The best strategy is deciding what not to do. In marketing it is so easy to fill a spreadsheet with “stuff” which looks impressive in Excel and PowerPoint but how much of that is just white noise, costing the company money and precious time? Can we ignore a market or region? Do we have to market every product on the list? Do we even need to market products at all? I personally believe there’s a higher calling that most marketers miss
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Kefer.
Over the course of his 30-year marketing career, Greg has held leadership positions at global enterprise software companies, cloud tech startups and advertising agencies. He is active in media, at industry events and on as host of the Digital Conversations podcast show advocating the opportunity for disruptive IT innovation in healthcare.
He currently serves as Chief Marketing Officer at LifeLink, responsible for all marketing, strategy and the healthcare chatbot technology company. Previously he was VP of Marketing at Infor Corporation, supporting a business unit focused on global supply chains and commerce automation for large enterprises. Greg was also VP of corporate marketing at GT Nexus, a cloud supply chain platform provider where he led all marketing and communications functions as the company grew from startup stage through a successful 700 million dollars acquisition in 2015. Greg started his career in the advertising agency business and has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Oregon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I began my career in the San Francisco advertising agency world, where I spent 12 years managing several consumer brand accounts including Atari, The Oakland Raiders, Ghirardelli Chocolate and Toyota. At the peak of the first dot com bubble, I jumped from advertising to GT Nexus, a B2B startup in the global supply chain arena, where I ran a marketing program designed to disrupt an entrenched group of big software incumbents that dominated the space we were moving into. After Infor acquired GT Nexus for 675 million dollars, I moved to my current position as CMO at LifeLink, a startup that’s on a mission to change the way patients navigate and manage their healthcare with advanced conversational technology.
Looking back, my career backstory started with a heavy amount of consumer marketing in the pre-tech age that was based on capturing attention and triggering buyer emotions through the various “analog” channels of the time — TV and radio commercials, outdoor billboards and print ads. When I got into B2B tech marketing, that consumer pedigree frequently came in very handy as we worked to reshape a massive, rigid industry with a different point of view on how to manage global trade. The executives that influenced big IT purchase decisions by day all went home at night to live their lives as skeptical consumers like everyone else. They weren’t going to fall for slick marketing from a tech company that promised to change their world and save them millions. GT Nexus marketing succeeded because we framed our customers front and center as the innovators leading the way. That strategy created the levels of awareness, credibility, and demand needed for the company to succeed.
Now at LifeLink, we’re doing the same thing for healthcare, an industry that is suddenly facing unprecedented uncertainty because of COVID-19. If you look at our website, you can see how we’re doing it.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
When I think of some of the big consumer-facing technology inflection points over the past 30 years, the personal computer, the internet, mobile, and social networks rise to the top. Each of those innovations had disruptive impacts on business and changed our world. We are on the verge of the next big IT inflection point — conversational technology. Human-machine interactions are shifting from keyboards and screen menu navigation to language. Today, almost everyone knows how to interact with technology through messaging and voice, which has triggered significant commercial opportunities to deliver conversational technology into some of the most challenging business domains. And healthcare is at the top of the list.
My company, LifeLink, is working with the biggest hospital systems and pharmaceutical companies in the world to reimagine the patient experience from a domain of paper, phone calls, long waits, and confusion to a place where AI-powered digital assistants (chatbots) interact with patients on their mobile device. This allows patients to easily navigate all aspects of their healthcare, and without the need to download apps or remember passwords. One that is mobile, conversational and simple.
For example, several of our hospital customers are moving towards virtual waiting rooms and delivering that whole experience through an interactive bot. LifeLink technology is also changing how scheduling, referrals, prescriptions and ER visit experiences unfold with patients. We’re also making it easier for pharmaceutical companies to enroll thousands of volunteers in clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While not necessarily a mistake, this story is something that is funny and memorable because it represents a mistake that is made by marketers to this day.
Way back in the early 1990s, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Richmond district was a favorite of mine. Julio Bermejo had taken over running the Tequila bar at his family’s Mexican restaurant, which was known to the locals as Tommy’s. Julio had captured the attention of the local clientele with his deep knowledge of fine, premium agave tequila. He taught many of us about the aging process, how agave is grown and how the good stuff is aged in barrels like fine wine or whiskey. Countless people were being converted away from headache-inducing Cuervo Gold to something way better, and way more expensive. I was all in!
Julio had a marketing idea to create a loyalty club that would grant a person with “tequila master” status after trying 50 different shots of the good stuff. Those who got to 50 would get a certificate and a T-shirt. He knew I was a marketing guy and asked me what I thought. I told him that while the idea was cool, the cost would be significant as many of the higher end tequilas went for 30 dollars+ per shot. I said “You’re asking me to spend more than 500 dollars and all I get is a piece of paper and a t-shirt? How about throwing in a bottle of Herradura?”
He ignored my advice, went ahead with his vision and the rest is history. The tequila master program helped transform Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant into one of the most famous tequila bars in the world. Julio became the US-Mexico “Tequila Ambassador” doing frequent network TV Cinco de Mayo appearances, he has his own tequila brand, and he hasn’t looked back. Some marketing guy I was, right?
That just shows the power of a great story. Marketing can do a lot of things, but without a story, it’s just a bunch of annoying noise. You can rattle off a list of incredible bullet points that are bolstered by quotes from happy customers, but if the STORY doesn’t resonate with your audience, it’s an uphill climb. And never underestimate timing. Julio emerged just as premium tequila was taking hold and he was able to capitalize on it. He and I laugh about it to this day, and I proudly tell the story every time somebody tells me how much they hate tequila. Any marketer who can’t tell a compelling, memorable story about the product they are trying to pitch should consider a career change. To me, it’s that fundamental.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve had the good fortune to work for several amazing people over the course of my career. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked for (and alongside) the same person, who today is the CEO of LifeLink — Greg Johnsen. Sometimes you luck out and share a common vision with people you work for, and I’m a beneficiary of that. One of the great lessons I learned from “the other Greg” is about how to get the best out of your teams. Impactful work does not happen without the help of great people, which makes hiring and mentoring vital to the success of any organization. At the core, it’s about empowering individuals to run their own respective operational domains without micromanagement. Let them own it and most will excel and love their job at the same time. Establishing clear objectives and key results are not enough. You must also have a “commitment culture” where agreements about deliverables are reached through collaboration instead of dictating.
This “commitment culture” is front and center every year during the planning of our user conferences. These big, significant events require support from every group in the company. The event manager would not be successful by simply e-mailing everyone a list of line item needs with due dates. Instead, she meets with a group of cross-functional department leads to review the needs in order to pull off a great conference and then mutually navigate deliverables and commitments. The department leads had a say in what they were signing up for, and the event manager had the charter to get tasks completed. Sometimes things slipped, but the conversation was very different from the one that would have transpired had the event manager simply assigned work to meet her objectives alone.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruption doesn’t happen without reason. Uber disrupted taxis, and we can debate the politics of gig economy business models forever. But, bottom line, if you are old enough to remember the days when taxi services were the only option to driving or public transit, you know that the taxi experience was usually awful. Taxis didn’t innovate because they had a monopoly and didn’t have any pressure to change. Then one day mobile apps matured to a point where somebody was able to figure out a new way to provide ride services and suddenly the taxi industry was in a fight for its life.
There are certainly systems that have withstood the test of time. When you think about construction, the earth moving machines do the same thing they did 50 years ago. Yet, the design and manufacturing of those machines has been reimagined multiple times. The bulldozer still pushes dirt around, but the machine also brimming with technology like GPS, sensors, and AI that predicts component failures and communicates with the regional Caterpillar dealer to get spare parts ordered.
Technology has increased the pace of disruption and with businesses or lifestyles there can be negative fallout of some sort. Often, job losses are cited as the reason disruption is bad. In my advertising agency days, the emergence of Adobe PageMaker wiped out the typesetting industry which was the craft of assembling fonts and words into an elegant layout for a printing press. It was bad news for one business sector, but another new one emerged. Today, Adobe alone employs more than 22,000 people and there are countless other well-paying jobs at companies that sell desktop publishing tools.
There are cases when an industry is in dire need of a change — like healthcare. The United States spends a fortune on healthcare, and most would agree we’re not seeing much ROI. It’s not for a lack of technology, it’s almost the opposite — there’s TOO MUCH technology. Clinical teams on the front lines are overwhelmed with data entry, patients must navigate 300,000+ mobile app choices, deal with passwords, complexity, and so on. Now we have COVID-19 wreaking havoc on healthcare, where hospitals alone are hemorrhaging more than 50 billion dollars per month in losses. So, maybe we have a perfect storm where the industry is forced to take a step back and embrace a disruptor mindset. If the healthcare incumbents don’t do it, Walmart, Apple, Amazon and CVS will. What comes out on the other side could likely be better for all of us. Only time will tell, but I do believe most disruptions do more good than bad.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Over my 30-year career, I have received lots of great advice. There are three broad concepts that I have embraced continuously because these concepts transcend technology, disruption and business evolution.
- The best strategy is deciding what not to do. In marketing it is so easy to fill a spreadsheet with “stuff” which looks impressive in Excel and PowerPoint but how much of that is just white noise, costing the company money and precious time? Can we ignore a market or region? Do we have to market every product on the list? Do we even need to market products at all? I personally believe there’s a higher calling that most marketers miss. At GT Nexus, we simply said “our platform gives you a virtual replica of your global supply chain in the cloud and leaders like Caterpillar, Pfizer and Adidas are already there.” That was our pitch in ads, direct marketing, social campaigns and PR. We’d eventually talk about products during the first sales call. That story became a 675 million dollars company.
- Nobody cares, nobody believes a word you tell them, and nobody has time to pay attention. This has been with me since my early days in the consumer advertising business. Companies get very self-absorbed in their story and product but overlook the reality that most people could care less. There is simply too much noise out there so odds are they won’t spend the time to fully digest what’s being said, even if they see it. Technology marketers face the added burden of a market that’s littered with decades of false promises of innovation glory, so few believe a word of it. Proof and credibility become paramount. And the art of “how” stories get delivered are equally important. Sometimes, subtle confident delivery can be as powerful as the message itself.
- Marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. This is especially challenging in today’s environment of google analytics data on demand where panic will set in based on some KPIs that show we didn’t beat the control. Marketing goes nowhere if you’re pivoting messaging and strategy 90 degrees three times a year. It takes time to make a dent — especially when changing a prevailing mindset or establishing a new business sector of some kind. Early on in my career I had a lunch meat account that was getting their first taste of checkout scanner POS data. Every morning the VP of sales would read the sales data from the previous day and if he saw a small dip on the 12 oz turkey select product, he’d call on his team to build a new Sunday ad (pre-internet, newspaper days) offering a one dollar coupon for a 12 oz package of turkey select. This reactionary behavior came at the cost of all pre-set plans, campaigns and budgets. Worst of all, it trained consumers to simply wait until the product was on sale. Think about it. When was the last time you paid full price for a box of cereal?
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
In the world of business to business, enterprise sales, it’s not about massive outbound marketing campaigns to drive high volume, low value transactions so my POV here is based on big, transformational, multimillion-dollar engagements.
My e-mail inbox is filled with offers, meeting requests, follow ups and an occasional plea for a response. LinkedIn isn’t far behind. Fortunately, we now have spam filters because that’s what it all is — useless, templated garbage sent mostly by machines that want to track my every online move. As noted above, lead generation is a long view endeavor that requires a steady flow of high quality non-promotional content and tight collaboration between sales and marketing. Business development reps should view themselves as educators who can offer perspective around emerging innovations in the market they serve. The content needs to educate and define a different way forward and describe how a product like the one your company sells could be the answer. Over time, if the outreach is restrained and professional, you can build up enough goodwill with the prospect that they might take a call or meeting. This needs to happen across the target company, not just through one person, which is why account-based marketing practices are so vital. Lead scoring and development strategy needs to be at a prospect company level, not at the individual level. The role of public relations should also not be underestimated. Showcasing customer success through earned media can be a powerful lead generation tool.
Recently, LifeLink announced that Banner Health had virtualized their waiting rooms with our chatbots. This innovation was driven largely by the need to reopen their clinic network in a COVID-19 friendly way, but it was also positioned as a disruption that would likely change the way we all see doctors in the future. The story received countless traction in healthcare media and our website inbox was flooded with requests from very senior executives from huge hospitals. We benefited from the right story at the right time, but we had senior executives’ prospects tracking us down, opening up with a need, and most importantly, they had interest in learning about LifeLink technology. When I think about the effort and cost it would have taken us to get to that level of engagement through traditional lead generation programs, it boggles my mind.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
To me, “next” is where LifeLink as a company ends up. I think the conversational technology that LifeLink is developing is game changing and we’re just getting started. Imagine a day where you can navigate your healthcare on the iPhone without needing to remember which app to use, or what password to enter, or what button to push. Natural language is the ultimate method of human-machine interactions and the opportunities that lie ahead are significant. At LifeLink, we have lightning in a bottle right now and we’re going after healthcare — a huge, fragmented industry that’s in dire need of change. After taking on global commerce and supply chains at GT Nexus, I didn’t think I’d find another multi-trillion-dollar industry to fix, but here I am. I guess I just like taking on big, hard, important sectors.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Innovators Dilemma was a favorite because it painted such a vivid picture of the challenge incumbent leaders face from upstart disruptors. Despite smart management and good decisions, incumbents inevitably give up the lower end of their markets and before they knew it, the disruptors were moving up market and putting them out of business. The lesson for me is to remain paranoid, do not rest, and keep my foot on the innovation pedal. Technology has evened the playing field so it’s easier today than ever for small, agile, visionary companies to take on big leaders and out-maneuver them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Anybody with kids has a special place in their heart for Dr. Seuss. When faced with reading the same book every night, possibly hundreds of times a year, I enjoyed Dr. Seuss every time. So, when I came across this quote many years ago, it really stuck with me because in the professional world, complexity is the root of many problems.
“Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers are simple.” — Dr. Seuss
As marketing has become more digital over the past few decades, it too has become a profession that is dominated by inward-facing data complexity challenges. Yet, some of the greatest marketing of all time had one thing in common — simplicity. “Just do it.” “Think different.” “got milk?” “Where’s the Beef?” were brilliant and effective, but not because they leveraged advanced digital ad targeting.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to see a movement where education gets completely reimagined. Maybe even disrupted! Everyone agrees the current model is broken, but I don’t think the answer is just pouring more money into the same system. I understand that math, science, English and history should be at the center of education, but there should be so much more. Many kids really struggle with math. Does forcing them to get all the way through geometry better prepare them for a good future? At the same time, the arts have been the casualty of budget cuts. I learned more about physics while taking auto shop than in my science-credited physics course because it was in the context of solving a real and interesting problem — getting that engine to start was something I was going to figure out and the answer turned out to be a blend of chemistry, electronics and math. Performing arts is more than just acting, it’s teaching kids how to stand up in front of a room of peers and deliver a message. Many of our leaders get where they are because they can stand up in front of a large audience and deliver a story, like a great actor. Wouldn’t it be great to see lectures and standardized testing give way to a broader educational experience? Give the kids more options, more pathways, more engagement and watch what happens.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/greg-kefer/
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/Gregkefer
I host a podcast called Digital Conversations here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/digital-conversations/id1416017475