Still learning every day: A conversation with LinkedIn’s Shannon Stubo

At our third annual CMO Tech Tour, we discussed today’s best-in-class marketing practices and attempted to uncover tomorrow’s brightest MarTech innovations. And we continued a tradition of gathering insights from industry leaders—including the following conversation with Shannon Stubo, Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications of LinkedIn.

Meg Sloan:  Shannon is a comms rockstar. She has worked for eBay, OpenTable, and LinkedIn. In fact, she was the one who took a couple of those brands public. Recently, she crossed over to the dark side—or the bright side, you tell us—to become LinkedIn’s CMO.  

Shannon, talk about what’s it been like, taking over that team. You wrote about your experiences from the first 90 days, but now, it’s been more than 18 months.

Shannon Stubo:  I took the position on an interim basis—eight weeks—to see if I liked it. Even then, I was reluctant to take the job. Everyone asked me why, and it was primarily because my team at LinkedIn, the communications team, was always bumping into the marketing team. In typical fashion, there was a lot of friction. It was a question of, “How am I ever going to bring these two teams together?”

Part of me felt I wasn’t right for the right job. I had no marketing experience. During my first meeting, someone said, “We need to talk about our demand gen engine,” and I said, “Great—what’s demand gen?”

Now, I will say I’ve come up to speed pretty quickly in the last year and a half. But I’m still learning – every day. Someone said to me that being a CMO in the Valley is one of the hardest jobs out there, and it is. So, I bow to all of you, because I think it’s a lot to know.

But I’m glad I took on the challenge of combining these two completely different mentalities. We’re one team now. The marketing folks are really happy to approach their work with a comms mindset. And frankly, the comms people have substantially more rigor and responsibility now that they’re working directly with the marketers. So, in that sense, having everyone wear the same uniform has been positive.

MS:  And you inherited some teams.

SS:  353 people, yes.

MS:  How do you ensure that the infrastructure is there to make sure you are maximizing the value of a team that size? To make sure, moving forward, you are not simply adding people when you could add technology?

SS:  We used to take the “we have a problem, so let’s hire four people” approach. That is not my orientation at all, and I think we’ve done a good job balancing expansion with cutting waste.

For starters, we centralized our operations team. That’s about 50 people who were broken up into different departments or business lines, and now they’re working as one unit. A lot of LinkedIn’s infrastructure is homegrown. – Sure, we buy certain tools, like testing environments, off the shelf. But when I started to learn more about marketing technology, it blew my mind to realize just how much we had already created ourselves, in-house—particularly on the analytics side.

In the end, our goal is to try to be the best at what we do, especially given that we are often marketing to marketers.

MS:  Let’s go back to your first 90 days. There are a lot of people here who are building teams, or inheriting them. As LinkedIn expands, what rituals have you established for your recruitment process?

SS:  That reminds me of a story from when I transitioned to CMO. I knew I had to make peace with all the marketing people who thought that I didn’t have a good grasp on things because I was a PR person. Fortunately, someone I had recently hired taught me something called “reverse mentoring.” You let the most junior team members teach you about what’s going on in the trenches.

We kept it really lightweight. These newer, cross-functional folks at the junior level would bring in four or five slides, and I’d ask them to educate me about a topic, things like SEO and automation. We’d talk about marketing, how it works, what’s working, what’s not.

After three months, I knew enough to be dangerous. It got to a point where if I was in a meeting with managers about roadblocks they were encountering, I would be able to identify meaningful ways to break through. It was the more junior staff who got me up to speed, and getting to know them in the process was really valuable.

MS:  The view from the trenches—it’s a different view.

SS:  They’ll tell you what’s really going on. You don’t always get that from the first set of direct reports, so I always encourage new people who come into the organization to give me their honest assessment of what’s working and what isn’t. Every quarter, I hold a new hire lunch to figure out why people came here, what they’re excited about, and what’s surprised them so far.

This is particularly helpful because we’ve grown so quickly. LinkedIn is now 10,000 people. There were 700 when I started. So, I’m removed from how it feels to walk into a 10,000-person organization as a new employee. It’s been helpful for people to tell me what their experience is during their first couple weeks. Those insights can go a long way when you’re trying to figure out how to bridge the gaps in your brand.

MS:  So the Oscars are my personal Super Bowl. And this year, they featured some exciting new content—including a LinkedIn ad. That ad has since been all over internet and digital platforms. But this one started on TV.  

SS:  That was the plan.

MS:  What was the thinking that went into that decision? And what did that advertisement stand for?

SSB:  You go to a cocktail party, and you run into people who tell you, “I’m on LinkedIn but I don’t know what to do with it.” We get a lot of that—a sense that people don’t truly understand the value the site can provide for them. It can feel like a transactional and functional brand, where people think they know they have to be on it, but don’t get why. Or they know there’s more they should be doing, and they’re not sure what.

What many people don’t immediately associate with LinkedIn is that we are a brand that aspires to help people. The company’s mission is to create economic opportunity for every professional in the world. It’s a lofty goal. Some people might call us a digital Rolodex, but we are trying to help people move up in their career or get a new job. We want more people to see and appreciate that. That’s where the ad came from.

As a company, we had this need to share the aspirational side of our brand with the world. LinkedIn had never done a TV ad, but we needed something to get people thinking about the possibilities. We’re talking about an Oscars that had “The Martian” nominated for best picture—space was very much in vogue—and the opportunity to use space imagery to rebrand LinkedIn was the one we needed.

Now, there was no guarantee we were going to make it happen. When we first described it to the CFO, he said “I don’t get it.” Our fault. We saw that we needed to just show it to him. We had done a bit of a mock at that point. He saw it, and then he got it.

We didn’t have an outsized budget to work with. We bought one spot. We invested heavily in digital, and we created a new tagline for the company. It took on a life of its own.

Lots of people want to know the metrics behind the ad, so I have to explain we’re not going to be able to say, “These 800,000 people became active users because they saw this ad.” I spent 20 years trying to explain that PR isn’t immediately measurable—but when it’s working, you know it. Of course, this was a totally different type of conversation. Now I had to say, “I need you to write me a $XX million check, and then I’ll let you know if it worked.”

But we’re really happy with where that conversation landed. We have to keep in mind that the Oscars is about as big a debut you can get, other than the Super Bowl. The question that remains is what will happen if we buy lots of little spots on smaller tier networks.

Does smaller work better? I don’t know. This is a trial period. But for us, at that time, the Oscar ad turned out to be the right investment. It got a lot of press, partly because it was our first ad, and partly because it was the Oscars. But I was totally surprised by the employee engagement and enthusiasm, and it created a sense of energy among our customers. That’s what makes airing a TV ad amazing.

* * *

Shannon Stubo is the Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at LinkedIn, where she leads the company’s marketing and communications functions. Before joining LinkedIn in 2010 as its Vice President of Corporate Communications, Stuboworked as the Senior Director of Corporate Communications at OpenTable and, before that, the Vice President for Corporate Communications at eBay. She has held positions at Yahoo and Intuit, and has been selected by Business Insider as one of the “50 Best Public Relations People in the Tech Industry in 2014” and by PRWeek as part of its “Power List 2015.”


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.