Senior Vice President, Research & Insights
We Are GBH is an employee spotlight series designed to surface the stories of the amazing individuals across our team and what makes them tick. Today meet Brian Smith who is joining as Senior Vice President in our Seattle office.
Today for our employee spotlight series, we chatted with Brian Smith, who is joining GBH Insights as Senior Vice President in our Seattle office. Brian brings a unique background, with experiences in marketing strategy, customer research, data and analytics, management consulting, and information technology. Brian will be working with GBH’s growing client base in Seattle and around the world on strategic marketing opportunities to drive business growth.
Prior to joining GBH, Brian was a Senior Vice President with research consultancy PSB Insights, a WPP Group company, where he consulted with clients on opportunities in emerging cloud services, enterprise computing, cybersecurity, and technology policy. He also previously consulted to technology and health care companies in strategy and operations with Deloitte Consulting.
In addition, Brian drove marketing strategy and implementation at Microsoft for nearly a decade. In the Windows business group, he developed the commercial Cloud IT campaign and drove the worldwide go-to-market launch of Windows 10 Pro, brought the first Windows tablet devices to market, and developed the consumer retail messaging and positioning. In several roles focused on emerging markets, he worked with in-country teams to innovate new approaches to product development, pricing and licensing, and channel development for China, Brazil, India, Russia, and Southeast Asia.
Prior to driving marketing and strategy for major brands, Brian had a deep background in technology and business operations, having worked as an IT engineering lead and implementation manager for several investment banks in New York City.
Brian holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in international business and marketing and a BA from Whitman College in German and politics.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your prior career and how you got started at GBH.
I think about my career in three phases, that loosely correlate with three waves of technology. I started out in IT departments – first in health care at the University of Washington and then with financial services firms on Wall Street. These banks were investing heavily in client/server computing and local area networks at the time and it was a great way to get hands-on enterprise experience early on. As I worked closer with business line owners as an engineering lead, I became more and more interested in how the technology could be used strategically to innovate and build new products and services for customers.
This led me to the next phase of my career that focused on business and marketing strategy. After an MBA at the University of Chicago, I moved back to the Seattle area and started with Deloitte as a management consultant. By this time, cloud services and mobile devices were disrupting the entire world of technology and nearly all products and services. I joined Microsoft where I worked for nearly 10 years in a variety of roles, when Microsoft was reinventing itself as a cloud services leader, rethinking and rewriting its global strategy in real-time.
The third phase of my career, which I am in the middle of right now, has centered around customer insights and data analytics. As cloud and mobile have connected all our devices and all of us, I became more and more interested in the power of that data being collected, and in the analytics to inform customer insights and marketing strategy. I’ve always been a consultant at-heart, and this led to my role at PSB Insights where I worked with clients in the cloud & enterprise computing space to help solve marketing and strategy-level business challenges through research and behavioral analytics.
I made the decision to come to GBH Insights as I wanted to stretch even further in my career, and work for a consultancy at the forefront of helping executives and senior marketers get the most out of their data and research using advanced analytics techniques. I see this as the biggest force of change in the industry today.
What will your role at GBH focus on, and what are you most looking forward to?
We are seeing tremendous growth in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. As our first SVP in the area, I’ll be working with our existing and new clients looking for our unique offering in analytics consulting. The technology and telecoms sectors are a major focus for us in the area, but there are also tremendous opportunities working with world-class health care, logistics, food and beverage, and light manufacturing companies. I’m most looking forward to working with these marketing leaders and teams and working with my new GBH colleagues to help them with their unique business challenges and opportunities.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing CMOs and marketers today in your opinion?
A few specific challenges stand out:
Challenge #1: Overcoming the organizational gaps needed to effectively apply data and customer insights to real-time decision making.
Companies can no longer afford to have their marketing organization siloed, given the online, connected, and AI-powered products and services of today. Marketing teams need to be tightly integrated with the rest of the company, working in tandem with operations, customer support and success teams, and with the product engineering teams, for example. It’s a company-wide challenge to identify which data is needed, collect that data, apply the analytics, and make quick or even automated decisions with impact.
Challenge #2: Applying marketing technology in a pragmatic way.
Machine learning is driving huge changes across companies from operations and product development to marketing. As brands look to automate more of their decision making around new features, new services, customer segments (applying machine learning concepts, advanced analytics and statistics), they need to make sure they are applying these tools in a pragmatic way.
While AI and machine learning can help to unlock tremendous competitive advantages, CMOs and other leaders first have to create their brand, product and marketing strategy, based on target customer insights, and then look at how technology can be applied to execute on that strategy. Far too much of the marketing we see today is focused on increasing traffic, clicks or eyeballs, rather than building stronger customer relationships and brand equity longer term.
Challenge #3: Responsible innovation and customer data use.
Innovation is happening at an extremely rapid pace. As engineers build products, services, or platforms with new capabilities, companies need marketing to help guide and reality check how those new technologies should be deployed. What are the risks of deploying AI to make automated decisions? What guardrails need to be built in? How will customers react to information collection and how can you effectively educate them on the benefits of these analytics and keep their trust?
As Jeremy explored his recent HBR piece, tech companies in particular often develop products in a vacuum. “To guard against their tendency to put the product on a pedestal, tech firms have to empower CMOs and marketing to drive an outside-in strategy – keeping target customers at the center of future innovation.”
In addition to centering innovation around the needs of the customer, brands also need to make sure they are applying data and technology responsibly. This month several companies including Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have announced they are making updates to their facial recognition technologies, or pausing use of the technology altogether, given algorithm biases around race and gender. Another prominent example of the need for responsible innovation by companies is the scandals we’ve seen with Facebook from customer data breaches to misinformation on news feeds influencing public elections.
I’ve done a lot of work around technology policy for previous clients. There are a long list of legal, cultural, moral and ethical considerations to ensure they are applying AI and customer data in the right way. They can’t just rely on the legal team – many of the laws haven’t been written yet. Marketers play a critical role in thinking through these issues, again from the POV of customers. At the heart of these issues is the fact that you need to maintain the trust of your customers.
What are the biggest success factors for companies as they look to improve ROI for marketing, analytics, research or related areas?
All business leaders, but especially marketers, are swimming in data. There are constant data flows on customers and products, both inside the company and outside: product usage and telemetry, website visits, transactional records, CRM records, and more. But as GBH Co-Founder Eric Bradlow notes, it’s not the volume of data, that matters, but the quality. “CMOs and marketers have to transform their organizations to apply better data, not big data.”
To improve ROI, marketers first have to think deeply about the business problem. They need to identify the key strategic questions to answer through data and customer insights. In addition to taking a hypothesis-driven approach, companies also have to have the right analytic tools and processes in place to effectively apply better data across the organization. That’s the only way to make the best use of their team’s time and their research and analytics partners. To help our clients, we need to be business strategists first and foremost.
Another key success factor is the ability to demonstrate results of marketing actions. With so much data available, and with so much in the online and offline world being measurable, marketers absolutely need to think up-front about linking their activities to outcomes. CEOs and CFOs are asking for proof that their investments are paying off and in what specific ways. Today CMOs need to be leaders in those analytical techniques proving their effectiveness.
Having said all of that, strategic marketing requires blending art and science, the qualitative and quantitative, and left-brain and right-brain thinking to be successful. We cannot forget that, at the core of all that data, are actual people – living, breathing, thinking, logical and emotional individuals. In terms of ROI, that means making sure to supplement and interpret the data and analytics through the lens of human psychology, and having the right team, resources, and technology in place to be able to not only understand target customers, but also anticipate and predict their future needs.
What’s a fun fact about you that many people may not know?
Sailing and playing rugby are both passions of mine. Both are sort of therapies to de-stress and get out of my own head. I spend much of my days analyzing and thinking deeply through important and complex issues. These sports, and others like skiing and mountain biking, make me react intuitively and immediately on a physical and instinctual level. I don’t have time to think and I find the fast pace and element of danger is actually calming and centering!
I’ve played rugby for nearly 25 years. I first started playing while at Whitman College, where I actually started out competing in track and field on a scholarship, running hurdles. A friend threw me a rugby jersey and dragged me onto the pitch and I was instantly hooked. I also played during a year in Germany and France and had the opportunity to play in tournaments across Europe. I haven’t stopped since then, playing in men’s leagues in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. I still play touch rugby all around Seattle and with the Microsoft team which keeps me in touch with a lot of colleagues there. It’s a fantastic social sport – you can find a community almost anywhere you travel.
Another passion of mine is being out on the water both motor boating and more recently sailing. I grew up in the Seattle area going up to the San Juan Islands and on Puget Sound, and I’ve been revisiting a lot of those places now with my wife and son. I’ll often spend time on the weekends sailing small boats on Lake Washington or the Sound. I’ve also done some sailing trips with friends on larger 35’ boats and even crewed on some big boat racing. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy the Northwest.