Dina Keenan, CMO: The art and science of building brands and marketing teams

Dina Keenan is a marketing leader with deep experience in CPG, retail, fashion, and beauty. She recently served as CMO of New Seasons Market, where she led a high-performing team in a period of rapid growth for the company. Dina emphasizes connection and purpose in her work and has a passion for building effective teams. We get into the details of CMO hiring and more.

Highlight from our conversation include:

  • Which skills and competencies to look for when hiring a CMO (4:02)
  • How to evaluate the analytical capabilities of a CMO candidate (6:39)
  • The importance of having a creative vision as a CMO (7:33)
  • How CMOs are developing both art and science skills today (8:25)
  • How to look for values alignment when interviewing CMOs (9:46)
  • Dina’s experience coming into purpose-driven brand (11:24)
  • How to assess an existing team as a new CMO (13:44)
  • How Dina structures her teams (14:50)
  • What steps she takes when a team member doesn’t succeed in their role (16:38)
  • How Dina identifies future leaders (20:23)

Show Transcript – How I Hire Podcast with Dina Keenan

Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast that taps directly into the best executive hiring advice and insights. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder and President of Noto Group Executive Search. We work with notable consumer brands in athletic, outdoor, fashion, food/beverage, and natural product sectors. 

Dina Keenan has over 25 years of marketing, advertising, and brand strategy experience.

She’s worked for a wide range of CPG consumer brands and retailers in fashion, beauty, food, and grocery. Dina has led marketing teams for major advertising firms, brands, retailers, and most recently served as the CMO of New Seasons Market, a Pacific Northwest, community-first natural grocer that grew significantly during her tenure.

Today, I’d like to dive deeper into what companies should look for in a modern CMO, as well as how Dina has structured and hired for her own marketing teams. 

I first learned about Dina’s superpower in marketing leadership when I recruited her to be the CMO of New Seasons back in 2014. Dina, thank you for joining me on the How I Hire podcast.

Dina Keenan: [00:01:09] Thanks, Roy. Good to be here. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:01:11] Dina, before we dive into some of these questions, could you share a bit more about your experience and how you got to where you are today? 

Dina Keenan: [00:01:18] I started on the agency side right out of school, after I went to college, and then I went to fashion school for a little bit. And…

Roy Notowitz: [00:01:25] That explains a lot actually.

Dina Keenan: [00:01:26] Yeah, it was a necessary thing that I had to do.

So I came back and thought, “How do I really parlay this into something I love?” And I joined an advertising agency, very small agency, where I got great experience across all disciplines and channels. Worked my way up to running my first national business with Bozell Worldwide at the time and then I ended up on the client side unexpectedly.

I literally was hired by a New York agency to run a piece of business in the hair care world. They offered me the job, but said, “Go meet the client.” So I went to meet the client and I got a call that night that said, “Good news and bad news.” And I thought, “Oh my God.” And they were like, “The good news is they loved you. The bad news is they want you to come to the client side.”

And I was like, “What?” And then I thought about it and I thought, “What a great opportunity to take my agency experience over to the brand side and run it from that perspective. From that experience, I was there for many years and then parlayed that into other brands.

Elizabeth Arden, Bath & Body Works. Then I went back to the agency side for four years with Integer Group, which is part of TBWA, and from there I went to Claire’s and was with Claire’s and then New Seasons Market. When you came calling. 

Do you remember what I said to you? I said, “Why are you calling me? I’m not your grocery girl.”

Roy Notowitz: [00:02:54] That is true. 

Dina Keenan: [00:02:55] Do you remember that? 

Roy Notowitz: [00:02:56] Yeah.

Dina Keenan: [00:02:56] You said, “You’re a brand builder and that’s what I want, and that’s what Wendy Collie wants.” I’ll never forget that because I thought, “Grocery? Wants to build a brand?” That’s not always the norm, right? It’s not always their first priority. So I was intrigued.

Roy Notowitz: [00:03:11] When did you first start having to build your own teams and start hiring as a leader within these, you know, agencies or in-house? 

Dina Keenan: [00:03:18] You know, I started pretty early on, you know, I, of course, when I started was reporting to a lot of people and I was taught to kind of make yourself invaluable. And so that was what I did.

And so I quickly moved up and started managing teams early on in my agency days, early agency days. And you know, first they were smaller teams, you know, I had one or two direct reports. And then it turned into, you know, larger teams. And, you know, 40 and 50 people, and global teams. I love doing it. I love mentoring.

I love growing teams and helping to develop teams. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:03:53] There’s so much CMOs need to know these days. What skills and competencies should investors, board members, and CEOs look for when hiring a CMO? 

Dina Keenan: [00:04:02] Yeah, that’s been a big question lately, and I have to say, I’ve seen the hiring of the CMO over the past, I’d say six, seven years be more challenging for companies than I think it has been, and I think that’s the emergence of digital, the explosion of data, and also more pressure on companies to access top line growth. Right? More than ever before. It’s so competitive. Today, marketing is above the line. It’s below the line, and it’s everywhere in between.

The customer is the channel, and that has caused a lot of confusion. So marketing and a CMO should have a really strong balance between what I like to say, art and science or magic and logic, whatever you want to say. And the art part is really the understanding the customer journey and the listening piece.

Knowing those key moments along the decision making process and how to influence them. And then, obviously, the science part has gotten so much more granular, right? From the data to the tools that we can use to the tracking. And those are skillsets that can be in one person, but one person is going to be stronger in one of those than the other.

I think you need a strong leader first, and they should have a nice mix of the, you know, building brands and driving performance. And then that person has to be a strong enough team builder to build that team around their skillset so that they have a strong balance of all of the things that are needed in today’s marketing world because it’s growing so fast.

Roy Notowitz: [00:05:37] So can a company hire a CMO that’s more creative than analytical and still be successful? Is that what you’re saying? 

Dina Keenan: [00:05:44] I believe so, and every, every company is different and every brand is slightly different, but if you hire a CMO that’s a bit more on the creative side, then that CMO has to have awareness of where their strengths lie and then they should fill their team to really make sure they balance that out because the key thing is that the CMO understands the importance of having both aspects because we are responsible for building the brand and making your customers care about the brand. 

Because, you know, my personal philosophy is that customers make an emotional choice before they make a rational buying decision, right? And so a CMO has to understand both pieces of that. So that’s critical. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:06:29] How might a CEO, board member, or investor evaluate the analytical competency or a CMO candidate’s ability to get and understand the right information? 

Dina Keenan: [00:06:39] I think that, you know, a CEO, you definitely want to know that they understand the tools that are out there. Understand the importance of how data is used to inform and validate. But also not to be so data-driven that you forget to use your gut instinct and listen to the customer firsthand. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:06:59] What are some examples of that, or what kind of information should they have at their fingertips? 

Dina Keenan: [00:07:03] In marketing, you’re constantly testing, optimizing, learning, and growing.

You need to understand the customer journey and what’s happening in the decision making process along that journey. And then have the tools to understand from the science side of the business of how to get that message to your customer in the right way when they want it, how they want it, and where they want it, which is really important. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:07:27] As a CMO, is it important to have a creative background or be the source of at least some creative ideas as well?

Dina Keenan: [00:07:33] Oh, absolutely. I mean, as a CMO, you have to inspire your team and you have to understand your brand, your brand DNA, what makes your brand special. You have to understand your customers and where they are and why they’re shopping you or why they’re not shopping you because you have to make them care, right?

If they don’t care, you can’t start anything. You’ve got to make them care. So to get their attention in this world that we live in today, which is so cluttered, you know, we’re, we’re a multimedia, we’re multi-device, we’re multichannel. To get their attention, you have to be creative. You have to be able to be that leader that has enough of a breadth of experience that you can drive it throughout your team because your team and your message has to be integrated. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:08:18] Is this like an entire new breed of CMOs? You know, where are people developing both these sides of their brain? 

Dina Keenan: [00:08:25] I mean, you have to want to do it right? I mean, I think as a CMO, you have to be constantly curious. You have to always be pushing yourself to want to learn and you have to be obsessed with the customer. So for me, I’m obsessed with the customer. I am a customer, right? So I know how I shop. I know how I go about making decisions and buying decisions and why I want to be with brands. So you have to be able to look at it from your team perspective, but also as a consumer.

And understand how the world has changed and have that driving curiosity to learn and grow and learn about the new things, and then I like to say, anticipate the needs of your customers before they even get there. You know, I think that there are different industries where you may be exposed to different aspects of the business, but I don’t think it’s a new breed.

I think it’s just a… It’s a faster world. It’s a faster learning curve and things are changing so much more quickly than they did when I first started that you have to keep up with it and you have to want to do that. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:09:26] Clients always talk about wanting a CMO candidate that understands their brand DNA.

How can interview teams or leaders of these companies come to understand if somebody aligns with their values and brand DNA in the interviewing process as it relates to CMO hiring? 

Dina Keenan: [00:09:46] That is so important because you can get a great CMO who, on paper, looks phenomenal, right? You can get a great CMO who has been successful leading a team, which is important, but they also have to align with your culture and culture is important because you as a CMO are an executive leader of that organization, and while you may lead the marketing function, you are responsible as a leader to that entire company, right? 

And so if you do not follow the values of that company, there will eventually be a culture tension that occurs. I was talking to a CMO a while back and you know, he had asked me about working at a mission-driven company and you know, I was telling him how amazing it was and he said he had interviewed at one point and the CEO mentioned that volunteering time was really important to them, and he said, “That’s just not me, and I couldn’t do it.” 

And to me that was a really example of, he knew that wasn’t his DNA and the company, it was super important. He had enough foresight to say, that’s not for me. And I think more people have to be really honest about, “This is a great job and a great position, but also do I see myself here? Do I see myself fitting in with the culture?” It’s important. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:11:08] Let’s talk about that. So when you went into New Seasons, you hadn’t been in the grocery world, you know, specifically they have a really strong local, natural, organic purpose, mission-driven culture.

And so how was that for you coming in? 

Dina Keenan: [00:11:24] First I was drawn to them because, throughout my career, I had worked for great companies and we had done really good things for raising money and funds or doing things for groups of people. And I always loved that. And I thought, wow, if you could really, really combine that with your marketing experience and work for a company that was truly driven by a mission to do good in this world, wouldn’t that be awesome?

So I was attracted to New Seasons for that reason. And then I met Wendy Collie, who was the new CEO, who’s amazing. And you know, yourself and Kristi McFarland had come on and she’s amazing. And so I knew something was going on there. And in all candor, when I came here, I was a bit jaded. I was like, “I’ve been to great grocery stores.” And I, my first experience with New Seasons, I will never forget because I walked in, people were happy, they were educating me on food.

It was a totally different experience. And I was blown away and I said, “Something’s going on here. I want to be a part of this brand.” I mean, my friends literally thought they had to have an intervention because they thought, “You hate the rain. What are you doing? Like do we need to come save you? Like, you know, this is Portland. Like, you’re not super outdoors-y.”

 And, but it was something that was drawing me there and it was the people. It was just so dedicated to the mission of the company, which is giving back to the community. You know, great food, helping and support local producers. And it never wavered. And so I believed in all of those things and I loved it.

But if I was someone who didn’t, it would never have worked because my values were aligned. And even though I showed up, maybe looking a little different, because I have a bit of an obsession with jewelry, um, and it wasn’t something everyone at the company was used to, but they all knew that our values aligned.

And that was what was important then and honestly, it was an amazing, amazing five years. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:13:20] You know, as a CMO, you create a vision for your function when you come into an organization and you also inherit team members. How do you assess the capabilities of the team coming in? It’s one of your superpowers, I think, is to really understand the capabilities of a team and then to bring them along with you and develop the team and to build new teams as well.

So can you speak to that a little bit? 

Dina Keenan: [00:13:44] Yeah, I love building teams, and I have from my very start of my career, I really care about people and I want to know what makes them tick. So going into an organization, you know, as a new CMO, you have a lot coming at you. You’ve got to go in and understand, you know, the business.

You’ve got to understand the gaps and the opportunities you need to understand your key stakeholders. You need to develop your KPIs, assess your teams, and assessing the team is always where I start. Because if you don’t have a great team in place to build the discipline, that’s where you’re going to fall down.

So I ended up spending a lot of time with the team members. I want to get to know them and meet with each one of them to understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing. It. What do they love to do and where do they think their strengths are and what motivates them? Because everyone is motivated by different things.

And by knowing your team individually, you can start to understand what makes them tick. Then observing how people are operating in the function, and then where are there gaps? 

Roy Notowitz: [00:14:42] So there’s no right or wrong way to structure teams, but generally speaking, how do you structure or think about the structure of your marketing organization?

Dina Keenan: [00:14:50] It’s about the ability to really build your team to deliver the company’s goals. And just as the CMO role is a balance of art and science, so does your marketing team has to be a balance of those things. Over the past years that digital/analytical piece of the team grows dramatically.

There’s a lot more specified expertise where people are really devoting from the digital perspective because digital has gotten so, so large. So for me, it’s about balancing, you know, that art and science. So you know your, your acquisition teams, your retention teams, your creative division, your insights division, and putting that together in a way that suits the business needs, the size of the company, and then making sure that team is very integrated and communicates well.

They have to communicate well because the customer journey is seamless. It has to be seamless and frictionless. Are they communicating so that everything is, is running smoothly and are they good partners to their stakeholders in the company? Do they work well with their partners in operations, their partners in merchandising, their partners in finance?

That is important. I look at building my marketing teams – and maybe it’s because of my agency background – but I always think about it as building kind of a top-performing agency within the organization that is there to provide excellent service to the company and help the company grow and deliver results and build the brand.

Roy Notowitz: [00:16:29] How do you determine when to invest, and develop, and bring somebody along versus finding them another role or managing them out of the organization? 

Dina Keenan: [00:16:38] I want everyone to have a chance. Right? And I believe in the saying that sometimes when people know better, they do better. And a lot of times you will find someone in an organization or a team that isn’t doing particularly well for whatever reason.

But my job as a leader is to find out why. Is it something that they’re doing? Is it, have they not been coached? Have they not been given the tools? I have a responsibility to that person as well. And so I have done that and so I will exercise everything I have to assess them, provide guidance, hear them out, and set some clear goals to see if they can rise to the occasion with some really clear objectives and some guidance.

You, you can assess pretty quickly if somebody is gonna try to turn it around, or maybe their mind is in a different place. I’ve had tremendous success with thankfully, turning people around, and there’s nothing more rewarding than that. I mean, I remember one instance where there was a person on my team who was just, the energy was not good.

People didn’t enjoy working with them, and so I sat down with him and I, I had a really frank discussion with him. I honestly wasn’t sure where it was going to go, and we talked about him and we talked about what his life was like and what was motivating him. I gave him some really good feedback. And he got tears in his eyes and he said, “No one’s ever told me that before,” and I literally was like, wow, I could see the light bulb go off, and I swear he turned around immediately. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:21] Right. He had a better sense of himself.

Dina Keenan: [00:18:23] Oh my gosh. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:24] Maybe self-awareness that you helped provide. 

Dina Keenan: [00:18:26] Nobody told him. Sometimes people just don’t know or haven’t had the guidance. And that’s the best thing. Cause he was super talented. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:33] Yeah. 

Dina Keenan: [00:18:33] So those are the things that, you know, I think everyone deserves that chance. And then, you know, if it’s not going to work out, you know, and I’ve had people that have not worked out for whatever reason and have them come back and thank me because, “You were right. This wasn’t the thing for me.” 

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:50] So let’s talk about that. You know, what is your process? What is your method for hiring over the years? What are the things that you’ve developed to ensure that you are more successful when it comes to hiring for your team? 

Dina Keenan: [00:19:02] I want to hear real examples of how they drove business and built the brands. I want to hear real examples of how they functioned as a team member. I want to hear what makes them tick and I want to have a real conversation about that because that gets people into a flow where they’re at ease, they’re at their self. I want to see the real them. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:19:22] Have you been in situations where people kind of keep that interviewing veneer and it’s hard to really get at? 

Dina Keenan: [00:19:26] Yeah. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:19:27] So what do you do in those situations? 

Dina Keenan: [00:19:28] That’s why I always like to try to put people at ease because I want to see the real them. I don’t want to get the interview them.

I want to see the real them because on paper they may look great. But I, if I get that interview demeanor, I’m not going to see the real them. And I need to know, not only are they have the skill set that we need, they have to fit our culture and they have to fit the team dynamic. And I have to be able to see us all working together.

So I need to see the real them and I want to know what they’ve done, what they’re proud of, what they have accomplished, and what they can bring to the team. Also assess for a future leaders of the organization. I’m always thinking about bench strength, you know, bringing up who’s, who’s next in line, who’s going to be taking my job is I move up and that’s my responsibility as well.

Roy Notowitz: [00:20:16] What types of things give you indication of leadership ability in candidates at say the director level or below? 

Dina Keenan: [00:20:23] You know, there’s a, there’s a lot about a person’s presence that they bring into a room. You can kind of tell sometimes how people hold themselves and their experience and how they’ve driven results and their management style.

I like to get into a lot about their management style and their successes from a management perspective. How they look at the business, not just from a functional perspective, but can they look at the overall enterprise business, right? A leader is going to have an eye on marketing, obviously, but they have to know that they have to understand the business overall.

Roy Notowitz: [00:20:56] In marketing, they could be siloed in one aspect of marketing, but, 

Dina Keenan: [00:21:00] Right. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:21:00] What you’re saying is you’re looking for people who are connecting the dots. 

Dina Keenan: [00:21:03] You have to.

Roy Notowitz: [00:21:03] Across all the different parts of the mix. 

Dina Keenan: [00:21:05] You absolutely have to connect the dots and even, you know, for me as a, as a CMO, I’ve got to have great relationships with my partners.

I need to understand what’s going on in ops, what’s going on in merchandising, what’s going on in supply chain. It affects everything marketing does today. And so future leaders for me have a good business at cumin in addition to a strong marketing background, and leadership skills of, you know, are they accountable?

Are they responsible? Are they good communicators? You know, do they show courage at times when they need to show courage? You know, do they have the right conversations at the right time? And that’s how you can kind of assess strong leaders because you need to have those strong leaders to, to come up through the ranks.

Right? I mean, it’s important for any company to grow. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:21:54] Dina, in closing, now that New Seasons has a new owner and, and you’ve moved on, what’s next for you? 

Dina Keenan: [00:22:01] So I’m doing some board work and I’m doing some advisory work and I’m looking for my next opportunity because I’m excited to get back into it. You know?

I will say New Seasons was such a cool experience and I’m looking for that right fit because I’m excited about what’s next. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:22:15] Well, we’d love to keep you in the Pacific Northwest if, if we can. You’re a huge talent and really grateful that you took my call that day and I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next is going to be super exciting and whatever company gets you is going to be very lucky. 

Dina Keenan: [00:22:31] Well, thank you. I’m grateful that you called and that I came here because it’s been an amazing five years and I’ve met some amazing people. So I believe things happen for a reason. So this is all part of the journey for me. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:22:45] Well, thanks for being on the podcast today. 

Dina Keenan: [00:22:47] Thanks for having me.

Roy Notowitz: [00:22:47] It’s been great listening to you. 

Dina Keenan: [00:22:49] It’s been fun. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:22:51] Thanks for tuning into How I Hire. 

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How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. To learn more about Noto Group, visit NotoGroup.com or follow us on LinkedIn

This podcast was produced by Anna McClain.

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