Frank Grillo

Chief Marketing Officer, Harte Hanks

Frank Grillo is the Chief Marketing Officer for Harte Hanks. His career has entailed senior executive leadership roles at companies like CenturyLink Inc., Broadvox LLC, Cypress Communications Inc., Trinsic Inc. (formerly Z Tel Technologies Inc.), MCI WorldCom, and LDDS. He also serves as a member of Marketing Advisory Board at Harte Hanks. Grillo has been recognized as the Technology Marketing Executive of the Year by the Technology Association of Georgia and is a frequent lecturer at events and tradeshows, as well as an active blogger.

Please provide some information about your background and your current role and responsibilities as CMO of Harte Hanks. 

I've been at Harte Hanks since October of 2015. Prior to that, my entire career has been in B2B marketing in the technology space. This is my first time being on the agency side of things as opposed to being on the actual client side—it's been a fun and interesting transition.

When I first started, I was responsible for all of the marketing for the entire business of Harte Hanks, and a year ago, I added responsibility for the business development team as well. Starting this year, I also assumed direct responsibility for our marketing services business unit, which combines classic agency functions like creative, strategy, marketing technology, data database and marketing operations.

As a CMO with a pulse on the trends and challenges of marketers across a broad range of industries, what area(s) of marketing do you feel that marketing executives need to be focusing on today? 

While it may sound cliché, personalization is the key topic, but you have to consider all of the components associated with it, including data privacy. Certainly, privacy and respect for the information that clients share with us are at the forefront, given General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the recent Facebook breach. These issues have made it increasingly important for consumers to understand the information that we have and what we do with it. All of this goes back to understanding that the buyer is in control of their journey, and our job is to market to the buyer according to their preferences—where and when they want to be marketed to. We need to use the tools we have, including the information that end customers share with us, to serve them. If we can do this well, then customers will have more trust in our brands.

This segues nicely into how to serve customers well and earn that trust. The marketer’s job used to be all about getting consumers to the cash register, but that isn’t the case today. Now, the first job of the marketer is to deliver that value in every customer interaction. The only way to deliver value is to understand where the buyer is in their journey and then use the tools you have to meet them there as best you can. For example, if I am on a journey and I'm learning, then teach me. If I'm on a journey and I'm comparing, then give me information to help me compare your brand against the other companies I'm considering. And if I'm ready to purchase, then facilitate that purchase. When I’m looking for information, I don't want an offer. When I'm ready to buy, I don't want to have to sort through a lot of information to be able to make a purchase. Buyers leave digital breadcrumbs or signals behind in their journeys—as marketers, we need to be paying attention to these signals to determine what stage each individual is in and what sort of conversations to have with them.

This leads me to the next big challenge for marketers: technology. Technology and information are necessary to understand more about customers in order to better serve them, but technology and information have far outpaced our marketing strategies and methods. We have a lot of information and technology available to us, but we’re mostly just accelerating really bad marketing, which turns out to be a form of digital stalking or digital harassment—depending on how the end customer perceives it.

What needs to be top of mind for marketers is the trust that comes with the data that is being shared with us, understanding the technology that we're wielding, and being able to understand how the customer perceives it versus how we execute on it. Marketers need to understand how much power they have and how much damage they can do if they wield that power badly.

Despite the rise of digital and the use of data, which focuses on the science of targeting and reaching consumers, there is a call for marketers to bring the human element back to marketing. What major factors have led to the need to return focus to the human aspect, and what steps should marketers be taking to re-instill it?

If you look at what has happened over the past 10 to 15 years—from the advent of widespread use of the internet to the ubiquitous use of mobile—customers are often interfacing with brands exclusively in the digital realm. We’ve managed, as marketers, to remove all aspects of humanity from the buying process. It starts with what we measure—clicks, visits, downloads, etc.—but we’re not thinking about the person that’s trying to buy something. We devolve humans down to their least common denominator, looking at mass statistics, mass characteristics and other things that dehumanize us as buyers. We’re lumped into an age demographic or rolled up into an economic demographic. The digital world and the rise of digital marketing completely dehumanize marketing.

However, if you think about the typical experience of walking into a physical shop, the associates don't walk up to you, look at you and say—based on what you're wearing, your height, your weight, your hair color, etc.—"Here's what you want to buy." They ask, "How may I help you?" They genuinely ask the question, and then based on what information you're willing to share with them, they start to provide recommendations. As they interact with you further, they learn more about the things you like and don’t like, and they tailor their recommendations appropriately.

In the digital world, we don't act that way. We might take three pieces of information about you—maybe your ZIP code, age, what we think your socioeconomic standing is, etc.—and then start pitching to you. That's completely ineffective because it turns a customer into a one-dimensional target for marketing. Classic marketing demographics are valuable only as informants, not as determiners, so the biggest thing we need to do is listen. Marketing is typically a one-way bullhorn, and that's not the way that humans interact. In fact, it’s exactly opposite of what our customers are demanding from us right now.

If we want to win some of our customers’ valuable attention and trust, we must provide them some value back in return for that attention. The only way for us to do that is to remember that there is a human behind all of those clicks, opens, shares, abandoned carts and ebook downloads. We need to figure out who that human is and get to know them beyond their demograhics and firmographics to have a more relevant, human conversation with them—even in a digital environment.

Please share some background on the five pillars of marketing. What was the inspiration behind this framework, and how have you seen it impact engagement?

We created what we call the 5 Pillars of Best-in-Class Marketing to guide ourselves and our clients as we work to bring the human element back to our marketing. These pillars—market segmentation, personas, buyer’s journey, content and the data and martech ecosystem—focus on those capabilities that are the essential ingredients for finding the right individuals to converse with, understanding who they are and what they’re looking to achieve, and then conversing with them in a relevant, human way.

The pillars are really all about listening and then engaging with individuals contextually based on what we learn. Customers are leaving us tons of digital clues—we just classically don't listen. If a visitor looks at what's on a company website, the company doesn't use a lot of that information. They use one or two data points to assert what they think the customer might want, and then they start messaging to this customer over and over again. But they’re not listening. Did the customer open any of the emails that the company sent? Did they click on any of the ads that were posted? Most of the time, marketers are not listening to see if customers are responding; they’re just pummeling them with messages.

The key is to use the technology that's available to us to mimic the human interaction as best we can. I can start with a presumption of what you might be interested in based on what I know about you, but then I need to watch and see if you're reacting, and if you are reacting with some predictability, then I can understand the conversation I'm having and elevate that conversation. If you're not reacting the way that I would have predicted, then the first thing I need to do is stop and evaluate where the disconnect took place—not keep talking.

The key is to listen digitally to what the customer is doing with our content and interactions and to course-direct in real time. To do that at scale, you need a really good machine-intelligence engine, some prescriptive analytics and some modeling that outlines the conversations you’re going to drive and the points where, if you don't see a reaction, you voluntarily drop them out of a campaign. And if you do see positive reactions, you may even uptick the campaign, but you need to be listening to what is happening.

Amid so many reports of “fake news” and issues around data privacy and security from companies like Facebook, consumer trust in brands is understandably waning, which is impacting marketers’ ability to effectively engage them. What can brands to do help rebuild this trust and regain respect in the minds of consumers?

Interestingly, the 5 Pillars came from an actual workshop that we did for a client. They realized that they really didn't have any relationship with their end customers; they were essentially a classic bullhorn marketer. They realized that they needed a relationship with their customers in the digital world, so we put together an all-day workshop that turned into the 5 Pillars of Best-in-Class Marketing. Companies need all five because doing one really well and not the others doesn't allow your marketing to be complete. Conversely, doing them all well and truly providing value to customers at every interaction point will enable a brand to engender trust and respect in the minds of consumers.

Based on this workshop, we realized that this is the way we should be talking about marketing and really helping clients think through what it takes to have a singular, relevant conversation with a customer as best they can. These pillars really apply to everyone—whether your brand is B2B or B2C, across industry verticals, etc. We’ve built the framework out into large conversations and actually built a diagnostic tool to help our customers evaluate where they are on the path of doing these things well. It has resonated very well and has allowed us to think through our recommendations for clients through the lens of what great marketing looks like.

Looking toward the future, what will be your primary areas of focus for the remainder of 2018? 

For us, it will be a couple of things. First, internally we have what we call the Boutique, which has evolved from the traditional notion of a marketing war room, and allows us to work toward agile marketing and being as responsive as possible. When it first started, the concept of the Boutique was to determine how to make our marketing act as if the customer walked into our store. What we're really striving to do in the Boutique is to learn so that we can help advise clients. It has become our own marketing lab, and we share the learnings we gather from that. Right now, the Boutique is largely manual because we're learning. We have folks who look at all of the customers that visit our website daily, pull out the ones that we think are engaged in meaningful conversations, and divide them into personas (e.g., distinguishing browsers seeking information from shoppers who are ready to make decisions). We then determine what conversations to engage in based on what we know about them. In doing this, we use lots of rules. For example, we never ask for someone’s email before letting them read any piece of content. We want the content to be so good that they want to give us their email address, but we'd never require it.

In parallel, we're building out a database and artificial intelligence (AI) platform to actually make the decisions for us. It's self-identifying browsers and shoppers for us, so we don't need to have humans manually look at who is on the website every day. It’s helping us to be more prescriptive on what the right conversations are, and then we'll teach it how to make those decisions, too. We have also deployed a technology stack that is a content curation or personalization engine, so we're trying to determine how to use the technology to orchestrate a very human-feeling interaction. A big focus for us this year is to learn how to do this ourselves and turn that into advice and something that is helpful for our clients.

  • Marketing
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