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Interview with Paul Mills, CMO at Shaw & Co

For this week’s interview I had the pleasure of speaking with Paul Mills, a CMO who started out as an anlytical chemist before embarking on a sector-hopping career in marketing.

Paul is the Chief Marketing Officer at Shaw & Co, a growing firm of corporate finance specialists. He begins by telling me how he got started in marketing.

“Being a ‘lab rat’, testing drugs for about seven or eight years didn’t really inspire my creative part of the brain…so I decided at the age of 26 to give up the job and I paid for myself to study marketing.”

The decision prompted Paul to enrol at Aston University where he would go on to secure a sought-after placement year at Ford Motor Company prior to starting his first paid position, post-graduation at Johnson & Johnson Medical.

Paul’s role at Johnson & Johnson, where he specialised in marketing a product for minimal invasive heart surgery involved him being on the road for a lot of his time and even included stints in surgery in order to advise surgeons on how they were using his firm’s product.

“At that time, I knew a sales role wasn’t the right one for me and I set a career goal that in 15 years, I’d get to CMO level.”

Becoming a diverse marketer

“A deliberate part of me to get where I am today was I didn’t want to stay in one sector for my entire working career because I felt that would make me a relatively ‘stale’ marketer.

“I really believed that you can learn good things in one sector and apply it to something else.”

Since then, Paul has found himself working with a firm involved in microelectronics prior to settling into the professional services sector.

Being a jack-of-all-trades

“I think when you’re a Chief Marketing Officer or a Marketing Director you have to be a jack-of-all-trades…anyone in [one of these] roles really needs to keep a scrapbook of what works and what doesn’t.”

At this point, I asked Paul whether he thought that being a marketer means that you are being paid to fail, all in the name of optimising and improving.

“I think that comes with the very nature of marketing…within the senior marketing roles, a lot of your time is spent trying to convince those around you at the board that your marketing could fail, but actually you need to try something brave.

“Where a lot of firms get things wrong, in my opinion, is that they always play it safe when it comes to marketing.”

Delivering a high-empathy service

“Our approach to the market [at Shaw & Co] is high-empathy with the client and also our teams working well together as part of our clients’ extended function.

“I’d probably call the [Shaw & Co brand] a craft brand whereby it’s very niche…but as we’re growing it needs to become a bit more disruptive and that’s the next natural phase for a brand’s development…”

Paul explains what he means by the term ‘disruptive’; “…[it’s] not just in terms of look and feel…but also more disruptive in terms of the thought leadership we’re doing and our competitive positioning.”

Paul makes the point that in professional and financial services, there is a distinct lack of bravery and innovation in marketing.

“I think in [this sector] there’s just a low base of marketing and not a lot of appetite to be brave and innovative, I think it’s because the majority of organisations are partner-led.

“You’ll find lawyers running the business…and because they don’t necessarily understand marketing and because the thing they do understand about marketing is that it can be quite expensive on the balance sheet, [they can have] that fear of the unknown…that’s where a lot of organisations play it safe.”

Making the most of your resources

A theme that cropped up in our conversation was to the challenge that marketing teams face when needing to do their jobs with limited resources. It’s at this point, Paul introduces the idea that all of the firm’s employees contribute to marketing.

“Whilst Shaw & Co is a corporate finance business, it’s actually a marketing business if you think about the nature of what we do.

“Whilst I only have one direct report, all of the employees in the business perform some degree of marketing or sales in their day jobs anyway. I’m very fortunate in the fact that I’m surrounded by colleagues who are only too happy to support by generating some thought leadership or having brainstorm sessions.”

From what Paul explains, it sounds like these interactions with the wider Shaw & Co team have a huge influence on the direction of the firm’s marketing.

“[In conversations we’ll discuss] what are the pain points the market has at the moment? What stops them from getting out of bed? What sort of edgy thoughts can we come up with?

“Jim (Shaw, the firm’s founder) recently did an article around his thoughts as to why retail is dead and why brands are going to be the important things going forwards; that’s had a lot of pickup and resonance with the retail world.

“I’ve got some very clever thinkers around and we come up with some great ideas.”

In addition to tapping into the team around him, Paul also explains the importance of working with agency partners to bolster the firm’s marketing resources.

“When I joined Shaw & Co I had free rein to bring in who I wanted, so I have a very strong London-based PR agency that supports the delivery of our content strategy…we now have editors coming to Shaw & Co asking for comment which wasn’t really happening 12-18 months ago.”

Paul also explains the importance of having a team of handpicked freelancers, supporting the firm with photography, advertising and copywriting.

Selling the intangible

As many in the financial and professional services sector will attest to, selling a service can come with unique challenges.

“When you have something intangible like a service you have to convince people of your expertise and one way of doing that is through thought leadership, so that’s really where I’ve been focussing my effort.”

Paul also mentions the importance of data in influencing the decision-making process within the firm.

“As the business grows and matures we’re trying to become a data-driven business, we want to make our strategic decisions based on rich real-time data.”

Marketing is a vehicle to measure the success of the business

“It’s important to not just rely on the usual KPIs for measuring success…I think marketing is a vehicle in which you can measure the overall performance of the business, both operationally and culturally.

“Marketing is often seen as the function that does a bit of advertising and a bit of PR, but if you actually look at marketing in its truest sense, it’s really the backbone of any organisation.”

As a result, Paul encourages the use of information from sources such as client feedback as the guide for making improvements. This has also led him to introducing Net Promoter Score into the business as a means of benchmarking the firm’s performance.

How to know when you’re being more disruptive

I was interested in what Paul had to say about making his firm’s brand more disruptive in the market, so I asked him how he will know when he has achieved that.

“I think how you know that you’re being more disruptive is you’ll see that you’re winning more clients from you’re competitors…[and] as you build a more disruptive narrative and voice in the world of content, I think you start seeing more interesting editors coming your way.

“You can also measure disruption by the type of business you’re winning…there’s not a KPI for ‘disruption’ but I think you can look at several different elements [to find out].”

Becoming a successful marketer

I wrapped up my conversation with Paul by asking him a question I pose to many of the people I speak to; what advice would you give someone starting their career with aspirations to make it into a leadership role?

“To be successful in a marketing leadership role today, in any sector, I think you need a deep knowledge of many elements of the marketing mix.

“The other piece of advice is that the world of corporate finance isn’t fast moving consumer goods (FMCG)…the level of marketing is really quite a low base. I think if you compare the type of marketing that happens in FMCG, it’s Star Trek compared to what you see in any professional services.

“Coming into [this sector] there’s so little differentiation in the marketing that there’s a really big opportunity to come and be brave, bold and innovative.”

Paul finishes with some sound advice for all marketers; “marketing is a science and it’s also an art-form…be brave, stand by your convictions and if things aren’t working, learn fast!”