In the latest episode of our Ask a CMO series, we had the pleasure of talking with Martha Boudreau, the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer of AARP. AARP is the nation’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older to choose how they live as they age and is one of the most-recognized brands in the U.S.
Here are the highlights from our discussion with Martha:
How did you get your start in marketing and communications?
When I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in political science, I immediately headed to DC to begin my career on Capitol Hill. I did not make a conscious decision to go into communications because initially I thought I would be in the world of public policy. However, I had a series of jobs that focused on communications, so it was a natural progression. I joined Fleishman Hillard, the global PR and marketing communications agency, as an Account Executive when they first opened their DC office. FH was growing internationally, and I grew my career at the same velocity. I was lucky to find a firm whose values I shared and where the growth opportunities never ceased. As a result, I settled in and spent many years at FH.
Most of my career has been in the world of agency PR. While marketing and communications are aligned, they are very different disciplines. My first step into marketing was at AARP where I accepted the newly created position of CCMO. Prior to the creation of the position, responsibility for marketing was scattered across twelve different groups. AARP’s senior leadership recognized the need for better brand clarity and a unified voice for AARP, so they combined communications and marketing into one role.
How did your experience in a leadership position at a global PR agency inform your role as AARP’s CCMO?
I was hired for my experience managing large, complex, multi-disciplinary organizations. My job is to create an environment where my teams feel supported and can do their best work. AARP is a tremendous brand, we have nearly 100 percent brand awareness, everybody knows AARP – but everybody has a different understanding about who we are. And that’s our ultimate challenge – creating brand clarity across a multitude of channels, both off-line and digital.
My responsibilities as CCMO are very diverse, including groups that handle membership marketing, brand, digital channels, external relations, reputation management, social media, consumer experience and content creation. Additionally, my business unit publishes our magazine which is the largest and most-read magazine in the country. I am also responsible for our Consumer Care group that runs our consumer contact centers where we handle about 4 million calls in a year. So, it’s an extremely diverse portfolio.
What strategies are you implementing to attract younger members to AARP?
Anyone who is 18 years or older can join AARP. But as a social mission focused on people aged 50+, we are only able to market to those 50 and older. However, two years ago, we experienced an unexpected spike in younger memberships when a travel influencer (unknown to us) made a video on TikTok saying “I wish I knew years ago that you don’t have to be 50 to join AARP.” That video went on to describe our great content and discounts, and thousands of Millennials responded by joining.
The relevance of our member value changes across each life stage. For example, our members under 30 are interested in saving money. Whereas older members are focused on our job and career building resources. Even older members rely on us for information on Medicare, Social Security, and caregiving. And all age groups flock to our information on fraud prevention.
With advances in medical technology extending our lives, there are both challenges and wonderful things about the “second half of life (after 50)”. AARP helps our members find information on all the key issues that they are going to encounter over time. My job as a marketer is to make sure the best information and resources lead to trust in our brand – and making sure our brand is widely recognized as providing immense value for all of life’s stages.
What advice would you offer to someone early in their career who wants to be a senior marketing communications leader someday?
Know your business. There are no shortcuts; there’s no abbreviated way to do this. Be excellent. Always be open to new things. A woman I used to work with was asked to take on a big project without a promotion or a salary increase. She said, “no problem, I’d be happy to help.” Someone like that is worth her weight in gold. And that person becomes the go-to person for more opportunities in the future – because leaders step into change and seize opportunities for growth. There is no substitute for hard work, dedication, and stepping up to the plate and saying “yes, I will take that on; yes, I want to be involved; yes, I will be there.” Early in your career you must always say “Yes” to new opportunities.
People early in their careers often believe there is some magic thing to do to become a senior leader. There isn’t. It’s consistent hard work with an unrelenting focus on being excellent. It’s also about building your reputation as a person who has integrity and operates with high ethical standards and reliability.
What is the one skill you want every person on your team to have?
One of the most important skills across the board is writing. Words matter. Words are consequential. Good, clear, crisp writing is essential, and it reflects clarity of thought and strategic thinking. In the business world, when you sit down to write a document of any length, be clear in your mind what you want to say and use strong sentence structure and interesting language to make your point. Few people are born great writers. You must work at it for a long period of time. Always ask yourself “how can I say this more compellingly, shorter, smarter, with more active language.” If you’re not a good writer, take a class. Make it a long-term goal to be a strong writer.
The other thing I believe is powerful is active listening. We are all used to being interrupted and distracted. As a result, truly listening is both an act of respect and an act of intellectual curiosity in trying to understand somebody else’s point of view. When you’re actively listening, you can connect more easily and often learn from them. Listening is especially important when you disagree with a person’s opinion.
When you are interviewing candidates for your team, what’s your go-to question?
I don’t believe in “gotcha” questions. When you’re trying to gather as much as you can about a person, and you’re gauging the honesty and depth of their answers, I find it helpful to ask a very simple question: “tell me about yourself?” It’s not a trick question. When you’re given that much runway to talk, you can share what makes you tick, what gives you passion, what about this job truly interests you. People will take their answers to this question in different directions and that helps you get to know them.
What corporate buzzword would you like to eliminate?
I want to eliminate all buzzwords. Every organization uses acronyms and jargon, but this way of communicating often gets in the way of understanding each other. There’s marketing jargon, political jargon, consumer-experience jargon, data jargon, financial jargon. When you bring different groups of people together, you want to understand each other and use mutually understood language. Honestly, jargon is annoying.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I would be a landscape architect. I am a big gardener and find great beauty in the outdoors. I’m always thinking of new things to plant and ways to capture the light and invite wildlife to my yard. Sometimes I read landscaping books about these palatial pieces of property, and I think it would be so fun to take on a project like that. That said, as a profession, landscape design is disciplined and rigorous. So perhaps in my second half of life I could just be a gardener. Then again, being a full-time sailor is very appealing as well. So many options to consider!
Our sincere thanks to Martha for sharing her time and thoughtful insights with us.