Simplifiers Interview: Amy Dunkin, Chief Marketing Officer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview leaders, often CMOs or CEOs, that we deem simplifiers. In this Simplifiers interview I speak with Amy Dunkin, Chief Marketing Officer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is a global leader in Pre K-12 educational content and services, combining digital innovation and research to make learning more engaging and effective. 

MM: What does HMH stand for and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

AD: HMH is in the midst of a transition. We’re evolving our capabilities from that of a traditional educational publisher to a learning company. We measure our success by our ability to produce outcomes for our customers. For every district in the country, success requires a unique approach. Challenges vary from raising math scores to increasing teacher retention. Our goal is to partner with each district to help them succeed.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

AD: A teacher’s job can be chaotic as she tries to meet the needs of each child in her classroom. Our ability to simplify the noise, and deliver the information she needs when she needs it, is very important. Simplicity can come in the form of, for example, an elegant user experience or access to the exact data and insights a teacher needs to target her instruction.

MM: How does HMH strive to create simple experiences?

AD: A tangible example of how we’re transforming the brand to deliver simple customer experiences is the launch of our new website. For our customers, our website is their first touchpoint with the company. The chief goal of this new website is to help visitors easily find solutions to their problems and content that engages them. We believe this digital experience is going to take customer service to a new level that’s currently not represented in our industry.

MM: What benefit do you think HMH will achieve from simplifying? 

AD: Ultimately, it will improve customer satisfaction. When the customer journey is complex, customers and employees feel frustrated. Our strategy is to simplify what we do for our customers and how we do it. That, we believe, will translate to engaged employees, satisfied customers and a successful company.

MM: How do you keep things simple for your marketing team?

AD: I help the team understand the metrics that measure the effect of our work and challenge them to spend their time on the most impactful initiatives.

Operating simply requires being clear on what your priorities are, saying no to activities that aren’t going to move the needle for these priorities, and confidently bringing these goals to the business units that you support.

MM: How do you lead as a simplifier?

AD: One example of how I lead as a simplifier is that I cut back on meetings where there’s no clear objective. In the past, we operated as rule by committee. Now, I empower my team to make their own decisions and say no to activities that won’t move the needle.

MM: What’s the most recent simple customer experience that inspired you?

AD: I continue to be impressed by the level of service I receive from American Express. They regularly anticipate my needs and over deliver. My wallet was recently stolen and, by the time I’d figured it out, American Express was seven steps ahead of me. Consistently, they do a great deal on my behalf, which I’m sure requires a very intricate web of activity on their part. And yet, my experience with them is always incredibly simple.

MM: What do you think is the biggest mistake brands make when trying to simplify?

AD: They go half way. You won’t see progress until you have a plan for simplifying in place and leadership advocating avidly on its behalf.

MM: What are the indicators that simplicity is helping to drive your business? 

AD: Early on, when we started to work on our strategic plan, we asked employees what was working and what wasn’t. Everybody said that, while they were happy to be doing this purposeful work, it was heartbreaking and backbreaking to put in so much effort while sometimes falling short. When looking into the cause of this, we found that we were overcomplicating processes and getting in our own way. We were creating complexity that hampered our effectiveness and ultimately impacted our customers. It was unequivocally clear that we needed to simplify.

Now that we’ve adopted simplicity as a key part of our strategy, it feels like everybody is marching to the same drum. There’s a deep understanding of the goals ahead and how we’re working to accomplish them.  

MM: What does simplicity mean to you?

AD: To me, simplicity is an elegant experience in which I’m delighted just enough to realize that my expectations were surpassed.

MM: What advice would you give to other brands trying to simplify?

AD: In order for simplicity to work its magic, you must first rip off the Band-Aid and fully commit to simplicity as a strategy. Second, you must make simplicity a company-wide initiative so every one of our 4,500 employees, across all functions, feels they’re stakeholders in this movement.

MM: Thank you.

This is an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with CMO at La Quinta, Julie Cary; CMO at Lenovo, David Roman; EVP – Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Henry Gomez; CMO at Twitter, Leslie Berland; CMO at Blue Apron, Jared Cluff; SVP, Global Brand Management at American Express, Clayton Ruebensaal; EVP and Group President at Verizon Wireless, Ronan Dunne, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd, former CEO of C&A China, Lawrence Brenninkmeyer; CMO at The Recording Academy, Evan Greene; CMO at Mary Kay, Sheryl Adkins-GreenHead of Marketing at Home Centre, Rohit Singh BhatiaSVP, CMO of Aflac, Gail GaluppoSVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol KruseManaging Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; Jet.com President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: mmolloy@siegelgale.com

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram:@MargaretMMolloy

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