So You Want My Job? Suhail Khan, CMO of GWI: ‘Don’t be afraid to challenge’
Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest roles about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.
Suhail Khan, chief marketing officer of GWI
This week we catch up with Suhail Khan, chief marketing officer of GWI [previously Global Web Index].
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?
I was born in Pakistan, and when I was in my teens we moved to Chicago. I studied at Loyola University in Chicago and moved to San Francisco with my first job. Over the years I worked in various roles at MCI including marketing and product marketing, comms and M&A. Later I moved from telecom to software and entered the world of the Silicon Valley dot-com boom in the mid-nineties.
Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer. I loved debate, and the idea that one could influence or change someone else’s thinking or viewpoint was very enticing; that was the big push. All through school, college and university, that was the thing I wanted to do – until I got my first taste of tech marketing. It was supposed to be a temporary assignment with a company called MCI Telecom, but that changed everything, and I ended up at the company for over seven years.
Part of what I wanted out of law was the ability to write compelling statements, to articulate differentiated messaging that would be more convincing than everyone else’s and influence directional shifts in people’s decisions. And that I get to do every day as chief marketing officer.
How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.
When I came out of university, I joined MCI Telecom, which was at that time the darling of the market, the challenger brand to AT&T.
Seven years later I was still there, trying different roles – some product marketing stuff, sales, support – just to get a different flavor of the business and learn about the market from all sides. In the end I chose marketing, or perhaps marketing chose me.
Writing M&A messaging and product launches, developing marketing collateral and creating comms, it was soon clear that I had made the right decision. Somewhere along the way I also made another decision: that tech marketing gave me all the satisfaction that I had hoped to get from being a lawyer. In 1997 MCI was acquired by WorldCom. The directional change in the company that came with this merger, combined with my desire to push myself out of my comfort zone, made me look for new challenges. I was heavily involved in deploying a CRM solution at MCI at that time from a company called Siebel Systems.
It was a wild time to join. The company was growing at over 700,000% year-on-year – the fastest-growing company in the world then – and being featured by publications such as Forbes. This is where I got to test my product marketing skills – taking a concept, turning it into a product, taking it to market and seeing it become quite profitable. It was a good place to cut my teeth and test myself, and also answer the tough question: could I take something from cradle to market?
After Siebel came other startup roles. Candidly some failed, some didn’t. Then in early 2002 I joined FileNet, an established brand doing enterprise content management software. Over the years we looked at the market from the outside in, and defined product and marketing solutions based on customer insight. Our competitors included the likes of IBM, who eventually bought us.
In October 2007, I was in London speaking at a conference and a team from Royal Philips was in attendance. Then in February 2008 I got a call from a Dutch recruitment firm, asking if I’d be interested in doing what I had been doing for IBM but for Philips. Four months later the whole family moved to The Netherlands. I spent the next three and a half years driving customer-centric/market-driven innovation at Philips at a global scale, driving change, and it was certainly a career highlight.
After a few more big moves, I was searching for an ambitious, driven scale-up that had a healthy culture and was the market challenger. So I arrived at GWI earlier this year.
OK, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?
I am a marketer. I help our company drive our brand and solutions into the market. My mission is to set up marketing as the catalyst for growth and help us as a company achieve our ambitious goals – all the while doing this with an outside-in perspective.
Do your parents understand what it is that you do?
My parents were both movie makers and as such inherently creative people. When I talk about marketing, advertising, getting the brand messages out into the market, that’s quite well received. The trick is to keep on message and away from the operational details, otherwise I run the risk of losing their attention.
What do you love most about your job?
I am a data-driven chief marketer, but I also love the creative element of the job. I really am fortunate to work with incredibly talented people and I’m really excited about how immensely driven everyone in my company is toward a common goal. I get to influence and be a part of the story we’re writing. I get to enjoy the fact we can use our creative brains, mix them up with data and analytics, and produce options for us that can drive growth – all the while making our customers’ lives better.
How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?
The advice I was given years ago still holds true. Set your sights on your desired goal. Identify, as best as you can, the steps and actions needed to get there. Emulate your role models. Don’t forget to work hard and speak up – participate in the dialog. Your voice matters and could help shape the future – your future. Those are the basics.
But I would add to that: be creative. Be the challenger. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. People are looking for innovators – be that innovative thinker. Visualize yourself in the role you want to be in and try to understand what it would take to get there. Ask yourself what it would take to get there. Do a self-assessment, a personal gap analysis between goal and current state. Be introspective. Be brave. If becoming a chief marketer is your goal, then immerse yourself in marketing, talk to people, identify the kind of chief marketer you’d like to be. Keep exploring, reading and learning. And if you go in with that attitude, you’ll get there.
What advice would you offer to others entering the industry, especially at this weird time?
My advice would be to know your audience, to know who you’re serving and what they’re trying to achieve, then be the best geared-up partner to deliver that desired outcome. The times have changed significantly in the past 18 months, and what we know now is that the audience is more empowered and informed, and making decisions without consulting brands. So we as marketers need to stay ahead of the game and create a narrative and a brand experience, which, as our audience looks for solutions, make us a preferred brand.
What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?
I would say being open and receptive to new ideas and not boxing myself in to a singular way of thinking – being able to broaden my horizons. There are always different ways of looking at things, and as a creative marketing person you have to have that trait. You can’t come in with inflexible thinking and expect new results – sometimes to achieve results you’ve never achieved before, you have to do things you’ve never done before.
Who should those who want your job read or listen to?
The likes of Seth Godin, you fundamentally should read him. A writer I recently enjoyed is Jonah Berger, he wrote a book called Contagious – the whole idea is why things catch on and why certain things don’t. That type of thinking always helps to inspire me.
Made To Stick by the Heath Brothers came out years ago but remains relevant. It is a similar concept – why do certain ideas stick?