Part I of III: Considerations for presenting to CEOs, board members, and other senior executives
When I sat down to write this article, I tried to count the number of quarterly marketing results presentations I have delivered to executives and board members. While I could not come up with an exact number, my estimate is that I have delivered about 100 of these presentations over the course of my career. 52 of those presentations were delivered over the course of a 13 year career working for a very operationally rigorous, and somewhat pugnacious CEO. While that CEO was tough, I believe that his standards for questioning the veracity of marketing presentations is quickly becoming the standard that all marketing executions should be prepared to meet.
My recommendations are broken down into three blog posts:
- Considerations for presenting to CEOs, board members, and other senior executives (this post)
- The key questions your executive marketing reports should answer (coming soon)
- And finally a sample marketing report that shows you how to put these recommendations into practice (coming soon)
Considerations for presenting to CEOs, board members, and other senior executives
When developing your presentation for an executive audience, it is important to shift your mindset from that of a practitioner of marketing who is in promotional mode to a leader of a critical business function who is reporting facts in the context of the business.
Successfully making that shift is a critical requirement for marketing leaders. The list below is a good test to see if you have made that transition.
Focus on results, not activities
This may seem rough, but your CEO doesn’t care how you have been filling your day. She really wants to know about the outcomes. Many marketing leaders fall into the trap of delivering an activity report vs. the business results achieved.
The table below contrasts results reporting vs. activity reporting:
Activities (nobody cares)
Notice that in the results column, the list includes a few different kinds of outcomes, including pipeline generation, press coverage, and opportunity identification. The column on the right may represent a lot of work performed by your team, but it is not useful for your executive team to know about unless you can connect these activities to the outcomes.
It is fine to talk about your activities if you make the connection to business results. For example, you could say that your team “ran a seminar series in 3 cities that generated 6 new customer expansion opportunities representing $800k in new pipeline.” But activities alone are not useful to this audience.
Show the relationship to your goals
While reporting in the form of results is necessary, it is not sufficient to communicate the entire story. If we take the example of results above, each bullet begs the question “how does this compare to our goals?”
A more complete communication of the results would add a comparison to your targets, as shown in the examples below:
- Generated $2M in incremental pipeline in Q2 vs. target of $1.8M (111%)
- Positive article in NY Times reflecting our industry views vs. target of 2 major news outlets reflecting our position (50%)
- Identified 20 customer expansion opportunities for our new product in Q2 vs. target of 10 (200%) as part of our customer expansion efforts.
Notice that the comparison to the goals tells a much more complete picture of achievement. In the first and third examples above, the performance was well ahead of plan, and the PR coverage in The NY Times, while exciting, did not meet the target.
It may feel uncomfortable to highlight the fact that you did not achieve the objective, but I can guarantee that it is less comfortable than having to respond to a board member who asks how this compares to your goals when they are not listed.
Communicate value in business terms, not marketing terms
While this recommendation is important for all audiences, it is especially important when presenting to board members. Board members rarely have backgrounds in marketing, with the majority of them coming from financial backgrounds.
The table below compares a communication of business results vs. marketing buzzwords.
Business Terms (good)
Marketing Speak (bad)
The examples above highlight two major factors that will improve your communication: connection to a business outcome and connection to the English language.
The first example not only uses a metric (pipeline) that will be universally understood by your audience, but it tells the complete story by highlighting how this interim result is expected to convert to business value over time.
The examples in the right hand column use marketing jargon (CTR and MQLs), and do not show the connection to business value. To improve the last example, you could define your terms and add some business context by saying “created 4,000 marketing qualified leads (MQL) in Q2, which are expected to generate 100 new opportunities (2.5% historical conversion rate), representing $2.5M in incremental pipeline at $25K ACV.”
While that example may seem verbose, it includes the necessary context to explain the business value of the result.
Context matters, your audience won’t know what a good result is
I’ve seen marketers proudly report on a metric to senior management and then pause, waiting for the thunderous applause, instead creating an awkward pause in their presentation. Only then does the marketer understand that their audience does not have a framework to understand that the result they are presenting is exceptional.
Providing context for your audience can take on one of the following forms:
- Showing results compared to your goals or with a direct connection to a business result (as described above).
- Using an external benchmark. For example, you could say: “Our improved sales tools increased the conversion rate of our funnel from 14% to 17% vs. the standard for our industry of 15%.” That assumes that external benchmarks are available, which is not always the case.
- Using an internal benchmark. If an external benchmark is not available for your metric, it can be helpful to compare your result to an internal benchmark. The same result above could be expressed with the context of an internal comparison as follows: “Our improved sales tools increased the conversion rate of our funnel from 14% to 17% vs. vs. our previous best conversion rate of 16%.”
- Trending data. Another strategy to communicate context is to visually show the progression of your metric over time. For example, if you were trying to communicate the performance of your campaign measured by qualified leads, rather than describing the progress with text, you could share a chart like in the example below that shows how you are progressing toward your target, or in the case below where we are trending ahead of our target (from our own internal campaign at Plannuh, measured by Plannuh).
Be consistent with your reporting format and content
Ideally, your presentation of your marketing results should be easy to understand by the reader. But any complex set of information takes some investment to understand. This is one of the reasons why I recommend that you maintain a consistent format for presenting your results.
Remember that your audience reviews this data infrequently, and they often consume lots of different kinds of information, including financial information, sales reports, research and development updates, operations data, among others.
It will be far easier for your audience to understand the data if you use the same format each time you present your results. Ultimately, you will spend far less time explaining the format of the data and more time discussing the implications of the results.
The other reason why consistency is important is that it reduces the likelihood of cherry picking your results, which can lead to much broader issues (see the section below titled “Telling the WHOLE truth”).
Tell the truth
Some marketers spend their entire careers learning to use words and data to create their own version of reality. It is critical that you remember that when you are presenting your business results, your job is to tell the truth, not spin the results to make you or your team look good.
Why is this important? First of all, in this setting, you are using data to make business decisions about the application and prioritization of resources. If your big campaign concept didn’t deliver on expectations, your job is to explain the results, along with your analysis of what happened. After you explain what happened, you should be prepared to make a recommendation about resources. Is it still worth it to proceed with this campaign? Are there changes that should be made? Would it be better to shift the resources to another campaign, or even to another department?
If you aren’t honest about the results, you won’t be able to make the right recommendations to improve your business outcome.
There is another reason why telling the truth is important. Trust. The highest functioning management teams trust each other. And not telling the truth is one of the fastest ways to erode trust in the team.
One specific example comes to mind that illustrates the value of trust. At one point in my tenure as a CMO at a large company, I also had the responsibility of acting as the general manager for our direct to consumer software business. My head of marketing for that team was incredibly bright and creative, and our CEO and CFO often came to us to find new ways to generate growth for the company. We had been selling our software via our ecommerce site and via retail, but our head of marketing thought we should try to set up demonstration kiosks in shopping malls for the holiday season. We modeled out the investment (which was millions of dollars) and highlighted the risks. In this case, we were wrong about the effectiveness of the model. And even though we were tempted to make it look better, we were transparent with the results and recommended that we cut our losses. While the CEO and CFO weren’t happy, they still trusted us. And the next time we had the opportunity to try something new, we were given that opportunity because it was clear that we would do the right thing when it came to presenting our results.
Sidebar: How to communicate bad news.
As I mentioned above, it is critical to communicate the truth. But it is also important to know how to communicate the truth when it involves bad news. There are three things that you should keep in mind when you have to deliver negative news:
Tell the WHOLE truth
You probably assumed that we were done talking about the truth, but we’re not. As I mentioned above in the section of the article about consistent reporting format, it is critical that you provide a complete view of performance when you are reporting your results.
Some marketing leaders choose to focus on the good news part of their results rather than tell the complete story. I have witnessed some pretty difficult conversations when a marketing leader is called out for cherry picking their results. The conversation usually goes something like this:
MARKETING EXEC: Our amazing digital campaign delivered 2,000 leads in the quarter and had a 7X ROI.
CEO: How much of your budget does this campaign represent?
MARKETING EXEC: 7%.
CEO: What happened with the other 93% of your budget?
MARKETING EXEC: [crickets]
The point is that you need to tell the complete story of your functional performance. It is expected that you will highlight the best results, but you also learn a great deal from those campaigns that did not go well. If you hide behind the best parts of your marketing plan, the worst parts will never get better.
Some approaches you might use to tell the whole story include:
- Breakdown 100% of your plan. A great way to summarize your results is to show your total discretionary marketing investment and your total results delivered. By starting with a top-down view, you won’t miss anything.
- Show the top AND bottom performing campaigns. If you have a lot of campaigns, one approach is to show your top AND bottom 5 to 10 campaigns. This will force you to highlight the lowest performing campaigns and identify corrective actions being taken to improve them.
- Show a system view. I like to communicate marketing results like a system (see my article on The Complete System View) because it forces me to look at the end-to-end performance of the overall marketing machine. By forcing the team to assess the performance of each element of the system regularly, we never see the system fall too far out of tune.
- Report results consistently. And finally, as mentioned above, if you use the same reporting format each time, you will force yourself to report on the stuff that isn’t as fun to talk about, but is necessary to understand for the overall performance of the organization.
Take the opportunity to teach, but not preach
I’ve heard a lot of marketers complain that their CEOs, or other functional counterparts, don’t “get” marketing. If this is the case in your organization, I can almost guarantee that your functional teammates don’t think that you “get” their function either.
The highest performing companies have great depth and understanding across the executive team. And with that in mind, it is important to understand your role in teaching the rest of your team about marketing.
If you follow the principles above, the rest of your team will develop a much keener understanding for the importance and impact of marketing. By connecting your plans and strategies to the overall business goals, the team will understand the role of marketing in helping the business achieve its objectives. And by communicating your results in business terms, they will be able to clearly see the value of the function, in a language that they understand.
And by consistently telling the whole story, they will develop a deeper understanding of the function and they will trust that you and your team are acting as responsible stewards of the company’s resources.
Next up: The key questions your executive marketing reports should answer
I hope this article helped you understand how to more effectively communicate marketing results to an executive audience. In my next article, I will get deeper into the content and discuss the key questions that your marketing reports should answer.
The next article is coming soon, make sure you subscribe to our blog to get notified when it is available.