Hear from Michael Freeman, VP of Marketing, Airbase, on episode #70 of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast. Freeman discussed continuous improvement, human-centric marketing, the importance of team collaboration, and empathetic leadership.
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I wish I could just tell people what they should do. Whether it was people on my team who reported to me, potential customers, or even my own kids.
But that approach has a major flaw – they will resist. Heck, I would resist, too. It reminds me of a lyric from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, “The wisdom that the old can’t give away.”
So what can you do? I love how this episode’s guest put it in his podcast guest application, “It's not just about having the right answer, but about leading people along the journey to understand why that answer is the right one.”
Joining us in our latest episode to share the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson-filled stories, is Michael Freeman, VP of Marketing, Airbase.
Airbase recently raised $60 million in mid-2021 in a Series B round of financing led by Menlo Ventures.
Freeman leads a team of 28 marketers, sales development reps, and revenue operations professionals.
Listen to our conversation using this embedded player or click through to your preferred audio streaming service using the links below it. Don’t miss out! Listen below.
Some lessons from Freeman that emerged in our discussion:
Throughout Freeman’s career, he has found that the most significant long-term value comes from continuous improvements rather than one-off campaigns. A key example would be his work in SEO, paid search, and conversion rate optimization. By continuously refining these aspects, his teams have seen consistent success and growth. The tortoise, not the hare, wins the race.
During Freeman’s time with multiple companies, he has always tried to push the boundaries of technology to enhance the customer experience. From transitioning from Eloqua and Marketo to HubSpot to being one of the first marketers to embrace YouTube as a video hosting service many (many) years ago, his goal has always been to minimize friction and improve efficiency while delivering better value to his organizations’ customers.
Companies too often forget the humanity of our buyers, our users, and even sometimes our fellow employees/co-workers.
Freeman has always developed winning teams and had great connections with customers because when you embrace their humanity, your bonds and trust are stronger, your ability to drive change is more persistent (emotion drives more strongly held views more than logic), and people are significantly more engaged—whether it’s with a product, a purchase, or a project—when they feel seen and respected as a whole person.
It’s a fundamental truth that goes beyond just the workspace; it's a human condition. When individuals sense that their entire self, including their values, experiences, and unique perspectives, is recognized and valued, they are more likely to fully commit themselves. They ‘lean in’ more, so to speak. They become more invested in the outcome, more passionate about the work, and more motivated to contribute in a meaningful way.
It’s not just about acknowledging someone’s role or title; it’s about acknowledging who they are as a person. And when people feel that level of respect and acknowledgment, they are not just willing but eager to lean in and give their best effort. It creates a deeper level of trust and collaboration, which is fundamental for any successful initiative.
Freeman also shared lessons he learned from the people he collaborated with.
via George Coughlin, VP of Marketing, Adaptive Insights
Coughlin emphasized to Freeman the significance of "how" something is done in addition to "what" is being done. It was a point Freeman felt he intuitively knew, but Coughlin articulated it explicitly. They discussed this as a team and encouraged each other to be mindful of both the process and the result. This had a lasting impact on Freeman because it influenced not only the quality of the work but also the level of collaboration, trust, and enjoyment among team members.
It's not only about the result but also about the way in which you work with others to achieve that result.
via Joshua Levinsky, Director of Sourcing Technology, Disney
One of the major takeaways from working with Levinsky was the importance of taking people on the journey with you, especially in a large organization. It wasn’t just about having the right answer, but making sure others understand why it’s the right answer. They were working in an environment with diverse perspectives, where people might have different information and biases.
Levinsky emphasized the importance of empathy, of putting oneself in others' shoes and guiding them to understand the solution rather than just presenting it.
Developing empathy and considering other people's perspectives are crucial, as it can lead to broader acceptance and successful collaboration.
via his mother
Though not from a professional contact, this lesson is deeply personal and comes from Freeman’s mother. This lesson is one he appears to have carried throughout his life, not just his career. His mother ingrained in him a strong work ethic and a sense of pride in whatever task he takes on.
This phrase is a guiding principle for Freeman, encouraging him to always take pride in his work. It serves as a reminder that not everything is worth doing, but if you decide to commit to something, give it your all and do it to the best of your ability.
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Not ready for a listen yet? Interested in searching the conversation? No problem. Below is a rough transcript of our discussion.
Michael Freeman: I mean, I've heard this on a number of different episodes where people mentioned you've got to manage expectations and it's true. You know, when I'm talking to people junior in their career and they're they're asked to set a timeline, I think whatever you set double and not like double it because that's reality. And it's much better to set an achievable target on a more time frame.
That's something that's impossible in.
Intro: Welcome to how I Made It in Marketing from Marketing Sherpa. We scour pitches from hundreds of creative leaders and uncover specific examples, not just trending ideas or buzzword laden schmaltz, real world examples to help you transform yourself as a marketer. Now here's your host, the senior director of content and marketing at Marketing Sherpa Daniel Burstein, to tell you about today's guest.
Daniel Burstein: We've been oh, it's so hard, folks. It is so hard. I just want to tell people what they should do, whether it is people on my team who report it to me, potential customers, even my own kids. But that approach has a major flaw, right? People will resist. Heck, I would resist too. It reminds me of a lyric from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.
The wisdom that the old can't give away. So what can you do if you can't give your wisdom away? I love how my next guest put it in his podcast guest application. It's not just about having the right answer, but about leading people along the journey to understand why that answer is the right one. Joining us now to share the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson filled stories, is Michael Freeman, the VP of marketing for Air Base.
Thanks for joining me, Michael.
Michael Freeman: It's great to be here. Thank you.
Daniel Burstein: So let's tell people who I'm talking to are just kind of cherry picking through your background in LinkedIn. You've been a national marketing analyst at Maersk Logistics, a senior sourcing specialist at the Walt Disney Company. And then later in your career, VP of Demand Marketing, Digital and marketing operations at Adaptive Insights, which was then acquired by Workday. So you had that role at Workday Adaptive planning.
And as I mentioned, now you are VP of marketing at Air Base. Air Base recently had a series B led by Menlo Ventures, where it raised $60 million in mid 2021. And it also recently partnered with American Express Ventures and Michael leads a team of 28 leads marketing but also revenue ops and SDR for a total team of 28 people at Air Base.
So, but Michael, your title is VP of Marketing. So tell us, what is your day like as VP of Marketing?
Michael Freeman: You know, I think with a lot of remote first companies leadership, you're spending much of your day in Zoom or whatever video conferencing tools of choice and you know, for me, it's really about finding that right balance of working with the rest of the leadership team across all functions, making sure that we're focusing on the right progress, on our strategies that we're focused on and, you know, on a quarterly basis or whatever it may be tied to kind of corporate level OKRs, but then also being able to provide the support to each of the different teams that are around.
And so there's a pretty diverse set of problems and challenges that those different teams you mentioned are encountering day to day and really trying to make sure I have the time to understand what's going on there and being able to provide the resources. So, you know, for me, a great manager is really someone who sets tough but achievable goals, provides the resources for people to be successful and then gets out of the way and as a resource to help, you know, I tell my teams it's I want everyone to be successful but also feel successful.
Those are not the same things and they're both equally important. So I always want to be that resource to support them, but then get out of the way and let them rise and do amazing things.
Daniel Burstein: And you mentioned the remote set up. Tell us just briefly about your remote setup, because you have one of the more interesting ones I've seen. Like during COVID, they start work from home. I was tempted to like build a tiny house in my backyard. We've got a little pond. And, you know, unfortunately, the world opened back up and now I've got the house to myself.
But you've got a kind of cool setup. You want to explain it to us?
Michael Freeman: Yeah. So I live in San Luis Obispo, California, and I've been doing remote work since 2012. I used to live in Spain before that, and when I came back here and stumbled into remote work, I actually worked from my childhood home for a number of years and then eventually I built a backyard shed slash office in 2017, and I've been working here ever since.
And so when COVID happened, there was no change. It was it was just I mean, obviously, the world changed, don't get me wrong. But from my work life perspective, it was the same thing I'd been doing for the previous, um, gosh, nine or seven years, something on that order. So, you know, I have a 32nd commute leaving my back door of my house and I bring my backpack and my coffee and I walk across my yard and I set up shop in my office and this is my office.
I don't it's not something I use on the weekends or anything else. So when I leave work, I leave work.
Daniel Burstein: Now I like they've got a little setup. I was inspired by Thoreau, you know, to go off into the woods, into a cabin and writer, at least my backyard. But I like that. Well, let's dove into your career, see what we can learn from it. What value we can squeeze out of your brain there. So let's start by talking about lessons from some of the things you made in marketing.
As I mentioned, I've never been anything else like a podiatrist or an actuary or whatever, but I feel like we actually get to make things. That's a great thing about being a marketer. We get to make things. So one of your lessons is continuous improvement and beat, which stands for Always Be Testing Over one off campaigns. So tell us what's how did you learn this lesson?
Maybe with an interesting test you run.
Michael Freeman: Yeah. So, I mean, I think you're always looking for ways for continuous improvement because those things will compound. The value of those improvements, will compound over time and build momentum and and deliver awesome results. So like for me, it's, it's about being thorough in the task and making sure that you are don't give up too quickly with your testing approach.
And so one example that comes to mind is when I was at Adaptive Insights, we had had a very successful run of running a number of different tests on our trial offers, on our demo offers, on our home page design, number of very successful tests. And then when it came to trying to tackle improving the performance of our asset pages, so e-book downloads, white paper downloads, analyst reports, that kind of thing.
And we had a pretty horrendous original design. It was very it was very sparse, not attractive at all. So we thought, oh, this will be a slam dunk, this will be easy. And so we applied a lot of the lessons we learned from the previous successful test to this new to the new page template. And we launched the testing and expecting great things.
And it was a loser and it was a total loser and we were baffled by it. And we were really baffled because all these things had worked so well elsewhere. And that's why you test I mean, I've run a number of tests in other contexts where we're sure it's a winning design and it's it truly is a loser.
And that's why you test, because you need to let the market decide, however strong you feel about strongly you feel about something. So on this test, we let it run for many, many weeks, just to be sure. And and we were close to pulling the plug, but we we decided to look deeper into the data a little bit further.
And I had an epiphany. So it turns out at that time we were doing a lot of social media advertising in a B2B context. But at that time, Facebook was very attractive in a B2B context because low, low acquisition cost and most of that traffic at that time had moved off of desktop onto mobile. And so I just I decided to look at the performance of these pages, splitting it out between desktop and mobile.
And again, like that everyone does in 2023 now. But many years ago that was a little bit of a novel concept. And when I slice the data that way, it became very apparent where the problem was and I was with traffic coming from mobile and because it was a sizable amount of the traffic, that was what was bringing the overall results down.
And so I decided to test the product or the page more thoroughly in mobile and I could immediately see all the problems. Huge images that took forever to download on a data network. They were being shrunk down small, but the file size was still huge. So as a very slow loading page, the form was pushed all the way to the bottom of the page.
There was no button at the top to scroll people to the to the form to fill it out. And so, you know, noticing those types of changes, we were able to quickly make tweaks into the test, relaunch it with a mobile optimized version that was part of the overall responsive design and boom instant results. We let it run to get to statistical significance, as you always should do, but it ended up being a 30% winner over the previous design.
And you know, the lesson on this is always be testing, but also test your own assumptions, right? So it's not just we're testing the page, we're testing our assumptions. And and through that process, we discovered we need to have a better design process, a better testing process, and then we need to be more thoughtful about understanding the type of traffic we're sending to pages when we're crafting a new experiment to make sure we're meeting the needs of every type of audience we have.
Daniel Burstein: No, that's great. So when you mentioned setting up a testing process, like, can you give us a sense of how you set up a testing process there, what your testing process is here, like how you prioritize tests? Because I know we were talking about, you know, old people didn't really put out the mobile traffic back then. But the same similarity as the curiosity you showed, right.
Because you're saying challenging your own assumptions. It was a curiosity like, wait a minute, we thought this what's going in here? You dig and dig and dig. And they end up with a 30% lift. So so what do you do like in managing your team? How do you prioritize your tests? How do you kind of set up a testing structure to be able to challenges assumptions and to kind of have that take that curious approach?
Michael Freeman: So I'll answer it two ways. One is kind of philosophy, ecology, and the other is more kind of practical. So the philosophical piece is one of the values I encourage within my teams, and I try to find companies that have this as a corporate value is challenges status quo always challenge the status quo because we will never improve if we always stick with the status quo.
And hey, we're in business, we're always trying to improve results. And so we need to improve the way we act in order to improve the results. So challenge the status quo culturally, but then practically is, you know, really think through our hypotheses. And the hypotheses are not just kind of how we execute the page, but also the audience.
What is the job to be done for that, you know, for this audience member at this time? And a lot of times you'll see, you know, people are just looking at it at a superficial level of like, hey, we want to test the buttons green instead of orange, or we want to test single column versus two column. And you have to go deeper than that.
And so as part of your process, you need to be really fleshing out those hypotheses for the audience in their context at that moment. And therefore, what is the optimal thing to be testing about this experience? Usually the page design, but in this experience, so it could be the ad could be the landing page, could be the form design and then and then go ahead and execute from there.
Daniel Burstein: I like it because our job is to serve a customer. Our job is help them understand perceived value and serve them all those other things that you mentioned, like the columns and the buttons. That's just a means to an end, I think ties into our next lesson. A lot of people, they talk about technology. It's efficiency, right? It's automation, all these things.
You say harness technology to enhance the customer experience. So how do you do that?
Michael Freeman: So I am always so I'm a big fan of technology. I mean, when I was a little kid, I was going to, you know, computer programing workshops over spring break when I was, you know, probably six years old, seven years old. So I've always had a fascination with technology. That's why I wanted to be a B2B marketer in the technology space.
And so whenever I've had kind of technology at my disposal, I've always tried to figure out how can I get the most value from it for myself, but also to deliver a great experience for it. So for example, when I was when I was working in Spain, I was at a company called Mecha Luke's and they had a division called Largest Market, and it was a B2B lead gen type business similar to Cap Terra or Get Out, that type of thing.
But for industrial products and this was again many years ago when video embeds and video services were not regularly available. In fact, at the time there were only a handful of providers and they were very, very expensive. And so we had this idea of, okay, we have certain video assets, so industrial manufacturers, a forklift operator or other safety manufactures, they have some some videos.
But how can we get that content and deliver it to customers so they can understand more about the different products that they had? And we couldn't afford to build all the infrastructure to have a robust video service. You know, this is around 2006, 2007. And we couldn't also spend an arm and a leg buying some very dedicated, huge platform.
And right at that time, you know, YouTube did not allow embeds. If you can imagine a day when, you know, back then embedding was not a common or normally available thing. But when we looked at how YouTube operated, we figured out how we could really create our own playlists and then reentered you YouTube player into our site. And now we had a free hosting solution.
We were able to deliver a great video on the product pages for all of the people coming to our website. They could learn more about the products and really understand the kind of detailed and technical aspects of it. But we were all able to do it at an extremely low cost.
Daniel Burstein: So when I think about also using technology for the customer experience, I also think about the data that we can get from technology. And I know one of the major transitions you've made to is like switching CRM is to get better data about the customers. And so I wonder if you have any stories or help or wisdom there about, you know, the technology and the data we can get from it.
And I ask because we've surveyed marketers before, their top tech challenge was leveraging technology to make data driven decisions. So we've talked about AB testing. Obviously, that's one way or are there other ways you've used technology to help better understand that customer so you can create a better customer experience?
Michael Freeman: Sure. Although my the most important thing has nothing to do with technology whatsoever. It has to do with making sure you're getting alignment on definitions with your other stakeholders. So whether it's operations, sales, leadership, finance, whoever really buttoning down your definitions and and all the rules that go to what a S1 or an, you know, people are different names for what is a pipeline opportunity.
What is a first meeting, what is an MQ? Well, what is a customer? How would we define that? What are the five sets of fields we need to use right, to be able to apply filters to be able to come up with a result. And so we have a consistent answer with a consistent understanding. That's the most important step that I see people kind of blaze right by and they don't document it or they don't maintain it over time, but from there it's working backwards from that to say, Hey, what are the ways that we can flow as much of the.
So I tend to use Salesforce as my Sierra in most of the companies I've worked at. And so rather than build a sophisticated data warehouse and marry all the data there, I actually try to flow all the data first to Salesforce from my marketing automation system, from my chat bot tool, from, you know, other enrichment products that may be available and try to flow that into Salesforce because that is where your salespeople are.
That's where your stories and videos are. It's where operations are. It's where many of your marketers are. And so if you can harmonize and put the data there, you can start getting people to really take better actions in their day to day work because you're surfacing the right information about, Hey, what was the offer that someone consumed when they became an MQ owl?
How many days has it been since they've, you know, became an MQ L and are sitting in an open status? Okay, we need to improve, improve our speed, the lead or hey, now we have slaves we're going to enforce on once you have a first meeting as an account executive, you need to determine is this quality pipeline that you're going to continue to work or should we close it out or we should go ahead and nurture it back in marketing.
So there's nothing sexy about that. But those are the things that I think fundamentally help improve your business, to make sure that you don't have a leaky funnel and you're continuously optimizing the way you work. And it's it's amazing how few companies go through that exercise to really ensure that they are giving the right information at the right time to all the employees that they can do the best job possible.
Daniel Burstein: What's it's easier for sales and marketing to blame each other right after? No specific. Yeah, obviously those weren't. What are you talking about. Yeah.
Michael Freeman: Yeah. There's a phrase that I'll say internally. As I say, we shouldn't expect our account executives to be data scientists. Yeah, they've got a hard job as it is.
Daniel Burstein: Right? So that's a great example of giving them the information they need to do their job. One challenge with that not obviously needed, but one challenge with that. Sometimes when we're looking at that database, we overlook the humanity of who are we're reaching out to. And you know, when I started in B2B marketing, I remember managers working for the time, give me a great lesson.
She's like business. The business is such a misnomer. It's business to, you know, these organizations that have human beings in them and that's who we're actually communicating with. And so I love one of your lessons here. Never forget that we are all people. So how have you done that in a B2B context? We talked about all that data you flow in that's so important to, you know, the account executives, but how do we always remind ourselves never working with that, that that's not just a number in a database, it's a human being on the other side.
Michael Freeman: Yeah. So this is I think this is important kind of throughout life, not just at work. This is true in politics. This is true in your community. This is true everywhere. You got to remember, you're always dealing with human beings. And human beings are are complex and we're mostly driven by emotion. And then we use rationality to justify a lot of the things that we've already decided.
And, you know, one of the lessons that sticks out to me is when I when I joined Adaptive Insights. So adaptive insights now part of Workday, but it's financial planning software. It can be used for other things, but the main buyer was usually the director or VP of at a company, and they need to build their budgets and then do variance analysis and and update their forecasts.
And so they build these very complex models to be able to track and monitor all the drivers that are going to shift the outcomes for the business. And this was before Gong or Chorus or any of these conversation recording intelligence tools existed. I live in those tools daily now because I always want to get the voice of the customer.
And it's all it's all there available in addition to whatever you can do in person with folks. But I did a lot of interviews with a lot of a lot of the target buyers before I joined the company to make sure I could really understand it. Do I think I could add value? And one of the things that stuck out to me is when I was looking at adaptive marketing and also a lot of the marketing of the other companies at that time, most of the messaging was about explaining how bad of a tool Excel was, and it's just it doesn't scale with error prone.
It's awful. It's awful. You can't you can't run your business on Excel because all of these tools that usually were the first step of that evolution is to transform from using Just Excel and now moving into a purpose built tool that does your planning and modeling. But when you're a small company, you don't need all those tools. You build a basic model.
And the insight I got was talking to one buyer in particular, and he was explaining how, you know, I'm a finance person, I'm introverted. I, you know, I work in numbers all day. But you know what? I actually have a creative side and a lot of people don't see this in my creativity comes out when I'm building a model because I'm taking this blank canvas, which is just an empty spreadsheet, and I am using my knowledge and my skill to create a machine that predicts the future.
It's telling me what our revenue and what our expenses will be three quarters from now. And I have pretty high accuracy, too. I'm creating that and I'm tapping into my creative capabilities to figure out the assumptions and the formulas and how it all ties back. And I'm building this machine that predicts the future. And so when you come and tell me, Hey, don't waste your time with Excel, I have great pride in the machines I've built.
I have ownership. I have in fact, I've built my entire career becoming an expert at this tool. I know every keyboard shortcut, I know every trick. And so when you tell me that this is a mistake, you're telling me that I've wasted my time in my career. And that's frankly a bit insulting, you know, as I learn more about it, it kind of reminds me of, you know, a lot of people maybe have a problematic relative that, you know, causes trouble at family gatherings or is a little bit, you know, rubs people the wrong way.
And and you and among your, you know, family members, you may have certain comments and feelings about that family member. But if from someone outside of your family comes in and makes the same comments about that family member, you will defend them, right? Well, Excel is that family members are finance people. Right. It's they love it and they hate it at the same time.
But they will not be told from outsiders that Excel is awful. So we decided that we had to shift our messaging to really be one of embracing Excel and find the stories that would allow people to see that Excel is great for the things it's great at. But when you're ready to advance and continue to go up this digital transformation journey, you need to complement, excel with purpose built tools.
And so the analogy I came that when I was explaining it to people is if you're a wealthy, you're a carpenter, and you always did odd jobs and small work, well, you have this hammer that was given to you by your grandfather and you love this hammer, you know, this hammer inside and out. And it's you've used it your entire career, but now that you've become successful, you're getting asked to do new jobs and your next project is an apartment building.
You still have your hammer on your tool belt and you still use that when you're dealing with edge cases and other small little finishing tasks. But your daily driver is a nail gun. You're ready for the nail gun. And adaptive insights is your nail gun. Keep excel. That's your hammer but use the nail gun. And when people understood that way, they're like, Oh, I get it.
Yeah, I am ready for a nail gun.
Daniel Burstein: Yeah. I mean, what a beautiful insight. And also to understand the complexity of the actual human being. On the other side of that, it reminds me of something called the IKEA Effect. I don't know if you've heard this before. There's some researchers, Dr. Dan Ariely and Michael Norton. We've had them in speakers before, and they had people, the two groups of people, one group, they were selling some furniture.
How much would they sell it for? And then the other group was IKEA furniture, which if you know, you put that together yourself, how much would you sell it for? The people would sell the IKEA furniture for more than the people who just sold the furniture that they just had the furniture. Right. And because there's this idea of that, like when we help build it ourselves, you know, it's like we're so interested in our own kids.
Like, oh, my gosh, these, these little humans are amazing, you know, everyone else's kids, like, well, whatever. Like, anyone can walk and talk. And so, like, you kind of learned the IKEA effect in the people you're trying to sell to that yes, Excel is horrible, but they've been working at it, made things with it. And so maybe Excel is horrible, but not the things they made right?
Michael Freeman: Absolutely. I mean, the end of the analogy that I have internally is when you're doing account based work, I actually think the term account based marketing has set us back in many different ways because when you're doing great account based work, it's collaboration with sales and marketing. And too often I've seen an expectation that marketing just picks the list and sends it out to the to the EAS.
These are your target accounts and that is a terrible way to operate. You need to get you can apply criteria to create a narrowed set for them to select from, but you need the ease to pick the final list and that is that IKEA effect. I've built this list. It's mine. I'm now committed to working it and it it works amazingly well compared to just handing them list to work.
Daniel Burstein: That is a great human say because you know what's going to happen if it doesn't work as well. Just plain marketing like, oh, they gave me the wrong people. Of course, you know, it's the famous the Glengarry great the Glengarry leads. Yeah.
Michael Freeman: Yeah.
Daniel Burstein: So that's great. Well, we've talked about some lessons that Michael learned from the things he made. In just a moment, we're going to talk about some lessons that Michael learned from the people he collaborated with. That's a great thing get to do as marketers, not just make things. We make them with other people. But first, I should mention that the How I Made It in Marketing podcast is underwritten by McLeod's Institute, the parent organization of Marketing Sherpa.
You can join us in the clubs I Gill by chatting with McLeod at McLeod's Ecom slash a I that's NCC Ellerbe Ask.com slash eight. All right. Let's take a look at some lessons you learned from people you collaborated with. Michael The first lesson is the how of execution is just as important as the what. You learn. This from George Kaufman, the VP of Marketing at Adaptive Insights.
That is pretty much the whole way we operate this podcast, as you've seen. So I just the one of the lessons is the how you learn them, the stories behind them. But give us a sense, how did you learn that from George?
Michael Freeman: There were so many different ways. I learned it from George and in subtle and then also in more explicit ways smaller. And he had little Post-its next to his monitor at his desk that said, what if how about perhaps? And he had those little cues to remind himself when he's having these conversations with stakeholders, what are ways that I could phrase this to to build it in a more collaborative way?
And that was something that really stuck out to me, was little. He had those little details and it was about shaping the how the conversation to ultimately get to good answers. But more explicitly, he was an interim coach CMO for a period of time and he and his partner in crime, Michel they talked a lot about the how is just as important as the what we do because we need to make sure that we are doing it in a way that's going to really foster collaboration, build trust and ultimately yield better results.
And specifically, in my case, he really helped me coaching and giving me advice on how to coach an individual that joined our organization. And while very skilled and very smart and and talented, stylistically was frankly alienating people and and causing a lot of friction within the team and with other stakeholders. And even though he was very technically capable, we realized, you know what, if we want him to be successful here, we need to work directly with him to explain kind of the how and how really mean, like how far online means having empathy and understanding others, right?
Because we don't do things on our own in most work contexts, at least in a B2B environment. And it's really about teamwork. And so understanding that you are yes, you have this task to do, but how can I do it in a way that other people are going to understand that aligns with their expectations, that aligns with their availability and their goals?
And, you know, this person was unlike me to make it if this had continued, as is within the organization and and over the course of two months with regular coaching, we were able to completely turn it around. And ultimately he became a great success. And later it was promoted and done and they're great things for the company. And it all that fundamental thing was, you know, he didn't have particularly new skills on the technical things he was doing.
He didn't have any knowledge in that area. That wasn't his key to a success. It was about unlocking improvements to how he went about his day to day work and working with others. And I think that's very powerful.
Daniel Burstein: And how do you coach someone like that through like as a leader of the team? How do you coach them and do that? Because one thing I've seen work well and this work for both for me personally, too, is, you know, doing the different behavioral tests. And when you can sit down, you can see like, okay, here's how you operate.
These are your kind of behavioral characteristics and here's how someone else operates. And it's not that they're necessarily wrong. You know, you get frustrated because they're operating from way it's like they communicate in this way and they value this and you communicate this way and you value this is a real eye opener of like, oh, wait a minute, there's all these different you introverts and experts, all these different styles of communicating and and, you know, you just have to understand where that person's coming from and what they value.
So I think that work well, you know, in my core, what what's a good way to coach someone through that.
Michael Freeman: And first understand them and their motivations? That's the very first thing. So I actually coached soccer for nine years, too. I recently retired once my son retired from soccer. I retired from soccer from L.A. as a coach. And, you know, and that was that presented a lot of the same interesting situations where each kid is different. And so and each employee you work with is different and really understand, understand them first before you tell them what to do, before you tell them how to do something.
You understand what's driving this behavior in the first place. What are their what are their motivations? What are their insecurities? And a lot of times it's tied to certain insecurities that they have because of their own childhood experience or a previous boss they had or what company they're coming from. And they might have scar tissue that you're trying to work through.
So the first step is really understand them and understand the drivers behind that before you do anything else. But then once you do understand that, walk them through tying it to for me, business objectives of how we make the team successful. You know, like off, you know, I often work in venture backed companies and I talk about how we all are shareholders and we want this to be a success.
And you know, our valuation is not driven by how many miles we are. We drive, it's ultimately by revenue and no one can generate revenue on their own. So if we want to generate revenue, we have to do it as a team because everyone has a part to play and then you keep working backwards from there until you get to your specific projects or sets of responsibilities.
But it's always about teamwork.
Daniel Burstein: Yes, scar tissue from a previous role in a previous manager I like. That's very visceral. It really paints the picture. I like that. But I also think it kind of comes down to this also, which I mentioned the beginning this is IV has been helpful for me, not just in communications in a workforce, but just in my life with my family, with anyone.
And it's not just about having the right answer, but about leading people along the journey to understand why that answer is a right when you can't just shove it down someone's throat. You said you learned this from Joshua Levinsky, the director of sourcing technology, when you were at Disney. How did you learn this from Joshua?
Michael Freeman: So I remember very clearly this was very early in my career, many, many, many years ago. And we had this project where we were working between. So I worked in the strategic sourcing department, and so our goal was to figure out how do we improve the efficiency of all of our spend across all of the Walt Disney Company?
And that usually meant negotiating with suppliers, but also working with our different business units to figure out how they can better collaborate, bring together, you know, unify their processes by from a single vendor at a higher, you know, at a better discount or or just unify some of the different ways they would buy materials or use those materials.
And in this particular project, we were looking at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, both very important theme parks, the Walt Disney Company and who had a huge rivalry with each other. And they were both convinced they were radically different than the other park. They have nothing to do with each other, totally different businesses. And you're looking at on the outside and you're kind of nodding.
You're saying, okay, I don't really see all I mean, there's certain subtle differences, but not massive differences. You still have rides and you charge people for tickets and you have overpriced food and you have great merchandise like you get all that. And we had this project to try and unify the way they the systems they use for maintenance, repair operations, MRO.
So how do you make sure that Space Mountain is properly maintained and safe and done on a regular schedule? And how do you order parts? And they are different systems, different processes across the two parks. And I remember the first time I was in Walt Disney World with my boss, Joshua, and we had this great idea about how we were going to standardize and align the two park sets of parks to use the same system in the same process for how they ordered their, their materials and then kind of deliver those to the rides for servicing.
And that was clearly right answer. It was going to save millions of dollars for the company. If we could just harmonize this by my first meeting, I had a meeting with basically the VP of operations at Walt Disney World and telling him my great idea about how he he look at all the money he's going to save. And he smiled very politely and nodded and said, Yeah, I don't think this is going to work for us.
And I was I was just shocked. And and and, you know, we ultimately were able to negotiate in the conversation with my boss stepping in to to take it to a next step for further dialog. But once we left the building, this is when Josh pulled me aside. You know, Michael, what we want to do, it's the right thing for the business.
It's completely the right thing for the business. But when you come in knowing the right answer, but you are not bringing people along the way to get them to see it within from their point of view of how it's the right answer, then it's not the right answer. You know, I kind of looked at them, tilted my head a little bit, and it's like, yeah, the right answer is not the right answer.
And it's because for them it's not the right answer because you haven't gone on the journey with them to see it in their terms, in their eyes, the way they see it is they're losing control, they're losing power. And you're telling them that the rival does something just as good as they do right. And that's hard to accept.
So instead, we got to approach this in a different way, understand the problem in their terms, and then shape the conversation. So ultimately becomes their idea. And ultimately the project was a huge success. We were able to do that and it was a huge success. They unified on the platform, the process they Disney saved millions of dollars. Big win, but it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for that insight.
Daniel Burstein: Do you remember was there anything specific you did differently to to kind of help help them come to that conclusion themselves?
Michael Freeman: Yeah, and this is a greater lesson overall is start with questions rather than statements or answers. I mean, it's any good salesperson knows this as discovery.
Daniel Burstein: Right? Perfect. Well, what you know, when you're talking about this lesson, too, I wonder how it affects the feedback you give your team for marketing, creative marketing concepts. Mark I guess you were such an idea driven agency industry. We got such ownership. I know at least I do a little passion, so excited about my ideas and I was thinking this.
I interviewed Lucas Welch, the VP of Corporate Marketing at High Spot on the How I Made It Marketing podcast. And one of his lessons was feedback is respect. And I love how he put that. And, you know, he's a story about he was starting out writing press releases and he got his first press releases all marked up. Now, first, he was just so upset about it and he was like, so offended.
And then you kind of over time realized like, wait a minute, this, they're respecting me. They think I can grow free. And he put it up in his office and use that going forward. But, you know, have you is there any technique or tactic used when giving feedback on marketing ideas, concepts? You know, I guess it can be so easy to just tell them, no, it's wrong and bad.
And if they don't see it themselves, you know, they won't know how to change. And they might just want to walk out the door.
Michael Freeman: Before you say no to anything, you have to know why that's the first thing you knew. And if you don't know, you need to be able to tell people, I will get back to you. I there is it. Why I can't properly articulate it right now, and I owe you that. I will give you that. But like, usually there's a reason behind it.
And so you need to be able to tie it back to that to the why it's not it's not working in the way it is. And, and I find it's most helpful for people to understand it if you're always tying it back to the objective. So usually where I think things go, you know, what's in a creative conversation is it'll go off because suffers from a couple problems.
One is we have the curse of knowledge, right? So we overly assume that the audience receiving the creative is going to have the same level of knowledge as us, and they're going to look at it and totally not get it, because we start off with, I assume, a much lower level of knowledge and awareness of the brand of the product of the problem, even in certain cases.
And so that's one. The other one is a cool idea, not tied to the business outcome or objective. What we're seeking with this campaign. You know, and I mean, all you have to do is go look at or are tied to results. Right. With that, always be testing idea. I mean, how many websites have you seen over the years that have extremely low contrast of like, you know, gray text on a top background?
And it's really hard to read and and you know, and you look at it and the the, you know, the creative person has this awesome, you know, for Kay Thunder five k monitor that's 32 inches and you're you know, you need to explain them hey, our buyer is on a $500 Dell. That's not that great, right? That's what they're looking this website, this beautiful work of art you have.
That's how they're consuming it. And you need heating to put you walk a mile in their shoes and make sure you're doing it that way. So tying it to the okay, this is about driving better leads. Let's understand from the audience perspective, is that really going to help us do that? And then the last piece is coherence, right?
So consistency and coherence. So we have a certain brand and a certain visual design language and a certain set of values and personality traits that we're trying to communicate with the brand and some of the great ideas are great, but for a different company, right, a different time because it's so out of left field that there's no or what someone had called many years ago sent that you could follow that leads you back to the brand.
It just feels like it's this completely one off thing that is unrelated to anything else you do. And I always try to find some amount of coherence or consistency because even though we live this brand every day, our our prospects do not and we to make it easy for them to remember aspects of us because they live in a very noisy, cluttered world and you need to break through the clutter, but you also need to provide that consistency because it doesn't just take one impression or one engagement for them to completely remember you, let alone understand what you do.
Daniel Burstein: Yeah, no, I like how you communicate that and especially that disconnect. And you know, one thing when we produce is pretty simple download to help the marketer get in the mindset of the customer. Like all these questions you'd ask about how is the customer experience? And it's because, like you said, and that's a great, very visceral example, the designers looking at it on a different monitor than the customer.
I mean, for me, the experience I had is I would edit videos. When you edit videos, you go in, it's fun. You go in this video editing suite and they have this good catered lunch, they have these awesome speakers and you know, everything. It's a dark room and that screen's great, you know? And then when you think about how the customer actually experience it now, it's like an old cell phone or, you know, they used to be looking at the commercials on TV while they're, you know, they're your kids crying in the background or, you know, in a stadium.
It's a big washed out, you know, very noisy place. And so definitely that's one thing that, you know, we kind of set up for our audience of like, okay, before you even start the creative answer these questions about the customer. So you get as close as you can to their mindset as opposed to, like you said, this discursive doll.
Just huge disconnect we have between how the things we know about our brand and the way we experience it and the way they experience our message. That's great. I love this last lesson here and we learned from someone very close to you. If something is worth doing, do it well. I learned this from your mom. We should all learn these from our parents.
How did you learn this from your mom?
Michael Freeman: So I'm the youngest of four and I was able to just grow up in a wonderful household where my mom, she was a nurse, trained to be a nurse, but she decided to stay at home and give everything to her kids and her community. And for example, she spent decades being one of the principal costume makers for all the different not just my sisters who dance, but all of the dance performers in San Luis Obispo and all the different performances.
She even was performer as the maid in The Nutcracker for well over a decade and and the joy and energy she brought to everything she was immense, everything with excellence. Now, she didn't do everything. But when she did commit to something, she was all in. And that was that was a great example that we we all would see.
They another example with her is, you know, being the youngest for my other siblings when my my oldest sister who's ten years older than I am when she was 15, she decided she wanted to get her GED and leave high school and go all the way across the country to New York to become a professional ballerina. And my parents, my dad was a doctor.
And so both of my parents had pretty rich education histories. And here was their oldest child, their first child, saying that they wanted to leave high school early and give up everything to go into a career that doesn't pay well all the way across the country on her own. And yet they still supported her to go. They still encouraged her to go because they knew it was her passion.
They knew it was the thing that for her that was going to give her the most joy. And so if you're going to do it and if you want to become a professional ballerina in the early mid-eighties, you go do this in New York City. And they said and they fully spartan. She ended up having a wonderful career.
She danced professionally, I think about 17 years. And now she's a choreographer.
Daniel Burstein: Wow. Well, when I hear these lessons, you know, when I think about a lot is the value proposition. And I wonder if you've ever applied these to a value proposition for a company you're working with, because I think the two keys for a value proposition is you can't do a lot of brands want to be everything to everyone.
Right. It's funny, we have something, as I mentioned earlier, called the Air Guild. And one of the things, as we coach people through their funnel creation, we coach people through the value proposition. And there will be all these consultants who will serve everyone. And it's like, wait a minute, you are this niche five, ten person consulting firm. There was major, major consultants out there.
Certainly you're not going to go head to toe with them. Let's niche this value proposition down until we get to the point where you serve this audience better than anyone else does. You have an only factor. And I think the other thing with that, too, is that they're not just creating the value proposition, kind of like you mention with your sister, then go all in and deliver on it, right?
It's not just enough messaging. It's like, okay, now what value do we have to create to make this come true? So I wonder if you've ever been able to take that lesson. If something's worth doing, do it well, and apply it to the value propositions of the companies you worked at.
Michael Freeman: And I know for me is.
Daniel Burstein: That too big of a stretch?
Michael Freeman: So I'll answer in a few different ways. So one is this is the lesson that we learned. You learn in economics too. You just don't think of it in these terms and called comparative advantage, right? You take a basic economics course and you learn one of the first things you learn is about comparative advantage. It's the same concept, like figure out the thing that you're really good at and do that and focus on that.
And you can't you can't do that halfway. If you're going to do it to really be successful, you usually have to go all in in terms of, you know, in a work environment. I say no to a lot of things and I encourage my team to say no, it's not. Everything can't be. Yes. And sometimes there is an or in there and I encourage them to say no because we're only going to focus on the things that we can do really well.
And that is hard in a an environment where you have lots of stakeholders who are always asking for new things and always have new ideas. And I mean, Steve Jobs, I think is the one and many people have said this, but he talked about how the important thing is not deciding what we say yes to, it's what we say no to.
And and that's also just another flavor of the same concept, because we want to make sure that the things we do, we do as well as we possibly can.
Daniel Burstein: Well, how do you prioritize and how do you decide what to say yes to and what to say no to, what to say, and as to what to say no to for your team. Because this is a struggle we all face, right?
Michael Freeman: Yeah.
Daniel Burstein: How do we prioritize our limited time and resources for me?
Michael Freeman: You know, most of my time and effort is devoted to figuring out how do we build and grow and develop pipeline. So it usually starts with understanding corporate objectives and how do, how does our work relate to that and and use that as guiding principles. Now there's exceptions, right? So doing brand activity is hard to measure and it's hard to tie directly to two pipeline outcomes, especially in the short term.
So there is some art, not just science to all of it, but if you start with alignment on guiding principles of, you know, what are the key objectives we have as a company, what are the key objectives we have within marketing? What are the competitive dynamics that are happening in the market? What are the other market dynamics that are happening?
What's happening with our buyer? More often than not, you can get at least 80% of the way there for prioritizing your day and your work with doing that. Now, the thing I would strongly recommend is a lot of this ties back to goals too, and I try to prefer to have people have shared high level goals rather than individual goals.
For me, the job of the manager is to be monitoring and supporting that. That employee, and you can see how well they're performing and how engaged they are and how they're contributing to the project. But if you have shared goals, you're going to drive more collaboration and focus on fewer things and try to hit those overall objectives as opposed to everyone self optimizing for their individually measured goal.
And that becomes their first priority. And I see so many companies make this mistake with embryos and no, that's not maximizing shareholder value is whether I get the most webinar or, you know, registrations this quarter. And so aligning on those common goals and then use management is the way to do it. The analogy I'll give is you go into any high school, every student and every teacher knows who the good teachers are and everyone knows which teachers to avoid.
And that's not based off some report, it's not based off anything else. They now well, similarly, when you are evaluating and working closely with the people at work, you can see where people struggle in the how you can see the results. But you if you can get them to align on common goals, then they're much more likely to focus on the right things in the first place.
Daniel Burstein: Well, I keep on let you go, but keep saying something that brings up a follow up question. So when you say that everyone knows a good teachers, it's the same in an organization, right? And they always say, if you want anything done, give it to someone busy. Right. That's the famous thing because it's very hard to manage a team that has consistent performance.
So people are always going to go for the highest performance and dump as much as they can on them, right. I mean, having to had that experience. So how do you manage what I mean, is there a place where then you run interference or have some specific way of the brief or some other specific way of of making a request to make sure that that doesn't happen?
Michael Freeman: Yeah, 100%. I mean, I'm know talking earlier about coaching, it's about teamwork, right? And so, yes, someone might score all the goals. There might be your center forward, but who's delivering the pass? Who's making the run off the ball to create the space for the pass to go through to the center, forward and score? And so by a similar, you know, analogy, when you look at work, you have to be thinking about how do I shape this teamwork and how do I can't put everything on the center forward?
I have to figure out how do I prioritize, oh, this is where are I'm going to set them up for success with this. And here, yes, they may not be the single, you know, someone else could do a better job than this person, but they are already dedicated to a priority higher priority project. And so I'm going to have someone else who can do a perfectly wonderful job themselves, especially if I give them a little bit of extra support, or I provide some blocking and tackling on some other things that might pull them away from doing an excellent job and attack it that way.
And then the other piece is managing expectations. I mean, I heard this on a number of your different episodes where people mentioned he got to manage expectations. And it's true. You know, when I'm talking to people junior in their career and they're they're asked to set a timeline, I say whatever you set, double it. And that's what I'm like, double it because that's reality and it's much better to set an achievable target on an achievable timeframe than something that's impossible.
You know, and the common mistake I'll see people make is when they're thinking about how long it'll take to get a project done. Their assumption is 100% utilization at 100% efficiency to get this project done. And I'll ask them like, where in the world does that ever, ever happen? How much time do you spend on Slack today and in Zoom calls and company meetings and, you know, fires that happen because an executive swooped in and asked for something.
So why did you assume 100% utilization, not 100% efficiency.
Daniel Burstein: And no dependencies? Right. Okay. Everything exactly what I need time.
Michael Freeman: Perfect. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone's working in the Toyota manufacturing system.
Daniel Burstein: Right? Yeah. Just in time. Delivery of what we talked about. So many different things about what it means to be a marketer. Michael, if you had to break it down, in your opinion, what are the key qualities of an effective marketer? What are you looking to be in your career? What are you looking for when you hire?
Michael Freeman: That's a good question. For me, it boils down to a handful of traits, but first and foremost, I'm always looking for integrity. I want to work with good people. I keep talking about teamwork and it's hard to have great teamwork if you're working with folks that don't have incredibly strong integrity. That's and that's pride and integrity and work product they do.
But also in working with others. I care deeply about that. I care deeply about people being or having curiosity. You can't challenge the status quo. You can't come up with hypotheses. You can't challenge those hypotheses or assumptions. If you don't have that, carry out that fundamental curiosity. And I usually look for that curiosity in in work, but also in what other things are they interested in?
Are they exhibiting curiosity? I also look for hustle. You know, I've spent a large chunk of my career in venture backed startups and everyone has to be a driver. There's no room for passengers. We do not have the momentum or exit velocity where there can be a lot of passengers. And so everyone needs to be a driver. And that comes with hustle.
And that means, you know, willing to roll up their sleeves and no matter what their level is and and get things done and be able to pitch in and support each other because that's that's what it takes for companies to to really grow. I mean, the number of companies that ever hit $100 million is very, very, very small.
And the ones that eventually go public is even smaller. And and you really need the right team. Right. People are bringing that hustle every day to solve the problem.
Daniel Burstein: Well, thanks for sharing all the lessons that you learned in your career with us today. Michael.
Michael Freeman: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.
Daniel Burstein: Thanks to everyone for listening.
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