The 2018 CMO Club President’s Award winner talks marketing influences, start-ups, and what’s really important.
The CMO Club recently sat down with 2018 President’s Circle Award winner Mirjana Prokic, CMO and International Market Development Director at Farecla Products, Inc., based in the U.K.
Mirjana grew up in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in what is now Serbia. She credits her family’s stability and the tight-knit community she grew up in for much of her success. Her grandfather was a full-fledged Bohemian, and a close friend of the eldest son of former Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. It was from her grandfather that she learned at an early age these two critical lessons. First, is to reach higher in society than you think you can, and second, that you always need to tell a story for people to really listen, and that the story has to be genuine and real. It can come in either nice packaging or in packaging that shows you don’t care all that much. You choose how the story will unfold. Mirjana currently lives in London.
CMO Club–You grew up in the former Yugoslavia. What was it like there?
Mirjana Prokic—“Yugoslavia was a great place to grow up. We were directly in the middle between eastern and western Europe and influenced strongly by both cultures, with three distinct nationalities all together, an experiment if you will. Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, areas with totally different influences regarding politics and religion all living together. Historically, there was a lot of bloodshed across centuries between the groups. It was always a powder keg, easy to fire up nationalistic passions. The hostilities in the Nineties, the bombings, and the breakup of Yugoslavia, they all had a lasting impact on all of us who lived there.”
CMO Club–How did what you experienced influence you personally?
Mirjana Prokic—“I grew up in a happy family. People sometimes say they’re happy, but there’s little joy in their lives. I can say we did have much joy. We communicated openly with each other and supported each other, even outside of the family, in the community as a whole. Serbia was always open to differences as I am now. It was never about what you looked like or where you came from, but rather if you were a good person or not. That’s the only thing that matters. Things didn’t come easy. I was taught very early on to work hard, not necessarily for possessions or money, but rather for recognition for what you do. There was no middle ground. It’s only when you work hard that you see results. Anything I did in my life never came easy. I had to fight for everything. I learned I could do anything, but if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, I won’t deliver one hundred percent. People really can see when you put yourself into something. It all started there.”
CMO Club—Your Grandfather, he sounds like an interesting guy. Can you tell us a little more about him? In what ways did his life influence you?
Mirjana Prokic—“My grandfather passed on his curiosity and his wandering spirit to me. He had a true Bohemian lifestyle, traveling all over the world, enjoying life to its fullest. I felt suffocated being from a small town and I “thought” I was in “love” (platonically) with a famous football player, Dragan Stojkovic.(I was only 14, remember!) I also wanted to see different places, even at a very early age. While choosing a high school, I found a very competitive one in Belgrade. I remember my dad not being on board with his youngest daughter going to school in a city so far from home. I held back my tears and later, stayed up all night crying. My dad calls me down the next morning and tells me “I don’t want to be the reason you fail in life because I didn’t let you try. Go, and I will support you on one condition. If you mess this up, you will lose my support, so don’t mess up. If you are willing to push yourself, I will be there for you.”
I did go to that school. I had to think three times before I did something so that I didn’t lose his support. From an early age, both my grandfather and my father instilled that sense in me, that my capacities are much bigger and that I can reach much higher with hard work.”
CMO Club–When did marketing come into your life?
Mirjana Prokic—“I switched over to international economics my last two years at Belgrade University. The instructor was an amazing guy with connections into the banking industry. I saw him by chance meeting on the street after I graduated and he urged me to keep going forward, so I wound up earning a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Economics. Another positive role model in my life. While going to school, I got an entry-level job in a marketing agency in then moved on to trading, export, and import, commercial and industrial vehicles. I worked for a time in Rome, then came back to Belgrade, where I learned the B-to-C side of the business. In 2004, I was sent alone to diversify a trading company in the UK. I didn’t know anyone, never even been to London before. It was a wonderful and challenging time. The rest is history.”
CMO Club—What did you learn from those first experiences that are still relevant?
Mirjana Prokic—“I truly believe that to be successful, sales and marketing need to be one, to be strongly aligned, and driven by the marketing person. You cannot just look from the transactional perspective. That can only work a short time. You have to look from the emotional perspective, from end-users and the loyalty perspective, understand what drives customer behavior in order to satisfy their needs, and why they would go with your brand over all others. I always insisted on holding both sales and marketing positions together. That’s what made me successful.”
CMO Club—Give us an example.
Mirjana Prokic—“I recently went to the Lego Hub here in London. I always want to go directly to different industry experts and talk to them, talk about what they do, how they do it, what their best takeaways are, what things and ideas help them grow their brand. From the beginning, I always did that. I was never afraid to ask, to go out and find the experts that have the answers you might not have. I do the same with my team. Recognizing what each person can do, and putting those skills together. Just getting out of the bubble greatly helps. The CMO Club is great for that. There’s no hesitation in reaching out and knowing that there are people there over different industries who are ready to help.”
CMO Club–Any other advice for that 21-22-year-old just starting out?
Mirjana Prokic—“Have lots of fun. Fear will always be there, but don’t be afraid to face that fear. Drop that mask you’re wearing and just be yourself. Just have fun, or it’s not worth anything.”
CMO Club–Is it possible to balance it all, the work and relationships, and just be yourself?
Mirjana Prokic—“Work is just part of my life. Years ago, after coming out of a long-term relationship, I didn’t have any kids, we’d tried, and it didn’t work out, so I was asking myself what was I going to do? I wanted to be a mother, and I was going through the pain of that. I needed to find more purpose. Marketing roles, really any executive role, is getting shorter and shorter. But, the thing is, the short-term perspective doesn’t work anymore. I was in Italy with friends when one of them pulls out some photos from a museum she’d visited in Denmark, showing how poor people lived back in the 1800s. That got me thinking about a start-up idea. It was the perfect moment. Sometimes being open to possibility is the gift we can give ourselves.”
CMO Club–What’s the start-up?
Mirjana Prokic—“One of the photos showed a woman in some kind of bed, cocooned like a baby. I came up with this idea of putting people in more comfortable, restful positions other than just sitting and lying flat on your back. The company’s called HangAIR Global Inc., and I think it will change people’s lives for the better, anyone who struggles with back or sleep problems. We have some great ideas on where we can put them for people to use.”
CMO Club–Wow, sounds great. Speaking of Men and Women, any thoughts on the #MeToo movement?
Mirjana Prokic—“Yes. I think, unfortunately, it still has a long way to go. We’re talking about it, which is good, but we are still so far from changing it. My whole career has been in male-dominated industries without many women present in the leadership positions at all. I personally, luckily, haven’t been affected in that way. My grandfather taught me when I was five that a hard kick between the legs is pretty effective.”
CMO Club–Anything you can share with other members that not many people know about you?
Mirjana Prokic—“I’m pretty social, both at work or generally in my life, connected to people most of the time but, after a while, I need to go into my own little zone, away from everyone, totally alone with just myself and my thoughts. It’s precious to me, and I don’t share it with anyone. I do love myself, and that is my gift to me.”
CMO Club—“What do you like to spend your time doing outside of work?
Mirjana Prokic—“I love to travel, but I prefer to travel to third-world countries and stay as the locals do, in undeveloped areas with not a lot of infrastructure, no phones, and internet, sometimes not even access to electricity. Even though the people in those areas are usually really impoverished, they still have a certain freedom we lack here in the developed world, even with all we have at our fingertips. Those countries stuck in time and struggling just to survive, Vietnam, The Philippines, Cuba, and to a lesser extent, Thailand, places which have far less access to technology that we do, just seeing how they live, what makes them happy is what I’m most interested in. The one thing I see over and over again is this community of people, how important that is to them, something that I feel might be lost in our modern society. All those children in those communities, being raised and helped by not only the father and mother but by everyone there, connected and supported. It’s wonderful. They are delighted with the simplest of things, these kids, playing with something like a cardboard box or pushing a plastic chair around for hours like it’s a car. I think our modern society has taken that away from all of us. It’s sad.”
CMO Club—Can a CMO help change the world?
Mirjana Prokic—“By all means. We influence people’s behavior so much. It’s not only about product development. It’s about how you take that product or service or idea and explain how it can change their lives for the better. It’s all down to marketing. If you’re not thinking about the impact you will have on your customer’s life; then you are failing. It’s that simple.”