For our tenth episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Tom Butch, Consulting Strategist and Senior Editorial Contributor at Crux, as well as Founder & President of Strategy:Solutions, Inc. Tom draws from his first-hand, C-level experience to provide perspective on the fractional CMO model and explore why delegation is key to strong leadership.
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Ethan Whitehill: Welcome to our podcast. I’m Ethan Whitehill, President and Chief Creative Officer at Crux, the “un-agency” that fuels business growth. Here on “To the Point” we get to the point with entrepreneurs and marketers who have transformed organizations by elevating brands and amplifying missions.
Our guest today is Tom Butch. Tom served for decades in numerous executive roles at well-known financial services companies, including roles as CMO, president and CEO, leading employee groups as large as 5,000. He also served on numerous nonprofit boards. Tom retired from full-time corporate work in 2022, and today brings his years of experience to clients in his consultancy and boards on which he serves, including the Board of Crux.
Through his consultancy, he worked with clients in global and domestic asset management, wealth management and banking, and in non-financial industries and nonprofits. In his work today, Tom seeks to help companies understand and leverage their key differentiating strengths, develop business strategies, and effectively articulate those strengths and strategies to core audiences, including investors, clients, prospects, the media and employees. And can I just say, Tom is a master of many trades and an all-around good human being? So, Tom, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the show.
Tom Butch: I’m especially grateful to be welcomed as a master, which is a gross overstatement, but I will take it.
Ethan Whitehill: Well, your resume is impressive, and what makes it even more impressive is when you meet Tom in person, he’s just a great down-to-earth person, which I really enjoy.
So, Tom, let’s start here: You served in numerous senior communications roles, and it’s everything from marketing communications to investor communications and relations. And that career path led you to executive leadership roles, and that’s not necessarily a typical path. What is the value of those skills, and why are they uniquely important to the C-Suite?
Tom Butch: You know, Ethan, as I was going along that journey, I guess I never appreciated it to be as atypical as in that time it was. It was an unusual journey for someone to in effect graduate for marketing and or communications roles into more general management executive roles. And I guess I never thought it to be atypical, even though it was, because I think the skillset that one needs to succeed in a corporate communications or marketing really lends itself to an executive role. That is, you have to be able to understand the company horizontally, its whole breadth, vertically in its depth, financially, synthesize that, and be able to articulate it to any and all audiences that are important to a company.
And so if you’re doing that job well as corporate communications and marketing and IR professionals do every day, you have to know the company in such an in-depth way that progressing to an executive or general management role shouldn’t really seem so unusual a step.
And if you come at it from the other direction, if you think of people who come up through the business side into C-suite roles, be it CEO or CFO, they absolutely have to have that same skillset today. CEOs and CFOs are front and center every day in articulating the company message. So those two kind of, in my mind, merge a marketing and communications professional may need to fill in the business side and the acumen related thereto, and an executive who comes up from the the business or financial side, may need to fill in the ability to be articulate and on point and in the moment able to capture the essence of the company and spread it through all the audiences. So, it never seemed that unusual progression to me, and I think it’s much less unusual today than it was. The synthesis of information and its articulation is central to being in the C-suite today.
Ethan Whitehill: It seems like in that role, from that particular background, we have individuals who are kind of deep and wide, so to speak, and what’s so great is they understand that the marketing field, but they also have this very broad view of the industry in general. So when you think about one of the, main values that CMOs bring to organizations, how do chief marketing officers help companies understand and leverage their key differentiating strengths?
Tom Butch: I think it’s by identifying and perfecting and promulgating consistently the company’s value proposition. That sounds simple, I guess, but it’s not. It’s really being the steward of the brand understanding and expressing what the company does every day, how it does it differently than its competition, and why that matters. We all know that today brand value is very identifiable, very calculable, and as we’ve seen in the recent past, also very fragile. And I look at the CMO as the keeper of the brand value, in addition to being the one who really—back to my prior comment—synthesizes and promulgates the company’s value. You know, the other thing, Ethan, is that today, given the multi-channel world in which we live, CMOs are also business development officers. You know, traditionally marketing supported sales and business development. It’s its own business development engine today, in many cases.
Ethan Whitehill: And a testament to that is the chief sales officer and the chief marketing officer oftentimes are becoming the chief revenue officer. They kind of have responsibility across both sales and marketing.
Tom Butch: It’s an interesting point. I have been both, and over time I saw that very convergence taking place. It became less symbiotic and more whole, if you will, almost one thing as you point out merging into a common role.
Ethan Whitehill: And maybe it is that, that overarching perspective, sort of across those two areas that helps. But when you think about creating effective strategy for business at the end of the day, how does a CMO do that? What is the key to building an effective strategy?
Tom Butch: Well, again, I think it’s understanding what you uniquely bring to market. And if you’re not bringing something uniquely to market, that’s a problem. But it’s unique—your unique value proposition, who you compete against, how you are different or better. And I think today it’s looking ahead and seeing where you are vulnerable to disruption because it is so much a part of the world in which we live. We’ve always thought of capitalism as being based in creative destruction, but the rapidity of that destruction is elevated so dramatically by all the technological change that we have seen. It’s being the protector versus disruption. It’s also how are we going to gather the talent to support the value proposition, and how will we invest in our future? All of those things, I think are critical elements of a business strategy today.
Ethan Whitehill: Disruption is a very visionary term just thinking in terms of how you’re going to build a business and how you’re going to disrupt a marketplace, and that is going to be something of particular interest to investors. How do you successfully communicate with those internal stakeholders that want to talk about the vision and disruption, as well as the investors that want to know “how is that going to result in a return on my investment?”
Tom Butch: I would say transparently and often is the most simple answer. More is better. Timeliness is critical. One thing you learn as a marketer or a communicator is just about the time that you are getting tired of repeating the message is the time that the audience may be for the first time digesting it fully. That’s no criticism of the audience. It’s just that repetition, consistency, timeliness are all very critical. Don’t hem and haw get news out quickly and always, always tether everything back to your brand and the value that it asserts.
Ethan Whitehill: I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in the world of marketing throughout your career, even though you’re a young man still. What are some of the most significant shifts that you’ve noticed just in the last few years?
Tom Butch: Oh, you don’t want me to go back to the chisel and hammer days? And I couldn’t do that, but I could go back to the yellow legal pad days on which one would when I first started working, draft a memo, give it to an assistant, redraft a memo, give it to an assistant until that process was done, and then put it in an envelope where it would travel two doors down the hall. And that sounds so archaic but was the way business was done. I predate word processing, I predate the internet. And so if you think about tectonic changes in my career, obviously the internet is the biggest of those. And I remember people saying, “what does this have to do with selling stuff?” or “what does this have to do with financial products?” Well, we know now if you think of the last many years, broadly, I would say it’s fundamentally the instantaneity of everything that is so different and the channels that have been created to perpetuate and accelerate that instantaneity.
And as marketers having to be alert in the moment and also to the macro is really a very significant change. That’s true of PR, too, the endless of the news cycle. In the old days I remember when I had corporate communications for Waddell & Reed, one of the largest banks of the country, the news cycle stopped at six o’clock. That was the hard deadline. And then you would, if a story was being written about you, you would sweat it out till the next morning when the paper thumped on your driveway—or if you were really ambitious, drive downtown and get the bulldog of edition of the newspaper.
Contrast that with just instantaneity the in-the-moment reaction, and reaction to the reaction, and the cycle of that that goes on. I think that’s one of the biggest things I think from a marketing perspective, all the technological change which has individualized the marketing process with predictive analytics, and again, all the channels through which people can be reached. And so I just think it’s speed and the degree to which that challenges us to be both in the moment as we must to protect the brand and be smart about that which is around us, but also have a larger macro view.
Ethan Whitehill: That’s actually a very timely comment given Meta’s rollout of threads recently. That’s just making instant even more imperative, right? It’s a testament to the model that Twitter built, but it also just suggests that that’s not going to die. That model is just going to continue to evolve.
So, you are a valued contributor to Crux as well. How did you get involved with Crux?
Tom Butch: Well I knew Melea McRae, the founder through her time and mine on the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce when she headed marketing for the Chamber. And then she set off on her own after having worked at the Chamber, and she had an interim step and then decided, “Hey, I can do something really different with the agency model,” which is to say “I can deliver full service marketing at a cost effectively the same as hiring one marketing executive.” And that, that could be a very valuable proposition to any kind of business, but especially businesses that are earlier in their stage and making decisions about allocating resources to marketing. The model has really taken off and proved itself. I’m just intrigued by the opportunity that Crux creates for companies to engage marketing at a relatively low price point, relative to the market, but as immersive a marketing experience and opportunities, I think exist. So that’s how I got involved with Crux and how I feel so fortunate to be on the board and to be a contributor in other ways, as well.
Ethan Whitehill: And we’re glad you are! And, and in that role, you’ve got more than a front row seat to what’s happening in this entrepreneurial journey. You’re actually in the dugout with us, which we appreciate. What I’ve learned is you’ve got some unique insights, too, into the founder’s journey and, you’ve seen entrepreneurs grow their business beyond their natural skill sets. And I think there’s a lot of things that we can learn from that as we look at it.
Can you share your observations on this and talk a bit about how a visionary can succeed in a growing company?
Tom Butch: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think you said how a visionary can succeed in a growing company, or how can a visionary succeed in growing a company? Two sides of the same coin, I guess. You know, it’s interesting having worked with a lot of Crux clients now—many of them founder, founder-driven, and visionary-driven companies—the hardest transition, I guess I have of necessity done all these things. I trust my instinct about them. I’ve gotten the company to here because of trusting my gut and putting the whole of myself into the growth of this company, and now I’m at a place where I have to trust others to do some of those things. I think that’s the critical juncture that I’ve seen is who do I trust to do that? What do I delegate? And delegation is a lifelong journey, right? As a leader, it’s a lifelong learning process of how to do it well, and how do I find partners internally or externally who can help me along that journey?
You know, my bias is that turning visionaries into operators is a fragile science, and I would think that if the visionary can continue to devote the bulk of his or her time to being that visionary, it’s in their interest to do so. Find and surround yourself with those resources that can help you unload those things that aren’t visionary in nature, but critical to the growth of your enterprise.
Ethan Whitehill: And that really speaks to leadership decisions, you know, understanding how to lead and you’ve had numerous leadership roles. How do you define leadership? What is leadership?
Tom Butch: it’s simplest, I think leadership is galvanizing people to a vision in a way that gives them ownership of it and connects them in a meaningful way every day to that vision. I think it’s really that simple. It’s creating the frame into which you insert the canvas that they end up painting. People work to express themselves, to express their professionalism, to be part of something bigger than themselves, and leadership is essentially enabling that process at its simplest.
Ethan Whitehill: If you turn the lens on Tom, what were some of your important leadership lessons?
Tom Butch: Well, they’re plentiful and they never stop, right? It’s interesting, I’ve thought about this a lot. I think some leaders are born and some leaders are created through their own effort. In both cases, leadership is a lifelong journey. To the extent that those who are born with it don’t hone that over time, their skills will wither. To the extent that those who have to learn it along the way, feel that they’ve learned it, they’re probably wrong because it’s a journey, not a destination.
Some of the things that I would say I have learned are to be humble to your failures, but even more humble to your successes; to put yourself last; and always remember it’s not about you, it’s about the people whom you’ve been entrusted to lead. And that sounds really noble and easy, but leadership is also ego gratifying, and holding that in check and remembering always it’s not about you is, I think, really important.
I think it’s knowing that everybody brings something different to the table, and it’s your job to unearth that. And as much as leaders, we’re always trying to find the thing to help make somebody better at something. I think leaders should also spend at least as much or more time leaning into a person’s skillset and letting them express that as often as possible. And I think this is one thing I learned over time, and it is when you’re exasperated with someone or your team, and that’s the time that’s most important to look in the mirror, because as a leader, you probably have not given them the clarity they need to fulfill whatever it is that is frustrating you. You have to step back and say, again, it’s about them, and it’s about the way I help them. It’s not about me.
Ethan Whitehill: What you’re saying there sounds like individualized leadership, too. You’re adapting to the individuals, and as you think about that at scale—going from five to 50 to 500 to 5,000 employees, which you’ve had—what does that learning curve look like? How does that change?
Tom Butch: I think that at a sort of a practical level, the one thing that really changes is that you’re managing with large groups of people. You’re managing leaders who manage other people. And so your leadership lens focuses on enabling leaders to lead. But that’s really at the end of the day, to me, a nuance. I think whether it’s five or 50 or 5,000, it’s providing clarity of mission and giving people the purpose and the tools to express themselves in the context of that mission. That’s what leadership is.
Ethan Whitehill: I love that word purpose. I think that that’s so important, that sense of purpose in your job. Well, that’s fantastic. And I’ve got a new purpose for you here that we’re to our mystery question, and I explained this to you earlier. I’ve got my hand, my 20-sided die. I am going to roll it, and whatever comes up is the question I ask you. So, let’s see what we get.
Oh, I like this one. What is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Tom Butch: Gosh, I’ve been the recipient of so many kindnesses in my life. I would have to say it’s my children telling me I’m a good father because nothing in life is as important to me as being that and perpetuating goodness in the world in whatever small way I can. So I’d have to say that.
Ethan Whitehill: Tom, that about concludes our conversation, which has been wonderful. Any closing thoughts?
Tom Butch: You know, Ethan, I only have one and we grazed over technology and how profound its influence has been. And I do think one thing about being an older but young-at-heart guy is that you’ve seen so much, and every technological change makes the one before it seems so passe and so archaic. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been through a career where we’ve marveled at the advent of things like word processing, personal computers, the internet, and you and I just very lightly grazed marketing technology and how it’s changed our field so dramatically.
We haven’t even talked about AI and we’re very early in that obviously. But what’s interesting to me is when this conversation has had 40 years hence, all the things that we think in the moment are so avant-garde today and so cutting edge will seem every bit as archaic as, you know, the first handheld phone that looked like a combat thing or thinking the internet was really cool because you could put an advertisement up on it and it wasn’t particularly interactive. So you’re left then to say in a world of that kind of change and the speed at which it’s accelerating, “what is the constant both as people and as marketers?” And I think the constant is emotional connection. And I think regardless of the channel and regardless of the technology and regardless of how the world changes, emotional connection will always be the core of marketing, and I think it’s something about which we should remind ourselves every day—even in the face of constant change and technological innovation.
Ethan Whitehill: Tom, if people want to connect with you, assuming LinkedIn would be a good place?
Tom Butch: That’d be the, that’d be the place to find me, yes, and I’d welcome hearing from anyone who would like to strike up a conversation.
Ethan Whitehill: Thank you so much, Tom.
Tom Butch: It’s my pleasure, Ethan, and thanks for having me today.
Hosted by Ethan Whitehill
Ethan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.