Digital LeadersNine secrets to building and retaining high-performing marketing teams

Nine secrets to building and retaining high-performing marketing teams

"The main KPI for me is having an inspired team because that is when you produce stellar work"

Marketing talent attrition is a major pain point for managers and leaders globally.

Michael Cruz on building and retaining high-performing marketing teamsTo help solve this conundrum, we interviewed Michael Cruz, partner and head of content at the New York-based agency, Summer Friday. Michael has 20+ years of experience as an intuitive leader known for nurturing talent while staying committed to learning and has also served as chief content officer at The Drum Agency in his previous role.


Q1. How would you define a high-performing marketing team?

Michael: When I think about high-performing marketing teams the main focus is adaptability, one of a magnitude that we’ve not seen before. Mostly because of the speed at which content needs to be distributed to meet the insatiable appetite of consumers, and the ever-changing realities and uncertainties that exist in our world due to current events. This is also why when we think about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it can inform those decisions, when we think about strategy, connecting to creativity, all those things are really trying to answer – How can we scale? How can we keep up with demand? In the same way, our teams need to adapt, stay agile, and in have a learner’s mentality. That’s what I relate back to what a productive team would look like.

Q2. What are the must-haves of a high-performing team?

Michael: The pandemic and the state of the nation hit everyone pretty hard and changed us as a collective. When it comes to being able to perform in a volatile situation, the most important shift happens internally with your team. It’s an emotional shift. It requires emotional intelligence, balance, and mindfulness. People need a purpose to help them strike a balance in the workplace and life as they continually merge. Whether that’s with remote work or again, this sort of globally shared experience that everyone can talk about and relate to instantly. The new normal has isolated us while bringing us together. So when you think about high performance in a world of isolation, people now have to develop certain personal skills that weren’t required before in the workplace. That’s the shift I’m seeing from a creative department perspective.

Q3. How do you encourage people to show up authentically and do their best work?

Michael: The best example is what Brene Brown preaches about authenticity. Leaders need to cultivate a lot of understanding, forgiveness, and real conversations to enable their teams to show up authentically, as their whole selves. When leaders demonstrate vulnerability and show up as their authentic selves employees naturally feel encouraged, seen, and heard. Not having to hide or hold anything back makes people highly productive. Look at it as if you’re building more of a family unit with the sense of how much vulnerability gets poured back into the workplace because it is colliding.

Q4. What are the pillars of a high-performing marketing team?

Michael: Authenticity, communication, diversity, and a level of open-mindedness are critical to building high-performing marketing teams. Communication is absolutely critical. If teammates function from a place of fear, defense, and inauthenticity communication collapses. From a cultural standpoint, bringing diversity into the group dynamic is a must.

We’re operating at a rapid pace and many a time brands face backlash for creating content that was insensitive or tone-deaf to issues that a lot of people are going through. Marketing leaders must get diversity right, considering the speed of globalization, technology, and communication. Because we need to communicate and build content that’s effective, and diversity adds immense value to that goal.

Q5. What are your actionable insights on how to build a high-performance marketing team?

Michael: Every marketing leader or manager must work on themselves, go inward, and do that very difficult work of identifying and solving their triggers. What kind of stories are you telling yourself? Who do you want to be as a leader? Why do you want to be that kind of leader? Ask yourself the really hard questions because ultimately a good leader is a coach.

“Commit to the intention”

To practice what I preach, I joined different groups like Mind Valley. One of their leaders, Ajit tapped into the project that Google did probably in 2014, called ‘Google Project Oxygen’. They basically researched for 10 years on what makes a good leader. It was interesting to learn that being a good coach topped that list. You can’t be a good leader unless you do the work for yourself. Showing up authentically from a manager/leader’s perspective has a reverberating effect on your organization.

“Create an ecosystem of compassionate employees and leaders”

Conduct mindfulness training workshops for employees, especially managers to educate them on how we operate and think. They apply these methods to break down traditional corporate behaviors and bridge the gap from a practice perspective. This helps people not only build careers but also achieve life goals. That’s what true leadership should be today.

Q6. How can marketers overcome imposter syndrome?

Michael: We held sessions that focus on impostor syndrome and brought in professionals to educate us on identifying core triggers, reactions, and emotional responses that might upset you. It happens in every workplace. These narratives and stories that we tell ourselves create misinformation and responses that can be ultimately toxic or negative for the relationship, professional or otherwise. The focus is to manage relationships and communicate in a direction of solving problems rather than creating them.

Q7. How does technology enable productivity for marketing teams?

Michael: We as consumers and businesses want to be mobile and quick, we don’t want friction and redundancy. We have adopted tools and built systems to expedite frictionless project management, research, and insights. As a marketer, that’s an inherent focus, and work should feel easy without having to launch a million different applications to get your job done. Believe it or not, it has been a focus for a long time for every CTO.

Everyone’s working while life is happening. We found a solution that addresses this reality by making our workflow a lot more mobile. It allows our teams to review all types of formats on mobile and leave feedback instantly. This enabled open communication and delivery at scale. That’s one simple example that sounds obvious, but finding that solution that delivers on its promise of being frictionless has been a journey.

Q8. What advice will you give peers on finding the right marketing technology fit?

Michael: Listen to your employees because they’re the ones who will solve your problems. Consider the scale and volume at which your marketing teams are producing. Be willing to change as it is empirical to continually remove friction and stay agile. We communicated our willingness to invest in new technologies. We tasked our team to share their pain points and try out some of these technologies. We created task forces to try these technologies to help inform our buying decision.

“Avoid the pitfall of not having centralized tech or trying to build things from scratch on your own”

We’ve done that as a big agency and built our own proprietary workflows and systems. It comes at a huge price tag and injects a rigidness into the system because you’ve invested so much even if it’s not working. This might work for larger organizations that can split this off and license it separately, but as a boutique agency, we found success in moving away from traditional thinking. Technology is a key part of allowing people to get the work done. We’ve swapped a couple of programs, but we’re in a really good place now just because we were willing to try things and adjust.

Q9. How can marketing leaders retain marketing talent?

Michael: Train the idea of being and staying flexible, and be willing to get uncomfortable and vulnerable. Allow your team to fail and don’t knock anyone for trying. Even when it hits the bottom line do not worry excessively about the financial aspect. Think of it as giving an artist free reign, because when you do that, respect and trust – they feel inspired to do their best work. Guide them but do not micromanage to a point where you remove your team’s power and equity that they’ve built for themselves. This is the fastest way to lose credibility as a marketing leader.

“Look at failing fast as an investment in developing your marketing teams”

I’ve given direction to some of our teams, like animators. I have said, “forget about what works for the client right now, but what do you want to create? What work would inspire you and what style?” Then use that feedback from your team to devise an asset that works for your client. We have got some amazing pieces like this. Ultimately, when you think about how to allow your team to fail, must not look at monetization as the end goal. It’s about developing them. So if you’re looking to create a high-performing team, always think about what you’re doing to develop them and make sure that the story is consistent. And when we fail, we focus on what we can learn from the experience, not how much it cost us.

“Identify what kills inspiration for your marketing team members”

Listen to them and review factors that could be burdening them. Is it the process? Is it the client relationship? Is it the speed of work and not being able to commit to it? Identify those and adjust your workforce strategy. If someone is working on too many things, ask them to focus on lesser things and redistribute their workload – keeping in mind marketing is a team sport. This is where vulnerability comes into play, to help a person raise their concern without feeling like a failure. Find constructive ways to make them feel empowered and instill an understanding that admitting their apprehensions actually allows the business to succeed. What we can as marketing leaders do, is adjust our resources, respond, fine-tune, and position our marketing talent for success.

“Mentor your high-performers”

On the contrary, when you have an incredibly productive employee who is hungry for more, listen to them. Be smart about what and how you assign them work that accelerates their personal growth. Star performers stay where their ambition and growth appetite is fed, and they feel valued.

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