The Dialect of Business with John Knightly BlueJeans CMO
It’s time to connect khakis and creatives.

Professional relationships are key to better execution of your creative ideas. But it can be difficult to strengthen those relationships when you struggle to communicate effectively outside of your creative sphere. John Knightly, CMO of BlueJeans, has great insights on how creatives can better communicate with their business peers — or with “khaki,” as we introduced in our last episode — to make it easier to achieve the business goals you have in common. 

In this episode of Real Creative Leadership, join Adam Morgan and John as they compare notes from two different sides of the creative process, and discuss the best ways to communicate across departments and break down those language silos.

Tune in to learn:

  • Best practices for creatives when interacting with marketers
  • How creatives can branch out into other leadership positions
  • What creatives need to learn to start speaking in business terms
  • More resources to learn about marketing

Guest Speaker

John Knightly

Chief Marketing Officer for BlueJeans by Verizon

Through his career, John has worked to help enterprises understand and harness technology innovations, from artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to cloud services, customer experience management, and developer and IT tools.

John’s focus today is helping organizations unlock talent through digital workplace experiences that unleash the creativity and productivity of teams. In the current work-from-home era, that translates into secure and high-quality video conferencing.

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Transcript

Adam Morgan:

Hello, this is Real Creative Leadership and I'm your host, Adam Morgan, executive creative director at Adobe. At Real Creative Leadership, we talk all about the day-to-day things that creative leaders need to be successful. Not just getting a seat at the table, but what do you do with it after you get the seat at the table? At Real Creative Leadership, we dive deep into the topics that help you build the right team, environment, and the future creative vision of your company.

Adam Morgan:

Today, I'm delighted to speak with John Knightly, CMO of BlueJeans. And today, our topic is going to be, how to speak “khaki” with BlueJeans. Now, when I say “speaking khaki”, I'm meaning, how do you talk business? How do you talk with marketers? How do you talk, and this is certainly coming from the creative’s perspective. But it used to be the suit, right? And back when I was in agency, it was talking with “the suits”. But today, we're a little more casual. So we've moved on to talking khaki. Anyhow, welcome John. Thanks for joining us on the show.

John Knightly:

Thank you, Adam, great to be here.

Adam Morgan:

And just to start out, before we get going, I would love to have you tell us a little bit about your background, your career journey, where you've been, and how you got to where you are today.

John Knightly:

Sure. So, I've been in marketing for 20-ish years, in high tech, mostly. Software companies, Enterprise, SAS companies, as well as large, multinational types of tech companies as well. So I worked at your company at Adobe in the past. I did startups, and I did companies like HP and so forth before coming to BlueJeans.

Adam Morgan:

And tell me, as you moved through all those different tech companies, what are the different types of jobs that you had? The types of milestones that you went through to get you to where your senior creative career has become?

John Knightly:

Sure. So, if you think about marketers, we all get here often from different paths and different starting points. My early days started, my very first job was working for my mother. She was a potter. And that was sort of exposing me to the creative side of business. And my father was a math professor.

John Knightly:

And so somehow, I found the right profession in marketing, but it was not direct. I started first, in a sales job, and then moved to product management, which was my first high-tech job. And then what I found there was, what was really passionate for me as a product manager, was not so much the inbound side of writing PRDs and negotiating ship dates with engineering, but much more the outbound side.

John Knightly:

How do you craft a message? How do you get the potential buyers excited about your product? How do you get the sellers, et cetera, excited to sell your product? And that was really when I pivoted into marketing. Kind of a circuitous path, but now that I'm here, now that I've been in marketing for quite some time, I couldn't think of a better place to spend my career. I love it. And it brings together that left-brain and that right-brain of creativity, but also, increasingly, analytics. Because more and more, with everything being digital, we can analyze just about everything.

Adam Morgan:

It's very interesting, some of the things you mentioned. Because from my experience, most creatives also have a very windy path. Even getting into advertising or marketing in general, I think some of us think, "Oh, we're going to become a lawyer, or maybe I'm going to change the world in another way." And then I ended up in advertising because it just fits, it clicks all those boxes that you're looking at. Both the creative left-brain and right-brain and analytical sides. I think that's very interesting.

Adam Morgan:

And tell me, because something you also mentioned is messaging. I think that's a big moment, of where marketers and creatives work together, is on the storytelling. So tell me about your experience with messaging. What was that learning part?

John Knightly:

I guess one of the things that's always great as a marketer is when you feel like whatever message or story you're crafting resonates with the customer. And so I always found that one of the things that was most important as a marketer is to get with customers or prospective customers and understand what their journey is looking like.

John Knightly:

Walk a little bit in their shoes, understand whatever the problem is that your product or solution solves, how do they vocalize the issues, or “pain points”, we always like to say, around what's keeping them from success there, and how can we help?

John Knightly:

And so I think creatives tend to be really good at visualizing and thinking through that experience piece. And increasingly, the message is part of it, but you've got to be able to understand, what's the problem that someone's trying to solve? What are the barriers? How does the experience factor in? And then that helps, I think, craft a message that resonates.

Adam Morgan:

And that's also interesting. You mentioned…So creatives and marketers are both focused on telling these stories. You were saying the creatives are going to focus on the visual or the emotional storytelling. And you're going to focus on more of a deeper understanding and insights of the audience and really, what are they trying to get at, their pain points and all of those things.

John Knightly:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Morgan:

It really is two sides of a coin, and so often these relationships between creative people and marketers can be tumultuous at times, let's say. But how...talk to me about some of your working relationships with creatives and what are some ways that you all work better together?

John Knightly:

Sure. So, I just find that the most important thing is getting a shared understanding of what we're trying to achieve. And if we bring everyone in, whether it's to better understand the numbers and how the creative process is going to eventually lead to achieving some business goal...or how you bring what were the suits, what are the khakis, to really understand how the creative process can better improve an experience. Which more and more, our products, our experience is in a digital world. And if you're what was a suit and now a khaki, and you're not understanding that experience layer just as you're not understanding the technology, you're probably going to miss a beat in terms of how you want to serve your customers. And so I think bringing the teams together for those, both information sharing and framing meetings, but then also reporting out on progress together is really important. That said, I've been in meetings where the business person who's leading that meeting goes through numbers every time.

John Knightly:

And that's a really... While it could be important as a grounding principle, it can also lose your audience, especially if people aren't...that's not how their brain works. And so I feel like a good leader, a good khaki really needs to try to understand where his or her creatives are coming from, as well as where the tech team is coming from and be able to translate, and also make it more than just about the numbers, because it typically is more about than just about the numbers.

Adam Morgan:

I love what you're talking about, because what we talked about on a session before is that both sides need to learn to speak the language of the other side. Creatives need to learn to speak khaki and khakis need to learn to speak creative. And tell me, why is that so important? You mentioned a few things, but tell me a little bit more aboout having the...not just understanding each other, but what are the outcomes if you both can really speak each other's language?

John Knightly:

Sure. So if the boss or the khaki can explain the business goal, and then similarly explain or understand what the creative process might be to deliver on a great experience that helps achieve that business goal...let's take something concrete. Let's say, "Hey, we don't think our conversions are going too well in our eCommerce store.” So the business person can lay down the numbers: “Here's what we thought we were going to achieve, here's where we're actually achieving. There's a gap.” Okay, that's great. But bringing the creative brains into the process to start to think about, "Well, what might be going awry with our customer experience? Are we putting on natural barriers in front of customers to research, try, and buy our products? How can we improve that experience?" The business person's going to maybe come up with insights they didn't have before, the creatives can see how we still have a problem that maybe their brains are more attuned to solving, whether it's getting emotional resonance for the customer to want to learn more, or whether it's, "Hey, we're making the process unwieldy for them.”

John Knightly:

So I think it's getting on that same page.

Adam Morgan:

Yeah, I've often... My analogy of that is just that it's almost like the two halves of the brain coming together. You're bringing together logic and emotion, where it's the numbers and the goals and the metrics and everything that you need to do from a marketing perspective. And on the other side of the creative is really about, like you said, those experiences, those emotional...and who was it, Brian Solis said the greatest definition of an experience is an emotional connection to a moment. So if the creatives are really focusing on, how do we emotionally connect with this audience on a very human level, and then you're like, how at a business level do I understand that bringing those two halves together and having the left and the right brain or the...however you want to describe it. But all those pieces together I think is really critical in having a very whole-brain or a full experience with the customer.

John Knightly:

Yeah. And there's a place then for data too, to inform the creative process. So I worked, in a prior life, I worked with a company that developed online games. And what was really interesting is to hear how they would use actual touchscreen data or click data to basically see in the game where people were trying to touch, and where are people frustrated because they're hitting a touchscreen really hard to try to get something done and it's not happening, and where might they move things around on the screen to better improve that experience for the game players. And so they're using data about the experience to inform what might be the next level of experience. And so the creatives need to be able to embrace data at the same time. It's not only about the data. It's also about thinking about, what do you do with that data. And that's where the creative brain can often help find the breakthroughs that the business brain isn't coming up with.

Adam Morgan:

Yup. And we've been talking about, like in my career, so many times you start talking numbers or data and some of the creatives’ eyes just roll back, and they're daydreaming and they're done, it's just so classic. But that's part of the point is like, as a creative leader, you’ve got to get past that. You've got to embrace data, you've got to embrace metrics, you've got to understand all that stuff so that you're working at the same level. Otherwise, you're not going to bring a creative partnership to the marketers. If it's going to be a partnership, you've got to understand it all in order to talk about it.

John Knightly:

Yeah, totally.

Adam Morgan:

Okay. So another question here. Now that we've established that, all right, it's important for creative leaders to understand the business and marketing and metrics, and all of that good stuff. How do you learn it? Where did you learn the craft and how does a creative leader learn the craft?

John Knightly:

Sure. So as I mentioned, I have a quantitative background, so it comes easy to me. And I went to business school and all that good stuff, but in a lot of ways where you really learn best is on the job. And one of the things that I've been blessed with in my career is having great mentors who have been able to provide by example, really, leadership by example, showing me how data can make a difference and how understanding the language of business makes a difference. One such example, which wasn't even numbers related, but I had a mentor who was a head of sales in a midsize tech company. And I was still coming up in my career, so not that senior yet. And I had my first meeting with the sales leader and after the meeting, he said, "You know, I'm going to give you some tough feedback."

John Knightly:

He said, "When you and I are having this meeting, you're often looking down at your paper or you're looking over here, you're looking over there, but you're not actually looking right at me." And so part of making a connection is understanding how to communicate with that person. And that was invaluable feedback that I took with me later on. And so I think if you're a creative and you can maybe find your way to someone on the business side, whether it's in sales or marketing, or a general manager type of thing, you might learn quite a bit from that person that will help you advance your career and also help... maybe they're going to learn from you. Hopefully that's part of the two way street.

Adam Morgan:

That's great advice. Far too often we always think getting a mentor role is usually with your boss, someone up your chain. And that's a different answer, is not to go to maybe your, I don't know, creative leader, but to go to another peer leader that can mentor you and help you through some things and create a good partnership there. I love that. That's a good idea. And there are other ways that I found when people don't have that opportunity, maybe they don't have a good example in their company, or maybe they just don't have that kind of access. There's so much to learn out there. You could go to podcasts like this, or you can go to books. I've always talked about, if you want to lead, you have to read. So, I mean, for me, books like “Positioning”, back in the day, by Trout and Ries, or other books that talk about marketing strategy, are really critical. Any books that you could recommend?

John Knightly:

Sure. I mean, I'll be honest with you, I tend to prefer reading novels, histories, and biographies-

Adam Morgan:

Which is also great.

John Knightly:

... To business books. My beef with business books is a lot of times they take a whole book to say what they could say in one page. But that being said, I think there are some great books out there. And one of the ones that has stuck with me is, well actually, a series, is really Geoffrey Moore's set of books. “Crossing the Chasm” was sort of the first one, and he followed up with a bunch after that. Another one, which is kind of very unrelated to marketing, but still, I think, a great business book, is “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt. And it's really around, actually, how do you improve a manufacturing process, but it's written as a novel, so it's kind of entertaining and it gets you thinking about constraints in a business environment, and how do you operate in that scenario? “Good to Great”, another one, it's a little dated now, but still, I think there's some good nuggets in there around getting the right people on the bus to create the right kind of organization, things like that. So I don't know.

Adam Morgan:

No, those are great. We'll list those books out in the show notes afterwards if anyone wants them.

John Knightly:

Yeah. And I think half the battle is read the introduction, read the conclusion, and then scan to see if there's any other chapters that are really going to bring some good examples.

Adam Morgan:

Or you just find some Cliffnotes out there.

John Knightly:

Yeah, that's right. That's right.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, that's fun. All right. I know when I've been looking, because this is half of my goal, is how do I bridge the gap on both sides? I actually went out and got a Master's degree in integrated marketing. And I thought that was pretty fascinating from a creative perspective of just seeing all the things they teach you about, what is the integrated marketing approach? How much do you need to know about metrics? I would even say, some creatives, they could go out and take a class on finance, they could take some MBA classes. Certainly a lot of that will also help.

John Knightly:

Yeah. And increasingly, it's online too. I've myself taken advantage of LinkedIn Learning for interesting courses. I moved out of product management to product marketing, to take the whole CMO role. There were some areas in digital marketing that I wasn't as familiar with, and so, you can brush up on skills with things like that, which is good. And the other one is to just really, again, try to think about, why are we here in this, whatever organization or company, and typically, we're making something to solve a problem for someone. And so, if you can think about that, think about it as, if you're the business leader or the general manager of whatever business or product line, think about what they're trying to achieve, which is, at the end of the day, make something that the market wants to buy.

John Knightly:

And so as a creative, I always like to think of that funnel of, I have a vague awareness of a problem, I'm researching for solutions, and then I want to know more. I want to compare your solution with somebody else's solution, and eventually see whether it's going to meet my needs, and then make a decision whether or not to buy it. And so there's that journey or the funnel or however you think about it. And so one time I remember in an end of a quarter, marketing had all greens on our dashboard, however, our business hadn't hit all of its goals. And so where the marketing leader was standing up waving the flag around success, all the other sales leaders in the room and the general managers had their arms folded and were starting to attack. And a kind general manager took us out after the meeting and said, "Hey, what I really want you to do is speak my language."

John Knightly:

So he drew a funnel on the board and he said, "Marketing is investing and bringing leads in, or the top of the funnel inquiries, and you're converting them down the funnel to what I care about, which is business. So, close-one booked business at the bottom of the funnel. And so if you can just frame what investments you're making at each level of the funnel and how it's improving those conversion rates at each level of the funnel, then I'm good. Then I understand what you're actually trying to do for me. Otherwise, you're kind of hand-waving around all these programs you're doing, but I don't really get how it's going to help my business, and where you're stuck and where you're doing well." So I think that was a good goal. So again, part of it's also listening to those business leaders and summarizing. Did I understand what they said? And if I summarize, they'll let me know if I got it or not. And it also shows resonance with your audience, your stakeholder.

Adam Morgan:

That's some good advice. Because from the creative perspective, we have to realize, all right, you, as the CMO, you have to speak business in a completely different way than you're speaking marketing. And you have to do that same dance with the business leaders when you're dealing with the board of like, how is this impacting business? How is this helping us? And so I think the more that even we, as creatives, partnering with you with understanding business, like...I had a good boss, he would just say, “What really matters is if you understand how your company makes money, period.” How does your company make money? Once you understand that, then you can say, “Okay, is this creative idea helping that? Is this marketing plan helping that?” If it's not helping it, then stop doing it. So I love that. We've all got to work together. It's still building a business. This is not for funsies, just making up stuff.

John Knightly:

Right. And hopefully, a lot of us come to marketing because we love that opportunity to be creative, to be storytellers. And hopefully, we can play a role. And the more we do understand the business, the more we get to have fun while we're helping the business go along.

Adam Morgan:

A couple more questions. So this next one, any advice that you have for creative leaders in working with a marketing leader? What are some pet peeves or things they should or shouldn't do, or just some things that'll help make the process go smoothly?

John Knightly:

Sure. So I think, showing that they've made the effort to understand what our goal is, what our business goals are, is really important. So if they are coming in to pitch a project, or let's say an idea for a creative piece, relating it back to why we're doing it, is really important. So, "Hey, John, I heard that you were talking about our conversion rates on E-commerce. I think maybe one of the problems is we're setting up one expectation on this part of the website, but over here, we're not really delivering on that expectation that I set up. Here's an idea I have to make that a more clear, direct kind of communication with our customers." Then I understand, okay, they've absorbed what the problem is, they're really thinking about the customer journey there, then I really appreciate that. If it's, "Hey, look at this cool creative stuff I'm doing", well, how does this relate to what we're trying to actually achieve?

Adam Morgan:

It's the same problem that your earlier example was, the GM saying, "I don't even understand why this stuff matters. Relate it back to me." And so you're saying the same thing. And I think part of that's just good selling. Here's why it comes back to your strategy. Here's why it comes back to your goal. This is what we're doing to help.

John Knightly:

Yeah. In a way, even internally when you're creative, you're selling your idea. You're selling just as the sales team that maybe you support has to go sell your products or services out in the marketplace. And so really understanding, what are we selling? What's that problem we're solving, or what is that person's need that we're trying to fulfill? So it's the CMO you're pitching, understand what they're trying to achieve.

Adam Morgan:

As we come to the end here now, here's an interesting question. So, as you spoke about it in the beginning of your career, which is, you came from product marketing and just traditional, lead gen, all of that good stuff...and most, it seems like many CMOs do come from those backgrounds. But as we're seeing more creatives break off and start a company, be the CEO, have you seen many creatives rise up to be a Chief Marketing Officer, and is that possible?

John Knightly:

I really think it is possible. In fact, I think it's, as we've shifted, as our economy have shifted from one of products to one of services and experiences, in a way this could be the age of the creative leader. Because experience is really the thing that separates or differentiates your physical product, if you're i a physical industry, whether it's automobiles or something like that. And certainly if you're in software or even things like financial services, where, boy, at the end of the day, you could say, it's very commoditized, what you're delivering, so you better wrapper that with an experience to show something different.

John Knightly:

So I think the opportunity for creatives has never been more real or present than it is today. So I think it's a heady time, but again, if that's your aspiration, to lead, to go up the chain, if you will, then you do still have to master the other side of the equation, which is, "Okay, I've got one leg in my khakis and one leg in my blue jeans." We're all in jeans all the time, so it doesn't really matter, but you've got to master that, both sides of the equation. And I think creatives are well-placed to do that. It's about breaking things down and thinking, "How do I get someone to emotionally resonate with what my product is and how do I test that that's working?" And that brings in the numbers side. And then, "How do I do continuous improvement around that? And then how do I communicate to the rest of the organization that really needs to hear it in their language?" So if you're creative, you should be good at thinking that through and solving those-

Adam Morgan:

Yeah. Problem-solving, that's really what it is, right?

John Knightly:

Yes.

Adam Morgan:

That's so good to hear just because, it's funny, like, as a creative moving up your career path, when you become a creative director, it's really all about, can I understand where good writing and good design and good videography and good UX...And all of those disciplines, you have to learn it all. And now we're saying, "You don't have to cap out just as creative director. You could keep moving up by learning more skills, the same way you did before. Learn about metrics, learn more about finance, learn more about marketing goals and plans, and keep working your way up, but up, there's no stopping you." But today in the age of experience, like you said earlier, this could be the era of creativity, which is awesome.

John Knightly:

That's right.

Adam Morgan:

I love hearing that.

John Knightly:

That's right. Design-thinking permeates all elements of the business now. Or at least should. And the best companies out there are doing it relentlessly.

Adam Morgan:

No, that's awesome. Well, John, thank you so much.

John Knightly:

You bet.

Adam Morgan:

We're at the end here and I want to thank you personally for joining me on Real Creative Leadership. This has been a delight to hear your perspective and hear some of your personal stories. It's been fantastic.

John Knightly:

Adam, I really appreciate being with you. And it's been a fun chat.

Adam Morgan:

Excellent. Well, thank you everyone for joining us here at Real Creative Leadership. If you're listening to this via podcast, we encourage you to subscribe, share it with your friends, share it with all of your marketing partners, as well as your creative partners, so they can learn from John's experience on what we can do to become better partners with creative and marketing. I really appreciate that.

Adam Morgan:

And thanks again. Join us next time. We'll continue this journey of trying to learn more about how to become better creative leaders. We want to thank Stoke, who made this possible by doing the production on this show. I want to thank John and all of you for listening. We really appreciate all of you for joining us. Again, find us on your favorite podcast platform. Find us, if this is the webinar and you're joining us live, thank you for joining. Or if you're going to join us on YouTube or on our website, you can find us. Here are some of the places you can find us, at realcreativeleadership.com, or you can reach out to The Stoke Group, or find me on my website, adamwmorgan.com. And John, how can they reach you if they want to get in touch with you?

John Knightly:

Come on over to bluejeans.com and I'm there. And you can also always find me on Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

Adam Morgan:

Excellent. All right, thanks again. We'll see you all next time.