Greg Kihlstrom: Spotlight on the expert

Greg Kihlstrom discusses his journey from photography and music to marketing and digital experience during the early days of the web. 

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Our “Spotlight on the expert” series digs deeper into the stories of our expert contributors. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Greg Kihlstrom is a best-selling author, speaker, entrepreneur and valued contributor to MarTech. His curiosity about music promotion and connecting with other bands led him quickly to the early days of the web and digital experience. Ever since then, he’s helped big brands — Coca-Cola and Adidas among them — build their digital presence and journey orchestration. 

Q: How did you get into marketing?

A: I started off more in the creative realm, more on the design end. I actually got a degree in photography back when photographers would be in darkrooms all day. And then I got interested in the World Wide Web and quickly transitioned to that. I started teaching myself HTML and all about the web and building websites for anybody I could.

And then I got a job at a startup, back in the original Internet boom — late 1990s, early 2000s. I think that’s what really introduced me to marketing. And not only marketing but also technology. I was working with marketing and with the engineering team, building a product. It really taught me about this intersection of, back then, UX and marketing and technology. And I think I’ve taken that with me the rest of my career. I don’t like one thing, I like all of it.

That first company wound up going out of business. It went the way of and many others at the time. I ended up starting my own marketing agency, primarily focused on digital marketing. We did a lot of website builds in the enterprise space and things like that, but we also saw the rise of social media as a marketing tool, programmatic advertising and personalization. Those were some really exciting years from, say, 2003 to 2017 when I sold the agency.

Q: Did you first get interested in the web as a means to share your photography?

A: Actually, I think it was more about getting my band on the web. I don’t really play music anymore, but in college, I had a band. For those times, we did some interesting things. We started an online record label to sell our stuff. We didn’t sell a lot because no one knew who we were, but we were doing things like swapping gigs with other bands across the web using forums. I didn’t know about marketing then, it was purely about design. I learned about the importance of partnerships just from being a struggling indie band in the Midwest and trying to get gigs, basically.

Q: What did you learn from that experience?

A: That it was about partnerships and making sure that there was something in it for everyone. Obviously, the venue had to make money. How do we connect with other bands and make it a win-win for everybody? And how do we make it as visible as possible? Well, we get more people and bands that are more popular than us. A lot of it is no-brainer stuff, but for someone who had no marketing background, and way pre-social media — it was like rubbing two sticks together in 1997. Doing it, I’d say, fairly successfully, and doing a lot of things wrong, but learning from it. I knew I wasn’t going to be a famous musician — it was more about having fun and opportunities to play.

Q: When you first started your agency, what role did digital experience play?

A: I think I came to digital experience through experience, so to speak. I originally approached it more from a design standpoint, but very quickly learned that nobody wants to buy a website that doesn’t sell and convert and all those kinds of things. We started small, a lot of us working out of a basement. And we ended up growing to 35 people or so. We were a boutique agency but we worked with some very large companies. I learned marketing along the way from some smart people that were willing to share their wisdom.

And the experience part also came from self-learning. We taught ourselves because no one was really an expert at that time. After 14 years, I considered myself an expert, but not in Year One.

Q: It must have been different for your clients back then, too. What did it mean for companies to have a digital presence back in those days?

A: Flash was still big up until 2007, and we did a lot of cool stuff — not SEO-friendly of course. But it was fun and interactive. It taught us some early lessons in experience. Brands have gotten way more sophisticated over time, but in the early days, they just needed a presence in some cases. The smaller companies were maybe late to the game and the larger companies had something, but it wasn’t easy to manage or it wasn’t really working for them from an SEO standpoint, or it wasn’t converting. We’d get brought in to help, whether it was for a microsite or a larger project. Everyone was in the same boat in terms of figuring out new technologies and how to do things better. And then later on, as we got more mature, then we started getting more into things like personalization, and even toward the end before I sold the agency, things like journey orchestration, and some of the other things I do now at the enterprise level. You always have one foot in the door (of the current technology) and one foot towards the next thing, whatever that might be.

Q: What would you say are the new things that clients are asking for now?

A: AI is ubiquitous so everybody is trying to figure out what to do with it that’s meaningful. One expertise I have is in journey orchestration, so I get a lot of requests for that as well. Not brand new, but often for very large companies, doing it well and operationalizing things is what’s become my sweet spot. I love working with people on strategy, but I think where I come in that’s especially handy is in figuring out how to make journey orchestration actually work with all the challenges at a large organization, like silos and precedent and handling first-party data.

Q: What has it been like in the years since the pandemic? Are organizations still in the process of transforming their digital experience?

A: Others have said, and I agree, that the pandemic accelerated brands. I’m not sure there was anything they did that wasn’t already on their roadmap somewhere, but they just massively accelerated it. So, a lot of what I got asked to do during and immediately post-pandemic, is shoring up that omnichannel experience.

Dig deeper: Current trends in marketing and data have deep roots

Q: What are some of the roadblocks you encounter when trying to operationalize journey orchestration at a big company?

A: Because a lot of my focus is multi-channel orchestration, automation and personalization, the biggest roadblock is getting people to change. In marketing, we talk about the three-legged stool — people, process, platform. Everyone thinks platforms are the most difficult part, but it’s actually getting people to change, and not only to be OK with change but to embrace it. What I see with that is that there are departments with incentive structures internally that aren’t conducive to multi-channel. Everybody’s got to work together within the organization.

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About the author

Chris Wood
Chris Wood draws on over 15 years of reporting experience as a B2B editor and journalist. At DMN, he served as associate editor, offering original analysis on the evolving marketing tech landscape. He has interviewed leaders in tech and policy, from Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, to former Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Vivek Kundra, appointed by Barack Obama as the country's first federal CIO. He is especially interested in how new technologies, including voice and blockchain, are disrupting the marketing world as we know it. In 2019, he moderated a panel on "innovation theater" at Fintech Inn, in Vilnius. In addition to his marketing-focused reporting in industry trades like Robotics Trends, Modern Brewery Age and AdNation News, Wood has also written for KIRKUS, and contributes fiction, criticism and poetry to several leading book blogs. He studied English at Fairfield University, and was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He lives in New York.

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