Feature

From first class flights to the farm: the real lives of the CMOs who moved into cannabis

The cannabis industry is proving to be an alluring, uncharted territory for marketers who’ve climbed the corporate ladder and found themselves lacking purpose at its top. For the A-list execs who made the leap, the world is less connected, less glamorous and less predictable than before. But that, they say, is what it’s all about.

Like any job application, it all starts with a phone call. Jason White’s came from his attorney; he’d been the chief marketer of Beats By Dre for nearly five years – was he looking for something else? Could that something else be in an undeveloped industry?

Could he face telling his parents over Thanksgiving dinner that he was quitting Apple and all its security for a cannabis brand?

For Jann Parish, the call came closer to home. She’d become attached to Columbus, Ohio since moving there to take on the top marketer job at Victoria’s Secret. She’d broken her ankle and successfully treated the swelling with CBD. So, when the offer for a job marketing Green Growth Brands right in her hometown came in, it felt nothing but “really fortuitous”.

Bryan Mazur was a little less sure. He’d spent the bulk of his career building brands at Dr Pepper Snapple and the last two years working as a consultant for private equity-backed startups in Dallas. Would he be interested in helping to launch nine cannabinoid businesses in Raleigh, North Carolina under the banner of Pyxus International?

“I didn't know what the recruiter was talking about,” he remembers. “I obviously knew what cannabis was, but I had no idea what CBD or vapeables were. So, the first thing that I thought was: I have to understand the categories a little bit better.”

So he did. And then he took the job, packed his bags and headed east to join the raft of C-suite execs leaving the stability of household brands for something. Life for him hasn’t changed too much, he says, despite being a three-hour flight away from his family.

“I see them pretty much as much as I did when I was back in Dallas,” he says. “And the company's great about flexibility. If my son has a football game or something's going on, I go back for it.”

It’s been a bigger transition for White who, despite remaining in California for his job at Cura, has had to make a number of lifestyle readjustments. His work life at Apple was punctuated by perks and processes – expensive flights, a fully-stocked office kitchen, personal security, global travel. Once he jetted between New York, Paris, London, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Sydney. Now, it’s Portland, LA, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Boston.

Over on the east coast, Parish is reacquainting herself with a life less pampered. Organizing her own Ubers to take her to meetings is part of her life at Green Growth, which may not seem like much of a hardship if you’re not used to your company paying for a driver.

“The other day I was thinking about how, when I worked [as an executive vice-president] at Calvin Klein, I would walk out of the building and there would be a black car there waiting,” she remembers. “I'd get in said black card and go to the next meeting and get out of said black car and then be like, come back and get me in an hour.

“Now, of course it's perfectly fine to take an Uber. But it's just a whole different change in mentality.”

“It's a very different world,” says White. “There are some things you miss because they're nice perks that come with the job that you spend a career building. But I have no problem losing some of those perks and digging in.

“I like small teams, I like building things. I like rolling up my sleeves and I think that's where you build culture – that's where you create the stories and the legends of ‘back when we were small’. It’s the stuff people hang onto and believe in.”

White walked out of a marketing unit of 110 and into a team of 14 when he came to Cura. Its size and relative sophistication first really hit home, however, when he heard the sales team complaining that marketing wasn't being delivering on time.

“My first question was, ‘Okay, well show me who runs marketing operations.’ And they all looked at me and said, ‘What's marketing operations?’ That’s when I realized we were really going to have to build something here.”

Parish also has a small team – 25 staffers that cover everything from PR to retail to investor relations. Like White, she’s had to adjust to less support but appreciates the speed at which she can now work, unburdened by long sign-off processes.

She also appreciates being able to “have my hands literally touching the plants”; in her previous jobs, she increasingly found herself moving further and further away from the product itself as her career progressed.

For marketers in cannabis, regulation isn’t an issue per se. Speaking to those who have made the move, it’s clear those legal complexities are viewed more as bumps in the road rather than rage-inducing obstacles. But reeducation is an exhausting way of life. Laws are in flux constantly and with an entire industry to get to grips with, most have had to learn about all its idiosyncrasies on the job.

Parish, for instance, found herself swapping out Google Ad Words for direct mail on her media plan, while White has substituted million-dollar TV ads for murals on the side of dispensaries.

“One of the biggest moments for me was when I was trying to start working on a media plan and no-one would take my money,” he recalls. “I've never been in a situation I can't buy something!

“Since then we've seen things change. We've seen the likes of Condé Nast, Vice and The Fader – big, big platforms – start to take THC [a type of cannabinoid] advertising. But in the beginning, you understood why every billboard in LA was a cannabis billboard.

“That was the only place you could spend money.”

In theory, things should get easier, and not just with media planning. A bubble of consultancies and agencies have sprung up over the last two years to support cannabis CMOs in their work, including Cannabrand, Wick & Mortar and Oasis Intelligence, which officially opened its doors yesterday (8 January).

Founders Laura Albers and Ben Woo, who previously spent time as strategists for TBWA\Chiat\Day, began building a data and insights company for cannabis businesses after working for an edibles brand back in 2017.

“Unfortunately, it became clear that the founders – who had found success in other industries – had a lot to learn about the cannabis consumer, and were set up for major challenges,” says Woo. “However, our research inspired them to make significant changes, including the type of candy, the cannabinoid and even the brand name.

“Most cannabis and hemp companies can't afford the custom research studies that really needed to be done; due to the state-by-state nature of regulation in the industry, intelligence must be delivered on a state-by-state level as well. So, we took matters into our own hands, figuring that if no single company could afford the ultimate cannabis research study, we could do it ourselves and create white papers and custom reports for different companies based on a single dataset.”

Albers is also heavily involved in the growing cannabis professional community. She’s a regular host on the Cannabis Financial Network and runs Cannaboss Circle, an association that looks to support feminine leadership in the cannahemp space.

It’s one of a number of grassroots organizations emerging to support the pioneers in the cannabis industry.

Mazur himself is in the process of establishing a hemp consortium, which aims to cut through the myths borne out of prohibition and “start building the book on how to grow hemp”, while White finds solace in the Cannabis International Executives WhatsApp group, High Times’ events and advertising stalwart the Clios, which last year launched its first Cannabis Awards honoring branding, design and strategy in the space.

“What I’ve found to be absolutely amazing is how supportive the network of women is in this space,” Parish notes. “I’m honestly blown away by how genuinely happy each person is for another person's success, as well as the interest in helping each other out.

“It's a lot of fun because we believe in each other and we're all doing something new and different that did not exist in this capacity five years ago.”

This is the crux of why Mazur, Parish and White do this job – they are free to break new ground without plans laid out decades ago by Mad Men. A cursory look through the campaigns of the cannabis business shows an industry that bucks the trend of homogeneity in advertising – creative ranges from heavily educational longform copy to cinematic spots shot on 35mm.

The business’ CMOs are testing and learning every single day. And that means things go wrong as much as they go right.

“It is higher risk, but I get total charge out of a win,” says Mazur. “The lows are low but the highs you get are just awesome. There aren't many chances you get in your career to build a brand from scratch and help build the category. That's pretty freaking cool.”

As for the hypothesis that everyone’s in it for the money? Totally unfounded, says White.

“If that had been my motivation, I'd be pretty pissed off right now,” he says. “This has been a brutal year for cannabis. Everything was devalued. Everything took hits. The idea that we're all running around like rich executives is just uninformed.

“I came to this space because I saw a place where you could do really great creative and also, in my case, attach a purpose to my profession. That was really trying to address the past of the cannabis industry and what has happened to folks who have been disproportionately affected by prohibition – specifically, black and brown folks. I want to work toward better access to this industry for those folks and for women.”

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