Ask The CMO: Visa Marketing Exec Shares How Innovation Is Transforming The Payment Space

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Today, we’re continuing our inspiring “Ask the CMO” series with Mashable with the following Q&A with Lara Hood Balazs, SVP, head of North America marketing at Visa. I remember the first time I met Lara; I was inspired because she was not only talking about some of the same organization and structure challenges that were most on my mind, but she was actually doing something about them. As a result, Lara was a central thought leader in the piece we did with HBR on the org of the future. Not surprisingly, in this interview she provides some interesting insights about not only how we market in this new digital era, but what teams and marketers must look like to be successful. I particularly loved her Swiss army knife reference, which you’ll find below.

In addition to the organization commentary, the other theme that I loved has to do with Lara’s thoughts on innovation. Innovation is critical not just for marketers in this fast-paced world, but for companies themselves. When you think of a company like Visa that is so successful and has existed for decades, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were comfortable and slow to change.  But, reading below, you realize that Visa isn’t standing still – they’re moving as fast, if not faster than everyone else in their space. Think about it; you can’t watch TV these days without seeing ads and news about new payment options and brands. In a static world, a company like Visa could find themselves being unseated by new technology. Instead – and I love this comment – Lara points out that Visa is, at its core, a technology company. As a result it is looking to disrupt some of its own models and drive its own innovation in order to stay ahead of the curve (Read below to hear some of Lara’s hints about their first direct to consumer product).

We’re certainly living in exciting times!

The following interview originally appeared on Mashable


The credit card and payment space is in flux. Consumers want the newest technology and the most efficient shopping experience, merchants seek more seamless checkouts and both parties demand increased data security.

It's in this frenzied state that Visa is innovating like never before, reminding us that first and foremost, it's a technology company.

What consumer insights do Visa's game-changing payment solutions, like Visa Checkout and Apple and Android Pay with Visa, come from?

We spoke with Lara Hood Balazs, SVP, head of North America marketing at Visa, and asked her how the company remains a technology company, what it does to prepare for shopping monsoons like Black Friday and how it keeps its heritage taglines fresh and relevant.

Q&A With Visa's SVP of North American Marketing, Lara Hood

1. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self that pertains to your career in marketing, what would it be?

I would tell the younger Lara to not be afraid to take risks. When you are starting off in your career, you can have a tendency to be cautious because you think failures may affect your ability to advance. I've learned that taking risks allows you to learn and, therefore, become more knowledgeable in your craft. In fact, it is the risks I've taken that have contributed to my career progression.

2. What's the most unexpectedly important skill from your past that plays into your successes?

I graduated from my undergraduate program into a recession. I was Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, but I had a hard time finding a job! I knew I wanted to go into marketing, so I offered my time free of charge to Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, which was suffering from a decline in tourist visits. I delivered a program to drive local consumer visits. This gave me experience to get a "real" marketing job in a down economy. I learned that resilience, tenacity, passion and drive can never be underestimated. Today, I look for those traits in the people I hire.

3. What are the three biggest trends that you see in financial services marketing today?

Innovation, innovation, innovation. The world of payments has never been more dynamic. Companies that you never thought would live in the world of payments are in the middle of some of the major changes in how people pay today and will pay tomorrow. If brands like Visa or startups like Venmo don't constantly innovate, they'll quickly be left behind.

4. Before joining Visa, you worked for two clothing/apparel companies. What experiences and lessons from those industries did you bring to Visa?

Visa is one of the best co-marketers in the world with partners and merchants. Having worked for a retail-driven businesses, I know what a retailer goes through and I have a deeper understanding of their world, needs and worries. It helps shape how I approach their business when partnering on any marketing campaign or activation. For example, we are in the midst of the holiday season, which is the peak season for both retailers and payments, so there are a lot of synergies.

5. Coming from those areas, financial services is a highly regulated industry. How do you challenge your marketing teams to create innovative campaigns while balancing the regulatory environment?

Visa at its core is a technology company. We're innovative while we maniacally focus on offering our clients and consumers acceptance, convenience, ease and security. It is an "and" not an "or."

6. During the past year as SVP, head of North America marketing at Visa, you've shifted your marketing organization's structure to be more horizontal and project-based. Given the evolving skills needed to be successful in marketing, how do you approach attracting and retaining the right talent for this model?

We are constantly looking for talent that we refer to as "human Swiss army knives." We look for people who thrive in the "grey" and can easily move between multiple work projects. These individuals tend to be the best team players and they get more job satisfaction because they become more exposed to different parts of the organization. This gives employees opportunities to build a larger skill set base.

7. To that end, how do you determine the most effective mix of advertising across all channels? In which channel are you seeing the greatest growth?

When we work with our merchant partners, we are looking for the right campaign for the right audience on the right platform. We've committed over half of our media investment to social and digital these days. We still, however, see value in appointment television—specifically as it relates to sports. Our partnership with the NFL and Olympics provide a great audience for our brand and clients, both issuers and merchants.

There are so many ways to reach consumers these days. We are always looking for the optimal way. For example, we recently produced a campaign for Chevron where they wanted to help educate consumers on how to use their mobile phone in order to pay at the pump. We created an entertaining and educational video with soccer star Carli Lloyd and put it out over social channels and on video screens on top of pumps at select stations. It was a great way to engage with their consumers in a meaningful way.

8. As you mentioned, Visa is a major player in the world of event sponsorships. How do you measure success and ROI from these activities?

When it comes to events and sponsorships, it's all about standing up our brand, products and partners. As proud sponsors of the Olympics and the NFL, we have a global stage in the coming year in which to activate along with our issuers, merchants and partners. In fact, next year's Super Bowl 50 (already a landmark event given the tenure) is right in our backyard and in the heart of the tech sector.

9. Last year, Visa brought back (and expanded) the tagline "Everywhere you want to be." It's a long-running campaign. How does Visa keep it current across all channels, particularly mobile?

"Everywhere you want to be" is more than a tagline for us; it's a mission statement. With Visa as a partner, merchants will be able to find your customers in the moment and at the moment. They will be able to grow their business and they won't have to even think about it. We use that lens with our campaigns the same way we approach any part of our business.

10. The holidays and Black Friday are upon us—and they're both important hallmarks of the payments technology industry. Describe the process for shaping your holiday marketing strategy. How will this year differ from 2014?

We are in our sophomore year with our first direct-to-consumer product, Visa Checkout. Last year we had just gone to market, so this year we have new partners, returning merchants, more data and some interesting announcements in the queue that I can't reveal today. Some of the merchants we have recently signed up include Under Armour, Shutterfly, Taco Bell and United Airlines. Look for more as we get deeper into the season.

11. Busy shopping seasons and the holidays are also full of moments, which marketers love to seize. What key moments will Visa define and leverage this winter? How does Visa Checkout play into your approach?

Our hero product for the holidays is Visa Checkout, whether on the desktop or via your mobile phone. We provide the security and simplicity that Visa has always stood for and consumers have grown to expect. Cyber Monday is still expected to be the biggest online shopping day, so expect us to leverage that moment. And we may have something up our sleeves for last minute shoppers! Stay tuned.

Sanjay

Sanjay Dholakia

Former CMO, Marketo

Sanjay served as Marketo's CMO for nearly five years, leading the marketing department through its worldwide expansion and IPO. He joined Marketo from Crowd Factory, where as CEO he was responsible for the strategic direction and vision of the company. Sanjay holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA in strategy and marketing from the Kellogg School of Management.

What else did Sanjay write?