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Meet the women trying to turn Israel into the ‘Marketing Nation’


By Samuel Scott | The Promotion Fix columnist

June 10, 2019 | 15 min read

In 2009, Dan Senor and Saul Singer published Startup Nation, a New York Times bestselling book examining how Israel had grown into a high-tech powerhouse while much of the western world was battling the Great Recession.

Left to right: Sophie Melnik Amitay, Shiri Grosbard, Shira Levy Barkan and Efrat Fenigson

Left to right: Sophie Melnik Amitay, Shiri Grosbard, Shira Levy Barkan and Efrat Fenigson

Senor, a US foreign policy advisor turned commentator and columnist, and Singer, a former editorial page editor for The Jerusalem Post, detailed how government investment, military service and the Israeli personality together built a new industry in a small country with hostile neighbours and few natural resources.

The phrase ‘Startup Nation’ stuck. Ten years later, four top female marketers here – Sophie Melnik Amitay, Shira Levy Barkan, Efrat Fenigson and Shiri Grosbard – now want to brand Israel as a leader in the global marketing industry as well.

"Two years ago, the four of us were having coffee while comparing global marketing challenges when we all had a ‘A-ha!’ moment,” Fenigson said. “We realised that we had many peers who shared our global marketing challenges and were achieving outstanding marketing successes – and that we should gather them together to share their stories and wisdom.

"Israeli CMOs are usually tech-savvy, data-oriented, very creative, results-driven and are best at building a scalable global marketing operation in a constantly changing environment. Our CMOs excel at creating strong brands that exemplify our conviction that Israel is much more than a ‘Startup Nation’. Israel is also a ‘Marketing Nation’.”

Amitay is head of APAC and EMEA marketing at Outbrain and was vice president of strategy at the Israeli ad agency Yehoshua/TBWA. Barkan is vice president of marketing and monetisation at mobile games company Playtika and was Microsoft’s chief marketing officer for central and eastern Europe.

Fenigson co-produces the Market Shift podcast and was vice president of marketing at Airobotics, a company that uses automated drones to collect aerial data. Grosbard is director of innovation at mobile analytics company AppsFlyer and also co-founded the Israeli digital talent agency Join.

The four co-founded G-CMO (global chief marketing officer), an exclusive community for senior Israeli marketers at enterprise companies, high-tech startups and VC firms. G-CMO aims to position Israel’s top marketing executives as world leaders and create a community to serve as a think tank as well as a networking and career development resource.

The organisation – which will hold its first annual summit tomorrow (11 June) in Tel Aviv – has nearly 60 member companies including Check Point, Taboola, SodaStream, Lemonade, Payoneer, Natural Intelligence, Fiverr and Argus Cyber Security.

Before the event, I interviewed them on the marketing industry’s treatment of women and mothers, the Israeli approach to marcom and the future of the high-tech sector here. Below is a transcript that I have edited for length.

Samuel Scott: Years ago, the owner of one of the first companies where I worked in Israel told me not to hire any women for a particular role because “they get sick and pregnant.” How can the marketing industry fight sexism and discrimination against mothers?

Shira Levy Barkan: I am a mother of three girls, and your question goes through my mind many times a day. I think that there have been some big changes. There are today more women in senior positions. Especially in the tech space, you will find many executive women – many in global positions – travelling all over the world. One of our roles is to show young women that it is possible to reconcile motherhood and career in a way that is very positive and fulfilling.

Shiri Grosbard: We set up the G-CMO forum, in part, to provide role models for young female marketers. We all believe in leading by example. We all mentor young women, participate and initiate women's events. How can we fight sexism? More women in managerial positions promoting other women. That’s how we fight it – by getting into the ring and showing courage.

Why do you think Israelis are viewed as not good at marketing? Why do you think they are, in fact, good at it?

Fenigson: For global companies, Israelis may be viewed as not good at marketing because of our conditioning. Startup founders mostly come from product or R&D backgrounds. They build companies that have mostly other technical people. Ten to 15 years ago, you couldn’t find many non-technical, creative, global functions in our landscape. Today, that is no longer the case.

What makes us good? Technology is our native tongue and English our second. We’re bold, creative, disruptive and proactive. We think inside and outside the box – and if that doesn’t work, we make a new box. We’re not shy about exporting our disruption culture to the rest of the world. We’re not waiting for others to tell us about their initiatives – we initiate. We are not ordinary CMOs – we are entrepreneurs who happen to run global marketing operations.

What can other marketers learn from the industry here?

Amitay: The Israeli spirit. Israelis don’t mind failing. They just get back up, dust themselves off and start all over again. And again. And again. It’s in their nature. It could all end tomorrow, so live for today. And if things don’t go well, that’s life.

Barkan: There is so much to learn. Proactiveness is the first thing. Always thinking how to initiate and do better. Also, the fast-moving, agile, short term-long term state of mind. This is very common to Israelis and usually gives them and the company they serve a strategic edge.

Fenigson: Other marketers can definitely look into the entrepreneurial spirit of the industry here. We come up with creative ideas – lots of them. We collaborate. We are not stopped by negative answers. We sometimes must find a way to solve challenges and run great marketing operations on very limited budgets. Bottom line, entrepreneurial and innovation do not exist only on the technology front which Israel’s startup nation is known for. It’s also in the way we conduct our marketing.

Grosbard: Move fast, be bold. They never seem to understand that we are always in a hurry, ready to get to the next thing. Whenever I hear about Israeli “chutzpah”, I suggest instead using the word “bold.”

Many tech companies in Israel and elsewhere are founded by former software engineers who know only math and code. They rarely understand traditional principles of psychology, branding and behaviour. I was once within earshot of a developer at my company at the time saying to someone else that “marketing is bullshit”.

How do you communicate the value of marketing to a technical audience?

Amitay: When people argue that marketing doesn’t matter, it’s usually because they have a different perception of what marketing is than the experienced marketer who understands how marketing contributes to firm performance. Marketing should be about defining a unique position in the marketplace, and which allows you to charge the most money you can for the services and products you provide.

Those who often misunderstand marketing believe that it is only about advertising campaigns and media plans. I’d argue that marketing is essentially the core of business strategy because it is about understanding the consumer and creating products and services that the target is willing to buy from a brand they feel emotionally connected to and willing to trust.

Barkan: In all successful startups, you will see that the second founder of the startups in Israel is a marketing guy. Developers are usually smart people who understand that they can have the best product in the world, but if no one markets it, it will stay “in the garage.”

So you can see today many founders practising PR speeches, working closely with branding companies and building a great story [for] their product. And from our side, we can see that there is a huge demand for tech-savvy marketers that can build and scale technology-oriented business.

It’s a well-known stereotype that Israelis are impatient and think only in the short term. Many marketers in the tech world understand only what they see immediately in analytics dashboards – the accuracy of which is debatable. Why do so many marketers here not measure things in the real world such as top of mind awareness, brand sentiment and purchase intent?

Fenigson: We are a very technical folk. As we’re not well educated to think of marketing, audiences and feelings, we are easily guided to measure stuff – and tend to believe it’s all legitimate since “everyone” believes Facebook and Google Analytics – and forget to look at the longer-term results of top of mind, sentiment and other branding-related parameters.

Many marketers today are carried away after “faster” solutions such as PPC and performance campaigns. When that’s the majority of their marketing mix, it’s a shame. It will yield them results in the short term, for sure. But without a solid longer-term strategy and clear goals and a vision, they will see a steep decline in generated leads and engagement shortly after their budgets are exhausted and find themselves having to continually invest in more performance campaigns.

My favourite commercials in Israel are those that McCann Tel Aviv produces for the YES satellite TV network. We rarely see such creativity used in the tech and B2B worlds even though the latest research shows that brand is important in both B2B and B2C. Why?

Amitay: Mine as well. I’m a McCann veteran. There’s a constant flow of articles, reports and research that tells us that B2B is different; it’s hard. It’s not social or digital, that it’s not fun. “Business to business” is both very easy to define and entirely unhelpful to the brands who are working within it. At the end of the day, people in business still engage with humour, cool imagery and well-written prose. They’re people still, right?

[But] it would be silly to assume that consumer and business audiences are the same. You can’t make someone add your billion-pound software contract to their cart like it’s a nice shirt from ASOS. But that doesn’t mean the hook to get them to look at the software can’t be creative. And with the average age of many major players in innovative start-ups being in their late twenties and early thirties, tone of voice and communication can – and should – be edgier.

Barkan: I have worked for McCann for seven years – it is indeed the best advertising agency in Israel. But you are not comparing apples to apples. YES’ advertising on TV costs millions of dollars and is addressing the end customer, which means they need very high reach to create awareness.

B2B companies in competitive markets need to build a brand, that’s for sure. But they don’t need the TV medium for that as they can reach their audiences in more cost-effective channels. If you are the target audience, you will see some very cool and creative B2B advertising – usually online and social.

Does forcing an entire company life cycle into the lifespan of a VC fund – often around ten years – lead to short-termism in marketing and less-effective results?

Barkan: I don’t think so. There are so many stages of marketing in a company life cycle – as a startup, as a small company, medium company, scaling company and mature one. In each stage, there are different tactics, tools and marketing practices that bind the CMO to think short- and long-term and grow the company to be the best it can be. This is also the goal of the VC – to sell in the highest price, it needs to show long-term potential.

Only 5% of VC funds beat the long-term market average. In other words, people are better off putting their money into an index fund, sitting back and doing nothing. Are VCs overrated? What are the pros and cons of using venture capital versus other fundraising methods?

Fenigson: Partnering with a VC is much like finding a second family – entrepreneurs spend a ton of time with their investors, so chemistry is essential. And then entrepreneurs look for a VC that can open as many doors in their domain as fast as possible, so they can scale up and become significant players in their market efficiently and in a good pace. From a marketing perspective, receiving funds from a large, well-known and reputable VC in the early stages adds a great deal of reputation and trust in the company’s brand.

Many tech companies in Israel – and the rest of the world – focus not on long-term profit but on rapid growth with an exit. If you can safely lose money because rich VCs are throwing tons of money at you, is such growth really an accomplishment?

Amitay: Nope. I would aim for sustainability and making an impact.

Fenigson: From a marketing perspective, growth is an accomplishment – whether achieved organically or inorganically. When in a hyper-growth period, a CMO is required to stretch boundaries and almost perform magic to create the growth and support it. For a CMO to plan, strategize, execute, maintain and reiterate – all while taking care of team growth, budget monitoring and technologies implementation – is a massive load. And in that case, [it is] an accomplishment in itself.

In Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere, we have many huge companies that are losing a lot of money but are still being celebrated. Are we in a bubble? Are we seeing in 1999 all over again?

Amitay: The dotcom boom was based on clueless and irrational exuberance about the commercial potential of the internet. But investors in Uber probably don’t care if it never makes a profit, so long as it gets to an IPO that enables them to cash out with a big payoff.

After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 – after the dust had settled – it became clear that advances in digital infrastructure had made it much easier to start tech companies. No need to buy servers or to write whole new software systems from scratch – just leverage free open source code. All you needed at the beginning was a small group of geeks. And there was no need for the kind of initial massive initial funding that the fatuous dotcoms absorbed.

Barkan: There is some talk that this might be a bubble since not all technology will flourish to where analysts have projected. But the majority of companies having a strong business model behind them have a great future ahead.

Israel has invested a lot in the high-tech sector. But is Israel putting “all its eggs in one basket”? What will happen to the country whenever the next bubble bursts and the next recession hits?

Fenigson: One of Israel’s biggest problems is that it’s not smart enough or advanced enough to take all this great technology and innovation being created here and leveraging it for the sake of the country’s own development, infrastructure and foundations. Some of the best automotive technologies are coming out of Israel. Are they being utilized here? We’re falling very short in making our country a better place to live in while we have the tools and the brain-power to enable it.

Grosbard: The industry is not showing any signs of slowing down. As for the recession and the next bubble burst, we will handle it the way we did all the other times – we will bounce back faster than the rest because that’s how we operate. Fast and bold!

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel

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