CMO Views: Farnaz Maters on Continuous Improvement, Barbie

In his monthly column, CMO Views, VettaFi’s CMO Jon Fee connects with other CMOs to discuss how they drive success inside and outside their organizations, sharing perspectives on career, outlook, and motivation. For this edition, Fee sits down with Farnaz Maters of Principal Financial Group®.

The role of the chief marketing officer has evolved as companies digitally transform, embrace the power of brand, and lean into data-driven behavioral insights to drive client growth and satisfaction. No longer is the role merely “colors and fonts” or “clever copy.” Today, a CMO sits at the intersection of most functions within an enterprise, with responsibilities that span pipeline, business development, sales automation, and even community-building. As a result, successful CMOs must embrace change while remaining close to both customer and product.

Farnaz Maters has an MBA from the Wharton School and worked her way up as an analyst to an executive director at JPMorgan. In her role as VP and CMO of Principal®, Retirement and Income Solutions, she focuses on promoting the tightly hewn connection between marketing and business strategies to raise awareness of Principal’s retirement services. Centering digital- and data-driven precision in client interactions, she manages campaigns, product and segment marketing and communications, explores digital and business analytics, and produces proprietary research and thought leadership.

Farnaz Maters on Career

Jon Fee: Let’s start with the jobs and careers. What do you think the difference is between a job and a career?

Farnaz Maters: This is something I actually talk about with people who are entering the workforce. I view a job as something you’re viewing as your paycheck. You’re clocking in and then clocking out. A career is something you’re actually finding fulfillment in and enjoyment from.

I’ve been really lucky in that, since I’ve entered the workforce, I’ve been passionate about the jobs I’ve had. I get fulfillment from my work. I’m someone who’s really motivated by learning, and my career provides that personal fulfillment. The way I view it is if you’re getting fulfillment – and fulfillment can come in variety of ways – then you have found a career you invest in it, versus a job that’s more transactional.

Fee: That’s an excellent answer and makes a lot of sense. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your first job? You said you’ve been fortunate to have, throughout your work career, jobs where you are getting fulfillment.

Maters: My first job was in retail. It was at a department store, and I was the holiday help. I was the person behind the counter providing the department store’s free service of packaging customers’ holiday gifts. All day, I was putting items in boxes, gift wrapping them beautifully, and adding bows.

Finding the Joy in Every Job

Fee: How about the first one that felt like the career? Or was there actually the fulfillment in even that initial holiday retail job?

Maters: Even with that, it’s joyful, right? It’s the holiday season! People are generally happy. I acquired the skill set of learning how to beautifully wrap a gift. I’ve been able to lean on that skill. So I don’t shy away or dread having to gift-wrap things when it comes to birthdays or holidays.

When I was in college, I really thought I wanted to go into law. So I took the LSAT and completed all of my law school applications. Being the nerd that I am, I even decided to go through the interview process just to see what it was like and to practice for when companies come on campus.

I went through the process of applying to law school and applying for jobs at the same time and I got a job offer at JPMorgan. It was a two-year rotational program at the bank — this is before all those mergers. I knew nothing about asset management, banking, or financial services, but it sounded interesting. I thought, “My LSAT scores are going to still be good, my applications and my essays, everything is still going to be good. So I’m going to do this two-year thing. Then I’m going to go back and go to law school because I’ve done all the work and heavy lifting to prepare.”

And then I started at JPMorgan. I was a finance major, but I did accounting internships. I didn’t really have a good understanding of all the roles, all the things you do in financial services. My second rotation was in asset management, and I just fell in love. I loved everything about it. That spurred my passion and I think really started my career in financial services.

Fee: That’s a neat story and it has me wondering — what was your first job in marketing specifically?

Maters: I didn’t move into marketing until midway in my career. After the rotational program, I went into the sales organization as a sales associate doing support work. I then progressed to having my own territory, and then into being a sales leader. Along the way, I decided to go to business school.

When I was in school, because I’d already had my degree in finance, I was like, “I’m just going to take classes and look for experiences that are really intellectually stimulating and interesting.” I gravitated towards all the marketing classes, and I ended up fulfilling my concentration for my MBA in marketing strategy.

So, I get my MBA while I’m working and I’m trying to figure out the next step in my career. I’m networking, seeking input from key mentors that I really respect. One suggested making the shift into marketing. They thought my experience with clients and understanding the products would really add a lot of value to the marketing organization.

It was a really scary thought for me. For years, having revenue tied to my name and to my function, to then moving into this nebulous area. But you know what? I made the move, and I was surrounded by some really exceptional marketers — true marketers that had come from CPG and from branding agencies.

I rolled up my sleeves and was a practical student in acquiring some of those marketing skills I didn’t get to practice with my MBA or have exposure to as a salesperson or sales leader.

Changes in Marketing

Fee: How has marketing changed since you first entered the field midway in your career? How would you define it as a CMO today?

Maters: In financial services, we’ve been behind in our definition of marketing versus other industries. But I think over the last five to 10 years, financial services organizations have realized the true power of marketing and a new way to define it. They now better understand the value it can add. Early in my career, and even when I initially made my shift into marketing, it was viewed as sales support. One of the things that was really interesting and innovative when I made the shift into marketing was that the organization believed in the true power of marketing. They were bringing in key talent across digital branding, activation, and social. So there’s an influx of really talented people coming from CPG and other industries to elevate that marketing function and to deliver the value that marketing should be delivering to the business.

I’m really lucky that I’ve been part of organizations that don’t have a narrow view of what marketing is. They truly believe in the power of it as a growth driver. It’s integrated in everything we’re doing. It’s not a different part of the business. Marketing is the business.

Pets and Pet Peeves

Fee: I love that answer. Marketing is the business — you are absolutely right. The next section is my pets and pet peeves section. To kick that off, let’s talk pets. Do you have any?

Maters: I don’t have any pets. I have never been successful in keeping a plant alive. So I’ve never ventured into pets. With half my career being in sales, I traveled so much that I’m only responsible for keeping myself and my son alive. It’s just not something that my husband and I have ventured into — the pets or plants world. There are no plants inside our house.

Fee: Totally makes sense. Surely you have cultivated some pet peeves though?

Maters: Whenever I’ve moved into a new team, working with new people, I really try to outline some of those pet peeves so I’m transparent. It helps interactions go a little bit smoother. One of them is meeting culture.

Fee: Oh, absolutely!

Maters: For so many of us, our calendars are just jammed with meetings! And I really push back and encourage my team to do the same. If you’re in a meeting, and you don’t know what your role is or what you’re contributing and there’s nothing specific you’re supposed to be taking away, I’m not sure you should be in that meeting.

The other tactic I use to gauge if I should be in the meeting is if I’m multitasking. If I am, it’s either a really bad meeting or it’s not a meeting that’s important enough for me to be attending. Or it’s a disorganized meeting.

I have a lot of pet peeves around meeting culture. One of our most scarce resources is time. I want to be stingy with my time. I ask people to have the agenda and get me the materials before the meeting. If I look and there’s not an agenda or materials, I cancel the meeting, because the onus is on me to come prepared. I need to have looked at the agenda, I need to have looked at the materials, so when we get into the meeting, we actually have the discussion points and we make the decisions we need to make.

A lot of my pet peeves are around being prepared for meetings — how you show up, and what the expectations are.

More Meeting Culture Pet Peeves

Fee: You’re speaking to my heart here. Sometimes I’m in a meeting and I look at all the people and I started thinking, “What is everybody’s salary? What is everybody making per hour? How much is it costing the company for this meeting to happen?”

Maters: Yes! I think the other thing about meeting culture is herds. Do you really need five people? Do you need three people from the same team in the meeting? If I have accountability, if I’m the person representing the group or the function, it’s my job to take information and bring it back to the group. If people are doing that, you don’t need two or three people from the same team. I’m sorry, I’m really passionate about this pet peeve. [Laughs.]

Maters on Leadership

Fee: I’m 100% with you. But it’s time to pivot to a new topic: leadership. What daily habits or weekly routines do you keep that keep you sharp as a leader and evolving as a marketer?

Maters: Especially as you expand your responsibilities, it’s easy to get distracted or pulled into a lot of different directions. For me, before I come into work (on my drive in or in my preparation to start the work), I have my top one or two things I have to get done that day. It’s not 10. Ten would be amazing. But I know that if I really focus my energy and say, “This is the one thing that has got to get done today,” or “These two things are essential,” it helps me be more effective. I try not to do more than two.

Looking at the other part of the question, well before COVID, I had seven direct reports. Out of the seven, only one of them was in the same location as me. Also, only 40% of my team was in the same location. Sixty percent were either remote in a work-from-home situation or they were in a satellite office.

So one of the things I started doing was casual coffees. There wasn’t actually coffee, it was virtual. Again, this is well before COVID. It brought my team together in a more casual setting. It breaks up your day. You can engage and interact with people and build more of a community and a team dynamic. Especially as you get larger teams that you’re responsible for, it’s harder to make those personal connections. It’s something I’ve done for the last six years. I get a lot of fulfillment out of it.

In those meetings, we talk about questions people have for me about changes coming in the organization strategy. But mostly it’s fun, uplifting topics. When it comes to the team, there are only so many people you interact with on a daily basis. It has allowed me to be better connected with my team. And it’s allowed them to make connections outside of the people they work with on a daily basis.

Maters on Mentoring

Fee: I love that. I think that’s terrific. Mentoring in marketing is particularly unique and challenging because this is a rapidly evolving discipline. Who helped you get where you are today? And do you have someone you’re mentoring?

Maters:  Yes. And I think, for me, the most critical period of mentoring was when I made the career shift and moved into marketing. I had some of the technical learning, some of the strategy work that I was able to do as part of the MBA. But I didn’t have that hands-on practical experience.

I came with knowledge about the customer, knowledge about the business and the products, and peripheral knowledge of marketing. I was paired with two people when I first started in marketing. One came from the agency/branding world, and one came from a digital activation world. They didn’t have the client or the business background, they were true marketers. The three of us formed a team and tackled big initiatives while relying on each of our strengths. To this day, I credit the two of them with the amount of knowledge I was able to acquire from mentorship. They just had expertise and knowledge that I didn’t have. I had knowledge and expertise they didn’t have. It was it was an amazing way to do that, and I’ve tried to replicate that as I’ve built teams. You acquire talent to augment the knowledge and experiences of your team. Having the ability to pair people, to lean into their areas of expertise, and to upskill people is really foundational to evolving the marketing organization.

Fee: I really love that, because with this question, we traditionally hear a lot about a more classic dynamic of somebody in a higher position. I think peer-to-peer learning is probably something that happens in every field all the time. One of my early jobs was as a server, and I learned how to be a server from the other servers, not from that manager at the shop.

Maters: I think an element of it is being open and vulnerable. To know what you don’t know and being open to leaning into people who have that expertise, because that’s the way you’re going to learn.

Continuous Improvement

Fee: Totally makes sense. Terrific answer. Up next, let’s talk about digital transformation. How do you define digital transformation without using the word “digital” or “transformation?”

Maters: I have a way I describe it – it’s continuous improvement.

Because “digital transformation” makes it seem like you’re transforming, and then you’re done, right? To me, it’s about continuous evolution and enhancement.

As organizations, there are things we need to modernize. We need to leverage new technology and new ways of working. But once that initiative is done, you can’t check the box and say, “OK, we’ve transformed.”

I think if you treat it that way, you wake up and you’ve got another big transformation to do. I think it’s a shift in mindset to continuous improvement. You have to be acquiring the new technology, the new processes, the new ways of working so you’re making incremental investments throughout the way. Realizing those steady benefits versus another big initiative is critical. I’m not discounting that you need some of those big initiatives from time to time. But I am a big proponent of shifting that mindset so it’s not some behemoth digital transformation.

Innovation in Marketing and Technology

Fee: Super interesting! What is something that nobody’s thinking about in terms of digital transformation, but that you’re keenly aware of?

Maters: I don’t think it’s about that. I’m focused on what’s going to have the impact on the business and how you’re going to operationalize it, so it’s woven into your procedures, how you’re actually operating. To me, there are a lot of things that are innovative and exciting happening in marketing and in technology. But it’s important to have line of sight and know how it’s going to impact you today or in the future. Being practical about what’s going to actually move the needle for your organization versus getting distracted by some of the shiny new tools or the things creating buzz.

I’ve seen a lot of work put into data, AI, and machine learning. There’s a lot of innovation being done in those spaces, and it’s super exciting. But how much of it is actually getting integrated? You do all this work, you develop a model. But is that model being woven into and changing your business process? Is it changing the way you do your activation?

For me, it’s about making sure you understand the new trends, the new technology, and the innovations happening in the industry and in peripheral industries. But thinking about and focusing the organization on what’s going to have the biggest impact and having confidence it’s going to actually get operationalized is key.

The Crystal Ball

Fee: This all makes a lot of sense. Let’s look into the crystal ball now. Tell me about your predictions for marketing and marketers. What’s coming next, and how do we prepare?

Maters: I think about what’s happening from a regulation perspective in the standards around privacy and data. I think it’s going to be really important in our industry (and because we’re a global organization), to address customer expectations about their data and how it’s used from a marketing and targeting perspective.

The second part of this is data utilization. At Principal, we’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of innovation around data that helps us better target and drive engagement. I think that’s going to continue. I always look at CPG and what they’re doing in terms of evolution and the tactics they’re using. We’re a little bit slower in financial services. I think we’ve got a lot of leeway in taking some of the marketing best practices from outside our industry, such as targeting and data utilization.

Then I think a third one is generative AI, and what it’s able to do. I think if you’ve played around with the technology, it helps with your starting point. Then you can really elevate it with the talent and expertise on your team. AI will be able to automate some of the tasks that are a little bit more mundane or focused on the earlier part of the marketing process.

Parting Gift

Fee: Thank you so much for your time. One last question. Or, I suppose, offering. I like to have people leave a parting gift for the readers. Can you share with us an album, book, movie, TV series, or other creative work that brings you joy right now? And what is it about this creative work that fires you up?

Maters I’m going to give you two answers. I always joke with people that if you look at my Netflix history you would think that I’m a teenager or a 35-year-old male. I go towards the cheese of a teenager, or the sports of a 35-year-old male.

One of the things that I’ve loved is Drive to Survive, the Formula One documentary. I actually wake up at early hours to watch live Formula One races now! On a nightly basis, I Google “Formula One News” because I’m really invested in it. I love the sports documentary show aspect of it, but now I’m into the sport as well. The reason I love it is the precision, the craft of what they’re doing. The milliseconds matter and everything’s got to go right. How they work as a team, the competitive nature of it — all of that is really exciting to me and I love every aspect of it.

I’ll switch gears. The other thing I’m really into was the Barbie movie. In the middle of the movie, I actually ordered the “Kenough” sweatshirt. If you know me, I wear white, black, and navy … and that’s it. This sweatshirt is neon colors and it’s fluffy. In the middle of the movie, I took out my phone and ordered it.

I’m waiting for someone to dissect, from a marketing standpoint, the feat that the Barbie movie accomplished. It is absolutely amazing. I’m in awe of the marketers behind it, the integration that they’ve accomplished. It’s amazing.

Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Company®, a member of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.


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