As part of our Salary and Career Survey, we interviewed people about their experiences in marketing. Today we’re talking to Kathleen Voboril who is now a consultant after many years in top marketing positions. She’s also figured out how to combine her first love, musical theater, with martech. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Q: How did you get started in marketing?
A: I actually went to school for musical theater and had a dream of being an actress on Broadway. So for my first few years out of college, I was in New York City trying to make it as an actress on Broadway. I was temping and the best kind of side jobs were in financial services.
I wound up in a private equity firm because they would give 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 go get my MBA at the University of Texas.
Q: In marketing?
A: I did not focus on marketing. I didn’t love marketing. The classes and the coursework didn’t light me up. I concentrated on entrepreneurship. I thought I’d do the VC entrepreneur thing, but there was an opportunity to go to GE which had this experience commercial leadership program. I thought of it as a vocational MBA because it was two years of training. You do three, eight-month-long rotations in different GE business units. It was a great gig.
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Well at GE, pretty early on, I got the digital bug. My sponsors and mentors kind of thought it was a fad and like something for the interns and very marcom-y and not very strategic. But I was like, “Well, we’re supposed to be like the future marketing and sales leaders of the company. And all of the data shows that users, whether they’re B2B buyers or B2C buyers, they’re increasingly spending time online. So, are we going to be relevant and understand that?”
Q: You called it. That must have positioned you very nicely.
A: Yeah, I started becoming known for being a digital expert inside GE. When it was time to graduate from the program, GE was actually one of the first brands to spend more on digital ads than traditional ads. And Jeff Immelt, the CEO, had mandated that every business unit have a mid-to-senior-level digital leader. I kind of got to choose which unit to work with and I went and led digital for GE Transportation, which was a $5 billion business, but GE’s smallest division.
Q: Sounds great, what made you leave?
A: What I was doing in transportation was great and really well received across the company, but I couldn’t get bigger budgets. There was no CMO in that business and I was one of three marketers for the entire division. There were bigger business divisions that wanted me to come and do digital for them, but at GE at the time, the transportation business would have had to be willing to sell me to the energy business and they weren’t willing to do that.
Q: Where did you go from there?
I had a friend at a consumer packaged goods company called Central Garden and Pet, and they wanted a digital leader and it was in Atlanta. I was in Atlanta at the time and didn’t want to leave. And I got really excited about the idea of it being a CPG and marketing was really in the driver’s seat. They had a lot of classically trained CPG marketing leadership and they had this big vision for digital. I was going to come in and manage a digital agency, have big budgets, build a team, so I was excited.
My second week there they laid off the entire senior leadership team. I went from I was going to have a multimillion-dollar digital ad budget to getting $100,000, and you get to fire the agency because of how much they cost you. So we did content marketing, we did social. I replaced our agency with software companies. We also re-platformed all of our websites to Sitecore, like 50-60 sites, and did a lot of training and stuff like that.
Q: How did you go from Atlanta to Oregon?
A: I wanted to move back to Portland where I was born and raised and got offered a job at Oregon Tool, at the time it was called Blunt International. Up until that point, I’d really only done digital marketing, I really hadn’t done much with ecommerce. And the opportunity at Oregon Tool was 50/50 digital marketing and ecommerce. That was really intriguing.
Q: But there were problems?
I get there and they’re like, “We’ve spent all this money and hired all these people.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, they bought the absolute wrong technology. And I think I can get this team to work together and there’s some diamonds in the rough here, but this isn’t the right skill set for what they say they’re trying to do.” So I spent my first two years cleaning up and course-correcting.
I think most senior leadership teams, especially those of a certain age, don’t want to admit that they don’t understand this stuff. They feel like, “Oh, by now I should sort of get that the Internet matters.” The truth is they don’t really know what kind of capabilities and resources they need, but they don’t want to admit it.
I was there for about four-and-a-half years and built a global ecommerce business and grew revenue from $2.5 million to $30 million. We also developed a direct consumer fulfillment capability and were really starting to do some cool things, like re-platforming the websites. 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 till it’s a shell of its former self.
Q: What do you like about marketing?
A: I love how multidisciplinary it is. I love how the art meets the science and how it’s all just an ecosystem. It’s the perfect blend between structure and creativity, between technology and art, between data and feeling. And I love how cross-functional it is, especially digital marketing.
Q: I have to ask, is there a Broadway musical hiding in digital marketing?
A: Funny you should ask that. I have started this side project that I’m calling corporate karaoke. I’m taking musical theater and pop songs and I’m reperforming them with corporate context. My latest is Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” but it’s about SAP and how SAP is the invasive vine in your tech stack that you just can’t quit.
(You can check out Kathleen’s other funny songs on her YouTube channel, @Corporate-Karaoke.)
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