Interview: Steve Schildwachter, CMO of a major Washington DC museum, Part 1


My guest today is Steve Schildwachter, former CMO of Museum of the Bible. Steve started his career working at advertising agencies before moving to the client side. In the interview we explore that transition, and his later transition from for-profit to non-profit.

This is the free edition of Marketing BS. Premium subscribers get access to part 2 of Steve’s interview tomorrow where we dive into marketing a non-profit museum (and twice the content every week).

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Edward: This is Marketing BS. My guest is Steve Schildwachter. Today, we cover Steve's career and path to CMO, Leo Burnett, DMB&B, FCB Global, rVue, and BrightStar. Steve was, until recently, the CMO of Museum of the Bible, and I'm excited to have him here.

Steve, by 2013, you'd risen in the ranks of advertising agencies to become an Executive Vice President at FCB. You oversaw brands like Raid, Pledge, and Windex but then you left to join the client-side as a CMO of rVue. Why did you do that?

Steve: First of all, Ed, thank you very much for having me on the show today. It's a great honor to be here.

I pretty much came to the end of the road in the advertising agency business. The business had changed a lot during the time that I was there, having started at Leo Burnett, brief time at DMB&B, and then many years at FCB. Very, very valuable experiences, I wouldn't trade them for anything.

During that time however, the advertising agency business has become much more commoditized. There are a number of pieces to that but it became apparent to me that if I needed to innovate, I needed, at least for me, to go somewhere else.

I had been keeping my eye for a long time on the media technology startup sector, a lot of exciting things happening there. When an opportunity came up to make that jump, I did it.

Edward: Why did they hire you? At that point, you had no experience on the client-side, you always used to do advertising. Why take a risk to bring you on as a CMO?

Steve: It was not that big of a risk for a couple of reasons. It was probably more of a risk for me because I was leaping into something that at that time was completely unknown for me. It was essentially an advertising concept, rVue was a media technology company that networked together about 150+ digital out of home networks.

The clients for rVue were effectively advertising agencies and their clients who were trying to decide how to divide their media budgets. It was definitely a world that I understood very, very well. In that sense, it was a pretty natural transition.

The other thing was that at least one of the participants was very known to me. I was being brought in as part of a new management team. The CEO who was hired is somebody that I had worked with in the past. Another is a Chief Technology Officer who I've met for the first time but we jived very quickly as a leadership team. We had a great experience there for a couple of years.

Edward: What important skills did you take with you from your ad agency work into that job?

Steve: I would say for sure, the knowledge of the change in media landscape. One of the things that I had made a point of in my last several years at FCB was to stay on top of the media portion.

FCB at the time was running the few agencies that still had a media department inside. They had a separate media agency, all the agencies had split off, Leo Burnett, we got Starcom, and all the other ones out there. But FCB, even though we had a media buying partner within our holding company, we still have a media department inside because we had to be on top of that for our clients.

The media landscape, having stayed on top of that was a skill that was very required for me going into that job.

Edward: What skills were you missing? What did you not have that you had to develop on that job?

Steve: That's a great question. I would say two things come to mind. One is I needed to get back into a ninja action figure stance like I was when I was coming up as an Account Executive, because in a startup, you don't have all of the supporting functions around you that you have at a large company like an ad agency or any large company.

I found that I was pretty comfortable with that. I had always been doing my own PowerPoint presentations and that type of thing. Making travel arrangements for myself was not hard but it was something time-consuming that I never had to do before. You think differently, you have to renew in a startup. There's very few people in the company, you have to completely change the way that you work and the way that you're productive. That was one thing that I was missing.

Another thing was understanding and really appreciating the sales function. There were some things that I knew about it intuitively. As an advertising person, I would try to understand who I was approaching and make sure that I was bringing something that was relevant to them versus relevant to me. But having had to hire a sales staff, manage them, and keep track of them was completely new to me. It was a great learning experience.

Edward: Steve, I want to go back a little bit and talk about the path that got you there. I'm a big believer that the experiences we have when we're 12–14 affect our entire lives. What were you passionate about at that age?

Steve: I was passionate about a lot of things. I was passionate about baseball, I was passionate about different things that interested me. But from a professional development standpoint, let's say it was really writing and communication.

I had a teacher when I was around that age who saw that I had an ability to write, an ability to communicate, and he nurtured that. It was really a foundational experience for me. It taught me that writing, for me at least, is fun, it's something that I like to do. It led me to some insights about how communication works, what makes communication effective.

I couldn't possibly learn all those lessons at the age of 14, but I learned to appreciate them. I was always that kid, even in college, who would much rather write a 10-page paper than take a Bluebook task because I liked the process of writing.

Edward: What about that teacher experience, the fact that you had somebody who could develop you that way, did that affect your later career at all?

Steve: Yes, definitely it did, it taught the importance of mentorship. Not just that teacher, I was surrounded by teachers. I had two uncles and one aunt who were teachers, and I talked to them a lot about what do you do, what is your experience, what is that like?

I very nearly went into that as a career. It was one of the things I was thinking about doing was going into teaching. Eventually, I ended up choosing advertising and marketing. I don't regret that at all, but along the way, that appreciation for teaching has stimulated my curiosity and made me a self-learner.

It has also inspired me at certain times to take somebody aside, somebody that I'm managing or somebody that I'm working with that there's maybe a requirement or an opportunity to teach them on the job and coach them along.

I've mentored a lot of people through the process and it's really, really fun to see them now in leadership positions later. That's very, very satisfying.

Edward: I want to jump ahead a bit, you're at FCB for about three years and then you moved to Latin America. What drove that decision?

Steve: That was a really wonderful confluence of personal and professional. My first job at FCB was actually with a below the line division they had at the time. I got hired there to work on the Wendy's hamburger account because I had previous experience in the same category with another brand.

I had a great time there and everything but meanwhile, the so-called main agency for Cone & Belding was taking on the global business of S.C. Johnson and they realized they needed somebody to run the Latin America division. I speak Spanish and my bosses observed that while I was in this first role that I adopted my oldest child who's now 25, she's from Paraguay. My second child is from Venezuela, we did those two adoptions.

They thought, well, we need somebody to run the Latin America portion of this global account, maybe Steve is the guy. I took that role and moved to Buenos Aires as a result.

Edward: How did that affect you? If you hadn't done that, how would your career be different today?

Steve: I have to tell you, not only what I lament not having done, I lament having come back after just a few years. The reason I didn't stay down there was because the Argentine economy collapsed. There was this so-called Tango Effect that essentially made it necessary for us to come back because the currency collapsed and there was not much happening there.

To your question, what it did do for me is it completely opened my horizons in terms of how I interacted with people, how I conducted myself as a global executive. Having to speak a language in a foreign culture, be a part of that culture on a day-to-day basis, and just deal with all the people that you deal with is an incredibly mind-opening experience.

Most Americans don't have that opportunity. I say this not as a criticism or an insular country because we're very self-sufficient or very large or within practically our own continent. Not many people would get the opportunity so I feel very blessed to have worked abroad.

It opened my eyes in so many ways, helped me be a better colleague, and also helped me be a better listener to people. You have to listen harder when you're listening in a second language, trying to understand. Then you have to start saying, oh, they think about this completely different than I've ever thought about it before.

That really helps you to be, like they say, a better colleague but also maybe more innovative.

Edward: That's an interesting thing too as an agency. When you're at an agency, you're a step removed from the business. In fact, as a business person in general, you're a step removed from the business from what your consumers are experiencing. You often have to really work to figure out how your consumers feel about your product.

In an agency, you're a step removed from that because you're dealing with the business, who then deals with the consumer. How do you go about understanding a business when you're a step removed like that in your agency?

Steve: Somebody that I respect very much is the head of CMO recruiting at Spencer Stuart, told me that he thinks that advertising agency executives have a leg up because of all the different kinds of businesses that they're exposed to.

If you think about it, I spent probably half my career in franchise brands, half of it in consumer-packaged goods with the smothering of some other things. But you're exposed to all these different experiences and all these different ways of working that help you see the possibilities of how things can be.

I would also say that working in an agency, if you do your job right, you can be as close to the consumer, if not closer than your clients. One of the things that clients always told me is they said, wow, we really appreciate how you get into the milieu of the clients, you talk to clients.

Of course, we conduct the research on their behalf so that's a little hygienic sometimes. Just going to the store on a Saturday, seeing what products are moving, asking people why they buy what they buy, and just getting a sense of the category is something that any good advertising agency person should be doing, or at least that historically was the case in the places where I worked.

Edward: You got pretty deep. When you were working with S.C. Johnson, you filed your own patent.

Steve: That was a funny story because I learned more about entomology and pesticides than I ever imagined that I would know. That's not something I ever imagined at age 12 and 13 is that I would be an expert at bugs and how to kill them. It was really interesting to me.

My client, S.C. Johnson, had the largest private entomology lab in North America so you could go there, you could work with the scientists, you can understand. It was necessary because the kind of advertising they were doing at that time at least required powerful demonstrations of efficacy.

Before, I went to my Creative Director and said, here's what we're trying to sell, I had the very understanding of why should people buy it. Working in the lab with the scientists would help me understand what worked and what didn't. In the process of that, I got friendly with a number of scientists and I brought to one of them this observation.

In South America, consumers down the trade in some of the more outlined retail locations were buying some of our more expensive products that frankly didn't sell well. One of them was a little cardboard square that you would put in a device, like an electric air freshener, but it was an electric mosquito repeller that people would use at night.

These were more expensive than most people in that socioeconomic level could afford, so what they would do is they would cut them in order to get more use out of the ones that they bought. We thought, maybe there's a way that we can dosify them a little bit and make them perforated or segmentable so that people could get more use out of it.

We essentially created a new kind of skew that could only be distributed down the trade and it basically facilitated the consumer behavior that we already observed. We applied for a patent on that and got it.

Edward: I want to jump ahead a little bit. You left rVue to join Bright Care as CMO, but then about two years in, you just kept the CMO title but your job role expanded dramatically. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Steve: BrightStar Care is a great company. I would say that is definitely to me the most superior brand in that home health care category right now. It's a very entrepreneurial atmosphere, and I had some good success in my first couple of years with marketing and things related to marketing.

I was asked by my boss to take on some other things. I found myself, like at rVue, I was back in charge of some sales teams and everything so I was still learning some of that. My boss was very patient with me on that score. I was assigned to a lot of different things just based on the success that I had in the first couple of years in marketing.

Edward: Then what happened? You take on all these additional responsibilities. How do you divide your time now between your old responsibilities and these new ones, and still achieve what you want to achieve?

Steve: It was really challenging because as I said, a very entrepreneurial environment, a lot of things happening very quickly. It's a much bigger company than a startup but behaves like a startup, and that's a good thing.

That company in particular, the founder and CEO has an unbelievable work ethic, strong accountability. I loved it, but it was a challenge.

I would say anybody who goes through a similar transformation at a company, expanding their responsibilities, needs to make sure that they have strong lieutenants in charge of each of the areas that they're overseeing. Someone that they can be accountable to, someone they can rely on, and not incidentally somebody who's going to push you as a manager. Lieutenants should be coming to you and saying I think we need to be doing this, I think we need to innovate in this area.

Edward: Steve, what were the biggest failure points in your career? Where did things not go as expected?

Steve: On what we were just discussing, I think it was a mistake for me to accept one of the roles that I had. To me, the very soul of BrightStar's point of difference is its registered nurses. There was a department that had orders of registered nurses who would liaise with the nurses of each of our franchises. They were excellent, they were amazing in gerontology, they were amazing at working with clients and everything, but fundamentally, their role was not so much commercial as it was operational.

If I could've turned down one department in retrospect, it would've been that one. I loved them, I thought they were excellent, but it was just not something that I had the wherewithal to manage. I would say that's something where I probably should've said, are we sure about this, I'm not sure if maybe that's something that I should take on.

Edward: How did that learning affect later in your career, if at all? Did it change your perspective on taking on responsibilities in other places along the way?

Steve: Yes. I'd still consider myself somebody who wants to contribute in any way that my contributions would be welcome. I'm definitely not somebody who goes out to seek, build an empire, expand, and everything.

The responsibilities that I was given at BrightStar were not ones that I asked for, but I am willing to help out. That hasn't changed. If I'm ever in this situation like that going forward, I'm going to be a lot more discriminating and just really think through, is this something that I can succeed at, is this something that's good for the organization to have me oversee?

Edward: Steve, what are your productivity tricks? What do you do to be productive that most people don't do?

Steve: There are a number of things. Years ago, I did what a lot of people did at the time, I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That helped codify for me a lot of things I was somewhat doing naturally, but I really got focused on those things that we call big rocks.

You've heard this analogy before. You've got a container full of big rocks, sand, some gravel, and this type of thing. The big rocks represent those priorities that are most important that are going to move the ball downfield for the organization.

You got to focus on those first because if you focus on all the less meaningful stuff that's the sand, you'll fill up your container with things that now don't allow you to fit in the big rocks. You always start with that.

I would say that I went through a period where I got way too fascinated with planning ahead like that. What I've learned more recently is to leverage coincidences, things that happen. Call them coincidences, call them happenstance, call them divine appointments, whatever you wish.

Things will pop up and you have to have the awareness in the moment, and the full vision in order to be able to take advantage of those things when they arise. There may be something that comes up and you think, wow, this is a quick easy win, if I jump on this right now, I can really do something great for the organization so let's get a team together and address it.

Planning ahead is great, but you've also got to be willing to look for those coincidences when they come up.

Edward: How do you differentiate between a coincidence that's an opportunity you should jump on, and a coincidence that's a distraction from the plan that you were trying to work on?

Steve: This I will mention in not a positive but not a negative way, just a more discriminating way. This Art of War by Sun Tzu, it was a thing years ago to quote that book. I would say take a step back, look at all the different maxims listed on that book.

What it's really about is fortune favors the prepared. You have to have a certain ripeness about you and a certain handle on what all's going on in order to succeed. It's not about doing something machiavellian like under-cutting a competitor or that type of thing, it's just paying attention a lot and being aware of what's happening around you.

That's how you distinguish one coincidence, a coincidence that's productive versus a coincidence that is a distraction. If you've got a sense of what's going on, you can make those judgments right in the moment and be able to decide, yes, this is something I should chase for a day, or no, this is something I should just let go.

Edward: Thank you, Steve. We're going to wrap it with that and we'll come back tomorrow to talk about your experience at the Museum of the Bible.

Steve: Thanks so much, Ed. Great speaking with you.