USA Today President: Be ‘Comfortable With Discomfort’

Maribel Perez Wadsworth is committed to building an agile organization. Step one: Fostering a pioneering culture.

USA Today President: Be ‘Comfortable With Discomfort’

by Giselle Abramovich

Posted on 11-03-2017

You know a company is serious about transformation when it has a chief transformation officer (CTO). Prior to her promotion to president of the USA Today Network and associate publisher of USA Today in November, Maribel Perez Wadsworth was Gannett’s first-ever CTO.

Wadsworth started her career at the organization as a reporter 22 years ago. As the media company continues to grow and change, Wadsworth is committed to building an agile organization. Step one: Fostering a pioneering culture.

“I’m looking at who is going to add and help build the culture that we’re seeking,” Wadsworth said. “I’m looking for people who really understand the big picture, who are just inherently open-minded and flexible. People who can roll with the punches.”

In this wide-ranging interview with CMO.com, Wadsworth talks about the emerging technologies in the center of her radar screen, the future of customer experiences, why influence trumps smarts, and the power of please and thank you.

CMO.com: What’s your mandate as president of the USA Today Network and associate publisher of USA Today?

Wadsworth: I see it as twofold. One, I think it’s critically important to reinvigorate that pioneer spirit that’s always been a hallmark of this company. It’s the same spirit that led us to create USA Today 35 years ago, and also led us to be the first in our industry for VR storytelling in 2014 with Harvest of Change, followed by the first regular news programming in VR in 2016 with VRtually There. I’m very focused on restoring that spirit to permeate all aspects of our business to drive our transformation.

Also part of the mandate, as I see it, is to drive the cultural change we need in the organization to get to a place where we’re comfortable with discomfort, leading with a fluency in experimentation, and always having an eye toward measuring our success, learning, and iterating in a rinse-and-repeat fashion.

CMO.com: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Wadsworth: There is no typical day. But I do spend a considerable amount of time with my various teams working on different projects, whether that’s in our product organization or on a comprehensive renovation project that’s currently happening across all of our digital properties.

It’s not just a redesign effort. It’s an entire platform change to lead us to a place where we have a lot greater flexibility in terms of the experiences we can create for our users. We are doing a lot of work on the content side, focused on diversifying our offerings and extending beyond the traditional news vertical. An example of that is our majority investment in Grateful Ventures, which is a lifestyle brand in the food and dining category. We are doing a lot of work now to integrate that group into our operations and are focusing on the content strategy and audience development strategy.

Grateful Ventures is an online media and publishing company that focuses on lifestyle content and monetization strategies for high-influence food and cooking websites and bloggers.

CMO.com: Our parent company, Adobe, defines digital transformation as the journey a company takes to become an experience-led business. Would you agree with that? Is Gannett an experience-led organization? Moving in that direction?

Wadsworth: It’s really the focus of so many businesses today and needs to be. I would say we’re on that journey. For us it’s not a huge leap because we’ve always been a very customer-focused business, very attuned to listening to our customers and being responsive. But to be a truly customer experience-led company takes more than that.

We’ve already started to build out a dedicated consumer experience team. The focus is to understand and improve customer satisfaction for our business overall. I don’t need to cite to you all the studies out there that show a true focus on customer experience provides incredible dividends to any business. You see customer satisfaction improve, and you see it in the top line and in the bottom line. Those things are incredibly important.

CMO.com: What role does technology play in your transformation?

Wadsworth: There’s definitely a technology component to that as we build out our voice of the customer program, so we can truly listen and respond to customer feedback, work to eliminate pain points, things like that.

An example is we learned that many consumers found our billing statements and online account features to be really confusing. That’s not necessarily something that would have been readily evident to us. I mean, obviously someone created it that way thinking it was a good idea. But as we applied new tools to help us better understand how our customers are using these online features and what their friction points are, we’ve been able to design and redesign the experience and optimize it so that it’s easier for users.

I think this is an important example of how we are taking a very systemic approach: using the tools, listening to our customers, understanding those pain points, and then building out our roadmap for change based on that to improve customer satisfaction.

CMO.com: What emerging technologies are you keeping a close eye on and why?

Wadsworth: We have an emerging tech team within the product organization. A lot of their focus has been on virtual reality and still is. It’s an area we continue to do a lot of work in. But we really transitioned this year to a greater focus on machine learning, broadly speaking. So natural language processing and generation, and vision computing to optimize our content assets database, content tagging, personalization—those kinds of things.

USA Today offers readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in stories.

The other area this team is doing more serious explorations around is all things augmented reality. While it’s still nascent, we do see opportunities in being able to display virtual objects in an environment. Augmented reality will become, I think, a lot more pervasive than virtual reality ever will be because of VR’s many hardware constraints. In an AR world, something that’s in the hands of every consumer—a mobile phone—becomes your access point. I think that will quickly democratize this technology.

CMO.com: What are your three strategic priorities over the next 12 to 18 months?

Wadsworth: First would be diversifying our content portfolio. We have a laser focus on audience development and diversification. To be able to do that, we feel strongly that we need to expand our portfolio beyond the core of traditional news. Our goal, of course—which might sound trite to you, but we take it very seriously—is to be the daily destination for consumers and for marketers.

The other priority is the continued expansion of our marketing services capabilities. Last year we acquired ReachLocal. Later we acquired SweetIQ. Both of those take us far down the path of offering a much more robust and full suite of offerings for our marketing clients. And it’s part and parcel to the strength we have in our local footprint. That’s not true just on the consumer side but on the marketing side as well. That local footprint means relationships with thousands of businesses in all categories across the country, which provides a level of insight into what works and what doesn’t, whether it’s in creative or channel or frequency or audience targeting. It’s an ability that we have to provide that insight and thereby help our client optimize marketing spend, which is a key differentiator for us.

The third big priority for us over the coming year is to continue to invest in our data capability. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time on that already and will do more in terms of building out our data platform and investing in data science. That is absolutely critical and is going to be incredibly beneficial to our consumer business and our marketing services business. Part of that will also be continued investments on the machine-learning front, which are related.

CMO.com: Are you looking for specific personality traits when you’re hiring? Specific skills? What draws you to someone, and what do you think is the most important qualities in a candidate?

Wadsworth: I’m glad you qualified the question that way because I think when people often talk about talent, they’re talking about skills. Of course they are important, but the personality side of it, particularly in businesses undergoing transformation, is going to be absolutely critical to success.

I’m looking at who is going to add and help build the culture that we’re seeking. I’m looking for people who really understand the big picture, who are just inherently open-minded and flexible. People who can roll with the punches, who are comfortable with discomfort, and with sometimes feeling like you’re in the messy middle of something but feeling OK about it because you have a clear vision for where you’re going.

Obviously, part and parcel to that is people who are good listeners—and this is important in all aspects of the organization. From the leadership perspective, people who can truly communicate effectively, drive influence, and get their teams to embrace our mission and our vision for the company. Those things, I think, are absolutely critical.

CMO.com: What do you think customer experiences of the future will look like?

Wadsworth: As technology continues to evolve, our hope is that we can get to a much more real-time responsiveness. Certainly we are in certain aspects. But the ability to, say, optimize a user experience in real time based on how a user is navigating a site, or understanding the tripping points that someone is experiencing dealing with our customer-service center and being able to respond to that in relatively real time—I think technologies are evolving in a way that will make that possible in the future.

CMO.com: If you could give your younger self one piece of career advice, what would it be?

Wadsworth: You tend to be very firm in your convictions as a younger person. And I think one of the things that I would say to my younger self would be that being right isn’t always as important as the relationship and earning the respect and trust of your colleagues. And it’s only through that that you ultimately gain the credibility and influence to really effect change. Brains you’re born with, but, you know, influence is earned. Investing your time, letting others ideas rise, giving credit where it’s due, rolling up your sleeves to put in the hard work in the trenches—that ultimately is critical.

CMO.com: Words you live by?

Wadsworth: Always say please and thank you.

We live in a world where courtesies are sometimes treated as luxuries. And I think it’s always important for us to pause long enough to really acknowledge that as we ask of others, we should lead with gratitude, and the thank-you part is really leading with humility. So, for me, that’s really what those words represent. If we infused our interactions with more of that—in a business setting and in a personal setting—that would be really great.

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