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Brand Strategy Possible Miami Marketing

Why on earth did AT&T make a football helmet?


By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

March 22, 2024 | 6 min read

Ahead of Possible Miami 2024, The Drum is producing a special five-part series spotlighting key CMOs – and how their roles are evolving. In this installment, Chaucer Barnes, chief marketer at UnitedMasters, Inc., shares why marketers of today must get product innovation down to a science.

Chaucer Barnes

Barnes argues risk-taking is part of a marketer's crucial R&D process / Credit: UnitedMasters

For Chaucer Barnes, the real tragedy of modern marketing lies in its emphasis on budget rather than purposeful innovation.

As chief marketing officer of UnitedMasters, Inc., an independent music discovery platform, and Translation, a branding agency, he learned this lesson after investing over two years of research and development (R&D) into launching the world’s first 5G-powered football helmet with AT&T for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

In a candid conversation, Barnes delves into these learnings, notably, the imperative for fellow marketers to lead from the front of product development in order to secure their position in the long term.

Why don’t marketers care about R&D any more?

In his day-to-day, Barnes is committed to creating what he calls “a new normal” for how brands and creators mint and trade cultural capital. His approach is informed by his rich and varied background, which encompasses roles like media planner, brand strategist, creative director, partnership architect and independent musician. Having spent many years at The Martin Agency and Wieden+Kennedy, he brings a wealth of marketing expertise to his current role at UnitedMasters, Inc.

Barnes starts off by identifying a fundamental shift in the marketing landscape today: the diminishing role of marketers in the R&D process, which is replaced by a focus on budget optimization. This distracts marketers from playing an active role in the products, services and experiences they bring to market.

He argues that this shift has eroded “not just the prestige of CMOs, but untold opportunity costs in value creation for their companies.”

But why has this shift occurred? Barnes explains: “The role of marketers has become value-diminished over successive generations because people have become socially and economically rewarded for de-risking investment.”

For Barnes, the value proposition of modern marketing lies not in budget optimization but in driving tangible business outcomes through consumer-centric innovation.

In his view, the role of the chief marketing officer should be balancing risk and and maximizing reward. “The data’s in,” he asserts. “Only the brands that do this well define and lead their categories. The only question left is whether marketers are invited to that table.”

How Barnes lives and breathes the role

As CMO of UnitedMasters, Inc., Barnes shares how this multifaceted marketing approach plays out in his current role. When working with clients, he says, the company “leans more towards the business outcomes brands want to create” rather than ”the noise they want to create.”

He adds: “We take just as much care in ‘invertising’ (prepping marketers to have conversations with their CFOs, their product teams, etc) as we do in advertising.”

His company is currently prioritizing client partners concerned with developing creative initiatives that lead to tangible and measurable business outcomes.

The 5G-connected football helmet, Barnes says, underscores this approach. “A genuinely commoditized category, and a brand partner within it that had not just the ambition, but the dedication to resist the quarterly pressures of the street and ship something that broke the logjam.”

Yet, effecting such transformative changes in marketing approaches requires a paradigm shift within the industry itself. Barnes believes that the industry is ripe for disruptive innovation, provided marketers are willing to embrace risk and challenge conventional wisdom.

“Any industry is always ready for explosive value creation, but it’s always first movers who make and validate the market – which is who we’re looking for.”

To fellow CMOs seeking to unlock this possibility, Barnes offers two pieces of pragmatic advice rooted in his own experience. Firstly, he encourages allocating a small portion of effort (5%) towards initiatives that may not yield immediate returns.

Then, he says: “Know the difference between what ideas can be tested and what ideas can’t. Ask an expert if you’re unsure.”

He believes that embracing risk and challenging conventional wisdom is essential for driving disruptive innovation and shaping new markets.

In closing, Barnes encourages CMOs to redefine their responsibilities in order to elevate their positions in the boardroom. “Marketers need to reshape what they are held accountable for and take responsibility for measuring more than the proxies for performance. Don’t take the job if you can’t set the measurement parameters.”

By reshaping perceptions of what marketing entails and championing a holistic approach to value creation, Barnes believes CMOs can assert their rightful and viable place as leaders within their organizations.

Chaucer Barnes, CMO of UnitedMasters, Inc., will be speaking at Possible Miami in the Inspiration Hall for Why on earth Did AT&T Make a Football Helmet? on April 16 at 2:35pm ET. To find out more and to book tickets to the event, click here.

​Have something to say? Join the conversation with The Drum at Possible. Branded video packages are available. Learn more here.

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