In this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, we welcome Vincent Szwajkowski, former BCG consultant and Chief Marketing Officer of Blaze Pizza. Vincent joins us to talk about his career growth and how his passion for consumer brands led him to a career as a marketing leader.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara and co-hosted by Steven Haug. Ken leads this week’s episode.
Ken Kanara: I’m Ken Kanara, and this is Beyond Consulting, the only podcast focused on your career, health and wealth after consulting. This week we welcome Vincent Szwajkowski, Chief Marketing Officer at Blaze Pizza. But before we say hi to Vince, I wanted to remind everybody that we are sponsored by ECA Partners, a specialized project staffing and executive search firm focused on former consultants and private equity.
Vince, thanks so much for joining us.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Thanks for having me today. I’m excited to be here.
Ken Kanara: You bet. Blaze pizza is a very well-known consumer brand, we’ve all ordered it on DoorDash at least once, but you started with BCG. How do you get from consulting to CMO? Let start there.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Yes. I think, not that there’s a traditional CMO, but I would argue that I probably took one of the least traditional paths to get to a CMO. My career started at BCG, and I was primarily focusing on consumer businesses while I was there. With that, I actually think I was more excited for the lifestyle that I was living at BCG than a lot of the work that I was doing. It ultimately became part of my professional life later on and so much of that was the travel. I loved working on these projects, seeing different aspects of it, but always doing it in a different place, right? It was, “Wow, I get to be in Seattle,” and, “I get to experience a hotel, a new restaurant, different people, international travel.” All of those different aspects, for me, were one of the biggest benefits that I got from BCG. It was really sort of understanding how the world works and how people connect through food, travel, and hospitality. So, that subsequent part of my career ultimately ended up focusing on a lot of those things, which is the short story of how I got from BCG to Blaze Pizza. Obviously, there were some moments in between, but again, I always had this passion for consumer brands and really doing something that was going to make a meaningful impact in people’s lives.
After BCG, I ended up going to BCG client called Dean Foods. I was at Dean Foods for a little while in their newly forming strategy group, with a bunch of ex-Bain, BCG, McKinsey people all coming together, making big PowerPoint decks and trying to save the world. From there, I was actually in the process of applying go back to Business School. I did a whole lot of soul searching and a lot of networking to say, “Well, what is it that I really want to do?? Ultimately, it came down to, “I really want to be in hospitality,” more broadly hospitality, right? That could have been restaurants, it could have been hotels. I was always passionate about travel and hotels, and I found the five people, literally five, I’m not kidding, five people, who had worked at a top management consulting firm had gone to get their MBA, and we’re now doing something in the hotel space. I found all of them. I spoke to like, three or four of them. There were one or two who wouldn’t pick up my phone call, but ultimately I had this great experience networking with these people in a very, very specialized place for someone with my background. That came down to somebody turning an informational interview into a real interview and a job offer.
I withdrew all my applications to business school and became the first member of Hilton’s Global Brand Strategy Team, built that entire function–built our own in-house BCG/McKinsey, then built out a Guest Experience Team, an Analytics Team, a Research and Insights Team, and built this shared services model that we used across all the brands globally. It was still a lot of that core strategy stuff. It was all the stuff that I was working on at Hilton, but had just done it at BCG, and now I was applying it at Hilton in a very different way. That’s when a lot of the marketing stuff started to come in. Then what I was thinking about was, “Well, how do we think about portfolio strategy when we think about launching a brand?” There’s a lot of marketing that goes into that, right? You’re thinking about how you’re doing advertising, you’re thinking about PR and social. A lot of that became part of my role, even though I wasn’t directly overseeing marketing. I did that for a little while and also, then created a lot of new brands while I was at Hilton.
Ken Kanara: Oh, really?
Vincent Szwajkowski: That brought me the biggest joy, really thinking through that there’s an opportunity here. Again, the BCG brain, marketing brain, brand brain, all coming together. The BCG brain came in and was like, “There’s an opportunity, there’s a blank, white space, like blue sky strategy.” “What’s the segment that we’re going after? What’s the market size for this? How do we think about this? What is the profitability going to come to? How do we drive growth for the broader organization?” That was all of that core strategy management consulting framework and experience that I was able to bring into that.
Then it became, “Okay, great, now this looks really nice on a piece of paper.” When I left BCG, I didn’t make 300 page PowerPoint decks anymore, I maybe made 30-to-40 page PowerPoint decks, but I had this 30-to-40 page PowerPoint deck, the C-Suite is super excited saying, “Yes, we should do this.” Then they were like, “Well, great, but who’s going to do it?” Then I was like, “Oh, crap.” Then it became more of the brand mindset of, “Alright, well now what are all the components to do this brand?” I had to think about the naming. I was at a hotel company, I had to think about architecture and design, I had to think about everything down to what shampoo goes in the shower, and soft and fluffy are the towels, or the color of the sheets, and things like that. How do you think about food and beverage experiences in your lobby? Do you have them? Do you not have them? What offerings are you giving as part of your brand? Is it free breakfast? Is it a great gym? Do you not care about fitness? All of those different types of things. It became, basically, an in-house branding agency at some point too. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of agencies and things like that, but really pulling together all of this great thinking from across the organization, right? Pulling in digital experts, pulling in marketing experts, operations experts our design and construction team, with outside consultants, but using that as kind of the hub for then building a brand.
Then the marketing mind came in when it became, “Okay, now I have this great thing and it looks pretty and it sits on the shelf. How do you do B2B marketing?” Hilton’s franchised, right? You have to sell franchises in order to get these hotels built and then, again, thinking around the go-to-market launch strategy and what is your voice on social, how do you participate in the loyalty program and think through CRM. Again, really based in that core management consulting skill set, but I was able to bring in a lot of other things that I didn’t even know I was super passionate about until I started doing them so. That was a culmination of really pulling all that together.
I left Hilton and went to a company in Los Angeles called Decurion. It’s a large-scale real estate business that had a business within it called Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters. I was their first ever CMO who was brought in there to do all sorts of great things with completely reimagining the experience, thinking about marketing. They had never done performance marketing before, they didn’t have digital before, so it was really looking at all that. That was a really fun run.
COVID happened, lots of pivots happened–I think for many people. You could probably have another podcast called, The Perfect Pivot, or something like that.
Ken Kanara: Yes.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Or How Did You Pivot?
Ken Kanara: Or What did you do when COVID happened?
Vincent Szwajkowski: Exactly, right? Like many people in that situation, I had to fundamentally rethink what I was going to do and then joined Blaze. I joined Blaze in the middle of the pandemic, which maybe in hindsight, probably added a few more gray hairs to my head than I needed, but I joined here to become the CMO of Blaze. Ultimately again, what Blaze was looking for was, “How do we think about brand?,” and particularly, “How do we think about brand as a vehicle to drive growth?” There’s a lot of different ways that you can use marketing. There’s performance marketing and yes, you should be on Meta, and you should be thinking about PR, and social, and having 360-degree approaches to your campaigns, but one of the things that I think drives differentiation, and drives a lot of growth, and one thing that I’m very passionate about and that I’ve really learned a lot about in my career, is how important brand is. When you have brand as that north star, and you really think through every single lens of what that brand can do, it impacts everything you make. It actually has an impact on what benefits you offer your employees, right? It has an impact on how you operate, where you spend money, what you think about when it comes to innovation, how you treat your guests and your customer service strategy. That was a core part of why I joined Blaze, that there was such a passion to really build that and to use that brand as a way to drive the next phase of growth for this business. I hope I answered your question.
Ken Kanara: You definitely did and I now I have lots more, which is a good thing. While I’m biased because we’re friends, I will say you’ve done a phenomenal job. If I think about myself, I didn’t know necessarily who Blaze was three years ago, but I absolutely know them very well now as a result of a lot of the work that you’ve done. That’s just speaking as a consumer, so that’s really cool.
Vincent Szwajkowski: It’s a lot of work, and I think coming in during COVID, all of the playbooks that any experienced marketer had, you kind of had to throw out the window, right? I think all of COVID really forced everyone to be a lot more nimble, but again, nimble within what framework? I think that’s why that brand is so important. If you have a clear framework for your brand, it allows you to still be nimble, and evolve or experiment, but don’t go outside the lines. I think that’s been one of the success stories at Blaze, as well, is we’ve been able to do really drive new channels and new opportunities for growth, while also defining and staying within the core.
Ken Kanara: Yes. One of the things that’s surprising to me about consultants is actually going into marketing. It’s a less, I would say, prevalent thing than you might think, right? If I look at all the CMOs that got their start in consulting, it’s actually less than you might think. A lot of them grew up in brand strategy or something like that. There are two things I want to unpack. One is, Okay, you talk a lot about brand, which is a very squishy thing for a consultant, right? I’m curious how you unpack that? For my own edification, and also for our listeners, we need to put structure around things in order for them to make sense. How do you unpack brand? Maybe you can talk about what you did at Blaze as a kind of a launching pad?
Vincent Szwajkowski: Yes, and I think that might be part of the reason why there’s not as many consultants in marketing, because there’s a lot of marketing that isn’t measurable. Everyone always wants to see an ROI. A bunch of agencies and CMOs will give you a bunch of marketing math, but truly attributable ROI are harder to come by. I think it’s even harder to your point with brand, right? Brand is extra, extra squishy. But think about products or brands that you love and that you use in your everyday. What are the things that you’re going and giving people a recommendation on? What are the expectations that you have on something because of an experience that you had someplace else? I think it’s particularly important in places where you might not always get the same consistency. When you’re thinking about, I don’t know, a pack of gum, you might like the flavor, you might like the packaging, you might think it has cool marketing. Every time you open it, it’s always going to taste the same. It’s consistent, right? When you go to a restaurant, you go to restaurant in Location A versus Location B, or you go from a hotel, each hotel is totally different from a design perspective, the amenities that it has. But how does that hotel behave? How does it resonate with you? How do the staff greet you? Do they say “Hi, Sir,” or “Hey Bro?” Those things are brand. That’s brand, right?
Literally, how someone greets you when you walk into a Blaze pizza, and someone before you’ve even walked up to them, you walk through the door and they scream across the restaurant, they say, “Hey, welcome to Blaze!” That creates an environment, right? “Hey, it’s a little more casual here,” and the music that’s playing overhead, it all creates a vibe, which is also a squishy term, right? Like, what is vibe? But again, that to me is what a brand is. When you’ve defined what the brand is, you can use that to then define all of those different experiential components.
I can tell you, part of the big process for us was coming up with what is our brand promise, and Blaze’s new brand promise is “Free to be you.” I’ll unpack that into two parts. “Free to be you” is a very functional value proposition that applies to Blaze because Blaze is a pizza concept. For those of you listening who don’t know what Blaze is, come visit us, but it’s a build-your-own, down-the-line pizza concept. You walk in, you pick one of five crust options, you pick all these different sauces, cheeses, vegetables, there’s like 35-to-45 different ways you can customize your pizza, and then it’s cooked in a 600-degree oven in three minutes, before your eyes, and topped out and delivered.
Ken Kanara: And it’s delicious by the way. I do it on cheat day.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Well, we have enough options that you don’t have to cheat, we have keto crusts and everything else.
Ken Kanara: That is true.
Vincent Szwajkowski: But the functional value proposition of “Free to be you” applies to our concept, right? There are so many ways for you to be creative. If you’re feeling like you want to go spicy one day, or you want to go heavier on meat, or you feel like you’re cheating, so you want to go a little bit lighter and have more veggie forward, that is all part of our core value proposition. You’re not being charged for all those topics, right? You can have two toppings, you can put ten on your pizza, right? That’s all part of “Free to be you.”
Then there’s an emotional territory of “Free to be you,” which is around acceptance, inclusivity, and creativity, and all of the different types of things that appeal to people that when we then build out those proof points, that becomes the intangible part. The brand needs to, from a value and functional standpoint, appeal to everybody’s head, right? Logically, they have to understand it. Then what’s that heart component? What’s the emotional territory that makes you a super fan, so that when you’re going and telling somebody else, “Oh my gosh, I love Blaze Pizza,” and they say “Why? I’ve never heard of it.” You’re going to be able to say, “Oh, well it’s amazing, it’s a great value, the quality is amazing, they make their dough fresh in-house every day. There’s just something about that brand. When I walk in, I’m greeted in a certain way. I love the music that’s playing, their merch line is really great.” “Oh, wow.”
Now that has become something that has become engrained as part of your lifestyle. That’s how I think a brand differentiates itself. Blaze is not hard. Someone could go and replicate Blaze tomorrow, right? Think about fashion, think about hotels. Think about all these products. Once it’s produced, it’s not hard to replicate it. Brand is what creates something that’s going to last for a lot longer. If you think about a lot of spaces that are now getting really crowded. Think about all the transformation that’s happened in everything from disrupting traditional medical, to subscription vitamins and gummies, to meal delivery kits, where one person had a really great idea and then you had all the copycats, right? Then it proliferates in the market and then what happens is that a bunch of them fall out. The ones that end up coming to the top are the ones that have a really clear value proposition and a really clear emotional territory that resonates with people and creates that brand. That’s what I’m saying. There is no measurable ROI against brand, but you can, if you do a little bit of digging and you think about what watch is on your wrist, what shirt is on your back, what car do you drive, what hotel do you stay at, what restaurant do you eat at, what bar do you go to for happy hour? There is a reason why you continue to go after something again and again, whether it’s a shallow reason like status or flashiness, whether it’s a more emotional connection, there’s a reason and brand plays a part in that. That to me is one of the key, key things that differentiates a successful business in the consumer space. Actually, even in the B2B space, right? Reliability or quality or cost, they’re all going to be components too, they’re just probably going to be more on the functional side of a brand rather than on the emotional. I only focus on the consumer side of stuff, so I probably shouldn’t stray too far outside of my lane on that.
Ken Kanara: It’s interesting that you mentioned the welcome component. So, again, I’m speaking as a consumer. It’s something I definitely feel when I’m in a Blaze restaurant. The reason you just made me think about it is because there’s just local gym that I go to, and I actually stopped going to it. I belong to three different gyms, I’m embarrassed to say. I’m a little bit of a gym rat, but the reason I go to it is basically my wife wants to go to that gym. I actually don’t like it, but every time I walk in, it’s like I just don’t feel welcome. It’s like I’m pissing them off by being there. Over time, it’s definitely altered my behavior, such that I say to my wife, “Oh you go ahead, I’ll go to the other gym today… I know it’s closer, but…” And it’s such a seemingly small thing, but I’m going to cancel my membership to this gym, eventually…
Vincent Szwajkowski: You should tell that gym to call me…
Ken Kanara: They’re a one-pop-shop, but what makes me think a lot about what you’re talking about is Danny Meyer’s book on hospitality, Setting the Table. I don’t know if you could expound on that as it relates to the work you’re doing at Blaze. I never thought about it until now, but I’m seeing a lot of parallels that you’re talking about.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Again, it comes down to, a lot of Danny Meyer’s philosophy is hospitality, hospitality, hospitality, show people that you care and that you appreciate them, right? And look, it’s a little bit easier at certain price points, right? You can have a chef come over and do a table touch. You can send the free dessert over, right? I don’t have those margins. I don’t have those people. I can’t do that at Blaze, but what can I do? I can train all of our people to give you a genuine “thank you.” I can say, “Hey, if you’re not slammed, go out into the dining room and greet people and, if they’re finished with their pizza, take their tray. Don’t make them get up.” That’s a small component that you wouldn’t expect. No one is expecting that at our price point. No one’s going to do that at some of our competitors, both in pizza and outside of pizza. Those are just some of those little differentiators that again, you’re not going to think exactly, “Oh, that was so nice that somebody did that to me.” You’re just going to feel a general sense of, “I got taken care of.”
Or, where I think it also really helps is where are things where there’s some level of irrational value placed on something that you’re going to pay more? Do I have more pricing power than my competitors because people are saying, “Well, look, Blaze is just so much better. Yeah, the products pretty close, but Blaze makes their dough in-house and the other people don’t. Yeah, it’s $2.00 more, but it’s the best $2.00 I’m going to spend, and it’s two bucks. Who cares, right? Those are some of the perceptions that happen, and particularly at our price point, and in our brand.
Then, you think about that, take that all the way up to the luxury level. A Cartier or a Tiffany diamond…sorry if you work at Cartier or Tiffany and you’re listening to this, but it’s no different than a diamond I can get in the Diamond District, right? Why am I paying that premium? I’m paying for it because that brand stands for something. There’s a quality, there’s a heritage to it. I’m paying for the color of the box…there’s a status symbol to it, all of those things.
There are levels of how brand plays in, and how this experiential component plays in, across every single part of the price point. I think a lot of people tend to think about it much more in a luxury space or a fashion type of space because they think of logos, and “I’m wearing a logo,” or something like that. Brand is everywhere. I mean, every one of us has a personal brand, right? How you describe yourself, how you dress, how you wear your hair, all those different types of things. There is a way in which you’re representing yourself and you want people to recognize that in you, right? You want to be known as a certain type person. How do you treat and interact with people in the world? Are you super polite? Are you saying, “thank you?” There are different ways we all do it. Brand, I think, is everywhere.
Where I think a lot of brands fail is they focus too much on the shallow parts instead of going super, super deep down to a team member inside a Blaze. I can tell them that they have to say, “Hey, how are you?,” but what are they going to do? They’re going to say, “Hi, how are you today? Welcome to Blaze.” Or are they going to say, “Ken, it is so great to see you again. How are you, man?” They’re going to be more engaged the better we take care of our people. Are we putting the right benefits and culture programs in place? Blaze just recently launched a partnership with Strayer University so that we could provide discounted, ongoing education opportunities to all of our line-level team members in a restaurant. That’s not something I’m marketing. I’m not putting on Instagram out there like, “Blaze is doing this great thing…” What is that doing? It’s putting our money where our mouth is, and it’s showing our team members that we care about them. We’re trying to do whatever we can to build loyalty, build a caring sense of environment so that they, then, care for all the people who walk through our door every day.
Again, that all ladders up to the brand. It ladders up to “Free to be you,” right? I want you to have opportunities to grow and develop and be your best self. Education is part of that. That’s how that brand promise was part of every single part of the decision making. Again, being a brand-led and a brand-centric organization is not for everybody. It’s a lot of work and you have to make some hard decisions and you make a lot of decisions that don’t necessarily have a real ROI, but it all adds up.
Ken Kanara: Yes, and your analogy about a person being a brand makes so much sense to me, because everything that you do is theoretically consistent or inconsistent, to an external observer, as it relates to your brand. That’s a really great analogy. What about, if I’m listening to this podcast, I also have no clue what a CMO does on a daily and yearly basis. I can probably take a good guess, but what is it like to be Vince at Blaze Pizza?
Vincent Szwajkowski: There’s so many different types of CMO’s, right? I think, for me it’s a combination. I am trying to drive long-term strategy, so, right now, Blaze is going through this process of rebranding. That includes everything from looking at packaging samples and what new uniforms look like. Today, I’m looking at what our new website and new app is going to look like, as well as the new features. I’m also engaging with teams and agencies on, “How are we driving sales tomorrow through the e-mail that you’re about to send out? Are we putting an offer in it? Is there a discount?” How are we thinking about all those different types of things? It’s wholistically thinking about all of the components of what it takes to drive both brand and healthy topline growth for a business. It’s how we’re spending money, and again, that also gets to some of the old BCG management consulting stuff. When you’re spending hardcore dollars on performance marketing or, in our business, we market through third party channels like DoorDash or UberEATS. What’s the ROI? “I’m going to spend X dollars, how much is that going to deliver? What is that actually going to look like? How am I comping over last year’s plan? How am I squeezing every little drop out of a budget, that I don’t care how big your budget is, you always think it can be bigger, right? At Blaze ours is super, super small.
There’s that component and then there’s the whole creative side, and different people lean into different things. As I said, I lean a lot into the brand. I’m lucky in that I have an analytical background. So I actually have a little bit of a unique perspective that I can really dig into a lot of the numbers in the analytics and in two weeks I’m doing a three-day social media photo shoot. I’m going to be on-site at the photoshoot being like, “No, I don’t think that pizza looks good,” and, “We don’t have enough diversity with our models today,” or “That shirt is distracting because it has a logo on it.” There’s a lot of that kind of stuff, too.
I think the role of a CMO, a successful CMO, is to be able to be super, super strategic, really be able to drive a team–and a team goes beyond your existing team, right? It goes to other cross-functional parts of the organization, as well as external teams and all the agencies you work with, drive them to a north star, and then also find that right balance between getting involved and getting into the details so that you can really push and drive that agenda forward, while also taking a step back and letting your team do what they’re all amazing at. I didn’t come up through the digital route. I didn’t come up through Procter and Gamble’s Management Training Program. There are a lot of experience and skills that I don’t have that I rely on my team for. I actually think one of my biggest roles is developing an unbelievably talented group of people.
It’s one of those things where, I think in any function, you’re never going to be good at everything. But in marketing, there are so many different ways in which you can take it. It could be media buying, it could be creative, it could be copywriting, all the things around digital, we have a loyalty program…all of those different things, you can’t be good at all of them. How are you, as a leader, finding the right ways that are going to drive the biggest return for the business and have the biggest growth impact, while also finding the right people to fill in your own skillset gaps. Again, we all have things we’re passionate about, we all have things we have experience in, and we all have blind spots or opportunities. I think that’s one of the biggest things. I think it’s on everybody, in every department, but I do find that marketing has such breadth to it that it does become a bigger need here than I think in many other departments.
Ken Kanara: How does one convince leadership at their company of things that are a little bit more of a brand focus, or squishy, but, if you look at it on a singular basis, you can say, “Well, it’s impossible to calculate the ROI on that,” but if you look at it holistically, it’s obvious, right?” How does one convince leadership to make those decisions. Could you talk maybe about what you’ve done in the past?
Vincent Szwajkowski: Sure. I think, first of all, it’s knowing your audience. I know the different CEO’s that I’ve worked with, what they care about, are passionate about, and what they need to see. Again, that’s one of the biggest skills I learned in consulting. I learned all the analytics, but I also knew between partners, clients, somebody really cared about the analytics, somebody wanted a big, thick deck to have a FUD factor on a table, and somebody was like, “I don’t want slides at all,” they’re style is like talk to me, give me your elevator pitch. Knowing your audience, I think is first and foremost so that you can craft the right type of story and “business case,” for what it is that that you’re going to need. I think, particularly at the board level, I’m in a private equity backed business. When I walk into a board meeting they’re not just like, “Oh cool, show me some brand stuff,” they’re like, “What is this going to deliver?”
Where are there elements that you can take data-driven approaches? What it is that you’re trying to do? Even on something like brand, you can use consumer research and you can say, “Hey, the consumer is telling us X, they’re telling us they’re not coming as much because of XYZ reason. They’re saying these are the things that they love about us. Why aren’t we doubling down on that? Oh, they’re loving that? That means other people would love that too. Our marketing campaign should push on that as we’re going out to attract new customers, which is going to make my marketing campaign more effective, or is going to make this new hospitality program better because I’m doubling down on what we’re good at, or I’m solving a gap.” Those, I think, are the ways that even on certain things that are squishy, you can still put numbers to it. You can still use data to drive a decision instead of just coming in and saying, “Here’s a pretty picture. Here’s our new video asset.”
Ken Kanara: “This feels good.”
Vincent Szwajkowski: “Yeah, this is the feeling of this color.” Okay, Blaze is changing all of its colors. One of our colors that we’re bringing in is yellow. I can tie back why we’re using yellow to say, our consumers told us that Blaze, in many cases, ignites joy for them, like when they have this great experience. What color best represents happiness and joy? It’s yellow. If one of our brand pillars is igniting joy, if I have that, and I’m saying all those things, making a choice on color, I can ladder everything back. Yes, it’s still opinion-based, someone could say, “I want pink, or I want black, or purple,” or whatever it is, fine, but when you present something in, “This is rooted in our strategy that we all align to…This is rooted in consumer research…These are the parallel things that we have done, why they worked, and why we want to double down, or why we want to tweak, or why they didn’t work, but why we’re doing it again because we’ve learned something from it…”
I think that’s a really, really important part is I think for most people outside of marketing, they get lost when you’re like, “Oh, this feels right,” or “This seems like the right thing to do,” or “This is my opinion.” There’s so much of marketing that is gut, and there is an art, but there is also a science component. I think knowing your audience and being able to pull in the science leads to more effective dialogues and conversations and gets the buy in. The other thing is sometimes you have people who are just confused and like, “Sure, just go for it…,” but then they question it later. The goal should always be to walk out of the room fully aligned on what it is that you’re going to do. Be transparent. Where are there risks? Where are the things that you aren’t sure of, and how are you mitigating those? Every time we put something in and we’re saying, “Okay, it’s digital, I can turn it off tomorrow if I need to.” “Great. Did it work? It didn’t? Why are we spending money against it? Drop it, pivot, go back, do something again.” I think that’s hugely, hugely important. The sort of shift in the tools that have been available to a marketer now are crazy compared to what they were before. You can run fifty different creative spots all at the same time and have Facebook shoot you back, which one performed and you can change single words, or copy, or this appeared at the top versus the bottom, or it appeared in the end card versus the opening card, and you basically can use all of these algorithms and things like that. There are a lot more analytics that happen now. Don’t be afraid of those types of things. Know what you’re good at. If you’re not good at that, make sure you have somebody on your team who is good at that, who loves dealing with an Excel spreadsheet, and have them be able to be a part of that as a solution moving forward.
Ken Kanara: Yes. I like the way you picked that up. The last thing I’m curious about is, it’s this paradox. I talk to a lot of folks in consulting interested in going into marketing, but yet there’s a disproportionate number that are actually in marketing. What would your advice be to someone that thinks, “Okay, Vince has the dream job. I would love to see myself get there.” How should they go about thinking about their first or second job out of consulting?
Vincent Szwajkowski: I think that there are huge opportunities for folks coming out of consulting, and I think there are more now than there ever have been. I think one of the biggest opportunities for people coming out of consulting is to go more into sort of growth marketing because it’s such a big, big component. There’s so much analytical horsepower that’s needed to do that well.
Ken Kanara: For those of us that don’t really know what growth marketing is, could you tell us?
Vincent Szwajkowski: Okay, sure. Think about that as all your performance-based marketing. Things like Facebook, Instagram, and how are you going out there and grabbing new customers?
Ken Kanara: Okay, got it right.
Vincent Szwajkowski: You’re basically saying, “I know enough about my current customer and I have to drive growth, usually, through customer acquisition.
Ken Kanara: Okay.
Vincent Szwajkowski: The other component of growth marketing is then, how are you maintaining and nurturing those relationships? That’s when you get into CRM, the customer relationship management, which is usually your text-based communications, e-mail communications, push notifications if you have an app. How are you nurturing somebody so that they’re spending more with you or that they’re staying with you longer? Everyone has a natural churn rate. These are all things, and if you’re a consultant, you probably know “lifetime value of a customer,” “churn rates.” These are all terms you’ve probably heard of or used in a case before. There are entire roles that focus on those things. That is an area that I think is definitely a big opportunity. I actually have somebody, who I hired from McKinsey directly to work for me when I was at ArcLight, to start my strategy team, who’s now at a startup focusing exclusively as their VP of Growth. That is what he does and he’s killing it. Those are definitely huge opportunities for people coming out of management consulting.
Now, that being said, personally what I would be doing is I would be trying to find a brand-centric organization that had a brand strategy team because those strategy teams are 100% a place where you are going to thrive. You know how to do it, it’s in your bread and butter, but it will challenge you to think a little bit differently, particularly in a more consumer-driven business, and those teams tend to have unprecedented access to the C-Suite.
Ken Kanara: Interesting.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Think about it. When I joined Hilton, I was 24. I was a little baby who had no experience in hotels, who didn’t know what the hell he was doing, and I was constantly meeting with EVP’s, the CEO, as a little 24-year-old. That gave me unbelievable amounts of skills and knowledge just by being a sponge and observing the way people think about the business and all the experience they had and why something works or doesn’t work. It also gave me an opportunity to really chart my own course. I became passionate about building brands and I was able to say, “Here’s the business case why we should do it, and by the way, you’re also going to need someone to actually implement it and I want to do that.” I had the trust and rapport with everybody that I could then lead those projects. I think that’s another really, really interesting opportunity. Not all strategy teams are the same, right? A corporate strategy that’s focusing on M&A, as an example, is not going to give you the opportunity to then get into marketing, but get in at a good level, younger in your career that you can then have some growth within an organization and then roll out into a different part of the organization. So many people from the strategy team that I built at Hilton became Director of Brand Management at this thing, like some of them became brand heads, one of them is now the CMO of a different company. This path does really work when you follow it.
I think my one final piece of advice is, okay, you can go directly into a growth marketing role. You can go into a brand strategy role. No matter what role you go into, try to find people who are going to be unbelievable bosses and mentors, give you the right opportunities, who are aligned to the way you think and what you want to do, and they probably want to do it themselves. I knew I didn’t want to be in strategy forever. I wanted to build something and then I wanted to have a role outside of strategy. I didn’t want to become the Senior Vice President of Strategy. That was not my dream job. For many people, it is. People were like, “I want to be the Chief Strategy Officer.” Cool. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. People who were working for me, I hired people who had really interesting, strategic backgrounds but worked at Procter and Gamble, or Mars Wrigley, or Ralph Lauren and interesting places. They had that experience. They were consultants, they had MBAs, they had all this type of stuff, but they were really passionate about consumer. They knew what I wanted to do, then they wanted to backfill my job, and then they wanted to do the same thing. I was super, super supportive of their development in order to be able to do that. Not everybody wants that. Not everyone thinks that way, so do your due diligence, whatever you want to do. I don’t think people do enough due diligence when they’re taking a new role.
Ken Kanara: 100%.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Don’t be crazy about it, and realize, if you’re younger in your career, you have so many opportunities to pivot later in life, but do your due diligence and really think about it. Am I aligned to what this person’s like? Are we aligned strategically? Are we aligned developmentally? Is this person going to be a champion of me and my development? Are they going to push me? Are they going to be an advocate when I want to go work for a different team? Or are they going to be a person who’s going to be like, “How dare you try to leave me!” Those are really, really important things because particularly when you go into that strategy group, if you then want to get into marketing, or you want to go work for a loyalty program, or something like that, you need strong advocates to be able to say, “This is why I think Jim,” or Sally, or whoever it is, “is going to be great for the role,” and not all people operate that way.
Ken Kanara: I fully agree, especially on your last point in terms of doing your due diligence. I get to see it firsthand because we work in recruiting, but people get excited by a shiny object, right? But the guy or gal that you’re going to be working with on a daily basis, it matters so much. Like $5,000, $10,000 less or more, and that’s usually the focus at the one yard line.
Vincent Szwajkowski: If I had cared about five grand…When I was 24 was $5000 a big deal to me? Yeah. That was like a nice chunk of change when you’re sharing an apartment with a roommate and all that other kind of stuff, right? Do I think about that, that I didn’t get the five grand back then, now? No, I could really care less about it. I’m glad I took the experience. Hotels pay shit. Restaurants pay shit. It’s not like I’m in all these industries because I was like killing it and making….if I stayed at BCG, I would have made a lot more money for a period of time. There’s the long term payoff and the joy of waking up every day and being super passionate about what I do and the people who I work with. Who you work for and work with, I think, is exceptionally important. I always say, one of my belief on people is that everyone is ten times more capable than they will give themselves credit for. I don’t think people always achieve their full potential. I really do believe that everyone has unbelievable potential in life. I think there are two things that get in people’s way. One is what environment are you being put in and who’s around you? Are they constantly pushing you to be ten times more capable or are they, at best, letting you settle for status quo, and at worst, sort of dampening your potential, your creativity, your performance, whatever that is? That’s the first thing. And then the second is, what are you doing about it? There are plenty of people who have worked for me, too and they were like, “Great, I want to get to X level.” And I’m like, “Okay, what are we going to do? You have to put the effort and the work in. I can’t just promote you for no reason. I can’t develop you on your behalf.”
Ken Kanara: You can’t skip steps.
Vincent Szwajkowski: You have to do the work. I think those are the types of things that are really, really important. And again, think about that from a perspective of, how are you reaching your best self and your best potential, and how are you thriving doing it every day? How are you surrounding yourself? What are you doing to push it? Because I think it’s hard. There are a lot of roadblocks along the way, so finding the right people who will, is hard and sometimes you get a little angry because you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this person’s riding my ass.” But you know what? Are they doing it for the right reasons? Are they doing it because they see what you can achieve and they want to help you get there? Ride my ass all day if that’s your goal. Then amazing, I want to work for one of those people ten times over, than push the easy button and have everybody be hunky dory but not actually moving the needle.
Ken Kanara: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. If I think about my favorite bosses throughout my life, two things, one is like, I never groan when I see them pop up on my cell phone. It’s never like, “Oh f*%k,” right?
Vincent Szwajkowski: Yes, you have some of those that you’re like, “Oh man, why are you calling me?”
Ken Kanara: Then two, they push you, too. Sometimes it’s a little bit uncomfortable or just ever so slightly annoying, but you know what? Those are the people I remember the most in terms of my own growth and achievement. So that’s a great point.
Vincent Szwajkowski: I think the other thing too, given a lot of what I think is the audience for this, is to also think about the type of leader that you want to be now. If you’re a project leader and you’re managing somebody for the first time, or you’re a partner, or you’re already outside of consulting, walk the walk. You can’t just say it. You actually do that yourselves. I think that’s critically, critically important. Are you growing and developing your people? How are you thinking about it? I think people often put the blame on others. There’s a lot of reflection and responsibility I think you need to take for yourself, for your own management style, for how you’re growing and developing yourself, particularly right now. Everyone wants to point the blame and make an excuse. Yes, there’s outside factors, but what are you doing within the environment that you’re in to make yourself thrive and create an environment where others thrive with you?
Ken Kanara: Well, I couldn’t agree more and this has been, at least for me, a master class on brand building and marketing. I appreciate you joining us today, Vince. If folks wanted to, learn more about yourself or more about Blaze–obviously y’all should go to Blaze tonight if you haven’t been. Get yourself a pizza.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Yes, get a great greeting, try all of our unbelievable toppings. Our dough is made in house every day. So yes, come and try Blaze Pizza. You can find us on all social channels, blazepizza.com if you want to place the digital order. Anyone who wants, needs any advice or wants to talk about my career, or needs some help, you can totally reach out to me. You can find me on LinkedIn, Vincent Szwajkowski. I guarantee you there’s not more than one on there.
Ken Kanara: We will put that in the description because there’s no way that you’ll be able to spell it. In fact, the funniest thing is, before we got started recording today, I had to ask Vince, who I’ve talked to dozens of times, “How do I pronounce your last name, Vince?”
Vincent Szwajkowski: It’s easier to say than it is to spell. It’s a hard one.
Ken Kanara: Good stuff. I appreciate it. Then, for everybody else listening for the first time, if you want to hear future episodes, be sure to subscribe on Spotify, Amazon, or Apple. If you want to catch transcripts from previous episodes, it’s going to be beyondconsulting.info. Lastly, if you want to get in touch with me or anybody else at ECA Partners, it’s going to be eca-partner.com. Until next week, Vince, thanks so much.
Vincent Szwajkowski: Thanks, Ken.
Connect with Vincent on LinkedIn for more information.