The Person Behind the Brand: Kim Feil

We recently sat down for an exclusive interview with our very own Kim Feil, Board Member and Chicago Chapter President here at the CMO Club. Kim is CMO and Chief Strategist at Aspire Healthy Energy Drinks, an emerging beverage company, and the first start-up of her inspiring career. Kim has senior leadership experience in numerous industries, from snack food and beverages to data, retail, consulting, and now entrepreneurship. She serves on multiple advisory boards for corporations and industry organizations, such as the Network of Executive Women. She also serves on the boards of numerous charities and advises early-stage start-ups worldwide.

Kim grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio with a thirty-eight-year career P&G and CPG dad, who once brought her to see the world’s largest Tide display when she was just six years old. She currently lives in Chicago, Ill, with her fifth golden retriever, Holly.

CMO Club – Always nice to welcome such a familiar face. How did you begin your incredible career?

Kim Feil — I started my career as a journalist. I edited my high school and college newspapers and did tons of freelance writing through graduate school, intending to go into publishing. I wrote two articles for Dallas Magazine about Frito-Lay and wound up interviewing and getting a job as Assistant Brand Manager at Dorito’s. The rest is history, as they say.

CMO Club — Tell me a little bit about that first marketing experience. Any lessons learned that are still relevant?

Kim Feil — To be working on one of the largest snack brands in the world as your first job was awesome. Frito-Lay gave me a very comprehensive and rigorous training experience, but being able to learn the entire view of marketing from the data-wonk to analytics to commercial shoots with celebrities was also a lot of fun, almost too-cushy for a first assignment. I did learn some important lessons there, though. I wasn’t a very confident public speaker at first and was forced to be articulate. That was a big learning curve for me. I also realized the importance of financial acumen as a marketer, the financial implications beyond ROI. Being able to read a P&L, understanding what drives profitability, what the costs in-between are when making choices. It’s easy for marketers to come up with really complicated programs that are too hard for the sales organization to execute. You end up leaking a lot of profit in the form of hard costs of getting it to market. Its been an important lesson and a part of every job I’ve had since.

CMO Club — What would you go back and tell your twenty-two-year-old self just starting out?

Kim Feil — I would tell her to be more involved in industry associations like the American Marketer Association andåÊother local marketing associations. I would tell her to reach out to other marketers outside her own company, lift your head out of the day-to-day sand and see what else is going on in your industry, what drives business beyond your own walls.

CMO Club — What are you most proud of?

Kim Feil — This may sound a little hokey, but when I look back, it’s the teams I’ve built and some of the individuals I was able to help in finding their passion. That has had the most lasting effect. Those same people are now leaders in all sorts of places. When you see that it makes you feel so great, building talent in the market and watching them take off for the stars.

CMO Club — Why did you choose to join a start-up this point in your career?

Kim Feil — Four years ago I was CMO and CSO of Office Max, which merged into Office Depot. The company moved its headquarters to Florida, and, at that point, I knew I wanted to do something different, something that was going to stretch my brain and give me the passion for making it another twenty years. I had already advised some early-stage companies and had a flavor for what to expect, but until you do it for yourself you never really know, so I jumped in. I have the background that was needed, and we have this really amazing chemistry between the whole leadership team where my skills and their unique passion make a great fit. We’re past that first scary milestone in earnings and run-rate and doing great.‰

CMO Club — Any surprises?

Kim Feil — I’m really gratified to see that retailers are surprisingly open to hearing about new things, even when they’re small. When I worked retail, you only ever saw the big things and never the tiny, new ideas on an everyday basis. But when you’re one of those tiny, new ideas and retailers invite you in, it’s both surprising and gratifying to know you can sit in a buyer’s lobby next to a name like Hershey’s and still be given the same attention and commitment. The negative, of course, is having limited resources. I now book my own travel and pull together my own presentations, which took me quite a while to get used to.

CMO Club — Any advice for someone looking at a start-up later in their marketing career?

Kim Feil Especially among our CMO Club audience, there’s probably a lot of people who have not thought past their traditional career, but I’m here to say there is this a vast sea of new companies, new ideas, new technologies, products, and services, for which their marketing backgrounds would accelerate and fuel growth. It would be very fulfilling for them to open their eyes and take on a role with one of these start-ups. Now, whether that role is a full-time job, an advisor, an investor, or a board position, that’s an open question to how much time you want to spend, but it’s a way to take that knowledge you possess, all those years of building your career and applying that to something new that will also be part of your legacy. There’s a huge need. These are twenty-five-year-olds who have this great idea and passion, but they don’t know how to enter a retail environment, they don’t know how to access capital or find talent that will fill particular needs. We can help them with all of that.

CMO Club — What direction do you see marketing heading?

Kim Feil — Well, the tenure for CMOs is getting shorter and shorter and I think that’s because we’re at a real watershed moment. The function of the CMO must become a true general manager function, with P&L and growth officer responsibility, or it needs to become a manager of the digital health of a brand. Today‰Ûªs companies need very robust digital health, whether digital, e-commerce, social, mobile, whatever the platforms are that they need. By augmenting what has been the traditional role, the relevance of the CMO will finally be acknowledged. Today’s CEO is younger and more digitally connected than ever before. They might not have been born with a smartphone in their hand, but it’s close. They are of the generation that actually gets what the CMO does. They appreciate the notion of  “customer-first.” The change happening in the CEO-Suite is going to enable a better, longer-lasting relationship with the CMO. There won’t be that old-school attitude that marketing is about pretty pictures or television ads. We can now actually see the direct correlation of what we do and actual growth and, if there’s not, we shouldn’t be doing it anyway

CMO Club — Switching gears, why Chicago?

Kim Feil — You know, it’s interesting because I lived on the east coast, the south, other places, and then I get back to the midwest and suddenly it feels like home again. Chicago is much more lively than Cincinnati where I grew up, but it still has that earthiness quality, that hard work ethic, and diversity that everyone embraces in a friendly way. I really enjoy the people and the quality of life here. Go Cubs!

CMO Club-You are President of the Chicago Chapter of the CMO Club, one of our biggest and most active chapters. Why do you think it’s been so successful?

Kim Feil-“It starts with having a charter group of very dynamic and committed marketers who have led the way to enlist new CMOs in Chicago to join us. Chicago itself offers such a wide variety of industries. Every chapter dinner is so varied in its range of topics to explore and learn about. I think that’s really the key.

CMO Club — Any passions outside of work?

Kim Feil — I do a lot of emerging women leader mentoring. It’s very fulfilling. I wish I‰Ûªd had a family, but I didn’t, so being able to listen and guide and give advice to young women is very important to me. I also love to cook, and I’m known to throw ridiculous parties.

CMO Club — What kind of parties?

Kim Feil — We do an Easter Bash, where everyone colors eggs, combined with a traditional Easter ham dinner, which lasts about twelve hours. Tons of people show up. Everyone comes early for the contest, and they take it very, very seriously. People bring secret themes and ideas. Some of them are just nuts. One year the winner decorated four eggs into the entire Kiss band, down to the smallest details. We have silly prizes and a lot of trash talk going on. It’s taken on a life of its own and getting bigger and bigger every spring. In a few weeks, we’ll have our fifth annual Halloween Costume Contest Party. Last year about eighty people showed up in super creative costumes. It’s been great. I have this philosophy that adults don’t play enough. To be able just to laugh, to celebrate being with other people you like, is such a relief with all the other stresses in your life.

Decorated frog egg from Easter bash last year.

CMO Club — Wow. That’s amazing. Can you tell us something else that no one knows about you?

Kim Feil — I’ve been fired twice. I’m no longer embarrassed to talk about it. The first time was just a truly sexist situation. I was a very young VP, on the senior team, the only woman in a large group of men. Some of their behaviors were things they knew I could observe and they didn’t want me around anymore, so they eliminated my position. They required me to leave bottler dinners early so they could do stuff that they probably wouldn’t like to be made public. One of the things was requiring me to provide each of them with stacks of single dollar bills for the strip clubs and the strippers they visited afterward, straight from my marketing budget. The second time I was let go a new CEO came in and wanted his guy in the position but was told that he couldn’t fire me, so he just eliminated the position altogether. I was made to get out that day, no questions asked or answered.

CMO Club — How did those experiences change who you are?

Kim Feil — I‘m a more angry person, especially when I read about some of the #MeToo issues. I wasn’t attacked, but I was badly discriminated against. I’m much more cautious and angry than I was before all that happened. It’s a big reason why I mentor young women now. I don’t want them to experience the same things that I experienced, and to be equipped with ways to head-off those kinds of approaches that I was just too naÌøve to see. It also made me realize that companies don’t love you. They don’t. People you work with might love you, but in the end, it’s a company, and companies are going to do what they do. Some of the very talented senior women I work with at the Network of Executive Women have left jobs where they were never able to get to that final CEO stop, and have taken jobs as CEOs of early-stage companies because their work is appreciated there.

CMO Club — So, do you think that marketers can have a truly positive impact on society, then?

Kim Feil — Most certainly. Marketers at all functions inside companies have been the first and most consistent in understanding that giving back, whether through philanthropy or better use of their company resources is good business. It drives good business and, in turn, customer loyalty. We can do good literally, with causes and charities that we tie our companies to, foundations that give back for the greater good, but we can also give back by being the voice of reason, to be thoughtful in how we use people and resources, and how we teach the next generation as well. What Pete’s done with the CMO Club Cares has been a great example of that.

Kim and Holly.