Finding Focus

Mary Fehrnstrom transformed Cisco's involvement in an unwieldy maze of trade shows into an overarching event game plan for nearly every market employee, business unit, and global office in the company's massive enterprise.

Cisco's Mary Fehrnstrom
Cisco's Mary Fehrnstrom
Photo: Marisa Aragona for BizBash
All this month we're bringing you Q&As with our 2007 Event Strategists of the Year. Here's the second.

A few years ago, Cisco Systems’s chief marketing officer asked a simple question about the high-tech giant’s promotional efforts: “What are we spending, and what are we getting out of it?” When it came to events, it was nearly impossible to answer. Any executive from any business unit could sign up to exhibit at a trade show, and there was no strategy for integrating their messages and maximizing Cisco’s impact.

So Mary Fehrnstrom, senior manager of corporate event strategy, decided that San Jose, California-based Cisco needed a better game plan. Her first task was getting dozens of executives to agree on a list of high-priority events. Fehrnstrom, 43, then turned that list into an internal Web-based tool that provides critical information about each of those events, from how competitors have presented in the past to the demographics of attendees. The result: Employees are focusing their efforts on the trade shows on Cisco’s hot list, and succeeding there—which means the company is getting a bigger return on fewer overall events.

How has Cisco historically gone about planning its involvement in trade shows?
Each [marketing] group, which has its own budget, basically signs up for all these events. There was no centralized list or game plan for how all of these events should be leveraged by each of the marketing campaigns, nor was there any sort of expectation or understanding around how resources are allocated based on how important the show is to the company.What was your solution?
If you look at the way Cisco is organized, we have a central marketing organization, which I’m a part of, and then we have the teams for each of the company’s various marketing campaigns. And then you have marketing people trying to deliver various types of programs to the field so the sales team can drive business. So you have three organizations that need to be [working] off the same song sheet. We finally have a song sheet. We got all the business units to agree to a centralized list of events, broken into three categories: Tier 1—the top 30 prioritized events for the company at the corporate level—Tier 2, and Tier 3. And we created a Web-based tool that contains the crib notes to our Tier 1 and Tier 2 events.

You mentioned that each group has its own budget. Does this list also address who would contribute funding to each of these events?
This past June, we finally got the executives [from all three of those groups] to agree to the finances and put the money into escrow, which means they can’t take it back and say, “I was just kidding, I need it for something else.” This was a big breakthrough. In the past, a group would sign up for a show, then spend a lot of time trying to get additional funding from other business units and campaigns to do the show right. What ends up happening is you don’t have strategic planning, you have reactive planning.

How does this mesh with Cisco’s larger marketing strategy?
Our mantra for the last three years has been “Do fewer things better.” We have finally gotten to the point where, by voting with their money, the central marketing organization, the campaign teams, and the U.S. field have all agreed on our most important events. We’re going to put our resources, our executive speaking slots— everything we can—behind supporting these 30 events above and beyond any other event marketing activities. When people realize they can leverage someone else’s event for almost nothing, they’ll do that now instead of signing up for their own little event, which they have to run on their own and pull resources from. They realize they get the same amount of contacts by integrating into this other event.
So you aren’t dictating to the business units which events they should tie into, but you’re saying, “We’re going to make it incredibly easy for you to be successful at this event.”
We kind of show them the light. What Cisco is trying to avoid is spreading ourselves so thin that wherever we are, we’re mediocre.

How does this Web-based tool help employees do their jobs better?
In order to do fewer things better, multiple campaign teams needed to integrate together and really tell a better Cisco story at each of these trade shows. The tool makes it easy for each player to understand his role. It shows specifically what the event is about, what the demographics are, what we did last year, and what we’re doing this year. But it also gives point of view on how all the campaigns should take advantage of the show and why it’s relevant to them. For example, a lot of these national events take place in Orlando. Well, we need to convince the field people from the Western region that they should care, because 40 percent of the audience comes from the West. But when they first see that an event is happening in Orlando, they’re like, “It’s not in our backyard, I don’t have to deal with this.” People are so busy doing their thing that they don’t have the time to stop and research and look at why someone else’s event should be important to [them].

What about Cisco’s proprietary events, like user conferences?
The marketing campaign teams now take more advantage of them. In the past, it wasn’t on their road map, because it wasn’t something they controlled. Now they’re being inserted into the process and being a major stakeholder in the event. But someone had to be that marriage counselor. And I feel like my job at Cisco has been the event marriage counselor.

How has this made your events more strategic?
We all have kickoff meetings [for the planning of an event]. This tool identifies which groups should be invited to the table and why they should be there, down to the actual solution that they represent and how that solution could fit into this event. So it’s a conversation starter. You have the ability with the tool to pick up the phone and talk to someone in that business unit and say, “Here are the three reasons why you should be participating in driving the show and the messaging.” So we’ve moved the conversation from “How many pedestals do we have?” to “What impact do we want to have in this event, and what role can you, XY business unit, have in helping us make that impact?” The strategic orientation of the conversation has totally changed. It’s interesting how it can change so fast, but it needed this repository of information.

So it’s business intelligence around events.
We now understand the competitive landscape by business unit. We understand how a particular competitor or partner participated over the past year. Often, when you’re an event employee and not a product employee, you understand that a business unit should be involved, but you don’t necessarily understand their solution suite. With this tool, in 20 minutes you can see the landscape of the market and how this event can drive the unit’s marketing objectives. Also, we used to plan a one-size-fits-all experience for our customers and influencers. Now, based on the people who are participating in the event, we have a much more customized experience based on who is there. So whether it’s a particular account we want to have a dialogue with or the press, this tool helps to really understand what opportunities exist.

Did the tool have any benefits beyond what you had hoped?
This information is a historical archive, as well as a living and breathing tool that gets updated constantly. So if someone new comes to the team and asks, “What did we do last year?” [the information] didn’t walk away with the person who planned that event last year.

Is this a global strategy?
Yes. We acted like a [venture capitalist] and seeded money for our international counterparts to start event strategy. For example, we trained the event was going to be winning them over and showing how it can actually be a benefit to our organization and not scary. What helped is the fact that we did it from a grassroots perspective, instead of getting it approved first at an executive level. We didn’t shove it down anyone’s throat. We  really wanted to prove to people the value, so one friend told another friend until [we heard], “I want what they have.” It’s really hard to do it that way, because you don’t necessarily get executive sponsorship, but it makes people stronger believers if they aren’t forced to do it.

Now what do your peers think of it?
We have more demand than we have ability to support. When one person has what we call the “event strategy plan” and they show it to their peer, their peer wants one of those. They think, That makes them look smarter, and I want whatever I can get my hands on to be the best I can be in my position.

Has it elevated your exposure with upper management?
Yes, in fact. We’re now going in and talking at the V.P. level about their portfolios, around a bigger, broader discussion, and we didn’t have that before.


What’s Not in Her Job Description:
“Corporate matchmaker—I help connect groups as to why they are relevant to each other.”

What She’s Reading: The Mom Inventors Handbook: How to Turn Your Great Idea Into the Next Big Thing, by Tamara Monosoff

Biggest Accomplishment of 2007:
“Getting the broader marketing community to understand the value of our global strategy work and achieving a 200 percent increase in budget for the work.”

Goal for 2008: “Roll out the online strategy tool for global access.”

How She Sees Events Changing: “Relationship marketing will continue to play a larger role. Also, events are becoming more integrated within the marketing mix from the beginning.”

How Her Job Is Changing: “Taking this to the next level—[reaching] out to the right stakeholders within Cisco to educate and train on the process. Once you have a proven success, the next step is spreading the word on how to do it.”

Favorite New Technology:
Musion [a video projection that makes 3-D moving images]. And coupled with Cisco Telepresence [a high-quality videoconferencing tool], it could change the way we do events in the future. Star Trek is here!”

How She Measures ROI:
“We measure on three levels. Level 1 is mandatory, quantitative data that will enable us to make an informed assessment of whether the event met its objectives and performed well. Level 2 adds qualitative measurement that will ensure that we capture specific data and have analysis to be able to assess each objective and provide an assessment on how and where the event could be improved. Level 3 includes an additional investment in a third party to carry out either pre-, on-site, or post-event surveys with the target audience in order to assess changes in perception and comparison.”

What Her Boss Says: Nancy Neipp, director of event marketing, says, “Under Mary’s leadership, we’ve transformed our contribution to our internal stakeholders. We’ve moved from event design and execution to event strategy.”
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