James has been a marketing leader at several startups, an award-winning political video blogger, podcast host, and entrepreneur. Throughout his career he has interviewed dozens of visionary leaders including from Mastercard, Spotify, Salesforce, Facebook, Delta Airlines, General Motors on camera and off with his own podcast, Kotecki on Tech, and in his work for clients.
What was the biggest a-ha moment of your marketing career?
The biggest ah-ha moment of my marketing career came when I realized that
"I don't have to know everything."
I can actually just interview people who know things and turn that into great content. Those conversations turn into great ideas. So a large chunk of my business, my marketing expertise, and career, have been built around not knowing all these great insights about technology or the businesses that I'm marketing on behalf of, but in my ability to ask questions of people who do actually know those things.
“Something that is said in the voice of the customer, literally the voice of the customer, is far more powerful than something that I, as a marketer, can say.”
Powerful content and really powerful insights are probably living in the heads of my colleagues, at work right now, and it's my job to use my expertise to draw that out of that. It's not my job to kind of create that out of nothing. So I think once I realized that all the great content, all the great ideas, and all the stuff that marketing is pumping out could come from interviews and conversations, that was really a game changer for me. It allowed me to focus on what I'm good at: asking questions and then allowing other people to do what they're good at, which is sharing their insights and expertise. Now, I once heard Terry Gross interviewed, the host of NPR's Fresh Air, (the interview show) and she said that actually, she had some kind of similar revelation when hosting a radio show. In her early days of doing she realized 'Oh, I can I can actually just do interviews on the air - full time.'
When did taking a risk in your career pay off?
I was working in marketing at a tech company called Automated Insights, and it was going fine. But I just had this entrepreneurial itch to go and start my own thing. So I left. I took a risk, and I started my own company, a solo marketing business. I figured out eventually I was going to focus on customer storytelling, and testimonial creation on behalf of tech clients. I didn't realize that exact focus at first. I had inklings of it, but I was scattered in a number of different directions. It took me maybe 12, 18 months to actually figure out exactly how to focus the business precisely and what exactly I was selling.
At the end of that time, the person who had been the CEO of the company that I had left, had had gone to do something else and was now coming in to be the CEO of a new company called Infinia ML. He asked me to join that company as its director of marketing, and I did.
That the risk paid off because in that 12,18,24 month span, of doing my own business, I had really been able to level up my own marketing abilities, my own confidence, leadership and managerial abilities, to the point where I was able to come in at a much higher level for this new company and be a better contributor.
What advice do you have for marketers trying to take their career to the next level?
Okay, so somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, I'm a marketer and I want to take my career to the next level. What do I do?” I would first turn the question around and ask, 'What do you mean by next level? Is it just going from, a manager title to a director title? Isn't that kind of linear promotion?'
That's just one definition of what next-level could be. It could be doing something, deepening your expertise within the title that you have now. And the fact that you don't get a promotion and therefore increased managerial responsibilities is what actually allows you to deepen your expertise because you have fewer managerial responsibilities and you can actually go deeper. That's just an example.
Another example would be you could go and start your own thing. That's what I did. That's how I took my career to the next level. But I'm not saying anyone necessarily has to do that. I'm just suggesting that before you think about how to advance and climb the ladder of life, just think about whether the next rung is really in a straight linear fashion.
"Because the ladder of life doesn't look like any kind of ladder that you buy in a hardware store - the rungs are flung all over God's creation."
Your resolve as a marketer to figure out what the next step should actually mean for you at this time. Not what other people would define it as, not what might impress people at your family reunion, but what the next level should actually mean for you right now. I would spend a lot more time thinking about that question that I would even necessarily thinking about. 'Okay, how do I get there?'
Tell us about the impact of a successful campaign that your team recently executed.
I'm going to give you a very simple and in some ways for a marketer, very beautiful example of this. We’re a company of machine learning experts, data scientists, engineers. We have a set of tools and machine learning that we can kind of direct at any number of industries and executives. And so one marketing challenge for us has simply been to figure out okay, what's the best fit with our message in the market and what specific segments of the market are we trying to go after?
So we've recently begun to narrow our focus strategically, and as part of that, we've been sending out email campaigns to people that we've never met before. Classic marketing cold email campaign. You get a bunch of emails to people that you have a pretty good sense will be interested in what you're offering.
So this was one of our first major kind of straight up cold email outreach campaigns, and there was a lot of uncertainty. I gotta tell you - on the biz dev and on the marketing side around how and if this would actually work. And so I'm happy to reveal that once we did this campaign, we started to get some feedback that it was working. We started to get some positive responses, and I felt like Doc Brown and back to the future, you know, like jumping up and down and saying 'It works! I invented something that works and really, it was a team effort, obviously, to put together these emails and narrow the focus and write the copy and get the list. And put together all of the machinery that allows email marketing to happen. I'm sure all the marketers listening to this know that whole process very well. But there's a simple joy and beauty of just connecting with an audience and knowing that, yes, I have put together a message that is compelling because we, as a company, can offer something that is actually gonna help somebody else. And ultimately, I think that's what we're all here to do.
What do you see as the role of video in marketing going forward?
I'm gonna give two answers to this question. One: think about any science fiction, movie or TV show. Are there more videos in the world of the future or fewer videos in the world of the future than the world that we live in right now?
"On average, I would say there are way more videos in the future that we collectively have imagined for ourselves."
So if you are wondering if video is the future, you can kind of look to our collective psyche on that as we reflect it back through our own storytelling.
And the second answer is personal, because I actually started a video blog on YouTube in 2007 talking about politics. In fact, I actually interviewed several presidential candidates at the time, in my college dorm room at Georgetown University. I was one of the first people kind of talking about how presidential candidates were using YouTube in their campaigns. So personally, I'm extremely biased. I love video. It is really at the heart of who I am. I absolutely do not think that every single marketing campaign or marketing initiative needs to have video attached to it. In fact, in the work that I'm currently doing at Infinia ML there's probably a little bit less just because we're trying to still figure out our marketing and our messaging to know exactly what kind of videos to make. So I don't want to say that it's right for everybody and every moment.
“Video brings us back to an earlier era of communication.”
If you think about the earliest forms of communication between human beings, it's a person standing in front of me making noises or making motions, and they're communicating something to me, right? And then, through things like pictures and writing and paintings and all those things as beautiful and as wonderful as all those are, those actually get away from that kind of very basic, very instinctive garbled communication in a 1 to 1 kind of way and video actually brings it right back to, 'There is a person standing in front of me, albeit on a screen who is making motions and saying things with their with their mouth, and those sounds were coming out, and I'm hearing that I'm being communicated with.
“Video is very, very personal.”
And hopefully the way that if you're watching this video, you feel like I'm personally connecting with you right now. So I don't think anything can really match or surpass that for video. Until they get to some kind of Holodeck, of course. And I certainly hope Vocal Video will work on that, but until then, video is where it's at - so keep making videos , videos are the best.