Manish Shrivastava, CMO, PulteGroup, a Fortune 500 company and a leader in the home building industry, has held leadership positions in such diverse companies as Coca Cola, and The Home Depot over his long and distinguished marketing career. Irma Shrivastava, CMO, Randstad USA, the #1 global HR services company, was SVP of Marketing at the American Cancer Society and held key leadership positions over many years of service at Coca-Cola. They live in Atlanta with their two children.
CMO Club — Welcome to both of you. So excited to interview two leading CMOs living together in one family, a first for the club. Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and where you grew up?
Irma — “I grew up in Plano, Texas, just outside of Dallas, to immigrant parents from India. I was the oldest of three children, all of us under five. I took on a responsibility and leadership role at a really early age. My mom always said I was old for my age, so I guess she was right. My dad owned the first Indian restaurant in all of Texas back in the 1970s, an early entrepreneur. Mom was a librarian.”
Manish — “As a counter to Irma, I was very mischievous. I liked to tinker and take things apart, construct things. I once made a homemade gun with a pipe and firecrackers. (laughter) Looking back, it was fantastic not having video games and IPads to distract me. I used my imagination to create things.”
CMO Club — What kind of childhood did you have?
Irma — “In some ways, I can say it was a normal childhood in the context of the American immigrant story where you don’t know what you don’t have. I helped with my siblings, went to school, worked hard, and I didn’t get to Disney until I was a Senior in High School. It was still a big deal. We grew up in a culturally traditional Indian community, always understanding that you needed to work hard to achieve your dreams. There was a comfort in that familiarity and in that connection to the past, even though I knew we needed to assimilate as well.”
Manish — “My family immigrated from India when I was a baby, and we ended up in South Carolina. My family had exactly seven dollars when we got there. We slept on the floor for those first years, and we wound up buying our first home just a few years after. It was the American Dream come true. It’s interesting when I reflect on it. We were poor when we got here, moved to a poor state on the poorest side of our town, yet, it was a wonderful experience. I was able to interact with such a wide range of characters. I learned how to relate to almost any type of person, which came in handy in all aspects of my life after.”
CMO Club — Did you feel more like an Indian or an American growing up?
Irma — “There used to be this adage around the melting pot in America, becoming fully American, but I felt lucky to have this unique Indian culture that provided me such richness. I did identify as an American with certain cultural benefits while also enjoying Bollywood, celebrating Indian holidays, and the Hindu religious roots that grounded me, but things like American Football, that “Friday night lights” in Texas, that was a concept that was new and novel. It’s always harder when you’re cutting new paths. I will say, however, that there were no moments when I at all felt ostracized.”
Manish — “We were bi-cultural to an extent, celebrating Indian holidays and eating mostly Indian food at home, but we celebrated more American holidays than we did Indian. Even though we were Hindu, we celebrated Christmas with a big Christmas tree, with an angel on top and Jesus in the manger. It was a big holiday for us. I loved it”
CMO Club — I would imagine family becomes so important on that assimilation journey, trying to reach out and stay connected as well. Who had the biggest influence on you growing up?
Irma — “My mom. There was always a constant, embedded belief she had in me. She was my biggest cheerleader. She always told me I could achieve anything I wanted. That’s always resonated.”
Manish — “Both my parents were in very different ways. My mother’s intellectual curiosity and my father’s humanity and kindness were the two primary influences on me. I remember my father saying, “Manish, if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to be twice as good as the next guy. You can’t settle for being as good as other people.”
CMO Club — What Did you dream of becoming when you were say nine or ten years old?
Manish — “I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to work in an office. My father was an engineer, and I’d visit him at work, see him interacting with people. He had a desk and a cubicle, surrounded by others. That seemed appealing for some reason.” (laughter)
Irma — “I have this book from elementary school called ‘School Years,’ where I wrote down what you want to be when you grew up. For me, it was all about being a teacher. That’s all I wanted.”
CMO Club — What drew you toward marketing as a career, then?
Irma — “It wasn’t until I was working in college that I became exposed to marketing through some classes I was taking. It all started there in those classes. After becoming a management consultant later, I had the opportunity to work on thinking through consumer agendas and the marketing mix. That’s where I really fell in love with marketing. It took off after that.”
Manish — “My parents pressured me to be a doctor, which was the typical American Dream for a lot of Indian families. I was pre-med in college and got a full scholarship to medical school. I went to medical school for the first semester and absolutely hated it. Eventually, after working for a few years, I went to Northwestern and got my MBA. While I was there, a recruiter from SC Johnson came to visit and explained what brand management was, understanding what people want and creating products and services that meet those needs, as well as communicating with those consumers in a way that’s motivating and compelling. I gravitated towards that immediately.”
CMO Club — The question inquiring minds want to know is how do two top CMOs get together, wed, have children, and live in peace and harmony under one roof? Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first meet?
Manish — “Well, this is a good story. I was an assistant brand manager at Proctor and Gamble for just a few months when someone came up to my cubicle and said, ‘There’s a really talented woman that we want to hire full-time, but she’s concerned she’s not going to meet any Indian people. Would you mind spending some time with her to try and convince her to work here?’ I was struck by her beauty when I saw her for the first time, but after twenty minutes of talking about her life and what she wanted out of it, I felt this overwhelming emotion come racing over me, so much that I almost said right then and there, ‘Do you want to get married?’ (laughter) I bit my tongue because I didn’t want to get fired. I didn’t think I’d have a shot at someone like her anyways.”
CMO Club — Wow. What was that like from the other side, Irma?
Irma— “Manish is obviously such a storyteller. I was a first-year MBA, just focused on my job, somewhat clueless to what he was thinking. I thought he was a cool guy, but I was completely focused on the job. It wasn’t in the realm of what I was looking for at that moment.”
CMO Club — Well that reads like a Hallmark story. Did she get the job?
Manish — “She got the offer, but she turned down the job and went to work for Coca Cola. A couple of years later, I was in Atlanta for a convention and randomly ran into her at a bar, and we exchanged business cards that night. I’d moved to San Francisco previously, and it turns out she came to San Francisco to visit her brother, who coincidentally lived right across the street from me. She called me. That’s when we started dating.”
Irma — “Coca Cola moved me out to the West Coast a few months after we met that third time, and we got engaged six months later, married six months after that. We have two children now.”
CMO Club — What a beautiful story. What are some of the things dual CMO parents tell their own kids about how to be successful?
Manish — “Be true to yourself and always do your best. Success to us is them having a happy and fulfilled life. Part of that is finding out who you are, what you enjoy, and pursuing that passion as far as it takes you.”
Irma — “For me, it’s the kindness, people part. That’s what it’s all about.”
CMO Club— Do the kids get exposed to marketing just being in the same household as you two?
Manish — “It’s funny, our kids are exposed to more marketing than we ever were as kids. My twelve-year-old had a conversation with me yesterday on paid, owned, and shared media he’d read about in some industry publications we have around the house. Our fourteen-year-old daughter often comments on television ads she sees. The other day she blurted out, “The content in this ad doesn’t match up with who their target audience is.” (laughter)
Irma — “Yeah. Driving down the highway, they say things like, ‘Oh man, that billboard broke the seven-second rule with their typeface.’”
CMO Club — So you’ve got two future CMOs there with you? I’m coming back to interview a four-CMO household. Can I make the appointment right now?
Irma — “Absolutely. They definitely will be consumer-inspired for sure, and have that mindset.”
CMO Club — What’s a typical day like in a two-CMO family?
Manish — “Much like any other professional career couple with kids. Up early, work, school, eat dinner together, do homework, and go to bed.”
Irma — “We HOPEFULLY eat dinner together. (laughter) Many times we’re up late into the night managing through homework.”
Manish — “And often in the morning running late for the bus.”
CMO Club — Do you both talk marketing at home?
Manish — “We sometimes do. We both share a passion for greatness, and we often share stories of great marketing. We also help each other with advice and perspective on situations and challenges. We have quite complementary personalities. We help each other see things through a different set of eyes that happen to be an expert. There’s also healthy respect and admiration. That makes me be the best I can be.”
Irma — “There was a time before we became CMOs where we needed to find that balance between talking shop and letting that go, finding the sweet spot between work and home and family that can sometimes get a bit messy.”
CMO Club — Any competition?
Manish — “There were a couple of times at Coca-Cola where we were both in competition for the same job. We weren’t officially supposed to know that, but found out about it afterward.”
CMO Club — What would happen if say an opportunity arrived that had you both in different locations?
Irma — “I think we would take it as it came, and access as we go. Things have a way of working themselves out.”
CMO Club — How has the CMO role changed since you both started in marketing?
Irma — “It’s changed tremendously. Data, Data, Data, combined with marketing automation, and AI, how digital still needs to be connected to your core message. It’s a balancing act today.”
Manish — “When I was at Proctor and Gamble, three things were emphasized; how to create a great TV ad, how to create a great magazine ad, and how to create a great newspaper ad. If you did that well, your market-share would increase, and you would get promoted to the next role. Things are much more complex now. You have to be an expert at a wide range of media, develop content for all that media that tells one single story, do all the data analytics, optimize campaigns. You now have to do a lot of business analysis to focus your company’s resources in the right places. It’s become much more difficult, much more complex, but also much more fun.”
CMO Club — And now we find ourselves in the middle of this pandemic that’s changing everything, almost every day. What do you have to offer other CMOs out there who are dealing with this enormous event?
Irma — “I can only share my perspective. If it’s helpful for others out there, that’s great. We are in the ‘people’ business. We’re in the business of work. Work has been upended in light of the new normal. We need to start with empathy, in recognizing that this is hard for everyone, what it means, and how it is internalized is different for everyone, no matter where they are in the organization. Specifically, in my leading marketing & communications leadership role, the communication piece was the most critical element in those early days when this virus was first transpiring. We had to ensure clear understanding of the actions to be taken and that the health and safety of our people is a top priority. Those early decisions our leadership team made at the onset were so important to what followed. The speed and agility of our team was tested early, and we were brought together as a team in ways that created unique credibility within the company. Our mantra became learning how to pivot, and pivot quickly.”
“On an ongoing basis, it comes down to identifying the situation, setting your priorities, and deploying on those priorities. Then it becomes taking advantage of any new opportunities that present themselves. How do we become innovative in meeting people where they are right now in the spirit of being a leader? This too shall pass, and we’ll be stronger for it. There are going to be many benefits for companies if they can withstand and endure the coming weeks and months.”
CMO Club — What about corporate responsibility. Do CMOs, especially now, have a responsibility to the greater good of society?
Manish — “The objective of any company, is to drive shareholder value, but the purpose of a company is to create a platform in which to drive that value. That purpose should be what the company does for society. With that said, it does matter to consumers, makes a big impact on employees, and it’s increasingly becoming important to shareholders as well. Those companies that are able to incorporate social responsibility appropriately into they’re mission and purpose statement are bound to be more successful than their competitors, especially now.”
Irma — “100% yes. We can drive social change better than anyone.
CMO Club — You are both long-time members at The CMO Club. How has being in the club benefitted you?
Manish — “The CMO Club is my favorite organization. I’m able to, with a fair degree of frequency, sit down and have real conversations with my peers. I find it very helpful to collaborate and commiserate, share ideas, and support one another. There’s no place like it.”
CMO Club — When you both look back, what are you most proud of achieving in your career?
Irma — “The transition I was able to lead for the American Cancer Society. I was able to hone their marketing message, supported with the right digital marketing infrastructure, both on the team and in a content perspective. We saw tremendous revenue growth to drive that brand relevance.”
Manish — “For me, in the past five years, we’ve been able to double the company’s revenues. Marketing played a very important role in that. We overhauled our consumer experience, our digital, and our media experience. Our team evolved dramatically. We are doing very good marketing right now, allowing us to achieve superior business results.”
CMO Club — What are you most passionate about outside of work?
Manish — “We both love to travel. I serve on the board of an educational non-profit that certifies teachers. I collect antique maps, and I get a little exercise here and there.”
Irma — “I’m very involved in our community and on different boards, Junior Achievement, The Children’s Museum of Atlanta, Leadership Atlanta, figuring out how best to make an impact. Personally, I also love yoga and running.”
CMO Club — “What’s the one thing you’d both like people to say about you when all is said and done?
Manish— “He helped people. At the end of the day, it means a lot to connect back to the lives of others.”
Irma — “That I made a difference. I tend to have a strong action orientation, so getting in there and helping is what’s most important.”
CMO Club — What gets you both angry?
Irma — “Entitlement and Laziness. Not being honest and talking straight.”
Manish — “Racial and gender bias.”
CMO Club — “On the flip side of that, what gives you the most joy?
Manish — “Spending time connecting with family and friends. Having a vision for something, and working cross-functionally toward that goal. Seeing it come to life. That’s really gratifying.”
Irma — “When you’re seeing forward progress in regards to what you’re going after.”
CMO Club — OK, last question. Romantics everywhere want to know, is there a possibility for love in the C-suite?
Manish — “If you work for the same company, YES!”
Irma — “If I would have gone to P&G, I’m not so sure. I’m such a rule follower that I don’t know if we would have ended up together. It’s better that I chose Coke.” (laughter)
Manish — “I would have seduced her, anyways.”