AdTech Reboot

Trust Web Times Interview Series: Warren Zenna ; The CRO Collective

Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times
Marc Goldberg

Marc Goldberg

Author at The Trust Web Times

Marc Goldberg is a contributor for the Trust Web Times. Marc is also the Chief Revenue Officer of Method Media Intelligence an MRC accredited ad verification and measurement company.

Warren Zenna is CEO and Founder of The CRO Collective

Warren and I exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.

Marc Goldberg: Your career has been across many different spaces, can you tell us about your journey

Warren Zenna: First, thanks for having me. I’m glad my company mission resonated with you. 

I started out in sales back in the mid-90s when someone smarter than me grabbed me by the lapels and pushed me into a sales role with his company.  It changed my life frankly as it got me on a path to a much more expansive career that until then was not foreseeable.  As it turned out the role was in media ad sales so that’s the track I got into and stayed ever since. I didn’t choose it but I made it work.  I then expanded my sales acumen and became a sales leader / manager, and got into sales training for a bit as well. Because i was selling exclusively marketing services – working for small agencies and creative firms and search firms – I became a proficient marketer as well.  As any good sales person understands, when you become really good at selling a service, you become the product.  Soon, my time as a marketing expert was being bought as part of the engagements that I sold for the agencies I worked for.  I moved up the ranks so to speak – got a nice VP gig at Publicis when they bought a mobile agency (new at the time – it was 2008) and was central in making that unit grow into a $30mm business.  

I left and started a consultancy for a few years focusing on mobile and online marketing – when Havas reached out looking for someone to oversee their fledgling mobile advertising unit there. I was hired as a Executive overseeing the PL for the BU and took a 4 person “start up” to a 30-person $50mm dollar unit for the Havas North America. It was there that the idea of the CRO Collective was formulated.  

MG: So, you are now doing your own thing, tell me more about The CRO Collective.  

WZ: In short, The CRO Collective helps Chief Revenue Officers win and helps CEOs mitigate the risks that come with hiring one. We offer a suite of services and programs that enable B2B companies to grow through a unique focus on the success of Chief Revenue Officers. Why CROs?  From my 25 years in sales and marketing I’ve had 100s of conversations with CROs and CEOs – and the role of Chief Revenue Officer has a very unique opportunity in the next 5/10 years, mainly because the role is so new. 

What I came to understand over the last 20 years of working in the B2B sales and marketing industry is that there are a couple of important pervasive factors that go on at B2B companies. And the one that stands out as most important is this issue of revenue misalignment or silo-ization. And everyone’s aware of this. There’s an entire industry devoted to solving ‘sales and marketing misalignment’. There is probably a new sales and marketing alignment product, software platform, webinar, whitepaper, etc. hitting my inbox every single day. The reason for this is because it’s a real problem –and – it’s one that is not going away. And succinctly, CROs are really the actual solution to this problem – but they are being completely mis-hired and mis-directed. And I created the CRO Collective to fix this. 

MG: What sparked the creation of the business? 

WZ: I think that it’s an interesting position being a Chief Revenue Officer today because it’s a role that is so new – and that is the main reason that there remains an ambiguous understanding as to what the role is really supposed to do. The role itself has really only been in the mainstream about 8 years or so. It started in the tech sector of Silicon Valley and over the last 6 years it became a much more ubiquitous B2B role, usually within tech companies, certainly in the ad tech space. 

What’s happening currently is that the role is almost always misdirected, and this has massive implications for companies that many CEOs don’t realize. The reason is because if and when the Chief Revenue Officer role is appointed correctly, the role has incredible value for a B2B company in ways that most CEOs don’t fully understand. 

As to the issue of revenue misalignment: the reason there is an entire industry dedicated to solving it is because it is a very costly problem – not just in hard dollars. This issue impacts B2B businesses in so many ways, it’s the core disease of B2B companies with multiple symptoms.

What revenue misalignment means is that you’ve got the sales department, the marketing department, and more recently, the customer service organization – which are the most customer facing functions in the company, and have the most impact on customers than anybody else – who are not on the same page. And typically, these groups are not just misaligned, but they are commonly at war with one another. 

Now this is a bad thing because just by that one statement alone, you can already imagine why any CEO would want to remedy this as soon as humanly possible. But they don’t really know how, or, they are simply not willing to do the hard work and make the hard calls that would actually resolve it. 

So, it occurred to me that there exist all of these remedies in the marketplace designed to “fix the misalignment issue”. And there are frankly a lot of really good ones that a lot of really smart people have come up with. But they seem to not really solve the issue. Here’s a way to understand why: Have you ever been on a diet? Okay, everyone has. And when you decided to go on a diet, you likely saw that there is now more information in the marketplace about dieting than ever in the history of mankind. There’s literally no ambiguity about the basics of what healthy eating is. I mean everybody actually probably knows if I went up and asked them, exactly what they should eat to be healthy but most still don’t do it. 

So, what happens mostly is that people start a diet, and then even if it’s starting to go ok, they stop the diet. After about 8 to 10 weeks, they start eating doughnuts again. In a short time, their worst habits and worst nature takes over. And this is mainly because the missing component is some sort of ‘governing entity’ -one that can ensure that we eat properly all of the time. This is why people hire nutritionists or personal trainers. Our better nature is hard to govern because we are a single entity. But for individuals this is not a sustainable solution as trained professionals are a luxury and are expensive. 

Organizations are the same way. If you were to bring in a new discipline to a company, it may work for a little while, if it can be implemented. But the organizational entropy, the dynamics of the organization tend to fight against these fixes to get back to their comfort zones. And it is easy for these companies to regress back to those natural places because the actual problem hasn’t been fixed. It was only addressed symptomatically. 

And, like the diet analogy, the solution to the problem is Executive Oversight. Someone who is responsible for that remedy – whose job is to make sure it’s not only fixed but that the solution becomes endemic to the culture. 

And that’s what a Chief Revenue Officer really is supposed to do. To create, lead and sustain aligned revenue teams. 

So, if a C level executive is brought in who is equipped with the authority, the leadership skills, the competence, the resources and the permission to run the revenue organization in a synchronized, collaborative culture, you could understand how any new implementations would have a far likelier chance of succeeding. 

But here’s the issue: What happens is that most, if not all, Chief Revenue Officers are hired as executive sales leaders, not strategic revenue team leaders. Their focus is simply too focused, too myopic, too silo-ed, to solve this issue. And what this does is, it makes the alignment issue even worse. 

MG: Why is this?  How did the CRO become a sales leader role – and when is the right time and circumstances to hire one? 

WZ: This is the interesting part, and actually gets to the core of the issue I am working to solve. 

Imagine if you will, a misaligned, silo-ed company. The CEO is getting all sorts of heat from The Board because numbers are off, or projections are over-ambitious, or customers are churning, or whatever the crisis of the day may be. 

There are three main triggers at this point that drive this decision : 

One- the CEO has a sales leader at the company who is really the top earner and has established him or herself as invaluable to the company. The CEO is petrified to lose this person to a competitor and lose all of that valuable revenue and pipeline and customer connections, so he promotes the person to a CRO with a bump in pay, simply to keep that person happy and focused. Bad move #1. Arbitrarily handing out C suite titles to people as enticements is incredibly short sighted, but it happens most with the CRO role (and the CMO role as well, but that’s another conversation). 

Two: the CEO sees that all other companies and CEOs in his vertical are hiring CROs and feels that this somehow signifies some rite of passage or inflexion point for the market (which is ironically very true – but in a much different way than the CEO may be aware of), and so he goes out and hires one, too. 

Three, the CEO, under pressure from The Board as described earlier, comes to the conclusion that some crack-whiz sales leader can be parachuted in with powerful connections and a network to jump-start the engine so to speak and save the day.  

Now, there are a few things that are consistent with all three of these motivations – one, they are all reactive, and two, they are all ‘sales’ driven and sales focused decisions.  

So, what’s happened is that the Chief Revenue Officer role has been improperly appointed for all of those reasons I just described. While I don’t have the exact answer (no one does) or some reason over the last 5 / 6 years, the CRO role simply became synonymous with Sales. 

I’ve heard the CRO described as the ‘best dressed salesperson in the company’. And the aura of the role – the glory, the prestige, the acclaim that comes with it – for salespeople in particular, is extremely seductive. So, what’s happened here is sort of the perfect storm. The role has transmogrified into this uber-sales position with all of this esteem, and the CEOs are sort of induced into buying into this and it cascaded into a gradual re-definition of the role, to the detriment of the entire B2B industry.  So, that is the root of the problem of improperly appointed CROs. 

The main reason why these hiring triggers are bad is because a sales focused CRO only makes the misalignment problem worse. Whatever divisiveness and silo-ization that exists becomes even more amplified when a C-level executive runs sales. Now the sales org is even more pronounced and gets more focus and more resources and significance than it had before. This only causes more division and infighting.  

MG: So, what is a “CRO Ready” organization – and why do we need one? 

WZ: So, when people think about this idea of a ‘CRO-Ready’ organization, a lot of things come to mind.  If you are a CEO and you look at the dynamics I’m describing and you agree that they make sense (by the way virtually 100% of the CEOs I talk to, do agree), one would naturally think, ‘ok, I’ll hire a CRO the ‘right’ way and the problem should be resolved!’ 

Well, not so fast. The issue of CRO appointments and misalignment is that it’s not as simple as just hiring the right person. A company has to actually be ready for a CRO – organizationally, structurally, culturally –  and that’s where the CRO-Readiness comes in. 

That means that the CEO must first: A) Truly understand – and agree with – what a CRO really is supposed to do, and B) Set the organization up in a way that the CRO can be successful if those things are in place. 

And what that means – a CRO-Ready organization –  is a CEO who understands what the role entails, its complexities, its scope, its authorities, the multidisciplinary oversight of it, and the implications of how that role will affect the rest of the organization –  that CEO must to arrange their organization in a way that allows for a Chief Revenue Officer to come in and actually operate in a way that’s going to succeed. If the CEO does not do these things, then it will be a potential disaster.  Imagine, if I hire a CRO without first building a CRO Ready organization, what happens? That guy is now the enemy right? From day one!  I mean you hire some new C level person to come in and literally rearrange the organization. He’s not going to make any friends. I wouldn’t want that job. That’s a very difficult – and frankly unwinnable – situation for not only the incoming CRO, but everyone within the Revenue functions of the company. People will run for the exits or draw battle lines. 

MG: Who are your ideal customers? 

WZ: So, we work with CEOs of B2B companies – most optimally CEOs who are what I call “Pre-CRO”  – who are considering hiring one and are likely about to make the reactive, sales-focused decisions I described earlier. I also train existing CRO’s to be successful in the role in the way that I just described. And, I also train, what I call aspiring-CRO’s. Mostly who are Heads of Sales who aspire to be one in their next role. We also have created a “home” or a “place” for CROs. What shocked me, frankly, is that the CRO is one of – if not THE – most important B2B roles and there is not a single membership or support organization for CROs. So we are creating one. CROs have an extremely difficult and complex – and frankly, lonely – job. So we are building an organization for them where they can collaborate, share, learn and trust other CROs to help them succeed. And lastly, we are a placement organization for CROs – and for CEOs who are looking for ‘good’ ones. Our clients, once they have created CRO -Ready organizations, can turn to our CRO members as the ‘best in breed’.  

We offer an actionable course for CROs and Aspiring CROs to help ensure that they succeed in the role and also provides a Professional Certification as a Certified Professional Chief Revenue Officer. 

MG: What can we expect to see in the next 6 months at The CRO Collective? 

WZ: We are working diligently now on building the brand and the awareness – not only of the company, but more of the problem we solve, and how important it is for B2B companies to address misalignment as a critical issue and how a CRO – properly qualified, appointed and supported – is the solution for that issue.  We are also in the process of building out the CRO Collective Membership Community – which is the most requested aspect of our offering. What’s hard to believe is that there is no place for CROs. None. CMOs, CFOs, CEOs, — they all have a plethora of communities and support platforms – but CROs are ignored. We are going to do something about that.  It will likely start out as a Slack community and then build as we see the organic development and needs of the members. Our CRO courses are now also in high demand and I am thinking about how to best scale those for the requests. 

Once all of that becomes the flywheel we expect, there will become a CRO Placement component to our offering that connects CEOs with the best qualified – and Professionally Certified CROs in the market – ours.  So that’s all pretty exciting. 

MG: Advice to CROs who need to entertain during a global pandemic?

WZ: This is a fascinating aspect of the new world we live in. For decades there were companies who literally made their entire business on the backbone of travel and entertainment budgets. Back in 2016 I was taken by a tech firm on an all expense trip to The Masters in Augusta. These guys must have spent over $20k per person for this trip. It was phenomenal.  Their platform was not unique and differentiated in any significant way. But I used them. Because that trip was damn good. So their calculation was successful. Let’s spend money on wining and dining. Those days are over for at least the next year now. So CROs looking to build value are going to have to actually develop true customer centric ways to build affinity. The good news is that many of these empty air ware platforms will simply not survive. All industries need pruning from time to time. My advice would be to make the value based “entertainment” focused on client need. Create coalitions and partnerships and content platforms that make clients work lives better and more effective. It’s more of a brand value proposition and less of a social / entertainment based proposition. This is going to be a difficult transition for many of these companies.  The CROs who figure it out will distinguish themselves from the pack. 

MG: Assume the world gets back to normal someday soon, where are you going?

WZ: We are most definitely leaving the NYC area for sure at this point permanently. We’ve traveled a bit already and have not let this lockdown impede our lives in that area. And it’s been fine. I suspect we will be going to the Caribbean a lot as we really love it there. Also we want to go to the mountains – Rockies – and see some wide open spaces.