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A Conversation with The Knot’s Dhanusha Sivajee on the Need for CMOs to be Entrepreneurs, Builders + Agents of Inclusionary Change

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We are in an interesting period of business transformation which is placing the customer at the heart of every enterprise, no matter who you are, or what you’re selling. As a result, the role of the CMO continues to morph, evolve and rise in importance. Today’s marketing leaders need to go way beyond brand stewardship to focus on everything impacting the consumer experience from culture, to product development, to brand actions that incite inclusion and meaningful change. 

With that all in mind, I thought it would be great to speak to a marketing visionary with a wide breadth of experience who could put a fine point on all of these new challenges and opportunities. For my most recent column, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dhanusha Sivajee of The Knot. With notable stints at iconic brands such as HBO and Bloomberg, her career is emblematic of a commitment to excellence, exemplified by best-in-class marketing innovation and leadership. 

We had the opportunity to talk about everything from the need for marketing and product to work hand-in glove, to the evolution of diversity and inclusion as issues that require less idle rhetoric and more meaningful action. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee Howard: So great to talk with you again! Why don’t we start with the evolving idea of the customer needing to be at the heart of everything. Whatever you’re selling, or doing, the whole future is about experience and the CMO is in the driver’s seat perhaps now more than ever before. Can you talk to me a little bit about all that?

Dhanusha Sivajee: We are a digital company. We don’t necessarily have to segment our customers the way you would if you have a physical product based on price point. It’s one digital product. The great thing is that we can use our twenty years of data to essentially personalize each experience for the user. 

So for us, what we’re doing is an end-to-end solution for people planning their weddings. That goes from what they need in terms of inspiration, registry creation and management, to what’s their style, their budget, where do they live, and then finding the right vendors that meet those needs.  What I’ve found so amazing about this job is that we rely on our data to really serve up very personalized recommendations based on who the customer is and what they’re looking for to plan a wedding that’s uniquely them. For us, it’s not just this machine that’s essentially setting that all up. We are creating an experience that actually feels like you have your own personal planner sitting right next to you. We’re really smart about having our product and marketing work hand-in-hand to make sure we’re building features and functionality that meet our user’s needs. We are always really focused on a sense of feeling the brand offers, not just what it does. 

Howard: There is a lot there I’d like to unpack that goes to a lot of the things we’ve chatted about in the past. You are successful at building rich experiences because you are agile and extremely dynamic as a brand. I believe a lot of that comes from your roots as a “cradle-to-grave” entrepreneur. It’s a nice imprint that gives you a really nimble and disruptive POV. What are your thoughts?

Sivajee: I was brought up by entrepreneurs. So my mom and my dad both moved to England from Sri Lanka during the civil wars. They were immigrants to England. I was born there, but they had no formal education to speak of, had to put food on the table and essentially had every kind of small business. They’ve had bingo halls, gas stations, corner stores, laundromats, and post offices. I didn’t really know anything different growing up. 

I went to school, came back home and worked. I spent most nights and weekends working for my mom and dad, so without realizing it, when I went to college, I took a couple of classes and when the professor got up and said okay this is what marketing is, I was like “Oh, okay.” I’d been doing that for years with my parents in terms of thinking about who the customer was, what their needs were and how to quickly come to market. 

It actually wasn’t until I first talked to you that I thought about the entrepreneurial world and how that comes to bear so often in my professional life. I think it comes up in a lot of different ways. The first is probably through the culture. A big part of the CMO job is thinking about the values and the culture of the company and how that comes to life, both internally and externally. At a company like ours, now even though we are the leading global wedding brand in the world, and we have seventeen hundred employees in fifteen countries, everyone still has this startup mentality. A lot of the values that I’ve helped set lead back to that. 

A great example is process for process sake. Don’t show me that you’re doing a lot of things. Let’s focus on what the results are. I think when you’re an entrepreneur, you have no choice but to focus on the results. I’d say another thing is putting your user first, but also thinking about creating a culture where everyone’s opinion counts, yet moving and feeling fast. I think all CMOs need to think like entrepreneurs to build those types of cultures. 

Another terrific example of this is our new Lasting app. It’s designed to be a marriage therapy platform for couples. Our product director for The Knot conceived the idea. We loved the idea of bringing this into our family of brands, decided to fund it, and he became our entrepreneur in residence. That’s really bringing a startup culture, and the agility that comes along with it, to a multi-million dollar brand.

Howard: You’re one of the few CMOs who really does have a background in building stuff, making products, not just marketing them. I think that that’s something that’s only going to continue to be more and more pervasive. I’d like to talk to you about that and why it’s so important.

Sivajee: I’ve had the privilege of always being a marketer that has stayed close to product. It’s become so important as you have to drive awareness and get people into the product experience, whether it’s physical or digital. Even starting back from my days at HBO when we launched HBO GO, I was very lucky to be part of the team that brought product and marketing together. We really thought about what the brand stood for. What was the brand positioning of HBO and what did it look like when you were going online and could consume it anytime, anywhere? There needed to be a reason they paid for it, particularly as it was programming they couldn’t see on regular television.

When I was at Bloomberg, I was part of a very small team that was launching mobile experiences across all of Bloomberg’s media properties. It was everybody’s business to create the product and actually that was where I really learned the idea of product marketing and doing a lot more than just positioning work. I thought about the positioning at its fullest and in concert with the product features and functionality that led us up to that. That’s what a holistic approach looks like from where I sit.

Howard: People are struggling with bringing business and data tacticians together and often CMOs are being tasked with helping instigate that fusion. What are your thoughts on that?

Sivajee: You’re absolutely right. I think what’s really key is becoming cross-functional at the point when you’ve got a large enough organization where you do have functional expertise. What we’ve found is no matter what your functional expertise, the leaders that rise up to the top are the ones that can look across all of the set strategies and bring all of the most critical elements together. The challenge for me is how do you bring all of those things together and set the right tone. We tend to focus on every team having their own individual goals. But, the companies focused on the broader “here’s what we’re trying to do,” are the ones who do it best. Going to market with a new product isn’t something that’s owned by product or marketing. It’s owned by both teams, including the data teams. It’s a joint goal for the company and everyone knows that. Yes, they’ve got some functional expertise in there, but actually the thing that’s really important is that it comes together seamlessly and the leaders of those teams are setting the strategy together. 

Howard: Over the last twenty years people have said every company needs to be a technology company. I believe that view has evolved and that today every brand needs to think of themselves as a media company. You obviously have that background and are executing on a lot of those thoughts at The Knot, particularly with your twin-pronged marketplace. Tell me your thoughts.

Sivajee: I have two thoughts on it. I think the first is just more tied to the business model which is historically where we first started at The Knot. We were a publisher with an online digital website and print magazine. For all intents and purposes our monetization strategy was as a media business. We wrote content, we sold ads against it, and also got into custom content. It was a very traditional media model. I’m really proud of the fact that over the last five years what we’ve done is transition from being a media only business model, to being a two-sided marketplace. It’s  not about writing content for content sake. It’s about connecting our users and matching them to just the right products and services. Every company, whether they have been a legacy media business like us, or evolving to be more like one, needs to realize it’s about making those connections and monetizing them in different ways as opposed to just thinking about it like a traditional publisher who puts an ad next to the right content. 

So, we are two-sided marketplace. What I love about our business is that it’s not just about the couples that we’re serving and helping them through their problems. We have 300,000 small businesses around the country that we are helping because we’re working with them to build their businesses by making those connections with the couples. That’s another reason why I love what I do. We are not only helping our users, but also helping entrepreneurs in the creative space really grow their businesses because they have a passion for what they do. 

Howard: The other thing in your background that we’ve touched on a few times that I think a lot of people are grappling with is yes, the ability to have the right mobile experience, but also having it in a way that actually reflects the dynamism that is expected today. What are your thoughts or advice on that front?

Sivajee: Sure. We have over eighty percent of our user base now on mobile whether it’s on mobile web or using our app. What we found is, in this digital age, you can’t just create a mobile Web site and say “we’re done.” You have to think about how people consume that information and how they’re going to use their devices differently. One example we find is that people are going to a lot of different places to find inspiration for their weddings, but we also found that when it was time to contact their vendors, they had no way on their mobile phones. They’re looking for their vendors and using The Knot and to do that, but they didn’t have a way of sharing those ideas with the vendor. This was a critical thing for us to respond to as a big part is the vendor actually understanding what type of wedding you want. Is it rustic, or nautical or chic or all? So, we actually created a style quiz and a style card that essentially is a baseball card for organizing your ideas in a way that you can actually share them. Those are the type of nuanced, dynamic things marketers need to be thinking of when innovating around mobile right now.

Howard: Really cool. I have been having a lot of conversations with people about what I’m calling “inclusion fatigue” because I think a lot of people are checking the box here, but it feels like more rhetoric than action. It’s akin to what we’ve seen with brands overdoing it with brand purpose. What do you think?

Sivajee: I think it’s a very interesting point. For us, the way we look at inclusion is that it has been part of our mission from day one. I’ve only been here five years, but I walked into a company where from day one we said we want to make it easy for couples to plan a wedding that is uniquely their own, no matter their style, their budget, their sexual orientation, gender etc. 

I think inclusion fatigue comes from brands not being authentic in their actions and just jumping on that bandwagon.I’m really proud to be at this company that celebrates diversity and inclusion every day.

We had our first same sex marriage in 1999 when a couple both named Kimmy, the “Two Kimmies” they called themselves, won our millennium dream wedding contest. So for me, inclusion is a very easy thing to do here because it’s just part of who we are. It’s part of our mission and our culture. In fact, our current issue is focused on size inclusivity and features model and body positivity activist Hunter McGrady on the cover. 

We make sure that our content is reflective. You see yourself in our content in our products. So with dresses as an example, we are now pushing wedding fashion designers to really make sure they are designing for all sizes. It’s a great example of how brands need to walk the walk.

Source: Forbes – Leadership