Kathleen Voboril can make Martech sing
Within our Salary and Career Survey, we asked people about their experiences in marketing. Today we have a say Kathleen Voboril who, after many years in leading marketing positions, now works as a consultant. She has also figured out how to combine her first love, musical theater, with martech. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: How did you get into marketing?
A: Actually, I studied musical theater and dreamed of being an actress on Broadway. So my early years out of college I spent in New York City trying to make it as an actress on Broadway. I worked as a temp and the best part-time jobs were in financial services.
I ended up with a private equity firm because they gave me health insurance and one thing led to another and they offered me a full-time job as a marketing associate. I did that for a year or two and then decided to do an MBA at the University of Texas.
Q: In marketing?
A: I didn’t focus on marketing. I didn’t like marketing. The classes and the coursework didn’t excite me. I focused on entrepreneurship. I thought I was going to do the VC entrepreneur thing, but there was an opportunity to go to GE, which had this experienced commercial leadership program. I considered it a part-time MBA because it was a two-year course. You will complete three eight-month rotations in different GE businesses. It was a great performance.
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Well, at GE I got caught up with the digital virus quite early on. My sponsors and mentors thought it was a fad and more for the interns and very marcom-esque and not very strategic. But I was like, “Well, we’re supposed to be like the company’s future marketing and sales leaders.” And all the data shows that users, whether they’re B2B buyers or B2C buyers, are spending increasing amounts of time online. So are we going to be relevant and understand that?”
Q: You called it. That must have positioned you very well.
A: Yes, I rose to prominence as a digital expert at GE. In fact, when it came time to wrap up the program, GE was one of the first brands to spend more on digital advertising than traditional advertising. And Jeff Immelt, the CEO, had mandated that each business unit should have a mid- to senior-level digital lead. I was able to sort of choose which entity I wanted to work with, and I ran the digital division of GE Transportation, a $5 billion company but GE’s smallest division.
Q: Sounds great. What made you decide to go?
A: What I did in transportation was great and very well received across the company, but I couldn’t get a bigger budget. There was no CMO in this business and I was one of three marketers for the entire department. There were larger businesses that wanted me to come in and do the digitization for them, but at GE, the transportation industry should have been willing to sell me to the energy industry at the time, and they weren’t willing to do that.
Q: Where did you go from there?
I had a friend at a consumer goods company called Central Garden and Pet, and they wanted a digital leader, and they wanted it in Atlanta. I was in Atlanta at the time and didn’t want to leave. And I was really excited about the idea of doing it as a CPG, and the marketing really took center stage. They had many classically trained executives in CPG marketing and had a great vision for the digital world. I wanted to run a digital agency, have big budgets and build a team, so I was hooked.
In my second week there, they fired the entire leadership team. I went from a multi-million dollar digital advertising budget to a $100,000 budget and you can fire the agency for costing you that much. So we did content marketing, we did social media. I replaced our agency with software companies. We also switched all our websites, about 50-60 sites, to Sitecore and did a lot of training and stuff like that.
Q: How did you get from Atlanta to Oregon?
A: I wanted to move back to Portland, where I was born and raised, and was offered a job at Oregon Tool, then called Blunt International. Up to that point I had really only done digital marketing, I really hadn’t done much with e-commerce. And the opportunity at Oregon Tool was 50/50 digital marketing and e-commerce. That was really fascinating.
Q: But there were problems?
When I get there, they’re like, ‘We spent all that money and hired all these people.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, they bought the absolute wrong technology.’ And I think I can get this team to do it to work together, and there are some diamonds in the rough here, but they’re not the right skills for what they say they want to do.” So I spent my first two years cleaning up and making course corrections.
I think most leadership teams, especially those of a certain age, don’t want to admit that they don’t understand these things. They feel, “Oh, by now I should have sort of figured out that the internet matters.” The truth is, they don’t really know what kind of skills and resources they need, but they don’t want to admit it.
I worked there for about four and a half years, building a global e-commerce business and growing sales from $2.5 million to $30 million. We also built a direct checkout feature and we’ve really started doing some cool things like moving the sites over to the platform. But it was bought by private equity owners. They took on a lot of debt and I was part of a mass layoff. I think unfortunately it’s probably only a matter of time before it’s a shell of its former self.
Q: What do you like about marketing?
A: I love the multidisciplinarity. I love the way art meets science and that it’s all just an ecosystem. It is the perfect mix between structure and creativity, between technology and art, between data and feeling. And I like how cross-functional it is, especially in digital marketing.
Q: I have to ask: is there a Broadway musical hiding in digital marketing?
A: Funny you should ask that. I started this side project I call Corporate Karaoke. I take music theater and pop songs and play them back in the corporate context. My latest book is A Case of You by Joni Mitchell, but it’s about SAP and how SAP is that invasive vine in your tech stack that you just can’t get out of.
(You can Check out Kathleen’s other fun songs on her YouTube channel @Corporate-Karaoke.)
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