Chief Marketing Officer Denise Karkos joined what is now TD Ameritrade in 2006 and has seen a lot of changes in her tenure there. The bank is a fixture in the world of investing, with over 360 branches and numerous recognitions over its 40-year history. In 2016, it bought Scottrade, “which doubled the size of our sales force and blended two cultures,” Karkos explained. This created new opportunities and challenges for aligning sales and marketing and refining her own leadership in the process.
Starting with Employee Engagement
Since the acquisition, she has "been working to create the best playbooks knowing that in some cases Scottrade had more experience, branches, and tenure to apply,” Karkos offered. “We want to make the combination the best it can be.” This required a large emphasis on listening and communication to ensure the right practices endure and that everyone is aware of the new direction.
“Never underestimate the importance of internal communications,” Karkos advised. “We have 11,000 associates. It can be overwhelming, but is very important to make sure that they all know the strategy and what we are trying to do.” This applies to what happens in the branches with product offerings for local clients, and in the larger marketplace as she builds the brand.
“One of the things that has been important is for us to preview commercials with our associates, to celebrate successes, and even sharing our digital campaigns,” she continued. “I like to share our world with our internal audiences. The advertising is fun, so we invite associates to the set of our commercials and even invite them to be in the spots.” This has led to business-impacting innovation.
“We were working on a commercial for our customers and decided to do some testing with our front-line employees,” she said. “I flew out to our call center and listened to phone calls and we did focus groups with associates.” They watched the rough-cut ad and a dialogue emerged. “One associate said that when he talks to traders the conversations are like therapy sessions. The investor is nervous.” They want to make the right choice and there are a lot of things to consider, which are often outside the domain or professional experience of the client. “They want to know if their decisions are sound,” she recalled. The associate "went on to say that his approach is to invite the client with an invitation: ‘Buddy, let’s talk it out.’” Light bulbs went off around the room and that line made it into the revised ad. “It was important to use the voice of actual conversations. Taking the time to listen to the words customers use," she offered. "In a world when people are uneasy and there is distrust, straight talk goes a long way,” Karkos concluded.
Listening Deeply to Customers
“We do a ton of qualitative and quantitative research to gain insights from consumers,” Karkos explained. “One of the themes that came up time and time again is that the old-school notion of ‘leaving a legacy’ is a superficial insight. It’s more about the emotional insight underneath that. It is about providing safety and security for their family. They want their kids to be okay.” Digging deeper into this theme created a new opportunity to connect with customers on an emotional level.
“We ran a spot around Father’s Day last year where we wrote new lyrics for the Harry Chapin classic ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ to reflect contemporary fatherhood,” Karkos said. “It was a tear-jerker. We previewed the commercial at a sales meeting to 300 of our retail associates and when I looked over the crowd and saw a bunch of tears.” They knew they had something of impact. “Our associates were sending it to their customers knowing that it would appreciate it and be touched by it as well,” Karkos added. Just the kind of viral behavior you want in an advertising campaign.
Over the subsequent months, we started getting stories back from the field. Memories of their own fathers. Stories about their sons. We received videos that they had shot themselves. It prompted a different conversation. With our associates and with their customers.”
“I am held accountable to revenue and profitability and although that ad campaign wasn’t our most profitable investment, I would do it again because of the impact it had internally.” The ad went on to be recognized as a 2017 Clio Music Shortlisted entry for use of music in a short form film.
Aligning Across Functions
“In order to make our customers successful, we need to make our associates successful,” Karkos continued. To understand "a day in their life” and let that influence investment, policies, and processes.
“Right now, it is cumbersome for them to know what ads and offers are in the market.” Due to the expansion of the business and legacy technologies, associates had to reference multiple systems. “We are in the process of developing and rolling out a customer relationship management system that allows a single sign-on and a complete look at the customer journey. This should be a game changer and make their job easier.” It is important to look at the marketing (and sales) technology stack holistically to see the impact on processes across the organization. “You want to innovate with clients,” Karkos added, “but you can’t put the burden on the back of salespeople. We measure share of wallet, but there are steps in the process before share of wallet that need visibility.”
And alignment doesn’t stop there. “We not only have to align with sales as there are other parts of the organization with whom we need to partner. For instance, finance,” Karkos offered.
“Our industry has a necessary evil called ‘offers.’ These are the promotions you see that offer free trades or cash incentives for opening up accounts,” she explained. “We market into a competitive space and we have to be responsive to what is being seen in the market. We have a budget for promotions and in highly-contested markets would often find ourselves out of budget and at a disadvantage.” This was unacceptable in the growth ambitions of the group.
Karkos was able to work with the finance team to “revisit the treatment of these offers to allow us more flexibility. This is the kind of alignment you only get when you are focused on the same growth and profitability goals.”
Although Karkos has been in the CMO role for five years, she has reported to the CEO for less than two. This reporting structure and expanded scope have changed the role. “This position in the organization has caused me to focus not just on the ROI of the marketing mix and emerging trends in the industry, but also to drive for better investment decision making overall,” she observed. “Sometimes that means investments in marketing when we are confident that would lead to growth. Other times it is investments in sales or technology with analogous metrics.”
Advocating beyond functional boundaries for the good of the business is an important shift in the maturation of marketing leaders. “There is growth we can get in the industry and we need to make smart investments,” Karkos explains. “I have learned to step back and think more strategically about how I show up in those conversations. Not just representing marketing, but representing the business overall.”
This article was originally published on Forbes.