The Person Behind the Brand: Mary Ellen Dugan

The CMO Club recently sat down with Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO, WP Engine based in Austin, Texas, discussing her take on lessons learned, hiring new talent, marketing approaches, and what’s really important to her.

Mary Ellen Grew up in Columbus, Ohio, graduated from Ohio State University, moved first to Chicago then on to New York City, where she received a Master’s Degree in Marketing and International Business from NYU. Mary Ellen started her marketing career on the agency-related side of things before landing in corporate, working for such name brands as, as Vice President of Global Marketing, and at Dell, Inc., as the Executive Director of Global Brand and Consumer Advertising. Mary Ellen sits on the Board of Directors for Susan G. Komen in Austin, Texas, has an additional MBA from the London Business School. She lives with her husband and young family outside of Austin.

CMO Club–What was your first marketing job and what do you remember from that experience that you still carry with you?

Mary Ellen Dugan The first marketing job I had was selling advertising for in-flight magazines. That’s probably going to date me, (laughter) but there’s something I learned from that experience that’s still relevant. It’s about customer insight and always being respectful of their needs. While I’m not necessarily in sales anymore, I still recognize the challenge of getting to that need quickly. Everybody’s time is precious. It’s got to feel relevant to them. By making sure that time you have is an authentic value that they can see, that they’ll want you to come back for, that’s the key. That equates to all of marketing, not just sales.

CMO Club — If you could go back to the person you were when you first started that first marketing job, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Mary Ellen Dugan — The biggest thing for me is the value of adaptability. The path you’re going to go through is not straight. I’ve taken pay-cuts three times in my career, and it’s always ended up on the positive side. Be willing to take that risk and adapt. I didn’t know I was going to have to that when I was twenty, that I would need to embrace all that change but it’s turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done. Nobody tells you that when you’re starting out.

CMO Club–What’s most important to you in hiring new talent?

Mary Ellen Dugan — I like people that are passionate about learning. They don’t have to have all the answers figured out. Have that burning desire to better yourself. That’s what I look for. I’m also a big believer in team collaboration and fitting into the climate and culture of that team. I tell my marketers to think of their career in two-year increments. Ask yourself what you achieved in those two years, what were the results of my efforts?

CMO Club– Any recent changes in how you approach marketing lately?

Mary Ellen Dugan — I think my mindset around crafting actionable awareness is something I often think about nowadays, being CMO of a mid-size tech and digital company in 2018. We’re all trying to show results and get people through the old funnel as quickly as possible, as they say. Even awareness has to be actionable in some way. I didn’t necessarily think that way in years past, but I am now keenly aware of it. That’s been a change in philosophy for me.

CMO Club — Any recent struggles or solutions you want to share?

Mary Ellen Dugan — We are on a tremendous growth trajectory as a company and making those decisions on what we do in-house and what we decide to outsource has been a struggle in the midst of such rapid growth. Whether it’s your creative or your advertising, striking that balance, getting it right so you can keep moving quickly and spend wisely is a constant learning curve.

CMO Club — Any specifics?

Mary Ellen Dugan — I made a conscious effort for us to craft the brand strategy and marketing strategy in-house with our team, not outsource that to others, so we owned it and were able to integrate that across the entire organization. It impacted our whole product strategy as well as our go-to-market. We did have some demand-gen tools that we wound up outsourcing, but it didn’t work out. They didn’t understand the strategy well enough. Because we had crafted that strategy and there was so much re-targeting we needed, we probably should not have outsourced that, as opposed to partnering with people on an SEO strategy, or some of our advertising creative. That worked because we could give them enough understanding of what was needed. It comes down to knowing what those things are that are so integral to your internal workings that your in-house team needs to keep that in-house, period. Everything falls into place from that.

CMO Club — What are you most proud of in your career?

Mary Ellen Dugan — For me, professionally, being the first marketer to craft the corporate brand strategy for, and for WP Engine, even for Dell years back is what I’m most proud of achieving. Those are enduring. I look back on those and know the strategies we put in place and the creative we put in place, well, I‰Ûªm very proud of those. Aside from those achievements, it the number of marketers that reach out to me asking me to be their reference or to ask advice. It makes me feel like somewhere I made an impact.

CMO Club–What about outside of work?

Mary Ellen Dugan — I’ve become passionate about rekindling some old friendships that had started to slip away. To stay in touch with friends, good friends or even acquaintances, it has to be intentional. We get super busy in life and tend to think these things are going to happen through osmosis, or somehow we’re going to find the time magically, but I know now you have to be intentional. You don’t have to spend a week with someone, or even a whole day. Sometimes just an hour or two can work. Recently I took a plane to New York for twenty-four hours to see an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen for a few years. Making that effort, you’re rewarded ten-fold for that.

CMO Club — Tell us something that most people don’t know about you.

Mary Ellen Dugan —I am a HUGE Sci-Fi fan, from Star-Trek on, and have attended three or four Comic-Cons. Nobody would ever know that. Our Christmas card two years ago was a family photo at Comic-Con with William Shatner. We made him wear a Santa hat! (laughter)

CMO Club — Can a CMO like yourself change the world?

Mary Ellen Dugan — Yes, I really do believe that. Purpose is something we talked about fifteen years ago, but I think it has taken on a more critical role today, in terms of conciseness, responsibility, and what your values stand for as a company. More than ever, marketing has an opportunity to have a real impact. I also think CMOs should have a more prominent role in the challenge of diversity in recruiting people to our companies. We need to stop looking for the HR department to make it right and take that responsibility ourselves. That makes the company better, and it makes the employees better. It makes us better as human beings as well.