On this episode, I was joined by Kevin Lau, Senior Director of Customer Advocacy and Experiential Marketing at F5. He previously came on the show to share his tips for running awards programs based on his experience at Adobe. In light of the current economic situation we talked about his tips for customer marketers who are on the job market or interested in switching companies, how to tie customer marketing to revenue, the metrics the C-suite cares most about, and the course that he recently launched with Product Marketing Alliance. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Kevin.
Margot Leong: Hey Kevin, thank you for coming back on Beating The Drum, being a repeat guest here. Excited to have you chat with us going into 2023.
Kevin Lau: Yeah. No, thank you again, Margot. I really appreciate the time and excited to dive into it.
Margot Leong: You are speaking to us actually having changed roles since the last time we spoke. Previously you were at Adobe doing a lot of amazing work there and we’d previously talked about the nuts and bolts of the awards programs work that you had done there.
And now you are at a company called F5 and you’ve been there for about six months now. So yeah, just give us a little bit of insight into F5 and what you’re working on there. How is that different from Adobe as well?
Kevin Lau: Yeah, so the past six to eight months, leading to the change and starting a new role, it definitely was a whirlwind. Lot of mixed emotions. I was at Adobe for quite a bit of time, almost six years, and built some really amazing relationships there with both my peers and my team and the types of programs we’re running for customers.
And the change at F5, well, it is a completely different space in industry. Essentially we’re dealing in the cybersecurity space. Work for a company that little bit smaller size organization that’s really striving to accelerate their digital transformation, moving from hardware to software solutions. And a very different customer audience.
A dobe, I was talking to people that buy products that were sellers or marketing folks that understood MarTech solutions in general and being in the IT and CIO space is very different. Very interesting. But I was also looking for a different challenge and a way to think about how do I reinvent myself.
And so here at F5, my remit is similar, but it’s also a little bit more expanded and different. And so I’m overseeing customer marketing and what we call sort of experiential marketing as well.
So thinking about how do you create really personalized and exceptional experiences from a global standpoint? So every time a customer experiences F5 as a brand and organization, how is that translated from the web experience to the actual physical events down to the programs like a customer advisory board or a customer briefing center or something of that nature.
And then we also are leading the charge on all things around customer communication. So how do we scale our communications? How do we deliver the right type of message at the right moment to the customer when it’s most impactful and needed? So that’s a little bit about what my team’s doing today.
Margot Leong: You mentioned you were looking for a different type of challenge. Give me a sense of how you thought about what you wanted to do next and how you thought about coming into this new role, interviewing for this job. Just what your feelings were generally about how you approached this.
Kevin Lau: I think a lot of folks could relate to this because it almost feels like we’re going into almost like a second pandemic wave, if you wanna put it that way. The first pandemic was, we were all working remote. We were trying to figure out what’s gonna prove impact? Companies were doing layoffs, they were restructuring because they didn’t really know how long this pandemic was gonna last and what was gonna happen with COVID in the future. And now we’re starting to see the trickle down effect over the past two years where there is a tightening of economies.
Like things aren’t completely a hundred percent, quote unquote back to normal. And so companies have either invested, maybe too much in terms of hiring new folks, or they weren’t really clear on what the goals or the outcomes that they wanted to achieve over the next three to five years.
And so we’re starting to see this buckling of resources across the board and it’s often hit the tech space pretty hard. You and I hear it probably a lot just because a lot of our peers are in the tech space in general, but it is becoming a global thing that’s affecting everyone.
And so for myself, thinking about making a change, the back of my mind, I was always thinking about how do I continue to scale up myself so that I’m learning new things, I’m exploring other ways that I could prove value and impact to an organization.
I built a great career at Adobe and launched a lot of different programs, but it got to a period of time where I felt like I was not learning as much as I may have been if I was like, brand new or in a role for one to two years. And so I thought about where can I add value and where does it make sense to learn new skill sets that are gonna help me if I want to become VP of Marketing or CMO one day.
I’m not saying that’s the role that everyone wants to do. But eventually, I think people start to think about career progression, and how do we ultimately take on big remits, bigger responsibilities, try something new so it doesn’t become stale.
My passion has always been about customer programs, but what are the things that are, related to that, that also I can help influence and touch and at the same time, show results and an impact in an uncertain economy and uncertain time.
When we’re going into sort of this compressed budget experience that finance is overly scrutinizing what marketing is doing and how do we move from being just a line item expense to actually a key component of the go-to-market strategy. I really needed to think about how do we operate like a general manager, thinking about very holistically what are the programs that are gonna move the needle forward to drive revenue with impact? Customer marketing folks, it has been a little bit of struggle for folks to think in those words and in that framework because oftentimes we’re being asked to build the relationship with the customer.
And most customer marketing teams are usually very tiny, maybe one person, two people. Unless you’re an Adobe or a similar size company, you’re generally strapped to wear multiple different hats. And so it becomes a little bit more challenging.
So I had to think about what are the types of programs that are gonna have that influence? And how do I partner very closely with the other functions, whether it’s sales, other counterparts in marketing, customer success to focus on one to two or three things that are really gonna drive the needle, whether it’s retention or influencing new logo acquisition, et cetera.
Margot Leong: Absolutely. To your point around what is my longer term goal, right? Whether that’s, do I want to stay within customer marketing, move up within that or try that out at different companies versus do I wanna take my skills and apply those to another goal? VP of marketing, CMO, right?
There’s a lot of overlap where marketing is also very responsible for thinking about the customer versus only just getting the prospect, right? Up to the finish line and then being like, okay, bye. I think it’s still a bit nascent, but I think everybody agrees in theory that this is extremely important, someone has to own this. And marketing is a very key part of that.
Looking at the things that you’ve done and how they’ve translated to what you’re doing now at F5, you still have the customer at the core, but you’re also thinking about overall comms, right? You’re also thinking about how to do these more personalized experiences and I’m sure a lot of the work that you did at Adobe and you’re thinking about events, awards, programs, right? You can take a lot of those pieces and then rearrange them and have them influence how you approach what you’re doing currently, right, with the customer at the center.
This is just generally good advice. You don’t have to be like, okay, I’ve done this type of role. I can only do this specific type of role at the next place I go to. It’s really thinking about what are the skills that I’ve developed as a result of working in this role, and could I apply them to other interesting things that get me closer to maybe what my future goal would be?
Or would it be interesting to go to a smaller company like you have an F5 you also get the ability, to probably get your hands in more things. So you’re kind of seeing how a lot of these pieces fit together compared to a much larger company like Adobe.
Kevin Lau: That’s definitely spot on. Just the ability to kind of see like where our decisions are being made and how are things going to market and how do ultimately do we reduce the friction, how we operate with our customer essentially, how do we make sure that they have a good experience?
It goes beyond just customer marketing or customer success or all these other functions, but it’s how do we all kind of work in tandem to build this flywheel where the customer has a great experience overall.
And I do think if folks are in sort of a phase right now where they’re thinking proactively about if they wanna stay at their current companies or they are looking to make a shift, it’s good to start to see who are the two to three other teams that you wanna partner more closely with and really create those shared goals. So it’s not just on one team to deliver results.
When you think about retention, that shouldn’t really be one team’s sole responsibility. It should be a company-wide initiative. And so how can you partner with those stakeholders and those teams to deliver the right type of outcome? I think that will start to move your role and your position and your team into more of a strategic driver that’s influencing company-wide goals and initiatives for the year.
Margot Leong: If you think about the entire customer journey, customer marketing is of course involved in that. But of course there’s success. Of course there’s support. It’s not really under one department’s purview to own all of these things.
So what better opportunity is there to really raise your hand, right? To partner with these other teams and say, Hey, instead of only partnering together, like referenceable customers or something specific or like a campaign. Could we do something where we come together, right? These three pillars and think about how we can put this in place for the next quarter, for the next few quarters. Right? I really like that concept.
Something that you had mentioned on the pre-call prior to this interview is around thinking about positioning yourself on the job market. And so much of the work that customer marketers do is around building customer relationships so that we can then utilize those relationships for all these different things.
But of course, it can be fuzzy how to tie these back into revenue. What are your thoughts on if people are thinking about okay , like, in hindsight, how would I tie these to revenue? Or how can I do this going forward if I want to, let’s say, get more visibility within my organization or I want to think about moving into another role, going to another company.
Kevin Lau: You know what’s really interesting that I think it was a key learning for myself, especially taking on more of a leadership role. Anytime that you can get executive time with your CMO or your Chief Revenue officer, or even your CEO. And actually just be a fly on the wall and listen to the conversations that happen at that level and that altitude. Most of these folks are typically in board meetings, very often they’re in QBRs, they’re in some type of executive review.
And so the altitude of the conversations that go on in those settings is actually very eye-opening in terms of if you can relate your program to the way that they think and translate information on what is happening across the company or the organization, is where it’s gonna start to create better alignment.
And when you do have that executive stakeholder and sponsorship and you have that runway to, get that visibility to your C-suite, your team starts to become more strategic and you have more impact. We just had our QBRs recently, and so I got to see like specifically what are the scorecards, what are the metrics that they mostly look at?
And sometimes it’s basic funnel, pipeline and how are they looking at deal progressions, things like that. But think about specifically how your programs fit into each of those touchpoints that lead to a sale closing or lead to a customer wanting to renew.
It’s not gonna be just one team, like you said earlier. It’s gonna take literally a village of different stakeholders, all working hand in hand. But if you can specifically point out where your programs drive that impact and then tie that to influence by working closely with your data, your marketing operations professionals. You want them to be essentially your best friend throughout the process. When I actually just started at this company, those were the first teams that I immediately reached out to as well as finance to be able to have really strong conversations around, future state, this is what I want to be able to prove and the theory that I want to have behind on, like how my programs influence revenue at the end of the day.
Margot Leong: Is there anything else that stood out to you when it came to the metrics that you saw that executives were the most focused on, or were those sort of the main areas?
Kevin Lau: I mean, they’re also very concerned with operational: how much they’re spending to run the company essentially, right? So what is the run rate, even if they are a profitable company, everyone’s looking at how do we prevent layoffs or any kind of downsizing.
And so it’s like, how do we become more, not necessarily thrifty on how we utilize our current budgets. But how do we essentially make the right decisions, based on what we have available to us today and how do we operate a little bit more scrappy? So if there’s any way that you know, you yourself, in your existing companies can think about how can I spin up things that could be like a pilot that doesn’t necessarily cost more money. Or actually help save the company revenue, then I think those are things that the organization is more likely to green light versus the team that’s always asking for, Hey, can I get an extra million dollars to do this type of campaign, or can I spend some more money on paid media to drive more awareness?
And so that’s how I would frame it and think about how can you run pilots that will be operational within a quarter or two and really test out to see if it’s driving the needle forward, as opposed to spending six months and millions of dollars to run something. .
Margot Leong: For you coming into a new company with a similar but also slightly different remit, how did you think about what you wanted to focus on, let’s say 30, 60, 90. How did you then approach yeah, building and thinking about the vision for what you would do when you first started there?
Kevin Lau: It was a similar approach to when I was working at Marketo and we got acquired by Adobe. We were like the new kids on the block and some of these functions and customer marketing didn’t exist at the time. . And so there’s always sort of this lens where you know you’re the new person. Folks have been here a long time. The tenure for a lot of these folks is five to 10 years. Some of them were very set in their ways, and some were also open to opportunity.
And so I think when you initially join a new company or even take on a new role, the best thing you can do is just start to have these informational interviews and usually within the first two to three weeks, you’ll have a good grasp of where are there potentially some gaps and where are there ways that you can partner more closely to drive and move the needle forward?
I would think about like, how do you place your bets on your top three to five things that you could think you could do really well based on your skillset and your experience. And based on how you could partner with those different stakeholders, whether it’s customer success around retention or it’s sales around driving pipeline. Those are just two examples. But I think that’s one way you can start to think about how do you expand your vision.
You also wanna be known for specifically how you’re gonna drive impact within, like you said, in the first 30, 60, 90 days, or even a year from now. And so I was very methodical right out the gate in developing a set of my, well, I like to call it my walking deck. What are my strategic pillars? What do I want to plant my flag behind and say, Hey, this is the roadmap. This is what I wanna focus on. This is what we’re looking to accomplish over the next couple quarters to drive impact.
And then if you have an executive sponsor, it’s great to kind of use that person as a sounding board, whether it’s your C MO or so on that you can start to build a relationship and get their feedback. Does this make sense? Is this aligned? Do you think there will be friction along the way? But I think that’s where you can get that direct insight to see if it’s feasible or not.
Margot Leong: An important part of all of this, especially for you in your role as a senior director, is not just understanding what metrics the C-Suite is most interested in, but also figuring out how to show off the good work that you’re doing to try and get to the things that they care most about.
You strike me as someone that’s pretty methodical and thoughtful about how you approach a lot of these pieces. How do you think about also sharing out the progress of what you’re doing so that they know and then they care about it.
Kevin Lau: We mentioned QBRs as one like culmination that happens each I think if there could be sort of a regular drumbeat essentially, no pun intended with your podcast name , but that really is honestly the truth.
How do you create that drumbeat or that constant reminder? You can never over communicate enough to your stakeholders. Oftentimes, especially if you have a busy executive, they’re not reading the full email, right? They’re not looking at the full slide. They’re looking at maybe briefly one to two sentences here and there, and they start to pick up a picture the more frequently that you communicate with them. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a formal, executive review once a quarter. It could even just be a one-on-one conversation you have with them, in the hallway or when you want to just chat with them during a happy hour or a company all hands or something, right?
And so the more that you can insert opportunities to share out the good work that your team is doing. Frankly, I think sometimes it is political depending on what company you work for in the organization, how it’s operating. But this is why you also want to build really good reliances and relationships with people at your same level and make those folks look like rock stars at the same time in the process.
If you tell your executives, your stakeholders, the partner team, the customer success leads, they’re all working hand in hand and they’ve helped really drive these initiatives forward, you start to build sort of those internal relationships that they’ll vouch for you as well at the same time. And so that’s generally speaking a good way to build the relationship with, especially if you’re a new person.
Margot Leong: What tips or advice do you have for people in this space who are looking to change roles, around just general job searching type tips or getting themselves out there basically?
Kevin Lau: Things that are fairly easy to do is, we all try to focus on building our network and also sharing content pretty regularly. I think with the networking piece is look out for folks that might have a similar type of role. Or might have something interesting that you notice they’re always talking about and honestly just find time to connect with them. I think most folks generally like to network and even if it’s like a 15, 20 minute conversation, those are folks that I think are very open.
Every time someone that might be getting a new award or they hit a new milestone , set up some time just to connect with them and learn what did they actually do to get that achievement or get that result. And you’ll find that most people are willing to openly share as much as possible.
The interesting thing when I was looking at making a shift in the types of companies I wanted to work for, the role at F5, I didn’t have to actually physically apply for it. I built a relationship with the CMO and she essentially built the role for me based on my experience and based on what I was looking to achieve.
If you’re looking to move somewhere else, one of the great things is building relationships with executives that may have a remit around customer marketing or CX and see, maybe it might be a good fit down the road.
Margot Leong: So how did you end up building that relationship with the CMO? Was this someone who already had that interest in kind of this general work that you were doing and they had reached out to you? Or how did you get connected with her?
Kevin Lau: It’s interesting sometimes it’s a timing situation because they were at an inflection period in their company’s transformation where they’re looking to accelerate their growth from a customer experience standpoint.
And so the CMO was looking for individuals and oftentimes they do a cursory job of looking for roles and looking for people based on title and experience. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, I try to post pretty regularly as well as participate in podcasts like this or others and share content.
And so it got her attention and we started to have a conversation and turned into a 15 minute conversation turned into 45 minutes, and then it ended up evolving from there. But that’s honestly where it goes from there, you just have a point of view, you have a opinion of what you could do to drive impact and sometimes opportunities happen that way.
Margot Leong: One thing to add from my own experience, right? Having this podcast. This is not something I’ve really spoken about before is that a lot of these things compound. I’m not very active on LinkedIn at all, and I thought about what would be helpful for me in the job market in the future. And to be honest, I didn’t have a strong sense of, do I want to be in customer marketing forever?
Customer focus was very important to me. Basically the reason why I did this podcast was thinking this doesn’t exist really. There’s not a lot of resources at the time that I started it. And so I wanted something that was a bit differentiated, something that could leverage existing experience that I had working in the public radio industry and a journalism background.
And also something that would give me energy, right? And so people like yourself, I get energy from it, right? I don’t think it’s a massive lift for me personally to get to talk to people like you, right? And I find it very enjoyable. What has been interesting about this compounding is it has led to a lot of opportunities just as a result of having done this and not really having put a lot of work on the social media side.
About two and a half years ago I had the opportunity to move into more of a general marketing role, even though I’d never done it before and I think part of their interest in working with me was because I had the podcast and because I had thought about content strategy and doing this thing on my own.
If you have an interest in any type of work that you do, are there side projects that you can take on that you can also share publicly, share your learnings along the way. So whether that is a podcast you’re doing independently or a newsletter like some people are starting to do, or of course like we’re gonna talk about on your end soon. Or applying for awards or sharing on LinkedIn, I think that it’s all around putting yourself out there and being like did I learn something new or interesting today in my field of work? And writing it, sharing it with other people.
That is from what I’ve seen for people who are doing well in this industry, it seems to really have an impact of just getting yourself out there and differentiating yourself from others on the job market. I do think that there are things that you can do, may not necessarily be a massive lift but can actually be very helpful for putting you more front and center and lead to really interesting, almost like serendipitous opportunities similar to what you’re talking about with the role that happened for you at F5. The value and magic of like compounding and differentiation and really thinking about it in that way, it can be very helpful for you in the future.
Kevin Lau: That’s totally spot on. That is amazing advice. And I think that’s totally true. I mean, you do an amazing job with this podcast and I’m an active subscriber and listener as well.
It’s a good point, folks just need to find something that they like to do. And mine just happens to be LinkedIn because I have a social media background. But essentially pick what you’re comfortable exploring. And sometimes it is a stretch just to get started, but oftentimes I think it’s just that initial fear, then once you get the ball rolling, it becomes second nature.
Margot Leong: The last thing I wanted to spend our remaining time on was talking about this course that you recently launched with Product Marketing Alliance. And so I’d love if you could share a little bit about the course and what was the catalyst for deciding to put this together?
The reason I wanted to take it on, it was essentially like a passion project. I was very passionate about customer marketing, community, retention, everything we talked about earlier. And the folks at the Product Marketing Alliance reached out to me and they said they wanted to create a comprehensive curriculum on the A-Zs of customer marketing advocacy.
And so the course itself, originally it was 10 hours of content, over 300 different slides of everything from the basics of how to get executive alignment, how to build your strategy, and what are the actual programs you could spin up, like references or building out your community, et cetera.
And so I try to give people a direct opportunity to almost lean over my shoulder and see if I was helping you build out your program, this is how I would approach it. It’s not the only way to do it, of course. It’s essentially distilling 13 plus years of my own background working in customer roles to give folks an unfair advantage or a cheat sheet that they can follow. And so there’s a lot of different templates and actual guides that people could use when they’re starting to go through the curriculum itself.
And I also bring in a couple different industry experts. Like I think you’ve had Barbara Thomas or BT on your podcast before. She talks about customer awards and reference programs. We also have David Spinx who talks about the importance of community. And then we also have some stakeholders like Jane Nathan, who talks about customer success.
And so hopefully it gives people a comprehensive curriculum where people can learn some of the fundamentals and even advance things if they’ve been around the block for a while.
Hats off to you for putting this together. I mean, there’s a lot of work and thought that goes into to creating something like this. The course has been out for a little bit now, what has been the feedback so far? And is there any gems or sneak peeks that you can give us on anything that people have really been resonating with in terms of the course?
Kevin Lau: I’m thankful and grateful just for the fact that we’ve had a lot of interest. A lot of folks have signed up recently and I get pings all the time from folks that are going through the modules and some people that completed it, they get a certification and they tag me saying it was super helpful around how to deal with references or how to spin up a user group program or something like that.
And so I think where people have focused on, they really appreciate just the level of detail. There’s a section that I have in there that talks about three pillars of what is customer advocacy and what are the types of programs you can build around it.
It is geared towards folks that are, whether they’re early in their career in customer marketing or advocacy, or they work in similar type of customer functions. So customer success is one example. Maybe even support or even could be someone in sales. And so those are the types of folks that are actually completing it.
Margot Leong: Was there any type of content when it came to putting together the course that was harder for you to put together or anything that was surprising to you when it came to putting this whole thing together?
Kevin Lau: I’ve never written a book, but I think it’s probably somewhat similar in terms of building out chapters similar to modules. One version of this had 50 modules at one point, and then I had to narrow it down into specific groupings that kind of made sense. And at one point I had more than 300 slides and we had to tear it back.
And one thing I forgot to mention is that this is one of the courses I’m producing, so there’s gonna be a couple more next year that tackles specific things around. Hey, if you’re looking at building technologies in your CMA toolkit, what are the types of vendors you wanna work with? What are the types of agencies that you could partner with? And then we also talk a little bit more about strategy and org design and customer retention and metrics as like an advanced module.
So there’s more stuff coming down the road, but this was meant to be an initial run , what do you need to do? Especially if you’re brand new to your job and hit the ground running type of thing.
If you’re going through it yourself as well and you have any feedback, totally open to feedback and opportunities to make improvement. Like I said, this is just my perspective on some of these topics and if we could make it better or more concise or easier to follow, totally open to making adjustments down the road.
Margot Leong: This is great and definitely something that would be valuable for so many people. And it’s clear from talking to you that there’s a lot of wisdom that you’ve garnered from your time at different companies around how to think about a lot of these things.
If people are interested in reaching out to you, learning more about the course and just connecting with you in general, what’s the best place for them to do that?
Kevin Lau: They can always just reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active, just look for my name and that’s pretty easy. But always happy to answer any questions that people might have.
Margot Leong: Thanks for tuning into this episode of Beating The Drum. For more interviews with advocacy leaders and tips on creating customers that will sing your praises, head on over to our website, beatingthedrum.com. If you enjoyed today’s show, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to rate and review us. If you know someone that would be a great fit for the show, I would love to hear about it. You can reach out at beatingthedrum.com. Take care, everybody.