Ethelbert Williams is a renaissance marketer. His do-it-all approach to marketing has equipped him with a comprehensive set of creative, analytical and leadership skills that he’s sharpened working for the world’s top beauty companies. A stint with a Silicon Valley venture capital firm’s portfolio company enriched his network, exposed him to some nifty fast-growth strategies, and instilled in him a desire to invest in early-stage companies that he continues to exercise today. As the new chief marketing officer of InstaNatrual – a leading online distributor of premium, organic and natural skincare products – Williams is re-launching a fast-growing brand through a combination of great products, great marketing and ecommerce channel expansion.
Q: What is your marketing passion?
A: I’m a huge fan of solving consumer-driven problems. This requires getting a hold of the right data, peeking under the hood and then finding the right way to tell a story to that audience. Honestly, that was my pitch when I made the transition from studying journalism to starting a career in marketing.
Q: Tell me how you made that transition.
A: Most people say that you’re either a left-brained person or a right-brained person. I never felt that way. At Northwestern [University], I took physics classes and communications classes. I was in the marching band. At that time, we had to take one math class to graduate from Medill [School of Journalism]. I was good at math, and I took a lot of math and calculus classes. In my senior year, I was baffled that folks wanted to pigeonhole me into this thing called a career. When I looked at my options, I thought that marketing would leverage my entire brain. While in college, I interned at Procter & Gamble and made the pitch that my journalism training was an excellent fit for the brand marketing world. That was true then but so much has changed since, and most of the change has been driven by technology.
Q: How has your career progressed since being hired by P&G?
A: I’m probably one of the few marketers who has worked at the three big beauty companies: P&G, Unilever, and L’Oreal. I also worked for a US Venture Partners portfolio company, a larger VC in Menlo Park where I discovered a passion for working with early-stage businesses. Prior to joining InstaNatural, I worked for Kimberly-Clark, where I led brand strategy, integrated marketing and digital for their global B2B business unit.
Q: You joined InstaNatural in March. What attracted you to the company?
A: InstaNatural is one of the largest personal and beauty care companies online. We’re a leading company on Amazon in the U.S., the U.K. and Western Europe. The company’s growth is like a rocket. I was also interested because it’s a natural beauty brand, which means that the majority of our products are sourced from natural solutions. One of the reasons I was hired was to re-launch our brand strategy and champion ecommerce channel strategy. That should drive the company to a new level of performance, which is an exciting opportunity.
Q: What do you see as most crucial to a successful brand re-launch?
A: A crucial part of our re-launch is introducing even more great products and solutions based on what we know our customers love and work for them. It has to start with a great product. That helps generate great reviews, which we can use to create compelling stories.
Q: How do you view your CMO role at InstaNatural?
A: I actually consider myself to be the chief commercial officer – I just don’t have that title. I lead new channel sales strategy, so marketing is accountable for revenue. To me, that’s just an obvious way of operating as a CMO. I really enjoy being able to look at a dashboard to understand how my business did overnight. I enjoy being able to make real changes and then find out in a matter of hours how those changes affected the business. That type of accountability, rigor and operational excellence are things that I’m passionate about.
Q: As you build out the company’s marketing function, what qualities do you seek when hiring?
A: Four things. One is curiosity. If you don’t know the answer, tell me how you’re going to go figure it out. Have you figured out what Snapchat is and what it means for our business as the largest growing platform among teens today? The second thing is resilience. Our business has changed dramatically, and that’s not going to end anytime soon. The third piece is the technical acumen that they bring to the table. The fourth thing is diversity – diversity of thought, diversity of perspective and how a person’s unique experiences and characteristics are going to stretch me and the rest of our team. I also think too many executives and managers mistakenly hire for a role. I hire people for a career, not just for their time with me in this company. During the opportunity I have to work with people, I want to give them an experience that sets them up for an amazing career.
Q: You’re a strong proponent of marketing executives taking a “hands-on” approach to learning new marketing technologies (see side bar). Where did this drive originate?
A: It may stem from the drive to understand your audience that’s part of my journalism training. When I was working through my courses at Medill, I wanted to see how stories came together from every angle, so I worked on the editorial side and the production side. And then digital technology appeared overnight, and we had to start teaching our professors how to use the new technology. During my college years, I was in a journalism world where everyone wanted to work for the Chicago Tribune newspaper. I chose to intern for the publisher’s online outlet which at the time was a unique approach.
Q: How do you find the time to do test out new technology applications and approaches?
A: You can’t learn it all. I’m really lucky to have an amazing network of constituents, former colleagues, friends and mentors who work in in various technology companies, agencies and non-competing businesses and brands. My network keeps me on my toes with regard to technology and marketing developments, and I leverage my network every day. It might be a quick email or a text message. This morning, I spent 45 minutes on the phone working through marketing ideas with one of my former colleagues at Kimberly-Clark. The other thing I do is to make sure that I’m well-educated, beyond reading by engaging in a range of marketing technology and industry trade events.
Q: What does that education consist of?
A: I go to CES. I go to South by Southwest Interactive. I don’t go there to have a good time. I am there to participate in the content, to learn and to be inspired. Those activities are extremely important to me. I also hold myself accountable for contributing thought leadership in the retail and marketing community, which also helps me learn. I’m speaking at the Digiday Retail Summit in Nashville at the end of June. In July, I’m hosting a session at Cosmoprof North America in Las Vegas – the largest B2B beauty trade show in the country. I’m doing a seminar on visual storytelling there. I’m going to be supporting programming at the MediaPost Brand Marketers Summit in August. It’s going to be a busy summer, but I welcome the pace because it keeps me growing.
Data is an ever-present component of marketing decision-making. Here is a recent figure that inspired InstaNatural CMO Ethelbert Williams and his team to take action.
Number: That’s the portion of female shoppers who look at ratings and reviews before buying beauty products online.
Action: “That’s significant,” says Williams. “It’s motivating us to find new ways to influence those shopping decisions.” These approaches include sharing ratings and reviews via social media; developing new user-generated content, and developing live content (with a shelf life). “Right now,” he adds, “we’re figuring out how we as a brand can engage consumers in a live format and then have that content live on a digital shelf, if you will.”
3 Leadership Tactics that Inspire Problem-Solving
InstaNatural CMO Ethelbert Williams identifies three mechanisms through which he puts into practice his passion for solving consumer-driven problems with data-driven story-telling:
1. His Brain: Marketing appeals to Williams because it challenges both sides of his brain. He continually emphasizes to his staff the importance of applying analytical thinking and creative thinking in the service of data-driven story-telling.
2. His Hands: “I’m insanely hands-on,” Williams asserts. This approach applies to a couple of areas, including constantly testing new marketing technology advancements and systems. “I’m a leader who understands most of those systems, not just strategically but personally,” he says. “That’s important because our business is so data-driven. A firsthand knowledge of technology also helps me coach the members of my team more effectively – and I spend a lot of time with them.”
3. His Door: Williams also makes time for less structured interactions with his staff. He schedules open-door times each week during which “anyone at any level on my team can come talk to me about anything on their mind,” he adds. “I ask them, ‘Share inspired ideas.’ I’m really curious about their latest thinking.”