How Netflixs new CMO Bozoma Saint John rose to become the biggest badass in marketing – Business Insider
Bozoma Saint John, Netflix’s newly named CMO, has climbed the corporate marketing ranks over 20 years, using her celebrity connections and ability to tie brands like Pepsi and Apple to cultural trends.
She’s also known as unapologetically outspoken and a role model for women of color — notoriously underrepresented in the C-suites of corporations.
Netflix has been synonymous with streaming video, but needs to convince people to keep subscribing as new options from HBO and Disney emerge.
Some warn that a CMO with huge personal stardom can risk overshadowing the very brands they’re hired to promote.
Shorty after noon on a recent Saturday, Bozoma Saint John appeared on thousands of womens’ computer screens.
It was the inaugural livestream of her event, “The Badass Workshop.” Viewers paid $25 to learn Saint John’s personal and work philosophies.
Ciara’s “Level Up” began playing and in danced Saint John, blue stars glittering off her black jumpsuit.
“I’ve seen all the descriptions of what it looks like to be a global CMO, and it’s not supposed to look like this,” Saint John said through fuchsia lipstick, half her hair pulled into a braided top-knot.
Even when the livestream suddenly crashed, the expert marketer spun it positively: “WE BROKE THE INNANET!” Saint John proclaimed on Instagram.
Saint John, who was named CMO of Netflix in June, has always taken an unconventional path. While the CMO role has become increasingly the domain of data-based geeks, she’s a glamourous executive who goes with her gut and is known for her work tying brands like Pepsi and Apple to cultural trends. Before joining Netflix, Saint John served as a marketing executive for Apple, Uber and Endeavor.
Netflix has become one of the world’s most popular streaming video players. But it needs to convince people to keep subscribing as new options launch from competitors like HBO and Disney.
Her hire also comes at a moment when Silicon Valley, along the rest of Corporate America, desperately needs more executives of color.
Saint John, with her cultural magic touch, could be just what Netflix needs — but as her own persona grows, some question if she risks overshadowing the companies she serves.
Business Insider spoke to 18 of Saint John’s colleagues, friends, and competitors for this story; Netflix declined to make Saint John available for an interview.
Saint John stood out from others since childhood
Until age 12, Bozoma Saint John lived in Ghana. After the country’s government fell to a military coup in the 1980s, Saint John’s family relocated to Colorado Springs. Now 43, the 5-foot-11 executive says she always stood out among mostly white faces in classrooms and boardrooms.
Over time, Saint John has built a robust list of connections from the worlds of media, politics, entertainment and tech, including Anna Wintour, the Obamas, and Facebook’s Carolyn Everson. A recurring theme of Saint John is the idea of “bringing your whole self to work,” which she frequently evokes in conversations and interviews.
In 2014, Saint John captivated a crowd when she was named to the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement. She gave a moving speech and talked about the loss of her husband Peter, who died from cancer one year prior.
“She won over not just the room but the whole industry,” said Ross Martin, president of market research company Known, who received the same honor that year.
Those high-profile ties and honest nature are captured in Saint John’s Instagram account, where she broadcasts a jetsetting life as “badassboz” as well as her role as the mother of a 10-year-old. She has also made rounds of the glossy lifestyle magazine circuit — with interviewers calling her the “Queen of Silicon Valley” and “a better brand than Uber.“
Acquaintances like Tiffany R. Warren, SVP and chief diversity officer at ad giant Omnicom, speak of Saint John’s open-book approach to life, informed by her African heritage and religious faith.
“What you see is what you get,” Warren said. “That’s how I think of Boz.”
Other stories tell of her praying with investor Anjula Acharia before a high-stakes presentation and subbing in for Arianna Huffington at the Cannes Lions festival at the last minute when Huffington was recovering from hip replacement surgery.
She uses her position as one of the few visible Black women in her field, teaming up with Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Glennon Doyle, and Stacey Bendet to launch #ShareTheMicNow, an Instagram campaign to magnify people of color; and serving as the Ghana ambassador for education non-profit Pencils of Promise.
She built a career on emotional and cultural connections
At a time when CMOs increasingly live and die by the numbers, Saint John’s stock in trade is connecting with consumers on an emotional level, and, in her own words, trusting her gut. This approach can open her to criticism that she doesn’t care about ROI as much as a CMO should.
“There are some marketers that lead with logic and data, and there are other marketers that lead with instinct and culture; [Boz] sits far out on the instinct and culture side,” said friend Jonathan Mildenhall, who is cofounder of consulting firm TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.
At Pepsi, Saint John spearheaded projects like a series of live-streamed Twitter concerts with Katy Perry and others that marked a new union of social media, advertising, and pop music, former Pepsi executive Shiv Singh said.
She helped land Beyoncé for the 2013 Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans and assembled the trio of Kerry Washington, Mary J. Blige, and Taraji P. Henson for a buzzy Apple Music Emmy night ad in 2015.
“She has such a strong understanding of culture that she gets how to embed a brand in it without it seeming inauthentic,” said Joe Anthony, founder of agency Hero Collective, who met Saint John while working with Pepsi.
At Apple’s 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference, Saint John introduced a revamped Apple Music by leading the typically staid crowd through a raucous rendition of “Rapper’s Delight.” That and other public appearances paved the way for other Apple executives to develop public profiles, said Justina Omokhua, SVP of brand marketing at Endeavor, who also worked under Saint John at Apple.
Putting out fires in Silicon Valley
At Uber and Endeavor, Saint John also put her celebrity- and emotionally driven approach to work to fix crises.
She joined Uber in 2017 as chief brand officer. The company’s reputation was being dragged by a series of punishing revelations about its corporate culture and treatment of drivers.
After an eight-hour meeting with former CEO Travis Kalanick and board member Arianna Huffington, Saint John was hired. She and Huffington had first met six months earlier, at a private dinner at the CES trade show.
“I didn’t know who she was, but she was such a force of nature that I was just taken by her,” Huffington told Business Insider. “She recalled the story of how she once took her Uber driver to an Iggy Pop concert, and that’s when I realized that she could really help humanize the brand.”
Saint John helped shift Uber’s marketing focus from being a mere utility to something more essential in people’s lives. Under her direction, the company worked with celebrities like LeBron James and ESPN’s Cari Champion to promote that message and she helped craft a 2018 spot that featured a heartfelt apology from Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, about the company’s toxic culture.
Hollywood dealmaker and Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel wooed Saint John away from Uber in 2018. There, she rubbed elbows with celebrities like Wintour and Tom Ford at the Endeavor-owned New York Fashion Week, spoke to would-be investors for an ultimately unsuccessful IPO, and helped ad agency 160over90 win new work from clients like McDonald’s and Lowes. She also helped Papa John’s take responsibility for its founder John Schnatter’s racist missteps by using angry customer tweets to apologize.
“She’s the CMO of herself”
As her career has grown, so has Saint John’s personal brand.
But where some see stardom, others see a potential problem. Multiple people interviewed for this article said Saint John’s outsized personality could risk outshining the very brands that she’s been hired to promote.
“She puts on other coats, jackets and uniforms sometimes, but she’s only worked for one company the entire time, which is the Bozoma company,” said one marketing executive. “She’s the very definition of the CMO of herself.”
This tension can be more intense for executives of color, who already face systemic bias.
To Mildenhall, the bigger Saint John’s profile gets, the greater tensions could become with the brands that employ her.
“Everybody should figure out what their authentic brand is, but that personal brand can never be bigger than the brand that you’re in service of, or bigger than the company that you’re working at,” Mildenhall said.
Netflix wants to have a bigger role in pop culture
But new competitors are challenging its service, ranging from upstarts like Quibi to more successful launches like Disney Plus and HBO Max. Forrester principal analyst Jim Nail said co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandon have recently begun emphasizing Netflix’s ability to influence pop culture through a steady stream of original hits like “Bird Box,” which help it retain subscribers and sign up new ones who didn’t want to miss out on the latest cultural phenomenon.
Nail said Netflix’s goal of influencing culture lines up with Saint John’s record of helping companies stand out by co-opting trends beyond their industries.
“It’s almost a repositioning; they’re certainly enhancing and enriching their positioning with the idea of being a key part of culture,” he said.
There may be no one better suited to help it than Saint John, who built a career by ignoring the rules and finding a place in culture for everything from high-end headphones to canned sugar water.
And for that, Saint John isn’t apologizing.
“You know how many times I’ve been told I’m too much? A lot. All the time,” she said during her recent inaugural “Badass” workshop. “But it’s the reason I’m successful. It’s the same things that they’ll celebrate you for that they’ll criticize about you, too.”