Q&A: Lucidworks CMO Keith Messick on Good Marketing vs. Total BS

In an industry cluttered with marketing “gurus” and “thought leaders”, Keith Messick, Chief Marketing Officer of search and analytics platform Lucidworks, is determined to cut through the bullshit. His hard-earned knowledge comes from a career working for major companies and small startups, giving him strong convictions on what really matters in marketing.

In this enlightening and entertaining chat, he talks to Column Five Cofounder Josh Ritchie about why so much marketing sucks, marketers’ biggest mistakes, and why a circus-themed website design gave him a major marketing a-ha moment.

JR: Give us a little background. Who are you, and why should our readers care about what you have to say about marketing?

KM: I’m a bit of an accidental CMO. I started my career being the world’s worst C programmer, then quickly moved into Sales, Consulting, Marketing, or some combination of the three. Somewhere along the way, the company I was working for had an open VP Marketing position, so I sent the CEO an email stating what I thought was wrong and how I would fix it. The CEO believed me, and I’ve been VP Marketing/CMO ever since.

I heard Jimmy Iovine (Interscope Records, Beats Electronics, etc) interviewed recently, and he talked about the role of the music producer. He said that the producer’s job is to be “of service” to the artist and do whatever it takes to help them create the very best piece of art. Now, he didn’t say “be submissive” or “do whatever the artist says” but rather that everything the producer does is in the spirit of creating the best outcome. Sometimes the producer is a tyrant and other times they simply get out of the way, but it’s never about the producer. It’s always about the end result.

Similarly, I believe that Marketing’s job is to be “of service” to the business: to sales, product, strategy, customer success, etc. Sometimes I fight like hell, sometimes I get out of the way, but my goal is always to help create the very best outcome.

I think a lot of marketers blur the line between producer and talent/artist. The focus is how they can be “of service” to themselves instead of to the business. In my experience, this consistently produces negative outcomes.

(Personally, I’d rather be interviewed about BBQ or Alabama Football, but you didn’t give me that option.)

JR: When I asked you for this interview, you said you wanted to speak on why “marketing is (completely) bullshit sometimes.” Can you elaborate on that?

KM: Well, I hate to start with a negative, but the effectiveness of marketing overall is on a steady decline. Content is the fuel that drives B2B marketing, but there’s too much focus on quantity and not enough on quality. Everyone loses in this scenario.

Take me as an example: As a CMO, there are at least 10 different markets trying to get my attention. Then there are 5-10 different companies in each market, so on any given day there are 50-100+ companies targeting me. Multiply that times the amount of content they’re producing, and suddenly I’m lost in a sea of “12 things the Easter Bunny can teach you about Account Based Marketing” posts—and completely indifferent to any of their efforts.

A better path forward:

  • Treat your audience’s attention like it’s your most precious resource. Don’t abuse it.
  • Make sure the goal is to drive more business—increased pipeline, increased deal size, increased win rates—then measure the results and act accordingly.
  • Understand that everyone is saying the exact same thing. Content that challenges the status quo is better than content that reinforces it.

JR: You also joked that we should talk about “why thought leaders are often terrible at their jobs.” Want to elaborate on that, too?

KM: My dad one time said, “If the person working the plumbing aisle at Home Depot actually knew what they were talking about, then they’d be a plumber. The pay is better.”

I know 5 people right now who would probably fall under the category of “marketing thought leader” (whatever the hell that even means). They’ve worked hard on their personal brand, built a large amount of Twitter followers, sat on every possible panel discussion, etc. The problem is they’ve built their brand on being good at talking about work instead of actually being good at work.

These aren’t bad people. In fact, most of them are really lovely. The problem is now that all 5 of them are unemployable. They can’t find a job and when they do, they can’t keep it. Why? Because companies think they’re getting a plumber and instead they’re getting the person in the plumbing aisle.

JR: You’ve been working for startups for a while now. For those who haven’t, what are the biggest differences (besides budgets) between startup marketing and regular marketing?

Speed, uncertainty, and accountability.

1) Speed: There’s really no good way to explain how fast things can move at an early-stage company until you’ve been there. If you’re high growth, then you’re holding on by the seat of your pants. If you’re low growth, then you’re flying around doing everything you can to become high growth. It’s a breakneck pace that you either love or hate. It’s not necessarily sexier or better than working for a big company, but it’s different. From time to time, I make a point to stop my team and say, “Hey, take a break for a second and look at all of the stuff we’ve created in the past month. It’s amazing.”

2) Uncertainty: Without over-romanticizing it, the nature of startups is that you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before or do it differently than it’s currently being done. By definition, you never have enough information. Marketing isn’t sitting on stacks of customer or market data to help guide the 15 big decisions that need to be made this month. You try and gather as much info as you possibly can, then “plug it in, and see if it runs.” It’s that constant cycle of test and iteration that makes startup marketing really interesting but also the thing that gives me the biggest headache.

3) Accountability: I’ve worked at companies with 10 people and ones with 10,000 people. You can’t hide at a small company. That’s either really exciting or really scary, depending on your personality. If you’re writing copy for the company’s new site, then you’re maybe the ONLY person working on that project. It’s not like there’s a legal team reading every word to make sure you’re in compliance. So you’re moving really fast, you don’t have enough information, and you’re directly on the hook for the output. Good luck.

JR: What’s are the biggest challenges in B2B marketing?

KM: 1) Someone once told me that “surface area kills companies,” and it’s still the best advice I’ve ever been given. Startups that try to do too much are DOA. Effective B2B Marketing is fueled by the exhaust from a focused corporate strategy and a product that supports that strategy. If there’s a lack of focus in either of those two things, it’s hard to “out market” that problem.

As a marketing leader, you’re constantly trying to both help the business focus and still execute in times when things are less than perfect (which is a lot of the time). It’s essentially trying to row and steer at the same time.

2) Marketing has to figure out ways to influence other parts of the business. Again, effective marketing is fueled by things technically out of their direct control, so you better find a way to make sure marketing overlaps with product development, customer success, user experience, etc. Otherwise, you’re just sitting around hoping all of these things are good enough. I’ve found “hope” to be a terrible business strategy.

3) A more classic marketing challenge is trying to balance emotion and logic in your marketing. B2B marketing is supposed to be logical—“Look here’s an ROI calculator!”—but B2B buyers are just as emotional as consumers. You’re both trying to challenge the buyer’s view of the world (logic) while also reinforcing whatever they’re expecting (emotional) from your product, the overall experience, etc. You need both, and that’s a constant challenge but one that I enjoy.

JR: What are you guys trying to do right now? What are some of your brand’s unique challenges?

KM: We have a very technical product. Our personas are very technical—engineers, app owners, and devops. When we think about product marketing, we’re trying to effectively communicate the product benefits to these people directly. At the same time, the business value of our product is realized at the functional or line of business level. Are you selling more? Reducing costs? It’s a unique balance of technical and business value. Too little technical cred and engineering won’t bite. Too little business cred and the project won’t get funded.

JR: You guys work on some pretty impressive technology. How long did it take you and your team to get up to speed?

KM: Even though the technology itself may be complex, the business challenges it solves are still very simple. Companies want to sell more, spend less, and delight their customers. So while we work very hard to stay educated on the product and its technical capabilities, we work even harder to understand and communicate how it adds value beyond speed and scale.

For instance, we just announced that we’re powering search for Reddit. From a technical standpoint, powering search at that level of scale is a monumental feat. While I absolutely appreciate what it takes technically to make this work, I’d rather talk about why hyper-relevant search matters to Reddit and their hundred of millions of users

JR: How is your team composed, and what does your creative process look like?

KM: We have a Creative Director, Field Marketing, Marcom, Product Marketing, Demand Gen, and Marketing Ops. We work really closely with our Technical Services team, and the Customer Experience function is a dotted line into marketing. We also work with some specialist agencies as needed.

I spent some time at Apple after they acquired my company, and I really appreciated their Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model. We’ve implemented something similar in Marketing. Every person is the CEO of their function, and their job is to commandeer the resources needed to ensure success. Startups move really fast, and this model assures that any idea without an owner isn’t an idea worth implementing.

Some tenets that we abide by in our creative process:

  • We’re collaborative and communicative. Because our product and market is complex, many minds are needed in a room to arrive at something. Therefore, we often start the process by including thought from all groups—marketing, product, and services—as we identify the requirements of the problem space. While we’re collaborative, we don’t believe in committees. We just need enough info to start the first iteration. Committees are where work goes to die, especially in early-stage companies.
  • We’re not afraid to solve problems that seem significant or complex. Whether it is distilling a complex message into a relevant and clear narrative or establishing a new design language, we’ve learned not to overthink just because the stakes are high.

JR: How do you guys bake failure and taking risks into what you do?

KM: We’re an early-stage company. Risk and failure are part of the gig. What I want to know is, “Was it a bad idea, bad execution, or both?” Perfect execution of a bad idea is a great place to be in, in my opinion. Then I can look at my team and say, “Yeah, that sucked. Let’s never do that again.” Without good execution, you sit around afterwards without any real clue as to why it failed. That’s unacceptable.

JR: For your current company, what is your biggest marketing win? What relative failure led to some awesome lessons?

I don’t view marketing as a series of events that get classified as wins or losses. I want to know if we’re being of service to the business. Are we supporting the business through every stage of the funnel? Are we creating a valuable experience for customers and prospects? Are we positively impacting corporate and product strategy? These are really the only things I care about.

JR: Have you ever had to market a bad product? What was that like for you and your team? How’d you guys fare?

I can say with 100% certainty that if you have a bad product, then it really doesn’t matter how “good” your marketing is. Sure, we’ve marketed “around” product gaps, but if you’re doing that for too long, you’re better off just finding a new job.

Companies have products. Buyers have expectations of that product. If the gap between those two things is too wide for too long, there’s really no benefit to trying to close it via Marketing. All you’re doing then is ensuring that expectations won’t be met. If you’re a marketer in that scenario, you should do everyone a favor and tell the CEO to fire the marketing team and hire a better head of product and engineers.

JR: What does good marketing look/sound/feel like? What about bad marketing?

KM: Many years ago I was running marketing for a startup that had a ton of early traction, but the product stalled, the market was fuzzy, or some combination of the two. As a result, both demand gen and revenue stalled as well. In an attempt to buy time for the product team, we decided to redesign the website and put a fresh coat of paint on the brand. It was a bit of a hail mary, so I wanted it to be as bold as possible. I remember telling the team, “I don’t care what people’s opinions are of this site, but no one should see it and not have one (opinion).” We ended up with the most outlandish hand-drawn circus-themed website. People either loved or hated it, but they were all talking about it.

I remember reading a design blog railing on how bad our site was, how it’s terrible marketing, etc., then opening Salesforce to see that trials were up nearly 1,000%. It was in that moment that I realized it’s hard to say what’s good or bad marketing if you don’t know what the goal is and how the results fared.

Now, in the spirit of the question, I’d say that good marketing is that which doesn’t waste an audience’s time and doesn’t create expectations that can’t be met by the product.

JR: In your opinion, where does marketing start and sales pick up?

There’s no hard and fast rule for when sales “starts.” It really depends on your business model. But if you believe that Marketing’s job is to be of service to the business (like I do), then it should never stop. Marketing should be integrated in every stage of the funnel and influencing every aspect of the business.

JR: Any parting words/advice/stories for our readers?

Here are three pieces of advice given to me by various bosses over the years:

  1. Be good at your job, and then have a strong opinion. Do it the other way around and you’ll get cut out of the decision-making process.
  2. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” It’s amazing how much time gets wasted at work because people are afraid to simply say “I don’t know” when asked a question.
  3. Only assholes use the bcc: line. Don’t be an asshole.

Many thanks to Keith for sharing his thoughts. For more wisdom from game-changers in content marketing and content strategy, check out these Q&As:

Of course, if you need any help with your own marketing, we’d love to chat.