The CMO Files: Rob Whiteley, Nginx

What keeps CMOs awake at night?


Name: Rob Whiteley

Organisation: Nginx

Job title: Chief Marketing Officer

Location: San Francisco, USA

  1. Where were you born and raised?
    I was born in Michigan where I lived to the ripe old age of 6 months. My family was “waiting for me” so they could relocate to Massachusetts. We moved to a small town called Duxbury (known for its gorgeous, six-mile barrier beach—worth a visit if you’re in the area!). I lived in this sleepy bedroom community suburb of Boston until I went to school (at Tufts, just north of Boston) and for the first 10 years of my career (at Forrester, just across the river from Boston).
  2. What was your first job?
    That’s a tough question. My very first job was as a potato washer in my parent’s fast food restaurant. I was eight years old and learned the hard way that child labour laws don’t apply to families. My first “real” job was in the IT department of a Panametrics, a company that GE acquired. I was in IT support and did desk visits to fix various problems, mostly Windows related. I once had to replace a CD-ROM drive because one of the employees thought it was a retractable coffee cup holder.
  3. What was the first product you got really excited about?
    A Harmon Kardon AVR 300 Digital Receiver, which I bought my junior year of college. I have a computer engineering degree, with a particular interest in digital signal processing. Combine that with a love of movies and home theatre equipment quickly became my passion. I couldn’t really afford the receiver, but I bought it anyway. The idea of digital surround sound and video processing was too much for my geeky side to resist. I justified it by saying it would help me determine if I wanted to be an engineer. I became a management consultant.
  4. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
    I’ve had the pleasure of working with and for some of the smartest people. However, the individual with the greatest influence on my career is Ellen Daley (currently the CEO of Acorio). I worked with her at Forrester in various capacities. She helped me grow considerably and many of my leadership attributes were molded from seeing her in action.
  5. What has been your greatest achievement?
    Yikes! That’s a tough question and not one I can humbly answer. My greatest sense of professional pride comes from Hedvig, a software-defined storage start-up I worked at prior to Nginx. I joined as employee 13 and was the second non-engineering hire. The other was my sales counterpart. Hedvig hadn’t done anything in the way of marketing. I had the pleasure to build everything from scratch—from tactical deliverables like the first ever pitch deck, to strategic efforts like the entire website, go-to-market strategy, and brand. I learned more in those three years than I think I did in the 10 years prior. Launching Hedvig and building its marketing team is my biggest source of pride. I guess history will decide if it was my greatest achievement.
  6. What has been your biggest mistake?
    I won’t out any one company or role specifically, but my biggest mistake has been not leaving jobs soon enough. Note: I didn’t say company! Staying at the same company in a single role too long can be a mistake, too. As people, we tend to get comfortable in our jobs. We rationalise and compartmentalise even when things aren’t going well. I’ve been in situations when it was clearly time to move on, yet I stayed. Now, don’t get me wrong! I’m not advocating excessively hopping from job to job. You still have to stay through good and bad times. But know when to leave is a skill you acquire over time.
  7. What is your greatest strength?
    Wow, I almost feel like you should ask my boss. It’s hard to answer that myself! I guess I pride myself on communication and collaboration. My old boss at Riverbed said, “you’ve got to be as close to making the money (engineering) or getting the money (sales) as possible.” Well, marketing is smack dab in the middle—at least for B2B enterprise companies. As a result, you have to work with engineering and sales to be successful. That takes a lot of communication and collaboration, especially in a global organisation or one going through rapid growth.
  8. What is your biggest weakness?
    Can I say that I’m too much of a perfectionist? Kidding! That’s a pet peeve of mine when people say it an interview process. The thing I’m working the most on is giving direct and honest feedback. I sometimes take the edge off a bit when communicating constructive criticism. That doesn’t do anyone any favours. There’s an art to doing it well that helps the person on the other end grow without feeling demoralised. I’m always striving to improve this capability.
  9. What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?
    It’s hard to make a sweeping generalisation, but I feel many marketers don’t spend enough time in the field with customers. We’re responsible for creating content and developing stories. But sometimes I want to just say “Have you ever actually uttered those words aloud to another human?” I think it’s incumbent upon us as marketers to climb down from our ivory tower and try our messages out. You’ll know in two minutes if your message doesn’t resonate with a CIO. Some of the best creativity comes when you’re reading the room and recrafting the message on the fly.
  10. Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?
    My mantra: Don’t say “yes” without asking “why?” first. In my experience, marketers say yes too often – sometimes always. That’s fine. We’re a shared service and should accommodate the business. But in many cases, people tend to bring answers. I want them to bring me their problems. You have to ask “why” to determine if a) it’s a priority and b) if it aligns with our business goals. The phrase that makes me squirm: “Oh, those are just marketing lies.” I don’t like when marketing is perceived as the function in charge of stretching the truth. First of all, if they’re lies, then they’re “company lies.” Rarely does marketing go rogue and just make stuff up. But furthermore, that’s a dated view of marketing! Transparency and access to accurate, timely information is far more important to building your brand and generating demand. And finally, that phrase makes me squirm because it perpetuates and us-versus-them mentality within the business. We’re all in this together. Marketing is a function of the business, just like sales, engineering, finance, and others.
  11. What makes you stressed?
    Family health and wellbeing stresses me out more than anything. Professionally, I’m pretty good at keeping stress in check. I can stay level-headed and reason my way through most work situations. But family health and happiness is not so easy to compartmentalise! Especially since I moved to California and left most of my family back on the East Coast.
  12. What do you do to relax?
    Speaking of stress, when I was a consultant I often had to pick wine when going to client dinners. I knew nothing about wine! So, I did what any customer-focused individual would do; I took it upon myself to learn it! Now I love wine country, especially in California. In particular, I love Paso Robles. It’s not just about the wine—although that doesn’t hurt—but rather the community aspect of a small wine region like Paso. It’s fun to escape the Silicon Valley and talk about something other than tech. One day I’d even love to own some land, grow some grapes, and join the community.
  13. What is your favourite song?
    Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond. I’m a big Red Sox fan and that song is played every home game at Fenway Park. There’s no other song that instantly transports me to a time and place more than Sweet Caroline. It’s a shared experience among Red Sox Nation. Go ahead, ask a Bostonian if Sweet Caroline has any meaning to them. I bet they’ll start singing it.
  14. Which book taught you most?
    When I was a relatively young and eager professional, I joined Forrester Research. At that time, on your first day, the CEO, George Colony, gave everyone a copy of Good to Great. He considered it required reading for anyone that is a student of business, formally or not. I took a lot from that back, but above all else it was the first time I can recall wanting to transition from a job to a career. Being part of and building great companies makes work worthwhile – fun, even.
  15. Do you have a team or sport that you follow?
    I’m from Boston. You can take me out of Boston, but you can’t take the Boston out of me. I’m a Red Sox fan first and foremost, with Celtics and Patriots not far behind. I haven’t been able to get behind ice hockey or soccer (football for everyone outside the US!) yet.
  16. Which country would you like to work in?
    Ireland! Originally, my answer was Australia. But I lived there for six months when I studied abroad and learned that just about everything there can kill you, including plants. Seriously, look up stinging nettles. So, my new answer is Ireland. It’s a great country, and the topography, weather, and people suit me. My wife thinks I’m crazy for wanting to live somewhere so “rainy,” but I consider that my competitive advantage. The weather in Northern California is beautiful, but I miss the rain!
  17. Which company do you think has the best marketing?
    The first company that pops into my head is Friskies, the cat food company. If you haven’t seen their “Dear Kitten” series of ads, then check them out! First, they’re story driven, which I love. Second, they stretch across multiple installations of that story. And third, they have both shorter and longer ads. Friskies did not confine the videos to traditional advertising slots. I think it’s very well done and a good example of how to use humor, create interest, and build loyalty with an audience.
  18. What do you love most about your job?
    Storytelling. It’s how we relate to people, yet in B2B tech marketing it’s often not used or poorly executed. Our content tends to be dry and leave the human element out. We’ve made strides in being customer-centric, but we still need to wrap a story around the customers, the company, and the problems we solve. Buying is an emotional process and we need to tap into customer sentiment. I think we can and will do better. And now you couple storytelling with advancements in digital and analytics, and you have an extremely powerful set of tools to measure the effectiveness of your story.
  19. What is your favourite book?
    I’d love to say some bold and enlightened answer like The Fountainhead. Although I love Ayn Rand, I can’t say her books are my favourite. The actual answer would be The Hobbit. Again, I’m a sucker for a good story and I think it’s among the best. However, what I truly appreciate about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the depth in which J.R.R. Tolkien crafted their world, Middle-earth. That attention to detail went a long way in creating the loyal audience the franchise enjoys.
  20. What keeps you awake at night?
    Professionally, my biggest fear is that we’re not moving fast enough. Customers, markets, technology, and marketing techniques are constantly changing. Balancing execution speed with agility to keep on top of these changes is hard. My fear is we’ll take the time to embrace change and slow down, or go fast and not embrace new change enough. Personally, my biggest fear is how divided people are right now. Technology has done an amazing job to flatten the earth and make information accessible, but I fear it will accelerate exclusive behaviour as quickly as it will accelerate inclusive behaviour.

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