Know Your CMO: Getting Acquainted with Act-On’s Michelle Huff
CMOs have a lot on their plates. They oversee brand management, market research, customer service, promotional communications, and so much more.
Act-On Software took an in-depth look at these executives and their roles and opinions. In September, we released the CMO Index, our study of CMOs in the United States and the United Kingdom.
As we wrap up the year, we thought we’d share the story of our own CMO ― Michelle Huff ― who recently completed her one-year anniversary. You can also read interviews with Michelle on MarTech Advisor and MarTech Series.
Michelle’s appreciation for innovation and her passion for creating brand experiences shines through in her work. Her industry insight and broad knowledge of product marketing make Michelle a great match for our dynamic, fast-growing company.
With an approach to marketing that emphasizes smart strategizing, forging connections, and holistic methods, Michelle is well suited to guide Act-On into the new frontiers that are opening up to marketers. Her experience and passion are helping Act-On elevate its brand, drive increased demand, maximize customer lifetime value, and grow revenues across its product portfolio. And, with Michelle at the helm, Act-On in turn is helping other companies do the same.
“What intrigued me about Act-On,” says Michelle, “was its customer focus and passion for helping marketers do the best work of their careers.”
Like all good marketers, we wanted to discover what makes Michelle tick. We recently spoke with her to find out more about her background, interests, likes and dislikes, and mistakes and successes.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in West Palm Beach, FL, but spent most my childhood in Tacoma, WA. I, then, headed to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.
What was your first job?
My very first job was when I was 14 or 15. I started working at a retirement home on the weekends and on some weeknights serving food in their dining room.
What was the first product you got really excited about?
It’s hard to remember the very first product. While growing up, I remember always loving to try out new gadgets and tools. I remember going with my family to the food shows, and we’d buy all these different types of baking tools, pancake makers, kitchen cutting tools, etc. I just loved watching all the vendors show off their new products and then trying the new things at home. Now thinking about it, this explains a little bit about my love for marketing.
The first software product that got me really excited, though, was during the interview process for my first high tech job after college in the late 1990s. I interviewed with a software company that built technology where you could take a Microsoft Word document and drop it into a folder, where would translate it to HTML, format it to the website’s look and feel, and automatically generate navigation. I thought it was amazing! I had just learned HTML in business school. In a previous job at a marketing consulting company, I helped them modify the website using Microsoft FrontPage. This new way was SOOO much easier! I think my enthusiasm showed through and I got the job. I first started in web marketing, but then eventually moved to product marketing ― apparently, I just loved telling as many people as I could about the product!
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
I’d have to say my Dad. In his career, he ran sales organizations for large companies and then moved to head up Sales, Product, and R&D for a small to mid-size business. I think it’s important for marketers to have a close relationship with sales and, through his stories and advice, he helped me better understand the world from their point of view. Additionally, as I progressed in my career and started managing teams and working across different organizations, he has been a great sounding board for me. Everyone at times needs someone to talk to ― bounce off ideas, hash through problems, talk about pros and cons of management strategies or career changes, or, really, someone to just talk you out of “jumping off the ledge” sometimes when you have those moments at work.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Hmmm. That’s a hard one. I guess I like to think about life and a person’s career as a momentum of lots of small wins and mini-successes. It’s never one thing that makes me feel like I’ve achieved ―or failed, for that matter. Perhaps right now ― managing to be happily married to a husband of 12 years, with two small healthy and happy kids, plus a CMO-gig at a great company with a fantastic team … while still keeping my sanity! Feels like a win to me!
What has been your biggest mistake?
I’ve made a ton of mistakes over the years ― they are all great learning experiences. In some ways, my thinking is that you haven’t tried anything new or innovative if you haven’t made any mistakes. One I recently thought of was an extremely visible mistake. I ran web projects at a company back in the early- to mid-2000s. I was leading a cross-functional team that launched the company’s new website. We were using a new product and architecture and one flaw in our approach was how the versions were replicated from the staging site to the production site. We didn’t realize that every single version of each web page was being sent over and waiting for us to go live. On the big day, luckily after business hours, we went live – and I watched in horror as each edit and modification of the site flashed online. I had written placeholder text saying “blah blah blah” across several of the pages. And I sat, fixated to the computer, hitting refresh over and over again. I’m so lucky we didn’t have Twitter back then! I could just imagine today all the screenshots and commentary that would make my mistake even more visible and long lasting. I learned a few things, though:
- When you are doing a new event for the first time as a team, it’s important to talk through what the flow and day is going to look like to catch any mistakes.
- No matter how prepared you think you are, it’s hard to catch everything. Try your best, learn from your mistakes, and move on.
- There is value in the standard “Lorem Ipsom Dolor” Latin placeholder text! I know we sometimes create things in marketing that are meant for internal viewing (because we think it’s funny), but beware, these things can sometimes end up out there in the open.
What is your greatest strength?
I always try to be positive and focus on the positive.
What is your biggest weakness?
I tend to always look at problems and see “the whole problem” and try to fix it. I always have to remind myself to break it down into smaller parts, take it one step at a time, and get some quick wins.
What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?
What I think is unique and fun about being a CMO at a company that sells to marketers is that my team and I are the target buyers here at Act-On. This tends to make the whole company (from Product to Sales to Customer Success) care about my role, my team, our pains, and the approach we take to solve problems. I’m lucky; my role is probably the least neglected role in the company!
Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?
My mantra? “No Regrets.” Phrase that makes me squirm? That’s funny … how about “Look behind you ― there’s a spider!”
What makes you stressed?
If I go too many days straight with back-to-back meetings all day, it can be stressful. I’ll start craving some blocks of time during normal business hours to get things done. I started “Michelle Days” where every few weeks my EA will block off the majority of the day for me to work undisturbed. It’s glorious!
What do you do to relax?
Hmmm. Relax? Well, I have a one-year-old son, and a daughter who’s five. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about relaxing on the beach with a book in hand…. But, I do love weekend walks with the family as we head to the park and visit the family’s favorite coffee shops.
What is your favorite song?
How about the Frozen movie song ― “Let It Go!” So many times at work and in life ― you just have to sing to yourself “Let it go! Let it go!” It’s funny, but it’s helpful!
Which book taught you most?
Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit ― there are some good lessons in there for my daughter and me!
Do you have a team or sport that you follow?
I tend to be a fair-weather fan here in Seattle. I usually watch the Seahawks and Mariners when we’re winning. Ha!
Which country would you like to work in?
UK ― I love London.
Which company do you think has the best marketing?
Someone on my team pointed out the BloomThat company to me the other day, and I think they have great marketing and a fun brand. They have clever names for their flower bouquets, catchy campaigns that are tied to current events, offer great CTAs, and their tone is fun and conversational.
What do you love most about your job?
I love meeting with customers. I’m an inquisitive person by nature, and I enjoy better understanding their role, their challenges, organizational structure, how they are using technology, what trends they are seeing, etc. I feel lucky that in the roles I’ve had, I get an opportunity to meet with them well before they are customers, while they are in the sales process, when they begin to adopt the solution and start building out a success plan. The most rewarding part is working with them to showcase their successes both internally and externally. What makes it even more fun here at Act-On is that my customers are in Marketing! So, not only do I find it interesting, but it’s incredibly relevant to what I do as a CMO, and I get to build a great network of peers.
What is your favorite book?
What keeps you awake at night?
Sometimes if I had a conversation or email exchange with someone that I didn’t think went very well, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. I’m not sure if it’s my dreams that trigger it, but I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve been playing the conversation over and over in my head. Sometimes, in one version I word it differently or, another time, I’ll have changed my tone. It can be pretty frustrating. But hopefully it’s my silly brain’s way of learning how to better phrase feedback or input to other people and apply it in a new situation in the future.