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How to Level Up as a Growth Marketer with Joe Lee (Ontra)

How to Level Up As a Growth Marketer with Joe Lee

There’s a lot of appeal to working for a flashy, up-and-coming startup. But Joe Lee, VP of Growth Marketing at Ontra, has always focused on achieving the best job titles and experiences instead of working for the “sexiest” companies. 

For Joe, growth marketing provided the perfect opportunities to advance in his career and get to where he is today. Growth marketing has become the de facto title for the person on the marketing team dedicated to growth, whether it’s through users, leads, pipeline, or revenue. 

In this episode, Joe talks to us about the importance of listening to leading indicators, why marketing should partner with sales in account-based marketing, and how to maintain empathy as you rise in the ranks of leadership.

Show Topics

  • Optimize for experience and title
  • Be a canary in a coal mine
  • Strategize with your decks
  • Partner with sales
  • Hyperfocus on a small group
  • Care about multi-marketing metrics
  • Invest in direct mail
  • Negotiate with your CFO
  • Control your narrative 
  • Don’t lose your empathy

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Key Takeaways

11:53 – Optimize for experience and title

Rather than work for “sexy” companies, Joe chose to job-hunt based on the titles and experience he could achieve.

“Old school demand gen had a defined definition. Typically, the goal of a demand gen leader was to drive MQLs, marketing qualified leads, for the sales team to follow up on. And much has changed in the last 10-15 years. The introduction of account based marketing, the introduction of product growth as a concept, the disruption of this whole era of growth hacking and experimentation and all that. Seeing the demand gen leader as also owning things field marketing and events. The role has shifted so much. At, I pushed for the title of growth marketing, because it started to feel like it was becoming the, at least in the tech world, the de facto title for the person on the marketing team who’s committed to growth in whatever fashion that might be, whether it’s users, leads, pipeline, revenue. I set that up to say, at Ontra now that’s what I’m focused on. I’m the leader on the marketing team that any time someone has a question, how do we grow from this to this? It falls under my department.”

15:33 – Be a canary in a coal mine

By the time you realize revenue is down, it’s already too late. So, figure out which leading indicator metrics can predict dips before they occur.

“Everyone on the executive level understands, ‘Hey, revenue is a good thing. And we want to see this grow time and time again.’ But we have to educate. By the time I realize revenue is down, it’s already too late. That’s a key thing. And the way we get ahead of that is we introduce the concept of leading indicators, which is actually something you and I spent a lot of time focused on at What are all the leading indicator metrics before revenue that we could start looking at to warn us? The canary in the coal mine that says, ‘Oh, if X is down, we should fix this. Otherwise in three months this is going to hurt revenue.’ And because marketing typically is more of an early cycle, marketing in some ways is the canary to coal mine. We’re paying attention to some of those leading indicators, leads, marketing qualified leads, MQL pipeline, the conversion rates in between those stages. And there’s a lot of education there. When I report to the executive team, ‘Hey, marketing generated 200 leads.’ The response isn’t, ‘Oh I can’t bring leads to the bank,’ which is a response I’ve actually heard in the market. It’s, ‘Oh, wow. That’s lower than before. There might be some risk here. Let’s dig in to see what’s happening.’”

17:59 – Strategize with your decks

Slide decks are a great way to keep vital information at your fingertips. Joe recommends creating a master slide deck with answers to the top questions stakeholders ask.

“The number one thing I do as a leader here is build decks, and on one hand is a joke, on the other hand it’s actually not that far off from the truth. And then one of the things people who work for me they are a little bit startled by is how maniacal I am about decks. Formatting. I get our creative director to come in and teach my team. How do you format? And titles and all of those things, because, decks, for whatever reason is the way most companies drive alignment at this point. And I’m not maniacal about it because I want to produce a pretty artifact, but I’m maniacal about it because if you have the right deck, it becomes the key piece. What typically happens for me after three to six months in a role is I have this master deck. It’s typically about 20 to 30 slides. And in almost every one-on-one I have with a cross-functional stakeholder, if they have a question, I’m, ‘Oh, I have a slide for that. Can you give me a second? Let me pull that up in my deck.’ That’s not even a strategic thing I’ve decided to do, it happened that way. Because I realized I needed to build a lot of decks and it became the key piece for me to drive alignment, cross functionally within an organization.”

23:27 – Partner with sales

To get the most out of account-based marketing, the marketing team needs to partner up with the sales team.

“ABM almost necessitates partnership with sales to go and engage an account. I’ll give you an example of a play account based marketing play. We created a custom landing page for, let’s say the company we’re going after was Microsoft. It wasn’t, but in this case, let’s pretend it was Microsoft. We ran a bunch of ads to Microsoft, targeting Microsoft, the key personas we were going after. And we drove them all to this custom landing page where they watched a video, signed up for a direct mail, or consumed content. And then we actually had a tool on the backend that we partnered with sales and we said, all right, we ran this campaign. Let’s look at who actually engaged with our contact. And decide. All right, BDRs, are you going after that contact? AEs are you going after it? Or are we dropping them into a marketing nurture? That process was much more collaborative, because depending on the person and the engagement, it could impact how it is we follow up. And ABM plays and campaigns look much more at the engagement level. And then finally the fourth stage, it’s all about conversion. All right. How are we actually generating an opportunity out of this campaign? And again that’s more of a sales/marketing partnership, as opposed to marketing, ‘Here’s a lead, follow up on it.’ It has to be done together.”

25:14 – Hyperfocus on a small group

Instead of casting a broad marketing net, hone in on the accounts that have the highest levels of intent.

“Let’s say you have a world where there’s 2000 accounts you could potentially go after in an ABM campaign, but you only have budget to effectively go after 100. There’s a whole qualification process in ABM, similar to inbound lead qualification where the more engagement an account has, the higher their intent is. We talk about it as intent level. If there’s an account and five people on that account are visiting our website, downloading our content, joining our webinars, that aggregates into an intent score that maybe at the 70 level, we flag that as an MQA. And that could be an account. We tell sales, ‘Hey, marketing has done all this work to get this account, doing a bunch of research on us, but they’re not filling out the demo form.’ Because typical B2B enterprise, we don’t fill out demo forms. The inbound engine is not doing a good job of capturing that lead there. Sales, you should launch an outbound campaign into this account. And that’s where it’s a conversion partnership in sales of, ‘All right, marketing has lit up this account. There’s a ton of intent. Now, sales, how do we work together to actually convert that account?’”

30:29 – Care about multi-marketing metrics

Last-touch models tend to skew toward demo requests and direct emails. A more accurate approach is via multi-marketing metrics.

“In a last touch model, it typically skews towards demo requests, events, maybe direct mails. But in my experience what ends up happening is it looks like marketing is generating a bunch of leads through events and ads that promote demo requests. If that’s all you had, you would shut out all of your other channels, webinars, focusing on building out a robust website content. All of these other things would suddenly get shut out because you’re focused on a last touch model. The next thing I like to build out as a first touch model, which tells me, how did I get the lead? What’s going to start lighting up there is content, webinars, these more top-of-the-funnel plays that tell me how I’m getting to lead. And then once I have those two things, now I have the last touch model that gives me the runway I need to, it’s all about optics, unfortunately, that convinces the executive team and the CFO I know what I’m doing and I’m contributing value to the business. Then I have the first touch model that starts to paint for me a fuller picture of all the various marketing channels that are contributing to my success. And then along the way, you’re building a multitouch model, which typically starts linear, where all of your touches are getting equal credit, and then you could get into more specific things. And when you get to a multitouch model, now you understand how all of your various channels, whether that’s direct mail or content or whatever, is contributing to revenue. The other thing you’ve done is you’ve now had a year or two of educating the company of how to start caring about multi-marketing metrics.”

33:54 – Invest in direct mail

Direct mail is one of the most effective marketing strategies you can use. It gives people a tangible way to increase familiarity with your customers.

“In the tactics level, some of the most popular ones, direct mail, especially pre COVID and now post COVID as people, if you’re in an industry of financial services that are returning into the office, direct mail. At a prior company, I was generating $170 of pipeline for every dollar I put into my direct mail program. It was the number one channel. And we were selling into HR. Imagine I send a box of cupcakes, which is what $20 with shipping, to Economic Buyer or Champion, they put it out their office to share. All of a sudden all the office is eating free cupcakes from my company. And now when the BDR goes and reaches out to that office, they’re, ‘Oh I heard about, blah, blah, blah. Tell me more.’ That’s one of the most classic I would consider ABM tactics. That’s why Sendoso has grown as quickly as they have grown, because that stuff works. And I would say even in the COVID and post COVID era, it is reemerging as an effective channel to target an account in a group of people and to generate a lot of buzz, to make the outbound outreach more successful.”

40:15 – Negotiate with your CFO

If your CFO wants marketing to contribute a certain percentage of the company’s revenue, determine how big of a budget you need to achieve that, and be willing to negotiate with them.

“If I’m supposed to contribute, let’s say 33%, a third of the revenue next year, how do I do that? How much is going to come from digital? How much is going to come from events? How much is going to come from these ABM tactics and orchestrations we’re working on? Building a model for that and then saying, all right, how much money and people do I need to actually execute all this? I would say that level of planning, or at least some thought into all that, because the reality is if you’re early stage, you don’t have a lot of the historical metrics or even time or data to do all that modeling. But that level of thinking first is going to help you do a few things. One, it’s going to help you go to the CFO and say, ‘Hey I can absolutely contribute 33% of the pipeline, but I need this budget and headcount.’ And they’re going to come and say, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’ Or, ‘No, that would make marketing budget 40% of our revenue. And there’s no way we, which is typical in probably sub $10 million, there’s no way we can spend 40% of our revenue on marketing.’ And then he or she comes back and says, ‘This is what I can give you.’ And then you can put that into a model and say, ‘All right with these resources, at best, I’m going to sign up for 15%.’ It gives you some planning to try to set you up for success upfront.”

44:36 – Control your narrative 

Make sure to give a clear statement at the top of your resume declaring who you are and what you do. You don’t want other people controlling your narrative.

“I’ll walk through what my resume looks like. I have a statement up top of who I am, and mine says, now ‘I’m a growth marketing leader who specializes in X’ as one line. And then the next thing I put is all the things I specialize in. It’s ABM, email marketing, paid advertising, campaigns, and it’s maybe about 15 items up top of my specialty. And then I list my experience. And I keep it one page, and the reason I recommend a resume format is it follows my principles for resume design, interviewing. It’s one, control your narrative. If you don’t control your narrative, you’re letting the other person control your narrative. That’s why I say I’m a B2B growth marker who’s specializing in these things. If I don’t have that, they might read my resume and go, ‘Oh Joseph blah, blah, blah.’ And it could be totally off. And I want to control my narrative. The other thing is I want to highlight what I can do and the metrics associated with it. I highlight my particular skillset, again controlling the narrative, and then in my individual bullet points they’re all metrics driven. I always make sure there’s a quantifiable thing in whatever it is I’m talking about in my resume.”

51:26 – Don’t lose your empathy

The key quality of a great leader is being able to make hard calls while still being empathetic to the people who will be negatively affected by your decision.

“A lot of people tell me that the more senior I get, the more I need to be able to reduce my empathy and make the hard calls. And to a degree, I agree with that. There’s always going to be people I need to fire. There’s always going to be people I need to performance manage out. There’s always going to be hard calls I’m going to need to make when revenue is down and blah, blah, blah, blah. But I fundamentally disagree at this point in my career, and especially watching what’s happening right now in the job market with this idea that a key quality of senior leadership is making metrics-driven, hard calls. I actually think the key quality of a great leader is how do you make the hard calls, but hold in tension the people that hard call impacts? And I want to start off by saying I fully believe that at times there are times in any company life cycle where you need to do mass layoffs. That’s a part of business, and it’s unavoidable. Even this debate around rescinding offers, and is that morally right or correct. There are absolutely times where, for the sake of the business and for the greater good, you have to make some of those hard calls, but if you’re not struggling with that, and not emotionally, but tactically. Are there other options here? Can we explore pay cuts on the executive team? Can we explore other places to cut? Can we can we explore better ways of doing communication, even if there’s a security risk involved? If you haven’t spent hours and hours in that tension, you’re missing something as a leader.”

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David Khim

David is co-founder and CEO of Omniscient Digital. He previously served as head of growth at and Fishtown Analytics, and before that was growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives to scale the product-led go-to-market.