How this data geek with a creative streak made her way to the C-Suite.
You might look at the diamond-cut grille of the Cadillac XT6 and know that somewhere in that designer’s soul lies the visceral spirit of a jeweler.
That’s a feeling you might not expect to get from a marketer with a passion for data. Or at least, not until now.
“The right data will drive the right inspiration,” said Melissa Grady, chief marketing officer of Cadillac. “Starbucks has that ‘first sip’ feeling, if you’re a coffee drinker you know that moment,” Melissa said. It’s that “thing that connects with people,” that is the magic moment uncovered by data.
A Data-driven Path to … Creativity?
It’s that data-driven path to creative work that took her off the path of automotive marketing and into jewelry retailing not once, but twice. Luckily, each time automotive called and Melissa returned.
It’s also what drove her to push for tweaking the Cadillac Manifesto, the definition of the brand and its mission, to define “earnership,” the core idea that defines who is driven to own a Cadillac. “When you look at me and how I approach things, I like a lot of data, I need to understand the facts, but human insight and inspiration are the most important,” Melissa said.
Defining Cadillac’s Marquee Moment with Spike Lee and Regina King
That connection is what brought Cadillac to a marquee moment at the 2020 Oscars. Teaming with director Spike Lee and actress Regina King, the brand not only had a central place on the red carpet for the 7th year, but rolled out the 2021 Escalade to break through what is a very busy, very message-cluttered week in Hollywood. “We understand from our data who the Cadillac customer is and when we look at Oscars,” it’s a fit. “Next, how can we show it differently? Look at the history of Oscars. It’s about ‘earnership,’” too.
Those who earn their way to their goals inspire Melissa; their energy that drives them to get to the next level. “Regina told the story so beautifully; people work so hard their whole lives and this is their moment,” that they finally get their Cadillac. Lee and King “love these cars,” she said, making the story resonate even more authentically.
The ‘Aha’ Moment that Led to an Advertising Career
Before she fell in love with data, Melissa was drawn to creativity. As an undergraduate at DePaul she studied advertising. “When I think back to childhood, I wanted to be a teacher, but I loved Angela on ‘Who’s the Boss,’” so in college she decided to take an advertising class. “I told my teacher I wanted to do this said ‘can you help me?’ She was my first mentor,” Melissa said.
Knowing that a graduate degree would benefit her long term goals, Melissa went from DePaul to Northwestern to earn a graduate degree. There, another light bulb went off. “I had an advisor who asked questions that changed the direction of my life. He said ‘do you like math?’ He explained that there’s this whole new world opening, direct marketing. The world we live in today was a glimmer then,” she said.
She was sold. She changed her track and fell in love with the marriage of statistics and the creative right brain, forging a statistical path to creativity. “In graduate school we started looking at predictive behavior using stats and regression models. I audited a class on the theory of matrices and realized I don’t want to be way in the hole; let the computer do the math,” she said. She would find the creativity within that.
Related: Hello Cadillac, My Love: Why This Supercharged Luxury Sedan Captures My Heart, On the Road and On the Track
The Day Jaguar Bested American Express
And, she discovered the dream company she wanted to work for after graduate school: American Express. “That was where all the new thinking was,” she said. She interviewed, loved the company and its direction and wanted to learn everything they were doing.
But, Jaguar, which was owned by Ford at the time, requested an interview with her. “I said I didn’t want to because I wanted to work for American Express.” However, she agreed to an interview as a courtesy. After 5 minutes with Al Saltiel, who was running marketing, she saw his vision and energy and what he wanted to do. “I completely changed course. I wanted to build an acquisition and retention program. I said, ‘you know I’ve never done this before.” But it was a fantastic move for her and the program they built was a huge success. Melissa was particularly proud that her team brought new discipline to Jaguar, working globally to build customer retention.
In 2005, new ventures called. She left automotive to build a jewelry site, a move that she loved, though after a year and “a ton of fun,” it was time to go back to the car business focusing on new customer loyalty initiatives. She worked on Infiniti at TBWA/Chiat/Day, then worked for Motorola, MetLife and Jackson Hewitt before returning to the jewelry business for another start up project.
But then, a friend from Chiat introduced her to Deborah Wahl, then chief marketing officer of Cadillac. Wahl wanted to look at data-based marketing and find opportunities to change things with innovation thinking. “It was an amazing opportunity,” Melissa said, so she went. Less than two years later Wahl was promoted to global head of marketing for General Motors and Melissa stepped into her shoes.
You’re Where You’re Supposed to be Even if it’s Freaking Hard
Even in a dream job you can find yourself challenged to find the right path. “I’ve gotten better at those moments, instead of beating myself up, to take a step back and see the forest for the trees,” to know that she’ll get through it, Melissa said. Often, it’s not seeing the forest or the trees, but something else altogether. “Deborah will ask a question that opens a door I wasn’t thinking of,” she said. “She pushes my thinking, which is on the edge anyway.”
And then there’s the art of learning from your mistakes. “Sometimes your mistakes can be more helpful than successes.” Melissa said. “Recently someone gave me advice and I went against” it, she said, only to learn he was right. “I course corrected, then I went back to him and said ‘I learned my lesson and I will listen now.’”
Listening, from both advisors and your team, can be one of the greatest challenges of leading. To ensure the right ideas rise to the top it’s Melissa’s goal to “make sure that our meetings are a safe space. Being a leader, the biggest job is to inspire people to do good work. It’s one of the things that can be hard especially if you are a ‘doer;’ you have to stop and let them do it so they can build their skills.” Frank, open conversations are important. “Don’t be afraid of negative feedback,” Melissa advisers. “Be open minded [and you’ll ] see the opportunity. Still, all of it can be “freaking hard,” Melissa says, quoting of of her favorite spin coaches.
Cultivating Mentors, and Being One
“I’ve had more male bosses than female,” Melissa said, a reality for most women on the c-suite track. And while there are “definitely differences, there are some some similarities, too. The women have been smart, driven, forward thinking,” and inspired her.
And she’s found mentorship in both as a result of constant seeking out of advice and guidance, looking everywhere for good ideas and to people who can teach her. Melissa regards it as a gift to find “people who take you under their wing and suddenly they’re helping you,” she said.
“Once you have a trusting relationship with someone, it’s just having the dialogue,” that leads to the change or opportunity you’re looking for, she said. She advises that people who want to build a career find the “go-to people to ask for guidance. There are those people who will stop and help because you ask or they see your potential. They have your best interest at heart.”
As it turns out, Cadillac, and General Motors, has been a great place for personal and professional growth. “It’s been a surprise how much the company culture is ‘one team.’ There’s a lot of fostering of relationships and careers; it’s a great culture,” Melissa said. Formal mentoring is “a bigger thing today than when I started” working, she said noting that she even mentors a student at Michigan State. “It’s also important to be a good mentee, Melissa said. It’s important to see where you want to go, that gives me something to react to versus someone who doesn’t know what to ask.”
“One team” may be more of a challenge in our Zoom-meeting dominated work-from-home life, but for Melissa, the takeaway has been good. “I love my job, I go to work because I love it, not because of any other end goal. My family and friends are very important, so I have to figure out that balance,” she said. She finds comfort in the interesting outcome “that there’s greater acceptance of our whole selves now. Two months ago if the dog barked on a conference call you would be mortified. But I think that I Iove how we are all more integrated humans right now.”
Human… the ultimate merger of data and creativity.
Hear more from Melissa Grady when she joins’ the Reuters Automotive Events ‘Celebrating Women in Automotive’ webcast on Tuesday June 23rd at 1:15 PM ET. Register here: https://bit.ly/2KEe2oD