The 6th Sense

Why I Became a CXO.


I have a secret: I’m claustrophobic. It’s not debilitating, but I have trouble in cramped spaces and I hate being boxed in. When I fly, for example, I refuse to sit in the middle. And if that’s the only seat left on the last flight out, I white-knuckle it the whole way.

Back in the early days of online travel booking, this caused me a lot of problems. That’s because it was only after choosing a flight and paying for it that passengers could see which seat they were assigned. For me, that included the occasional dreaded middle seat. I realized this one element – seat uncertainty – marred my entire flying experience.

At the time, Rokkan was in the middle of a website redesign for Virgin America. I was also leading a team tasked with finding ways to improve Virgin’s customer experience across the board. Naturally, I started work on seat selection before you buy. Presenting customers with the ability to see and choose an available seat before they paid increased their satisfaction and improved their overall experience, which, I can tell you, doesn’t just start at takeoff.

In addition to changing their digital platforms to allow for seat selection, we also showed taxes and fees before purchase to be more transparent. Both decisions influenced Virgin America’s overall approach to customer experience, and soon the company added call-center support that quoted the final price and seat availability before purchase. While this allowed customers to shop around, it also led to brand loyalty that helped overcome the competition.

The program was a big success for Virgin America, and an eye-opener for me. I understood how important and complex the customer journey can be, and that many companies had lost sight of this fundamental and critical issue. That’s when I decided my focus at Rokkan would be trying to understand our clients from the perspective of their customer.

By 2012, I had been so focused on the customer experience that I gave myself a new title. When I typed Chief Experience Officer into Google, I saw the health care industry had been using the term for years. It made perfect sense – from the reception desk to the nurse to the doctor to the surgeon to the prescription to the follow up, the customer experience at hospitals is literally a matter life of death. I wanted to bring the same urgency to our clients, so I became Rokkan’s Chief Experience Officer.

In the years since, thousands of agencies and brands have carved out a place in the c-suite for the CXO, and in many cases, consumers are winning big as a result. The principle is simple: identify every point of entry the customer has with a brand, make each one as easy, meaningful and enjoyable as possible, and thread them all seamlessly together. In my world, that means bringing the digital and physical touchpoints together.

The world of online travel continues to evolve, and we have helped it innovate – but always with an eye toward making the customer experience better. When we developed a new mobile app for JetBlue, we didn’t start with the UI, features or functionality – we started with customer need. For JetBlue, we knew we weren’t just trying to replicate the dot com – no one wanted to book a flight on their phone. Instead, we decided to enhance the experience by allowing folks to use their app as a boarding pass. It worked.

While the ‘customer experience officer’ has become a bit of a buzz term, that doesn’t mean it’s not a vital role. On the contrary, the customer experience is central to any company’s mission. I would go so far as to say every CEO has to be something of a CXO (or at least employ a good one). After all, if your company has customers and your CEO doesn’t care about them, your customers don’t care about you.

As the world becomes more connected and customized, there are new challenges for CXOs like me. Technology, customer behavior and business needs are always evolving. That’s what makes this job fun and exciting.

And I never forget that I am also a customer who is far less frequently squished into a middle seat.

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The Collaboration Model.

I think a lot about work. But it’s not just the work, it’s how to work better.

The world is too dynamic today, too unpredictable, to rely on traditional ways of doing things. Technology, culture, people, we’re all changing at the turn of a headline, and we have no choice but to abandon the same old script of how we’ve always worked.

Somewhere between consultant and vendor, there’s room for a new agency role – that of co-creator, where the agency and client form a single team as partners. If consultants tell clients what to do, and clients tell vendors what to do, a new model built around collaboration doesn’t dictate – it’s a place where teams are solving together in real time, embracing trial and error and testing and learning to create iteratively and constantly.

The model has some fundamental truths – first, both parties must have a clear, common vision for what defines success. Second, they must agree that change is an expected part of the process that cannot be avoided. When you go in the direction of change, you give yourself the freedom to adapt, course correct and refine. Finally, that every bit of the way you work together has to be a little different.

What does that all mean? Let’s think differently – let’s see ourselves as one team instead of two, with multiple points of contact on each project. Let’s share more – let’s have one unified process where instead of waiting for someone to pass the baton, everyone is swimming in their own lanes at the same time. And lastly, let’s learn from digital and be more agile, less waterfall. Let’s eliminate bottlenecks, administrative hurdles and redundancies. Let’s just do the work, with everyone who has a role to play, in the most efficient way possible. Let’s be more flexible and less rigid, more do and less talk, more beating deadlines instead of setting them.

We learned these lessons the hard way – through doing, adapting and growing. We were recently asked four days before a major shoot to add another spot for a completely different product. We agreed and planned hard. We added the additional shoot, but it just wasn’t working. Collectively, we made the decision to stop mid-shoot, and went back to the drawing board. We re-concepted, got the work re-approved, and re-shot and edited, all on deadline. It wasn’t easy, but we made it happen.

Change happens. And we have to practice how to turn on a dime.

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Show Don’t Tell.

Behind the scenes: Cadillac Tech Spots Show, Don’t Tell

Cadillac’s brand story is evolving parallel to its introduction of new technologies. This spring, we helped Cadillac bring that story of innovation into our communities.

When we started developing a series of digital and social spots to showcase Cadillac’s new technology features, we knew the work would have to speak for itself.

Cadillac wanted to help drivers make sense of technology – it wanted to be the brand that made technology understandable, relatable and useful. For that, the message and medium had to be no-brainers. Each spot had to make sense and click with viewers immediately by conveying the technology’s human benefit.

So we challenged ourselves. We decided to make each spot less than 20 seconds, with no dialogue and limited on-screen language, but full of simple visuals that tell an easy to understand story through imagination.

Cadillac wanted us to focus on new technology features available in the CT6, XT5, CTS and Escalade – magnetic ride control, park assist, rearview mirror camera, rear-seat infotainment and hands-free liftgate. Early on, we decided to showcase the technology through hyperbolic situations that showed off cutting edge technology and its human benefit. And since we only had 30 days to launch the spots, we had to be extremely purposeful with our creative.

To start, we set ground rules – eliminate technical jargon, simplify messaging and tell stories people can relate to. We decided to go from prestige to purpose and to show innovation not for its own sake, but for the sake of customer experience. We wanted to demonstrate technology that makes practical sense.

For magnetic ride control, our ‘Coffee Break’ spot featured a man riding a CTS with a cup of coffee he’d accidentally left on the roof of his car. The camera follows the car – and the coffee – for a while before the viewer understands that magnetic ride control gives you a smoother ride.

The second spot for magnetic ride control features a couple riding in an Escalade with a turntable in the back – again, a hyperbolic situation that conveys a simple message – that Cadillac technology will make sure you don’t skip a beat.

In ‘Fashion Trucks,’ we showcase automatic park assist technology when a CT6 slides perfectly into a tight spot at the press of a button. And in ‘Fashionistas,’ the rearview mirror camera makes a debut when two big haired women sitting in the back seat of an XT5 obstruct the rear view but don’t phase the driver, who flips the rearview mirror camera on for perfect visibility.

The fifth spot uses humor and envy to showcase rear-seat infotainment technology. In this spot, as two friends watch shows on their backseat monitors, the driver and passenger are obviously left out – while the back pair laugh and smile, the two up front can’t manage more than a scowl at missing out on the fun.

The sixth and final spot, for hands-free liftgate technology, follows a woman carrying packages back to her XT5 only to realize she doesn’t need her hands to open the trunk – instead, a simple kick of her high-heel shoe activates and opens the hatch. The message is so simple it sticks.

The spots are straightforward yet compelling, helping get across not the technological advances that made these services possible, but the type of experiences they enabled normal people to have. The spots are short, snappy and memorable insights that show – don’t tell – how Cadillac is reconnecting the driver with their car.

See for yourself on FacebookInstagramTwitter and

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Not All Culture is Created Equal.

“When you combine a hunger for creativity, a reliance on collaboration and the courage to fail big with a supportive, loyal group of people that are 100 per cent hustle, you start to see something timeless emerge: a culture around which everything else revolves.” – John Noe

Everyone knows culture eats strategy for breakfast. A winning corporate culture is the difference between a good idea and a great idea. Culture is that thing that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning excited to get down to business – instead of having to go to work. Culture makes Mondays exciting.

At Rokkan, we’ve carefully nurtured our culture and maintained it in the face of year over year growth. That’s a tough order – weathering change, time, new people and POVs. But we’ve managed it through a strong leadership team, collaboration and the courage to try big things until we succeed, often times despite the risk.

So what is our culture? We go bowling, have BBQs, go for dim sum and have happy hours. That’s not our culture – those are employee rewards for living and breathing our culture. Our culture is something different. Above all, it’s a relentless, passionate love for our craft. It’s a work ethic that doesn’t stop at the limitations of a client brief or a failed idea. It’s a dedication to our clients and their success, and it’s a respect for colleagues that goes beyond support. Everyone that works here truly enjoys each others’ company and looks forward to spending time together. We’re family.

We are not trying to create culture to entertain employees – we’re trying to cultivate an intense dedication to helping clients transform their brands. And that requires consistently hard, fearless, creative work. Our clients pay us for our thinking, not to smile and nod. I often tell new employees this is going to be the hardest job they’ll ever have, but also one where they will accomplish more and be rewarded and valued in unprecedented ways. We listen to and inspire our teams, and it pays off. I love getting notes from clients telling me about how fantastic their account lead is or how glad they are that we challenged their brief and pushed them beyond their initial asks.

Our purpose is to serve brands through transformative change as tightly unified partners. Together, we are co-creators of a common vision, not just an agent that executes instructions. It’s our culture that allows us to make the leap from vendor to partner, and as our clients and campaigns evolve, I hope our culture does too. I want Rokkan to become even more open minded, more generous, more collaborative, more supportive, more ambitious and more persistent. That’s the recipe for client success and employee happiness.

But as our culture evolves, our values will not. We should forever be rooted in the foundations that started us 17 years ago in a Jersey City living room. Modest and determined, reliant on credit cards and coffee, we made websites for weight loss pills and protein powder, scraping up enough money to get lunch at Wendy’s. Together. That’s the origin of this place. That’s what led to our culture of hustle, humility and hardcore obsession for our work. That’s what keeps us going.

And at the end of every week, once we’ve mastered that culture, we bowl.

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It’s All About the Customers.

“The head of marketing is concerned with getting the customer into the pipeline, the head of technology is concerned with how the customer is navigating the site, the head of customer care is concerned with getting the customer to come back, but no one’s asking about the whole customer experience, and whether the customer is happy.” – Chung Ng

The Internet has allowed brands to be closer than ever to their target audiences, and yet many brands have lost sight of the customer. The consequences are severe – customers complain, buy less, go to the competition.

Brands don’t always know why. That’s because lots of individual things could be showing positive results while the collective picture is not so rosey. The marketing team, the CPG team, the CRM team, the social team, the sales team can all be working hard within their siloes, everyone looking at their own metrics. What’s the open rate on that email, one asks. How many likes for that Instagram post, another wonders. What’s our ROI on the big launch campaign, the CMO queries. The question they should be asking is: what was the customer experience and how can we improve it?

The difference between brands that listen to the customer and those that don’t is night and day. Nike and Adidas consistently listen to their customers and as a result have won an army of devoted fans and see the payoff every quarter. Oscar is another customer experience-friendly brand that is disrupting an industry of monolithic and traditional health insurance companies. CityMD has made urgent care a clean, modern, digital, affordable and fast experience for customers who have begun to replace their primary physicians. Tesla is completely changing the automotive industry by reimagining the customer experience. There are a lot of great examples out there, but even more of companies who aren’t doing it the right way.

Those who listen do so through focus groups, panels, loyalty programs, and market mavens. They also use new technologies and services such as Sprinklr, an online listening company that helps other brands measure their customers’ digital chatter. Sprinklr helped McDonalds better understand their customers’ preferences, which encouraged the fast food giant to create a new offering – all day breakfast.

At Rokkan, every piece of work we do is centered around enhancing the customer journey, no matter what we’re doing – from digital to social to creative. We helped JetBlue see the whole customer journey. Each product felt different, so we suggested embracing a service culture for the customer support hotline. When someone calls the support line, that’s an opportunity to ask about other parts of the experience, like whether they’d seen the new or had an enjoyable last flight. That created a unified experience and yielded better data for the brand. Every interaction with your customer is an opportunity to build a better experience.

We also know legacy brands often struggle to evolve their approach to customer experience. Part of that has to do with long-established operating proceedures that get in the way of the big picture. Our answer to that is a wider evaluation not just of each step in the customer journey, or the outcome, but in the potential of the ride. So we imagine – and propose – big things.

A lot of times, the response will be disheartening – our systems can’t do that, they’ll tell us. My response? Your customers don’t care. We come in with no notion of legacy, move without restriction and operate fearlessly. Our ideas offer the customer both a customized journey and a back door through which they can forge their own experience. It’s like going to IKEA – some days I’m surgical and just cut through the side door to get my meatballs. Other days I’ll take the well-worn path. Either way, I’m grateful for the choice.

So wake up, legacy brands. Keep losing sight of the customer and soon enough, they’ll be gone.

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Create With Diversity.

Create with Diversity or Die

I have a bug. A compulsion. An obsession. It’s a bit of a create or die feeling. I have to be doing or I won’t be happy. I’ve always been this way. And one day I worked under someone who said that’s a good thing. She encouraged me to be better, work harder, break the rules and above all, be myself. When I quit that job because I didn’t agree with the work of the Creative Director there, I wrote a letter to that same woman about it. She told me the letter took a lot of guts and that my instinct was right. That meant a lot. It never occurred to me that my role model and mentor was a woman – and why should it?

Diversity is the latest industry buzz word, but here at Rokkan, it’s the status quo we’ve never had to work to achieve. We haven’t been back-peddling to hit quotas, hire women or bring on minorities. We received a brief the other day that required at least half of the creative team to be women. We looked around and realized we had already met the brief. Our team was perfectly balanced – and that’s just the way it is.

Our first priority is having smart, interesting people on the job – they just happen to be women and men of all different colors, backgrounds, ages, cultures, experiences and life stories. When each of them, with points of view made up of countless influences throughout their lives, get together in a room, something no amount of convention or conformity can create is born: a powerful idea.

Diversity is the lens through which younger consumers look at the world. As we become connected through technology and our world becomes a little smaller, lines drawn by previous generations are becoming blurred. A good creative agency will aim to break down barriers too, rethinking their work not just to sell products but to tell universal stories that celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.

In the same way I would suffer without my work, creativity would die without diversity. When a limitless number of perspectives come together, there is simply more to choose from – more emotion, more color, more movement, more words, more reality, more imagination. And from that, more innovation.

We need diversity as agencies. We need people from all over the world, of different shapes, sizes, sexes and backgrounds. Our brands need them, too. We are just here to connect brands with people. When I look around our office and see diversity all around, I realize we’re exactly where we need to be. And as we grow, we’re more conscious of diversity – not because we’re worried about how we’re seen, but because we know diversity in creative works. It’s the golden ticket.

When we worked to position Glenfiddich Scotch for a different audience, the art director, a woman, couldn’t stop talking about her relationship with her dad. The ad ended up featuring a young woman who poured her and her father a Scotch after a long day at their guitar shop. We are believers in the idea that some of the best work comes out of true stories. For Mikimoto, we were tasked with making pearls cool to a younger audience. The creative team was entirely female, as was the director who shot the commercial. The ad ended up mirroring the evolution of women with the process of how a pearl gains its look and texture. I don’t believe the same insights and thinking could have come from a bunch of guys.

Slowly, diversity is becoming the norm. Clients are beginning to expect diversity in the teams they hire, the work those teams do, and the message that work sends. When we see clients like that, we know they are a forward-thinking brand that understands the needs of a different consumer today.

Diversity is what created this company. When I started at Rokkan, it felt a little like a rag-tag crew of pirates who took any pre-conceived notion of what it means to be a creative in this industry and threw it overboard. We realized something very basic – we are people making things for other people, and while we have differences and idiosyncrasies, we are more alike than we are different.

This humility – and respect for one another – allows us to speak up when something feels off or wrong. It allows us to attack a brief from very different points of view. Most importantly, it allows us to create a story for a brand where the hero isn’t always a white man – because that’s not who we are. We are a million other things, and at least one thing that unites us is that bug – to create or die.

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