’re not happy either. It may just be best for everybody to have it come to an end.

Elad: From a functional perspective, the thing I see founders struggling with most is how they should be investing in different areas of marketing. When should they start actually doing more brand-centric marketing? How should they be thinking about customer acquisition? Does PR actually ever work for customer acquisition and, if so, under what circumstances?

A lot of people I know who are running companies that are suddenly starting to work, they really struggle with some pretty basic ideas around how they should be marketing their product. So I’m curious about your macro perspective. Is there a framework that somebody should be using to determine where to invest dollars against the marketing team?

Shannon: It’s such a hard one, because it really depends on what you are selling and what you are trying to do.

Elad: Maybe we could use two examples, an enterprise company versus a consumer products company.

Shannon: For consumer products, I would 100% say product marketing is the place you should invest the most heavily. You’re essentially trying to build a road map. You’re trying to understand how people use the product, if they like it, if they don’t. I wouldn’t invest in the brand at the outset, because you’ve got to make sure you actually have a market fit and that the product is being built in a way that people are using.

On the B2B side, I would say 100% demand gen. You’ve got to have customers. It’s the same sort of proposition, which is that you have to have customers who like and use your product before you say, “Here’s our brand.”

So those are the places that I would start. And then over time, you start to figure out, I need some PR here. I need some brand. Some people make the mistake of doing just PR in lieu of brand, because they say, “Well, that’s sort of a branding thing.” But the landscape has changed dramatically. A big story in TechCrunch doesn’t do anything for anybody anymore, whereas five years ago, it was a big deal. A company was sort of made or broken based on what TechCrunch thought about it.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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