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Marketing Operations

How the CMO of Skillshare Built a High-Performing Brand-First Marketing Team

September 6, 2022
October 12, 2021
Tracey Wallace

Forbes recently named Liana Douillet Guzmán one of the 50 most innovative CMOs working. One reason she deserves the title? She invested in brand — and freelancers — before it was cool.

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This post is based on an episode of MarketerHire's marketing operations webinar, MarketerLive. Scroll to the bottom for the full webinar video.

Liana Douillet Guzmán is one of the best marketers out there. She became CMO at Skillshare, a tech education platform teaching people everything from photography to business, after building her skills at Blockchain, Axiom and LearnVest. Recently, she was named one of the 50 most innovative CMOs by Forbes

We jumped on Zoom for a live Q&A, where I got to ask her how she supercharges growth through marketing, decides which marketing disciplines and channels to invest in and more.  Here are a few of her (many!) leadership secrets.

She invests in brand — even when it’s not trendy.

“Every company needs to invest in its brand,” Guzmán said. 

Marketing leaders haven’t always agreed with her. Over the last decade, most organizations have invested heavily in performance marketing, working to optimize and A/B test ads on paid channels. This mindset filtered into other marketing areas — from email to website design — and gave rise to what is now known as growth marketing.

This is important work, but it needs brand marketing to balance it out. As the privacy-first web inches closer, more and more brands are learning that the hard way. 

Not Skillshare. Guzmán and her team have focused heavily on brand over the last few years. 

She recommends that companies looking to move in the same direction start by answering three key questions about brand identity: 

  • What do you stand for as a company?
  • What do customers want from you?
  • What problems do you solve for them?

These questions ultimately help you to build a brand compass. 

Once your whole company aligns around it, cross-functional collaboration works more smoothly, Guzmán has found.

She builds marketing teams with shared goals.

At Skillshare, there’s no one influencer marketing team. 

Instead, influencer marketing duties are split between two teams:

  • The brand team: Focused on top-of-funnel metrics like views and site visits, influencer marketers here lead partnerships with major names — like Olivia Wilde, Kenya Barris, Neil Patrick Harris and Ludacris.
  • The growth team: Focused on lower-funnel metrics like CAC, the influencer marketers here focus on sponsored YouTube videos.

“I align teams on outcomes,” Guzmán explained — so teammates always share KPIs, even if they may boost them in different ways. 

“I align teams on outcomes.”

She encourages small tests and big dreams.

Some marketing teams “do the big splash,” Guzmán said.

In other words, they run a Super Bowl ad or sponsor a Premier League team, assuming that “then everyone will know who we are... [and] we don't ever have to worry about marketing again.” 

She’s rarely seen that work out or build long-term brand equity.

So at Skillshare, she aims for incremental growth — and takes a slow and steady approach to testing new marketing channels and creative. 

Example: If they’re testing YouTube ads, her team spends just enough to feel confident that they’ll get robust results, she said.  

If the test performs, they crank the lever and pour more budget into it.  If it flops, then the lesson was worth the price. Next step? Trying whatever feels like the exact opposite of what they just tried. 

Not only is this approach cost-effective, it can yield incredible innovation. It creates a work environment where it’s safe to fail, so it’s safe to try anything. 

She hires outside consultants for jolts of inspiration.

At Skillshare, Guzmán relies on her full-time team for day-to-day execution, but she often brings on freelancers for fresh big-picture ideas.  

“When you're living something day in and day out, you sometimes lose objectivity and that 30,000 foot view,” she said.

She usually hires a slew of consultants and freelancers twice a year, for “a big team get-together” devoted to planning brand strategy for the next 12-18 months.

After the get-together, her leaner, full-time team executes on the best ideas for the next six months.

“There is this perception that if you bring on freelance help, they won't know the brand as well, and you won't be able to deliver the same level of work,” Guzmán noted. 

“There is this perception that if you bring on freelance help, they won't know the brand as well, and you won't be able to deliver the same level of work.”

But freelancers have helped her full-time team level up their work without breaking the bank or making a long-term commitment to a short-term role. 

Plus, they can always become full-time hires if they’re a stellar fit. That’s how Skillshare found its VP of creative and brand strategy!

She hires for humility and grit — not just credentials.

Like every long-time manager, Guzmán has made some hiring missteps in her career.

One of them: over-relying on outside recommendations. “I don't think there's ever been a time when someone was like, you should hire this person, and I didn't think so, and then [I] did and was surprised.”

Today, she’s learned from that, and has a few key criteria she looks for in every new marketing hire:

  • Enough humility to acknowledge a mistake: When she asks about a candidate to talk about a past mistake, and they “either share something that people around them did that was bad, or pretend that something that’s great was a mistake” — it’s a red flag.
  • Examples of past work they’re proud of: If candidates don’t have one off the top of their head, it’s a bad sign about “your level of passion and your level of desire for excellence.”
  • Grit: This is especially important for more junior hires. “Having a marketing degree or good internship isn’t going to move the needle much,” Guzmán said. “Grit is a much more important trait.”
“Having a marketing degree or good internship isn’t going to move the needle much. Grit is a much more important trait.”

At the end of the day, though, she doesn’t hire without the X-factor: good vibes.

“Trust your gut,” she said.

She doesn’t run her teams into the ground. 

Brand guidelines are essential to Guzmán. Just as essential: not making people execute on them in a sleepless daze.

If her team’s hitting goal, but only because employees are working 15-hour days and juggling multiple projects per person, that’s not a win for Guzmán.

“When you look at your team and everybody's feeling burnout, it's time to think… ‘How do I either restructure or bring in additional resourcing?’” Guzmán said.

Watch the full interview with Skillshare CMO Liana Guzmán here:

For all the latest updates on MarketerLive's second season, sign up here.

Tracey Wallace
about the author

Tracey Wallace is the Director of Marketing at MarketerHire, the leading digital marketing talent platform. She is also the founder of Doris Sleep, a sustainable bed pillow company. She writes regularly about leadership, e-commerce and tech marketing for MarketerHire, SAP and Entrepreneur.

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