Expert Interview: Wendy White, CMO, Egencia

Leading a global team of marketers is a challenge for even the most seasoned senior executive. But what about when the industry you’re in is facing some of the toughest times it’s ever been up against?

Wendy White is the Chief Marketing Officer at Egencia—the Seattle-based business travel arm of Expedia—one of the largest corporate travel management companies in the world. Since the pandemic hit earlier this year, the effects have been widespread, and the travel economy has been no exception.

But White—who also served as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, speaks fluent Russian and leads several women-in-tech initiatives—says it’s times like these that flexing the empathy muscle and being open to change matters most.

We sat down with White to discuss her perspectives on marketing and advertising during economic uncertainty and what it means to be resilient in an industry hit unusually hard by the pandemic.

Outshine:
Your past work history includes being a military intelligence officer for the U.S. Army. So I have to ask: how did you make the career move from being a military officer to a marketing executive?

Wendy:
My specialty was psychological operations, which was a natural evolution to marketing. Things like "psychological preparation of the battlefield" is like a target audience analysis: what do you want them to do? How are you going to get them to do that? Are you going to use a leaflet campaign? Are you going to use a radio campaign? What message will you tell them and how will you reach them emotionally or in some other way? After I left the Army and during my first year at Intel, the chief communications officer asked to meet with me and recruited me to their team. So I went from grad school to a business role, to PR, and from there into broader marketing.



Outshine:
You are the CMO for one of the largest corporate travel management companies in the world. What’s that like on a day-to-day basis right now?

Wendy:
Corporate travel has been hit incredibly hard by COVID. Our clients are looking to us to help them navigate how to return to travel while balancing risk and employee wellbeing, so customer engagement has become a priority. Lead generation is still a focus but is taking a backseat right now compared to helping clients navigate this period. Across the industry, we see companies returning to the core things that help them grow and run their business, and that includes prioritizing employee wellbeing.



Outshine:
How have you had to adjust your KPIs or your acquisition targets internally?

Wendy:
At the beginning of the pandemic, we wanted to eliminate some of the stress and pressure on our team to reach certain KPIs while continuing to implement tactics that contributed to effective lead generation. So, like many CMOs, we made the decision to pause many of our acquisition targets. This was both in response to the anxiety in the market and to give our team time and space to figure out how to work during this period.

Instead, our team focused efforts on industry education for prospects as well as clients, and frankly, I'm very happy we did that. It set the right tone in the market and it was the right thing to do for our employees. But we didn't completely stop the tactics that generated leads. For instance, we actually significantly increased the number of events and virtual webinars we hosted—we went from a few a month to a weekly pace to ensure we stayed front-of-mind for the buying audience while providing whatever value we could for current clients.



Outshine:
What do you think advertisers need to be doing differently today?

Wendy:
Every channel is behaving very differently now than it did; I'm throwing away a lot of models I once relied on. I think we should be watching the data carefully to better understand what it’s telling us about the willingness to buy.

An example in our industry is that keywords have dramatically changed—both in organic search as well as paid search. So we have to think very differently about messaging, buying patterns, and who the buyers are. Buyers shifted pretty dramatically from procurement [industries] into new personas like finance, legal, and security. But you won’t know that if you’re keeping your messaging, cadence, and keywords the same.We’re experimenting, testing, and learning a lot, [and] reviewing data at a faster pace than before.

We’ve gone from monthly lead generation review to weekly reviews—we’ve got an automated report—so we can continue to talk about what the data means. We’re asking ourselves lots of questions, like how does it fit into a macro trend? How does it relate to our inbound traffic on our site? How does it relate to the personas we're going after? How does it relate to list management? Data, advertising, and asking questions is an ecosystem that needs to work together—but listening is at the heart of it.



Outshine:
It’s definitely time to be nimble and to be experimenting. This unprecedented time is providing the chance to test new things, like different personas and channels. What should we be watching for?

Wendy:
Across organizations, the impact of anything that’s broken are amplified during this period. If your data isn't instrumented correctly or you don't have the best platform for understanding your advertising, organic traffic, or search, well, that pain will be felt tenfold if you’re also trying to figure out what to do with your budgets or strategies. Nobody likes to feel like they are out on a limb, and data is one tool to help you feel a little bit less anxious about the decisions you’re making.



Outshine:
You’ve served as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army for more than a decade, you lead a lot of women-in-tech initiatives, you speak Russian, you’ve been on the set of Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, you’re leading a global team of B2B marketers through presumably one of the toughest times the industry has ever faced. What does resilience mean to you?

Wendy:
Personally, I find it can be very easy during periods like this to let work become all-encompassing. So putting health first—sleeping right, eating right, exercising right—is a big part of being resilient for me. From a professional perspective, I firmly believe that leadership equals empathy. Employees are going through a really difficult and challenging time, and a good leader has empathy and compassion. I have been focused on listening and communicating in new ways—and being the one to tell people it’s OK to step away or that it’s OK to not do something in a time period.



Outshine:
Is it hard to come by that level of empathy at the senior executive level?

Wendy:
The best leaders I’ve seen in my career have been naturally empathetic. Businesses are built on people and talent, so what sets a great leader apart is that they’re very good at flexing that empathy muscle during a crisis. They don’t let fear stop them from putting employees first.



Outshine:
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Wendy:
One of my defaults is to be really mission-focused: what hill are we climbing? I think that comes from the military, since we were always in “mission-mode”. So the best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to make sure you set the right tone from the top, especially when it comes to balance and self-care. Businesses have to be results-oriented. But that’s not how people interact, so I try to be a leader that helps a team care for one another first.

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Egencia is one of the world’s leading travel management companies, founded in 2002. They offer expert business travel software and services to both enterprise corporations and small businesses alike.

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
By Hillary Gillis, Associate

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