The Gist

  • We all need a little marketing. Chris Willis got into marketing out of necessity when he had to create products and take them to market.
  • Marketing and sales are friends. The marketing and sales relationship at Acrolinx is unique, with Willis and the CRO working closely together and having aligned goals.
  • Sales velocity on the mind. Willis thinks in terms of sales velocity, which means impacting the number of opportunities coming into the pipeline, both by working with marketing to drive MQLs and with sales to ensure they have the right tools to prospect effectively.

Christopher P. Willis, chief marketing officer at Acrolinx, is responsible for all aspects of the company’s marketing strategy. He brings over 20 years of experience growing companies in the technology sector. Before joining Acrolinx, Willis held leadership roles in marketing, creative, technical and business development at companies including Perfecto, Pyxis Mobile, KPMG-CT, ModelGolf, and Cambridge Technology Group.

Willis is a recognized thought leader and is active within industry groups dedicated to the growth and health of marketing technology and the verticals he serves. He holds a BA from Gettysburg College.

We caught up with Willis for a five-question Q&A on his role as CMO in our latest edition of the CMSWire CMO Circle series. 

Editor's note: This transcript is edited for clarity.

From Project Manager to Marketer

Jennifer Torres: Hi, I'm Jennifer Torres reporter for CMSWire and this is CMO Circle, where each episode we sit down with a different CMO to learn more about them and their role. Today, I'm very happy to have with us Chris Willis. Chris is the CMO for Acrolinx.

Welcome, Chris.

Chris Willis: Thank you. Great to be here.

Torres: Great. Well, we'll get right to it with the first question, I'm always curious to find out what inspired you to pursue a career in marketing and how did you get your start in the industry?

Willis: Necessity. So, I moved back from Europe. I was living in the Netherlands working at KPMG, and I came back over here and joined a very small consulting services company. And one of the things that we did was create several products and I mean, I'm not a product person — I was a project manager. We were doing implementations and now we have these products, and we think they're pretty cool. And so, we'd like to take them to market and the only way to do it was to become a marketer. It was just a matter of necessity.

We actually had built the first mobile applications specific to business-to-business use. And so, this product was designed directly for mutual fund wholesalers. The initial campaign was aimed at their management or the national sales manager or mutual fund companies — and I learned persona creation, I learned targeting, and I learned ABM apparently, all in my first campaign. I've been chasing that first campaign since the day I started — it was amazing — and launched us a new business.

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Staying Current with Marketing Trends and Strategies

Torres: How do you do to stay on top of industry trends, and make sure your marketing strategies are relevant and effective?

Willis: So, I'm very active in a number of different CMO networking groups — CMO Huddles is the first one that comes to mind. And so, getting together with peers on a regular basis several times a month, just to talk through what other folks are doing, where they're having success, what's not working, what vendors are coming up with that are interesting — that we should be looking at — having that community of hundreds of people like me, helps to keep all of us right at the edge of what's happening. And that makes good sense.

Aligning Sales and Marketing for Success: A Unique Approach

Torres: So, how does your marketing team work with other departments within your organization to align on business goals and ensure that you're collaborating effectively?

Willis: Okay, strap in — this is interesting. So, we're a little bit different than really any other company I've ever worked at — in that the sales and marketing relationship in this business is very, very positive. Our CRO and I speak by choice — not by force. He's my work bestie and we are completely aligned around the end goal of the business.

We know our objectives; we know what we're trying to do from a NSP standpoint in any given moment. We built a machine that looks at our pipeline holistically — starting today and moving out into a rolling four quarters period of time for a new logo — a rolling two quarter period of time for expansion. And then there's an interesting thing: so we have a CRO, we have a marketing person, and then we have this office of the head of pipeline, which is also me. And it is it is not a role — nobody reports to that position — it's an overlay over both organizations designed to make sure that we're creating, we're progressing — or going to be healthy in the future and the levers associated with that.

So, I have the marketing organization able to fuel that. I think a lot in terms of sales velocity as a way that I look at the most important aspects of what I do. You know — the number of opportunities, times the average deal size, times the win rate, over the average sales cycle length, and that's comes out to a number: $1 per day of sales productivity, it doesn't really matter what it is — it just should be growing.

How do we impact that — and those levers live across both teams— so, this pipeline roll, I can impact the number of opportunities coming into the pipeline, both by working with marketing organization to drive MQLs into meetings and into early-stage opportunities — but also working with the sales organization to ensure that they're getting the most out of their prospecting and that they have access to the right tools and information, so that we're building their individual databases, with their target market, so that they can prospect effectively and build more opportunities from an average deal size. 

Learning Opportunities

And that's both working with the sales team to make sure they're enabled to tell the value message — but also building the value message. So, reaching back into product marketing, and making sure that we're collecting the right information upfront to tell the right story to enable the sales organization from a win rate standpoint, thinking in terms of awareness and making sure that people inside our customers and our prospects know who we are.

And we're lubricating that funnel accurately to make sure that that we're able to move deals through and close them successfully from an average sales cycle length — again enablement — making sure the sales team has the things they need coming from content, coming from communications, coming from product marketing to be effective. And then layering that with all in-demand outreach that we're doing — field events, digital — to make sure that holistically we're surrounding the prospect with the right information to help them see the success that they'll experience with our product.

So, short answer to the long question. We're all really happy to be working together around a single goal.

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Finding Time for Creativity

Torres: That's good news. So, now tell me a little bit of the more challenging news. What's the most challenging part of being a CMO?

Willis: For me, it's finding the time to be able to build new ideas. I have an amazing team. The two VPs in my organization both just won Titan awards for female executive and marketing of the year. I mean, it's a great group of people working in this organization. But I want to play too, right? And the idea of having time to stop and think about things: like, what are we going to do? Where are we going to go? How are we going to get there? In in a world where we just continually move, I just need to try and carve out time to do that. I like to do things, I like to make things, to create things. Today, as a matter of fact, behind this screen right now, I’m in After Effects — the Adobe product — making the new intro for season three of my podcast.

Show Value Across the Organization

Torres: Well, I understand that it does sometimes take a quiet space for creativity to flourish and it's hard to find these days. So, last question. What advice would you give to somebody who's just starting out in the field, who maybe, one day, would like to become a CMO?

Willis: Marketing gets a bad rap and to a lot of the world it’s about picking colors and branding and telling stories — and we do that — and I actually love that. As I just said, I have Adobe products open right now, and I'm doing design work, and I really enjoy that.

But we get our budget, and we all get paid by generating results. So, spending time across the marketing organization understanding how all the facets of marketing lead toward the corporate goal, understanding where your role is, wherever you are, whether you're in field marketing, or you're a communications person, or you're the social analyst. It really doesn't make a difference, but we do understand how it plays into the bigger business, seeing that contribution being able to measure that contribution and then moving across the organization gaining as much experience as possible to get towards business value.

Because at the end of the day, if you can show that marketing is delivering results in the form of business end-goal, which is essentially growth, then you're going to be successful. I think the combination of people that tend to sit in this seat are the ones that have tied all that together — and the ones that are going to sit here next are the ones that are learning how to do that right now.

Torres: Chris, I want to thank you for joining us today. I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom.

Willis: Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer. This was great.

Torres: This is Jennifer Torres, reporter for CMSWire with CMO Circle. Thank you and have a great day.