Meet Doug Zarkin, CMO of Pearle Vision. His career has spanned roles on both the agency side at Grey and Saatchi & Saatchi and client side at Fortune 100 companies such as Avon Products, Victoria’s Secret Pink brand, and his current role under the eyewear giant EssilorLuxottica. His work at Pearle Vision has garnered him placement on many “Top Marketers” lists, several industry awards including a Clio award, 5 North American Effie awards and his work is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study in brand rejuvenation.
The CMO Club caught up with Doug to share stories and lessons from his life’s journey.
LEARNING LEADERSHIP THROUGH SPORTS
As a kid growing up, I was a “remarkably-unremarkable” athlete. I was average at almost every sport I played and despite the will to stand out on the field, I simply didn’t possess the natural athletic ability to be considered a star. But I enjoyed being part of a team and my competitive nature grew out of that desire to be one of the best. As I got older I started to push myself athletically, training and eventually completing 5 marathons and rediscovered a love for tennis.
Tennis is very strategic, especially when you play doubles. Doubles is all about setting up to win the point on the next shot and that’s a lot like business and building relationships with consumers. Not every shot, not every point of communication is the one that’s going to motivate them to take the action you want. But it’s the sum of all parts of your game (serve, volley, ground strokes) that help you win the match at the end of the day. It’s the same with marketing (TV, Display, Search, Social etc.)
I look at sports as an incredible metaphor for leadership and for business. Let’s use football as an example. A CMO can’t be the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and offensive lineman on the team. You’re the head coach when you’re the CMO. You’ve got to find and build a team of top-performing players at every position that works together to help you win. You can call a great play, but everyone has to be in sync in order to execute to get the result you want.
In business and in sports, success is all about progress, seldom it’s about perfection. It’s the same with leadership. They don’t teach you in undergrad or graduate school what it really takes to be a leader that builds high-performing teams. It’s such a critical skill because not only do you have to understand tangible, rational things that go with leadership, but you also need to master the soft skills. Motivating and delivering constructive feedback are consistent themes in sports and leadership.
In business and in sports, success is all about progress, seldom perfection. It can be said that it’s the same with leadership.
EMBRACING THE PRESSURE OF THE SPOTLIGHT
Presenting to an audience is something that brings me tremendous joy. I loved acting growing up and the idea of performing on stage, being passionate about your role, and getting people to lean in is riveting. It’s like when you go to a Broadway show. The audience isn’t just sitting back in their chairs. They’re leaning in as active participants and active listeners. It’s an incredibly contagious feeling.
I never made it to Broadway, but there was a moment in my career I felt this same rush. Back in February 2013. I was standing on a stage in Atlanta, Georgia in front of 700 Pearle Vision franchisees and store managers laying out the five-year marketing plan for reinvigorating this iconic brand. I’ve never felt more like a rock star in my life than when I was debuting the new iconography, retail design, and brand positioning. People in the audience were holding up their phones taking pictures of what I was showing on screen like a bunch of cigarette lighters at an Aerosmith concert. Ironically the night before the presentation, I came down with the flu and a 103-degree fever. I actually don’t remember a lot of the presentation, but I remember going back to my room, shutting off my phone, and crashing for the next 16 hours because I had expended so much energy.
We captured many hearts and minds that day, but I also received a fair degree of skepticism. It really turned my thinking in terms of the kind of leader I needed to be and the skills I needed to work on to reach a different level and help to move this brand forward. And it’s not just my skills, but building the skills of the team around me. NBC’s Lester Holt is a news icon not just because he’s Lester Holt, but because he has an incredible team around him supporting him to be his best self. That’s true with any CMO. You may be a visionary, but to think you can climb the mountain by yourself is ridiculous. Even if you could, who is going to take that picture with you at the top of the mountain? That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most in my career – learning the importance of building high performing teams.
You may be a visionary, but to think you can climb the mountain by yourself is ridiculous.
HOW MENTORS SHAPE YOUR VALUES
Mentors have played a huge role in my life, starting with my father. Throughout my life, he has always been my sounding board. His perspective tends to be more conservative and always layered. He’s very thoughtful and process-oriented in the way he dissects things, especially from a business perspective. He also has a very good read on people.
When it comes to my career, I’ve gone the opposite direction than what he’s suggested in many cases. And regardless of the outcome, he’s always been proud and supportive of me. With him, I know I’m going to get a perspective I may not want to hear, but in the end it’s always valuable. Seeing things from another perspective is incredibly important.
The first professional mentor was my boss at Grey Advertising, Barbara Martino. To this day, she has had one of the most profound impacts on my career. We started G-WHiZ! together. Barb really took a chance on me in terms of building the business plan and vision for what the company was going to be. She really cared about me as a human being and embraced me as a thought partner. Even though she was significantly more senior and much more experienced, you would never know it by the way that we interacted. She created an environment where we had the freedom to be honest and transparent with each other and people at every level were respected.
Barbara is a great leader with a knack for getting the most out of her people. She is of a high intellect, but also has high emotional integrity. Some of the lessons about how to treat people have stuck with me. Learning how to be successful, well-liked and well-respected, she set a lot of that personal growth in motion.
I’ve also learned from mentors what not to be. While in the beauty business I worked hard to put on a big event in Washington, DC with 500 people in the audience including a very famous US politician (think former First Lady of the United States big). When it came time for the event itself, it was her up there taking all the credit for the hard work me and the team I led did to bring this entire event to fruition. Not a single mention, a thank you or even acknowledgement. Sitting in the audience, watching her present my work, taking all the credit and the audience going crazy for it killed me. My boss at the time couldn’t bring herself to ensure I was included in the meet and greet to get a simple photo-op.
That experience taught me about the kind of leader I don’t want to be. People want to be recognized at every level for what they do. That’s why I’m big on celebrating the accomplishments of my team wherever possible.
People want to be recognized at every level for what they do.
FINDING FULFILLMENT BY HELPING OTHERS
Another story I will never forget was during my summers in college as a lifeguard. I was on one of the chairs at the far end of the pool when all of a sudden the whistle blew. The next thing I know – I see one of the other guards jumping off their chair into the water. I don’t remember this but evidently I lept off the lifeguard station (in my mind like right out of Baywatch) and found myself at the bottom of the pool with the other lifeguard. We got to this older man at the bottom of the pool and I helped drag him back on land. My adrenaline was rushing as I started to do chest compressions while the other lifeguard performed CPR. We saved this person’s life, and to this day it’s one of my most vivid memories.
What I’m most proud of is being comfortable with who I am and knowing who I am not. That’s not to say you can’t teach new tricks to an old dog, but I have a good idea of what I bring to the table as a leader and a human. I take pride in knowing I’m giving back every step of the way, even when it’s behind the scenes or when people aren’t looking. Whether that’s teaching a class, lecturing, or mentoring peers or former employees I still keep in touch with, I try to put good karma into the world and see what comes out.
I try to put good karma into the world and see what comes out.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS
Finding your right way. There are very few things in life that have a right way or a wrong way. It’s about finding your way, especially in the discipline of marketing. It’s only when you figure out your way of doing something can you determine if certain actions are right and wrong. Think about the last two years. The Bill Belichick of marketers didn’t have a third down and global pandemic play in the playbook. No one did. I wish marketers wouldn’t torch themselves about the supposed right way to have navigated through the pandemic. There was no right way, you had to pick a way and go with it. At Pearle Vision we did it by really thinking human. We doubled down on our commitment to care and transparency to build more trust with the community. And it worked.
Subscribe to the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time you really only need 80% of the story or degree of certainty to make a decision or approve a course of action. The skill really comes in identifying what falls in that “other 20%” where you need to be as close to perfection as possible or where even the smallest change/edit/improvement is meaningful. The law of diminishing returns and the talent for identifying when you are in that situation can help streamline decision making and shift the focus away from analysis paralysis.
Channel that chip on the shoulder. The best piece of advice my father ever gave me is you have to be resourceful. I didn’t go to an Ivy league school or Top 10 business school. I had to claw and fight my way into my first job, and advocate for myself on my second and third job. I’ve prided myself on making a difference, bringing innovation and a different level of thinking to every stop in my career journey. You got to fight for what you believe in. Advocate for yourself and take your career into your own hands. I always encourage aspiring leaders to take input and collaborate with their teams. But at the end of the day, you’re a subject matter expert for a reason.
Advocate for yourself and take your career into your own hands.
I recently sustained a rotator cuff injury that required surgery and will keep me off the tennis court for months. For me, tennis has become not just a physical outlet but an emotional one. The prospect of losing that outlet, that solitary one to two hours where you’re really competing as much against yourself as you are against the opponent, was a tough blow.
Losing tennis was a good reminder to accept that disruptions will happen in your life personally and professionally. As a leader, it’s your role to keep those changes in perspective, adapt and find a path forward. But for me, the path forward is treating my physical therapy like a job. Because come July 4th, I’ll be back on that court!