‘I’m not the branding person’: how Kristin Lemkau has stayed a 20-year course at JP Morgan Chase

JP Morgan Chase's Kristin Lemkau has held the CMO role for the past five-and-a-half years

In the first of our interview series with the Advertising Club of New York’s 2019 Honorees, The Drum speaks to Marketer of the Year, JP Morgan Chase chief marketing officer Kristin Lemkau, about prolonging her impressive tenure, the ongoing dilemma of in-housing, and tirelessly proving marketing’s place as a driver for growth internally.

It was a tedious commute that led Kristin Lemkau to her 21-year employment with JP Morgan. Back in 1998 she was a PR exec living in New York City’s Tribeca and hankering for a job she could walk to in the mornings, her office in New Jersey being a tunnel too far.

She didn’t know – “or much care” – about Wall Street as either a place or untouchable metonymy. It seemed, she recalls, “convenient – and I liked the guy who hired me”.

Now, two decades under her belt as a financial marketer and almost six as a chief marketing officer, Lemkau has earned the right to speak about her early beginnings in such a flippant way.

She’s ascended from PR staffer to the controller of a $10bn marketing budget, held onto a C-suite through numerous mergers and acquisitions and navigated an industry that took the rest of the world down to rock bottom and back again in the space of two decades.

The support of her management has been critical to her success – and resilience.

“Firstly, I’m sure I had some fear of failure, but I also knew if I had failed in any of those roles I could just raise my hand... and say, ‘okay, let me go back to doing PR – that was fun, but no harm, no foul’,” she tells The Drum.

“Secondly, I feel really fortunate we're in a growing business and marketing is seen as a key driver of that growth. We never talk about marketing as a cost or an expense. We always talk about it as an investment.”

'You've got to run a business'

With a eight-figure budget to steward, Lemkau and her team have little excuse for not keeping pace with marketing’s changes. It’s things like “technology, machine learning, analytics and data science” that are now as important to the marketer as an understanding of her brand and culture – and she believes the days of "almighty" CMOs making “subjective calls” are over when so much insight is at hand.

Perhaps it’s easier for Lemkau to take this view because of the data-heavy industry she works in; perhaps it’s because she never came into the job as a ‘marketer’ per se.

Whatever the reason, it’s this mentality that’s kept her in employment.

“I always say – you don't want to just become the ‘branding person’,” she explains. “I have seen people be like, oh there’s the ‘branding people" and you get an eye roll. I think what that means is [they think] you're just running around in an art gallery making pretty things and not necessarily driving returns.

“You've got to run a business and you've got to generate outcomes or you're going to become quickly irrelevant. The ability to continue to grow that business and do it efficiently is, in some ways, a lot easier because there's more tools at your disposal... The challenge is actually figuring out how to make those decisions when you don't have a strong knowledge base going in.”

This results-based culture of JP Morgan Chase is reinforced through the way Lemkau has structured her reporting. While the top marketers for the individual brands and products have a “dotted line” into the CMO, they each report into their individual chief executives, who hand them their own P&L responsibilities.

Meanwhile, no big budget decisions get made without the input of the chief executives and the chief financial officer. This includes Lemkau’s prerogative to shift marketing cash from one part of the business to the other.

“if we're going to optimize money across businesses, we make that decision jointly,” she says. “I don't make it in a vacuum.”

New problems to solve

One of Lemkau’s ongoing decisions is deciding to place media spend in a rapidly evolving landscape. Paid media – particularly TV and search – still pays dividends, but, in a throwback to her PR days, the marketer is increasingly looking to capitalize on the scale of JP Morgan Chase’s reach with earned content – a tactic fintech disruptors such as TransferWise and Monzo have been flexing since their beginnings.

“We have 50 million customers that are active in our digital channels... so we have a tremendous distribution,” she says. “Our big challenge is, how do we optimize that? Instead of spending a lot of money to rent audiences, how do we make it just much easier for a customer to engage in the channels that we have, and to easily acquire the product in our own channel?

“We do a fair amount of long-form print, which is maybe not the way consumer behavior is going, so we’re trying to shift to mobile-first, bite size content. I'd say we're growing, but we're not yet 100% awesome at content.”

On a broader timeframe, Lemkau is mulling what to in-house and what to leave with marketing partners. Branding and creative work currently sits with Droga5 but the marketer is growing her in-house team to become “more of a production shop” led by chief brand officer and former Starbucks executive creative director Leanne Fremar.

“We'll always have Droga doing amazing strategy and amazing creative, but we think we can maybe rebalance a bit, and they're working with us to do that,” says Lemkau.

Zenith and VaynerMedia cover off media, digital and social, however programmatic and search have already been brought in-house.

It’s likely more divisions will follow suit.

“I have been forever pushing to see whether there's more of it that we can take in-house. Intuitively it just makes sense when we have a lot of the data and we're operationalizing how to use that data on our owned channels. [I ask], how do we do that on paid as well? We just don't want to do that too quickly because we can't blow up a machine that's working.

“There are things that are going to require speed, velocity, quick turn, quick approvals from legal and compliance. And those are things that are just better suited in-house.”

It’s likely the evolution of financial marketing will only continue to gather pace as more tech-first brands swarm into the market and deregulation passes under the presidency of Donald Trump.

But, when she’s handed the gong of marketer of the year in September, Lemkau can stand still for at least one moment safe in the knowledge that she has so far sheltered two colossal brands from a financial crisis (“I was pregnant ... it was brutal”), a sweeping global public distrust of her industry and the first wave of fintech disruption, all through the power of shrewd marketing.

It’s not a feat she achieved single handedly, she notes.

“I don't delude myself for a second that it's just me ... I’m so proud of the team and how much they've grown. [This award] is a big team win for the brands and it's a win for marketing to continue to be as important a driver of business growth.

“We're excited and very humbled, and we have to live up to it.”

The Ad Club will will honor its Advertising People of the Year on 5 September at the Tribeca Rooftop.

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