Marketing leader of the week: Erin Nelson, CMO, Dell

Erin Nelson, Dell's CMOSixteen years ago I started the marketing communications function for a little PC company in Austin, so it was a real pleasure to sit down a few weeks ago with Erin Nelson, the current CMO of Dell, to share stories about leading marketing and being a change agent. Erin is a classically trained marketer with experiences at P&G and Pepsico. She stepped into her current role after 10 years of various marketing responsibilities at Dell. She took over the role from a gentleman who had come into the company two years before and had implemented a series of moves to centralize many of the marketing responsibilities. Those actions were recently described to me by another Dell exec as a “train wreck,” so Erin and I discussed how she approached getting things back on track.

What were your priorities when you stepped into the CMO job?

“The first was to restore the brand and the company reputation. The second was to rebuild confidence in the marketing function.”

How long did it take you to form your hypothesis about your plan to address those priorities?

“Since I had the benefit of being inside the company already, the problems that needed to be addressed were pretty clear. We had to move more control of the marketing resources back under the business unit leaders where they could be aligned more closely with the segment and regional opportunities. We needed to renew faith in our marketing team members that they had career paths and to provide them the training they needed to be successful. We had to fix the agency relationship with WPP so that we could get effective work done. And we needed a unifying brand project that the organization could rally around. Within 30 days the team was in place to begin tackling these issues, and progress was made on all of these over the next 6 – 9 months.”

Was there resistance to change?

“There really wasn’t resistance since the problems were commonly understood, but there was skepticism that things would really get better.”

What is your philosophy on what marketing functions should be centralized and what should be decentralized?

“We have centralized brand strategy, social media, global communications, market intelligence and agency relationships. All the other demand-generation activities are managed in the business units. Like many companies, we’re trying to find the right balance of resources allocated to the centralized brand building programs and business unit demand-generation activities.”

Erin is well grounded as to where the company stands, including both its positive attributes and its challenges. If you were in Erin’s shoes, what would you be doing to further enhance Dell’s brand reputation?