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In conversation with Catherine Williams - Episode 6 - Inspiring the Next CMO series

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Join Lou in a conversation with Catherine Williams, an industry COO and past CMO. Catherine talks with us about:

  • How a two-week internship at Penguin launched her career

  • How she progressed through smaller societies to much larger organizations

  • All about managing the team at Altmetrics that brings essential data to librarians and information managers that allows them to make smart decisions

  • Why taking your time and learning from others is a more valuable experience than worrying that people think

  • Why it is important to make sure you don't take on too much, professionally

  • A love of historical podcasts

  • The joys of a good travel guide collection

  • How it's possible to spark inspiration in your team members

  • The importance of adding value, being authentic and telling your company’s story

Transcription (contains Amazon affiliate links):

Lou: Hello hello Right. This is our Inspiring the Next CMO podcast series for Behind the Fluff podcast from The International Bunch. It’s specifically for those in marketing, those interesting in marketing, those in academic publishing, scholarly comms and libraries. Who are we going to be talking with today? Cat Williams. Cat is an industry COO. Cat talks with us about:

  • How a two-week internship at Penguin launched her career

  • How she progressed through smaller societies to much larger organizations

  • All about managing the team at Altmetrics that brings essential data to librarians and information managers that allows them to make smart decisions

  • Why taking your time and learning from others is a more valuable experience than worrying that people think

  • Why it is important to make sure you don't take on too much, professionally

  • A love of historical podcasts

  • The joys of a good travel guide collection

  • How it's possible to spark inspiration in your team members

  • The importance of adding value, being authentic and telling your company’s story

So why don’t we just jump straight in? Let’s go.

Lou: Welcome everybody to our ‘Behind the Fluff’ podcast series. We've got our ‘Inspiring the next CMO’ podcast series right now where you can find lots of really useful marketing resources at Today I would like to welcome Cat Williams. Now, Cat is a COO in the industry. Welcome, Cat.

Cat: Hi, thanks for having me.

Lou: Absolutely. Now, the first thing that we're going to do is you're going to give us a word, your most favourite word at the moment, or it could be of your life. We have a campaign that we do on a daily basis called #intbunch word of the day, where we have lots of really great words. Either some people that take part in these will get a word that we've already done or they'll come up with their own and then we can add it into our schedule because it's quite hard doing 364 words which are really cool and interesting. So what is your word for us?

Cat: Well, I’ve had a big think about it; I’m going to go with ‘snooze’. It has been really hard the last few months to get some decent sleep.

Lou: And why is that, Cat?

Cat: Well, I have a seven month old who I can hear not snoozing at the moment.

Lou: I think many of us can relate to that word, snooze. It's such a cool word as well actually – snooze.

Cat: it’s got a nice sound.

Lou: It does, a brilliant sound. Thank you for that. We will add that into our schedule because I don't think we've had that one yet. And so, first things first, let's talk a little bit more about you; what is the best thing that you have discovered in this last year that we've been in?

Cat: Well, the last year's been really funny. I worked for kind of half of it and then I've been off. My husband actually introduced me to this podcast that I've been loving. It's called, You're Dead To Me. I don't know if you've ever come across it? They do a lot of historical chatting about just really interesting people from the past. So it might be a celebrity or a politician or some other famous person, and they have a mixture of historians and comedians on and you just learn loads of interesting stuff.

Lou: I love it. I will definitely include a link to that in the description. That sounds absolutely brilliant. Actually, in these podcasts that we've done already, we've had a number of really good podcasts, and we did one with Wayne Sime from ALPSP, and he was talking about his love of Henry VIII.

Cat: Oh, wow.

Lou: Yes, so we learned some stuff about Henry VIII.

Cat: This would be perfect for him then, although he probably knows it all.

Lou: Yes, exactly. And if he doesn't, we'll tell him about it. Is there anyone that you specifically found really interesting?

Cat: I'm trying to think who we were listening to yesterday. Oh, they had one about Alexander Hamilton, so we had a good listen to that. Then, of course, we immediately put the soundtrack on.

Lou: I love him. I'm definitely going to check that out. So, podcasts - that's definitely a favourite one for everyone at the moment, and different ways of listening and digesting information. Now, next question, who inspires you?

Cat: I was thinking about this because when you sent the questions through, and really I decided that it was my friends that inspire me. I know so many, particularly women, who are doing amazing things, balancing family life and really demanding jobs and really excelling at what they do in all kinds of different careers. So I'm going to go for them.

Lou: I’m thinking that you probably have a few people in mind, haven't you?

Cat: Yes, for sure. They really pushed me to think that I could do more as well and that you can choose to do whatever you want to do and you shouldn't be afraid to take some risks.

Lou: Yes, absolutely and sometimes being in a situation like this pandemic I think helps people to also re-evaluate situations that they're in, to think: I can actually do this. It's amazing how people have taken different opportunities from this situation. So, when you were young, what did you want to be?

Cat: I was desperate to be an interior designer. I loved all things art and all I wanted to do was to get my hands on someone else's house and totally redo the whole thing.

Lou: I have to say, I have had a look around your sitting room that you're in at the moment and it is super nice. I am quite jealous. Is it like a blue on the wall that I'm seeing?

Cat: Yes.

Lou: It looks to me a bit like Cambridge Blue.

Cat: It is a little bit, yes.

Lou: If you were to have dinner tonight with everyone not, you know, sleeping which I'm sure you'd love to be doing, if you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whoever, they may be dead or alive, it doesn't matter, who would you want to have dinner with tonight?

Cat: Well, I was thinking, given that it's been a tough few months, I'd really like a bit of light-hearted banter and someone who could make me laugh. I've recently started following Daisy Mae Cooper on Instagram, and she is pretty funny. She's also recently had a baby so it's fairly relatable, and she's been busy winding up her publishers and teasing them about things she wants to put in her new book. So I reckon she's got some good stories, and we'd have a good time.

Lou: Excellent. I love that. We all need a bit of humour in this day and age that we've been in, this funny old time. So, if we were to talk about your career, tell me a bit about your career in terms of how you've got to where you are today.

Cat: It was a funny thing, actually; I think it's a good example of launching yourself into an industry and not really realizing where it might take you. After University I did an internship at Penguin, in one of their books departments, obviously, and I was in marketing there. It was just a two-week thing, and I thought, I love this! That's it. I want to work in publishing. So I got a job, actually in journals publishing at the end, and I thought, oh journals, that won't be very interesting. There's not really much to them. They're those boring things that you're supposed to read at University, and I discovered this whole world and I got to do all this travelling.

I started off as a marketing assistant and then I became a marketing executive. And at the time I was working at a really small society publisher, but actually, it was a great chance to learn loads about the industry and get experience doing all sorts of different bits of marketing and developing this really broad skill set.

Later the publisher of the journals later got bought by Sage, so I had a year or so working there and met a load of great people. They had an amazing team and a very different approach as well, which I think is really valuable for learning what I did. Then from Sage I moved to Nature journals, where I worked mostly on marketing the Nature archive and the physical science journals to universities. We worked really closely with the sales team. We were talking a lot to librarians, doing again, lots of conferences and lots of email marketing. Social media marketing then I think was really just starting to take hold in our industry, so we were dipping our toes in the water there.

While I was at MPG, I met the founder of Altmetric, where, actually I've been ever since in the Wider Digital Science Group. They were looking for someone to start the Altmetrics marketing department. Basically, there was no one else doing it. There were five people in the company, and it was a really exciting opportunity. And so I've been there ever since, introducing an entirely new concept to lots of different markets. I also worked on the launch of Dimensions and other digital science products when that came out a couple of years ago. It's just been great to work with some really inspiring people actually, and all these new ideas. And from there I moved into the COO role, which has its own unique challenges, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Lou: Absolutely. It is fascinating though, to hear how you've progressed and you've moved up, and also that later on in your career, you've worked for a more niche organization that’s smaller, because, with the Society, that was small as well and then you went to work with Nature and to be able to have that exposure to working in a bigger organization, you just learn so much but then to go to working for an organization like Altmetric where you can be really agile and you don't have the same constraints, and actually, you can build something from the bottom because you've been down at a junior level so you appreciate and understand what needs to happen at that level. So that must be really fascinating. And also, to take a step sideways from being CMO to now COO do you do any marketing work now in your role, or do you work with the marketing guys?

Cat: I do work with them, they report in to me; I like to have my say in things sometimes, but they're doing an amazing job so I try to leave them to it most of the time, but you will always have, certainly if you've done the job yourself before I think you'll always have a bit of an eye out for what's going on.

Lou: Exactly, and because it's such a fascinating industry that we work in and it's incredibly fast paced, and because with digital science, you're in an organization that creates and fosters an environment for such bright and young companies that you're also able to see some really interesting trends and technologies emerging. They have done a fantastic job with the Altmetric marketing I have to say. When you look at where we were with these kind of services five years ago to where we are now and how they're being used with the data that's available, it's just mind-blowing, isn't it? And what can be done in the future?

Cat: Yes, it's really exciting. I think Altmetric is a great example of doing a lot with not very much. You see the data on thousands of journals, and hundreds of universities use it now, and it's still a team of under 30 people. It's not that there's some huge operation there. So I think it can be really fun in marketing to have a bit of a scrappy operation and have to make what you can out of maybe not much money and not much time.

Lou: Yes. Well, it makes you very inventive, doesn’t it?

Cat: Yes, it helps you prioritise.

Lou: Exactly. So what have you been most proud of in your career?

Cat: I think it is the Altmetric story. It was pretty early days still when I went in there. There had already been some brilliant things done, they had their little logo and there was definitely a buzz about the product, but really taking that and building that brand consistently, getting it as well-known as it is today. There have definitely been challenges along the way. I'm sure you could pluck out lots of researchers still who maybe haven't heard of it because they're a very difficult audience to reach, but really kind of helping to shape that company as it grew, giving it a voice and some personality as well, which I think can sometimes get a little bit lost in our industry in particular. We've got really smart audiences. These are top librarians and researchers; you're not selling them a set of knives, you need to be convinced that you know what you're talking about and that you're bringing something of value to them. So learning how to engage with those communities as well has been a really enriching experience.

Lou: Yes, absolutely. And you're bringing them data that they can ultimately use to make appropriate decisions and smart decisions, and I think it's been really interesting how services like yourselves have been able to change the direction of when you look at impact and how work or how research can be measured, and moving away from the standard of citations, for example, or all those different kind of metrics and ways and actually, there's different ways that they can measure the impact of what they're doing. That really can help people, especially in different subject disciplines where often some of those metrics really favoured maybe more the scientific side, but now you're giving them an even playing field.

Cat: Yes, we definitely hope our data is useful for them in telling better stories about the influence of their work and why it's important. The data is really there to help them and to benefit them, so we hope that they are making use of it that way.

Lou: Yes, absolutely. So what have you found, well, you may have even answered this question, but what have you found the most challenging in your career?

Cat: I am a really driven person. I'm always really proactive. I've always got a million ideas for things I want to do. So actually, I think throughout my career, almost the most challenging thing has been saying no to myself: not taking on too much, but also stopping myself adding just more in because I think it would be fun and we'd like to give something else a go. You really have to figure out where have I got the time and the resources to do this and to do it well and to try and pick the things that will have the most impact.

Lou: It's good that you've learnt from your mistakes and you are correcting yourself.

Cat: Maybe my colleagues would say that I haven't learned. I just plough on through.

Lou: That completely resonates with me. Let me tell you: I’ve got a thousand things going on in my head at any one time. So what's your ultimate career goal?

Cat: That is a really tricky one. I'm sure if you ask anyone, where do you want to be in five to ten years? Most people wouldn't really know what to tell you. The only thing I kind of came to the conclusion was that I want to make sure that I'm always working with like-minded smart and enthusiastic people who are there to do a job well, who are inventive and want to have some fun at work and build a nice environment. I think those are the most important things rather than any particular job title. Yes, and as long as it stays interesting.

Lou: Absolutely. If you weren't doing the role that you're doing now, so if you weren't a COO now, and money was no object, what would you be?

Cat: If I could go back to square one, rethink all of my schooling and all of my undergrad, I think I would quite like to be an architect.

Lou: What's stopping you from doing it now? My mum retrained in her 50s and became a solicitor.

Cat: Yes, I possibly could. It's a big jump, isn't it? Maybe I will one day.

Lou: Maybe, you never know.

Cat: I think perhaps, unfortunately money, is an object though.

Lou: Are there three inspiring professional books, or they don't necessarily have to be professional books, but books that you've read and you thought, yes, they're a must read, and why?

Cat: Yes. I’ve had a couple over the years that have come to me via different people. One came through one of my team who's really passionate especially about things like remote working and how we can make that work more effectively. She recommended this book called, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and it really speaks to that idea of learning to say no to yourself, things don't have to be manic. Sometimes good enough is good enough. You don't have to be forever chasing this endless stream of meetings and more and more profits. You can have quite a relaxed and easy-going working environment where everyone still feels fulfilled and the company is still doing well. I think there were some really interesting lessons in there, not all of which would apply to our environment, but it was definitely food for thought.

Another one that I was recommended while I was doing my MBA, a couple of years ago was, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, and I think that's particularly useful for people who are maybe at middle management levels and really wanting to take that step up but not sure how to go about it. It basically suggests that instead of trying to think like, how do I get to that next level? What do I need to do? And just carrying on with your day-to-day work like you normally would, instead, you try and act like that level up and eventually, in that way of being and the impression that you give others, that will just become ingrained and just become who you are. So, if you act like a leader, then you will become one, that’s the basic philosophy of it.

The third one, which actually the founder of Altmetric gave me and possibly doesn't remember I still have, is a book called Talk Like TED, because when you're in a role like marketing, or any leadership role within a company, being able to connect with different people, either within the company or at external events is really important, and people need to have confidence that you know what you're saying, or even if you don't have all the answers that you would be able to handle whatever came your way. I think that had some really useful tips for how to present yourself.

Lou: Is that like a TED Talk?

Cat: Yes.

Lou: It's not that film? [laughs]

Cat: No, there are no teddy bears [laughs].

Lou: No, he swears a bit in that one, is that the one? So it’s not like that. This is a professional environment, this is a professional book. I know that you mentioned a podcast that you've loved from finding last year, and it may be this one, but what is your most favourite book, podcast or blog, and why?

Cat: I'm really bad at this: my favourite book changes kind of week to week and year to year. The one thing I was thinking was I do love a travel guide because I love exploring the world. I love making a plan. I love seeing new places. I’ve got a very nice selection of Lonely Planet's on the shelf here above me and occasionally I flick through them to remind myself of all the lovely holidays we've been on.

Lou: And the ones that you would probably love to have. They are amazing those Lonely Planet books. I have to say, I remember looking at one going to New York and the information in there is really interesting. It's like I want to find somewhere that's really quirky - got it. Wow, this is definitely quirky!

Cat: Yes, they're really handy and I just think it's so interesting to learn about new places and new cultures.

Lou: I think also the great thing about those is that you just feel like you're learning more from locals rather than just reading something that's quite stiff and doesn't give any kind of personality. Thinking about travel, if you could travel back in time in a time machine what would you tell your early-career self?

Cat: I would tell my early career-self that you don't always have to be right and that actually, taking a step back, taking your time and learning from others is a more valuable experience than worrying that people think maybe you don't really know what you're doing. No one knows what they're doing really. Everyone takes ideas from other people, take advice from other people and sometimes the best results come out of hours of discussion with other people and input from lots of different parts of the team. So you shouldn't feel like it's all on you and that you always need to have all the answers.

Lou: I love that. I think I'd probably tell myself to not eat so much chocolate. So, what's the best piece of advice that you have ever been given? It may be that you might have more than one bit of advice.

Cat: I think the best bit of advice is to make yourself memorable but for a good reason. You don't want to be the person who people don't want to work with again. You want to be the person who people enjoy being on a team with, who they come to for advice, who they feel they can rely on, but also who they know maybe they'll get a bit of a different point of view from or some new idea that can maybe spark some inspiration in themselves.

Lou: Yes, absolutely. And that's a really nice way of saying it, isn't it? Because when some people will think of ‘in a good way’ initially, they'll be thinking: I have to be like really high performing etc, etc. And it's not about that. It's about your attitudes, about how you come across, your collaborative way of working and being involved in the team, etc. So it's much more than what people think. Also, you can make such a small difference that has such a massive impact. And yes, I really love that sentiment actually it's a really nice way of thinking about it: being memorable but in a good way.

Cat: Yes, you can be amazing technically at your job, but if people don't like to work with you or if they feel like they can't come to you for things, then it's a bit of a non-starter really.

Lou: Absolutely. So what is your number one tip for anybody working in marketing right now?

Cat: I made some notes on that one. What did I write? Oh, actually it touches on what we talked about earlier about the people that we're marketing to, particularly in scholarly publishing and tech being a smart audience. I think as a marketer in our industry, you need to be authentic, you need to know about what you're trying to sell people or encourage them to subscribe to or submit to or contribute to, because otherwise they're going to see straight through you. You're not here to drastically change their lives, so you need to prove to them that you can add value. I think to do that you need to be authentic. You need to be creative in how you communicate and connect with them and you need to be enthusiastic for the subject matter as well.

Lou: Yes, and I think marketing has changed so much, like since you and I were both doing marketing, and we were doing probably direct mail and email marketing, etc. Marketing has evolved and changed over the years and there's this huge movement now, we are absolutely being more authentic. And with the video content as well, to be more authentic, the tone of voice and to tell a story more than just throw things at people and talk to them about why it's important and how it's important, and not just what I'm doing and here it is. Gone are the days of mass marketing; it’s niche and resonating and how can you actually address the pain points? Because we're humans at the end of the day and people want to be spoken to as a human by humans.

Cat: Yes, and I think that's so important. You always need to measure things, iterate and see what works, and make changes accordingly. But if the core of your message doesn't resonate with them, then…

Lou: Forget it.

Cat: Yes

Lou: As a population, as a society, we're pretty savvy now; we've had a lot of things thrown at us over the years so there are a lot of things that don't wash with us anymore. You and I talked about this before we started doing this podcast, that this last year has made people a lot more sympathetic and empathetic to the environment around them and also to the people that they're talking to. And it's very important that that continues to come across. Maybe as a world we've changed for the better for the future.

Cat: I would like to think so, that something good has come of this last kind of year and a half.

Lou: We might go back into bad habits, you never know. So, what do you miss since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Cat: I really miss going to the office. I have spent a lot of time in this house this year. We've always been a fairly remotely distributed team at Altmetric, so that wasn't a big switch for us, which was fortunate, but I really miss going into the office and seeing at least some of the team. Being able to grab a coffee on the way into work and just being in that different environment. So I'm very much looking forward to getting back in.

Lou: Just being close to someone at a desk is like a privilege now, isn't it? It's like: oh, don’t sit too close to me. Okay. Do we need to get the ruler out? So, is there anything that you want to ask me?

Cat: I was really curious to hear what you enjoy the most about marketing?

Lou: Oh gosh, do I enjoy anything about marketing, Cat? What do I enjoy most? I think probably one of the things I enjoy most about marketing is that you can actually see the results of what you're doing and that can give you a lot of pride, but also, you can easily measure and see whether something's working or not. You can easily change it and adapt and try something else and if that doesn't work, change it back. Not a problem. It's about being agile. But I think for me, that's one of the most important things about marketing because you do get that pride and you are able to see exactly what you're doing.

Another thing is just that the people that I work with in the industry are absolutely incredible. Last week someone asked me, why do you call this podcast ‘Behind the Fluff’, and I said that it was a bit of an in-house joke with marketeers, that sometimes marketing is seen as fluffy. And if you try to explain to someone what you do, it's quite hard. Even if you have an elevator pitch, it still doesn't quite translate. I think that marketeers are often not appreciated as much as they should be for some of the work that they do. And it's an incredible community doing some absolutely wonderful things, sometimes behind closed doors, so we need to talk a bit more together. But yes, that's what I think about marketing.

Cat: Yes, I totally agree. I've seen organizations that really don't value marketing as a discipline, and it's massively to their detriment. I think it's a hugely important part of a business.

Lou: Every department offers something incredibly special, and I'm sure that sales departments will say that they feel exactly the same as marketing. In fact, I had a discussion with a salesperson about this yesterday, and I think that it probably goes down to the fact of valuing each and everybody's input in each and every department that you have in an organization. It's very important, and we're all individuals at the end of the day, but I think we're super lucky to work in the industry we work in but also the skill set that is transferable across industries. And you said, you started on the Penguin side and then you came over into more of the scholarly sides, which even if they are publishing, they are two very different areas.

Cat, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It's been an absolute delight and I know that people will definitely take some takeaways from this, especially like when you talked about what you would tell your early career self. There's a huge amount in what you said, and funnily enough, I've heard similar from others who have done this podcast, which really means that people hopefully will be able to take what you've said, the advice that you've said, and really apply it now so that they won't be in the situation in the future: doing a podcast and giving that same advice to themselves at that time, because you're giving them that golden advice now.

Cat: Well, I hope it is useful for people.

Lou: Absolutely. So thank you so much for taking the time.

Cat: Thank you.

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