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Keren Pakes – The Journey From Journalist To Marketing Leader – Episode #115

“Failure is the best way to learn…You have to try new methods and new things to surprise your audience and surpass your competitors.”


Keren Pakes is the Chief Brand & Communications Officer at Bright Data and the General Manager of The Bright Initiative. After 14 impressive years as an award-winning BBC News journalist (she won an Emmy?!), Keren left the field of journalism to pursue marketing senior leadership roles in the B2B tech space.

Today, Keren focuses her efforts on expanding the reach and impact of The Bright Initiative, an organization that uses web data to drive change across the globe.


Questions and topics we covered include:

  • The advice Keren has for anyone who is transitioning from one profession into the world of marketing.
  • The unique skills journalists bring to the table.
  • What does the right pitch to a journalist look like?
  • Should you begin your marketing career working at a startup or a big corporation?
  • How to leverage your failures to help you grow in your career.
  • The soft skills you need to learn to become a successful marketing leader.
  • How to build a marketing department.


And more!

You can connect with Karen here:

Full Episode Transcript:

Kenny Soto  0:01  

Hello, everyone. Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening, depending on when you’re listening to this episode, we are on episode 115 of the people digital marketing, with your host Kenny Soto. And if you’re new and or returning, this is a career advice podcast for marketers who are new to the game, if so to speak. And today’s special guest is Karen Pekus. Hi, Karen, how are you?


Keren Pakes  0:35  

Thank you, Kenny, for having me. And I’m great. How are you?


Kenny Soto  0:38  

I’m doing lovely today. And I’m excited to speak to you. I am dabbling in getting my skills up as a journalist, specifically because I work in content marketing now. And your impressive background, both as a marketer, but also, as an award-winning BBC news journalist definitely piqued my interest when I was doing research on you as a guest. 


And with that said, I want the audience to get more context about what you’re doing today, but also how you got to where you are today. My first question for you, Karen, is how did you get into the career of digital marketing?


Keren Pakes  1:18  

Well, I have to relate to my previous job as a journalist. And really, the reason I basically decided to leave journalism was that it was a very painful decision because journalism really is a consuming kind of job. And I wanted something that is jazz, well, maybe not jazz, but dynamic and, and active, as much as you can a to b is close to journalism that you can get. Now, at the end of the day, I’m in a high-tech company, and when I moved from journalism to marketing, I chose technology for a reason. 


And today, the reason why I went toward marketing is that as a journalist, you tell stories, and you very much focus on target audiences. And you also base your decisions or your decision of what topic you want to cover on how you want to top a cover story, or cover a news story, based on analysis and data, right? The same goes for marketing, and we’re very much a, I would say community that is based on insights. 


So this is why I moved to marketing and to teach b2b marketing. I find that this is most suitable to my character to my need of high energy jobs and, you know, high drive jobs and competitiveness of it all, in the dynamic nature of the landscape. So that’s basically it. If we’re talking advice, I would say, first and foremost, you know, think about a role that is most suitable to your character, your speed, your nature. And that makes it a lot more fun. 


Kenny Soto  3:15  

Holding on to the thread of skills that journalists bring to the table, I want to ask my next question in a way of just diving deeper regarding that. So let’s say, for example, I’m a hiring manager, and I’m looking to staff up my marketing team. What case would you make for me to hire journalists? Specifically, what unique skills do journalists bring to the table in the world of marketing? 


Keren Pakes  3:42  

This is a fantastic question. And I actually just hired two journalists to my team. I’ll speak from personal experience. I was a hardcore news journalist, meaning I’ve done wars. I’ve done a coup. They’ve done political crises, nature, disasters, all that, you know, to do that, it takes a specific skill set, meaning, you need to know how to tell a story fast and grab it fast. You need to know how to deliver it in the most engaging way. 


You need to be as competitive as possible, right? Because, you know, like, I would know the rating of a certain program that I was on or that my team was on, probably a few hours after it was broadcast. So you need to be as competitive as possible. And I will say most importantly, you need to know how to establish contact because many many times I was thrown into a story within minutes. Okay. 


Sometimes I would get a phone call in the middle of the night and just grab a plane and go to whatever desk donation that got the story and broadcasted and I sometimes had probably about 40 minutes to prep it all, meaning getting there, getting the contact, understanding the story. Having people interviewed for all that. And in 40 minutes, imagine that. And the way I was able to do it is because I’m a people person. 


And I know how to engage people and make them work with me. And I think that’s a key thing for marketers. Because at the end of the day, we want stories, we want the right kind of messaging, and we also want to know what’s exactly happening in our market landscape. And the only way to do that is by engaging with your audience. Karen,


Kenny Soto  5:45  

I’m gonna ask you this question, which I know their listeners would be keen on learning. And this is something that I’ve been actually struggling with for the past three to four weeks, as I’m building out my link-building strategy when it comes to making contact and pitching to journalists. In your opinion, what is the ideal pitch versus an ideal pitch?


Keren Pakes  6:11  

Is it a former journalist, I would say it’s more or less the same, you know, the work for marketers, the cold emails, probably less work with you, I would say do your research, because the pitches that were successful with me as a journalist, were the ones that they actually research and the things that we’ve covered, that were interesting for us that were newsworthy. That’s the one that was most successful. 


For instance, if I’m totally part of the data domain, right, or company would it collect and make it available? All things have web data, meaning all web public web data. Now, we also acquired a company that does the analysis, but that’s early days. But basically, this is what we do. 


So if I’m in the data domain, and I want to engage a technology reporter, I would try to provide him data or her the data that is most, I would say interesting to their a to their topics that you usually cover what happens a lot of times with pitches, especially when I was a journalist, and also I used to cover technology as well, where I would get all kinds of new inventions, products, services, which were obviously interesting, but I couldn’t sell them to my editor. 


And at the end of the day, I need to sell it as the journalist, I need to sell it to my editor. And if I can’t make it relevant, and you know, a topic that would attract the audience, a, I won’t go and sell it. So the interesting part would be that Secondly, I would suggest to any company, to, again, do the research, but identify those key journalists that are covering their area, and try to figure out how to establish a meeting with them. 


And that’s with the right kind of pitch, meaning if you’re an event that they’re going to the same kind of an event, try to find 10 minutes, DM them, try to find five minutes to see them, offer them, you know, insight into a story that is more interesting than they think. If you’re giving a journalist the first take on an interesting kind of angle, they usually would buy in if it’s five minutes, meaning I never said no to that as a former journalist. So that’s basically


Kenny Soto  8:54  

Some people next year, maybe even right now currently are making a similar shift from one profession into marketing. They may have been working adjacent careers or adjacent professions such as journalism, and or sales even. And now they’re making the transition to being a marketer for the first time. What advice would you have for anyone who is shifting their career? mid-career? 


Keren Pakes  9:22  

Again, this a very good question, and I actually spoke about this today this morning, was a friend of mine. I’ll give you an example. I recruited the past year someone who came from a hotel or the leisure industry. Why did I recruit her? I thought she had the skill set of being a very good marketeer. And I think that’s the beauty of marketing. It’s, it’s, you know, anyone can have those skills that did not necessarily need to be To familiarize themselves or get themselves familiarized with the lingo, okay? The lingo you can learn. 


So I saw the skill set, and I thought, oh my god, she can be excellent. Now it’s eight months later, and she’s probably the top employee I have on my team. And, this is the beauty of marketing is about first and foremost, the ability to engage the ability to analyze your target audience to hit it really strong, to know how to position your brand and really communicate it. And then it’s about the technology or about the methodology, or about even the vocab the right vocab so to speak. 


Now, obviously, when I switched from journalism to marketing, I came from nowhere, right, I came from covering floods and Mexico and stuff like that. So I very, very quickly turned my storytelling skill set into an advantage, and then to a knowing or an x, or I would say, into a brand story. And then everything else was much easier. And I think that, first and foremost, you need to be able to be flexible enough to take your knowledge and adjust it to the new rule. And that’s the beauty of marketing because you can’t do it, you’re not an engineer, you don’t need to study a new profession, you can actually if you have the skill set you can actually adapt it to and adjust it to your new role.


Kenny Soto  11:49  

Why do you believe it’s better to begin your marketing career at a startup versus in a corporate experience?


Keren Pakes  11:59  

Um, I did both in my marketing career, and I would say my suggestion and my advice to those starting now in the marketing career is really to go to a startup because, in a startup, you do everything. Right. When I started working at Bright data, we were very few people, about 80 people. I was on the marketing team of one. I have to do everything. I have to do my research properly, and the competitive analysis properly. 


My messaging, the storytelling, the branding, everything. Okay, the whole thing is advertising everything. And I think when you’re starting in marketing, that’s a very good experience because you get exposed to every bit of the business and you learn a lot. Today, we’re a much bigger team, obviously. They’re here overall, they’re about 30 to 33 marketers. But back then I thought that if I was someone that came from no experience or no marketing experience, I would learn an awful lot. 


I did learn a lot about the data market and I did understand the business much faster. Then if I came in and worked in a corporation. And at the end of the day, you want to know that you make an impact on the business. And I think this is the best way to do it.


Kenny Soto  13:34  

Segwaying and to lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career, specifically talking about past failures, how have you leveraged your past failures throughout your career to help you grow?


Keren Pakes  13:52  

This isn’t, it’s probably actually sharing what I’m about to say. But I think failure is the best way of learning. I felt a lot. I’m not ashamed to say I usually try to feel that it doesn’t cost too much money or doesn’t cause the company or work for too much money but I failed as a journalist and I have failed as a marketeer plenty of times. And I’m proud of it because at the end of the day you have to try new methods and new things to surprise your audience and probably surpass the competitors. 


And the best way of doing it is just trying and if you continuously, you know want to ensure that you don’t fail it will take you too much time and you probably will lose the element of surprise. So I rather move fast and also like everybody says move fast and fail fast. It’s very true. Um But I’ve learned a lot from my favorites. For instance, I learned how to research better and faster, how or how, for instance, to choose the right platform to make a big move, or how to rebrand better. And what is more important than the first stage of rebranding and what is less important? Things like that. And I’ve probably made dozens of mistakes.


Kenny Soto  15:29  

My next question tees up the transition between what I believe entry-level and marketing leadership really encapsulates, which is starting your career really honing in on hard skills. But as you move up, get more responsibility and lead bigger teams, soft skills become more important. What hard and soft skills have helped you as a marketing leader today?


Keren Pakes  15:59  

Thank you for this question. Very good. I think you’re absolutely right. First and foremost, when I started off, I think that the most important thing for me was there was a difference between telling a story as a journalist and telling a story as a marketeer. And that’s what I tried to excel in. 


And I think that’s what that, for me, that was the basis of it all the story in how to tell a tech story in a way or a b2b tech story in a way that is capturing the hearts and the minds of our audience. Then I think that where I learned how to do better is basically using the right kind of messaging in every platform, and obviously, in digital marketing, including today as an executive, it’s true that soft skills are important. 


For instance, I can say it here, I’m not the best product marketer that there is but if I needed to, you know to be better at product marketing, I would you know, hire the best product marketer that I can find things like that you need to know how to spot and identify those excellent talents that are around, I try my philosophy of or my management philosophy is more or weighs more. I try to hire people that are very independent thinkers. I know it’s harder sometimes to manage those independent thinkers. 


But the more diversified your team is, the more ideas you get, and the more creativity you’re getting. So I tried to hire it, you know, really based on talent. And not only based on experience, because experience sometimes hides a lot of other issues. And when you look at the talent and skill set, that’s where you can really excel. So I think the first and foremost, a soft skill I develop is, is really identifying Doom, a shining, professional that you know, can lead our team to better results. 


Kenny Soto  18:31  

Speaking of the team, one question that comes up often in conversations in this podcast is the right approach for building a marketing team. Now, this is a loaded question because one, every single marketing team will be different. Everyone will organize the sub-departments differently, based on the business objectives of OKRs, an overall framework that the company asked for in their approach and marketing. But with your specific experiences in mind, I’d love to know, how have you thought about building out your marketing team. And what were some of the early challenges you experienced when you started building the team?


Keren Pakes  19:18  

I wish I could say that there was a great strategy behind it Kenny. And it probably would make me sound a lot smarter. But I’ll tell the truth. I never had a strategy for recruiting people and actually building the marketing team it was all based on a need and immediate need that we identified based on the market and then addressing it too. And I think that you know a lot of companies find that you can start with a beautiful strategy and every quarter I prepare my quarterly strategy but I can tell you I never ever follow it to the tee it o was changing probably a million times. 


This is the nature of the industry we live in, you know, the tech industry in the data industry, in particular, is an industry with many shifts, and, probably the most dynamic industry at the moment, or the most extensive industry at the moment, in the pace that they are developing. So, today, when I look at the team, I try, for instance, I’m now working on my 2023 strategy, right? So I’m trying to see the gaps where I’m not addressing, you know, raised by the sales teams. 


And I’m trying to fill them out. I also tried to predict where you know, us as a company, as a brand should stand, should be in, let’s say, three months’ time, six months’ time, and where I can help, we have to remember that marketing at the end of the day. And I know many of my colleagues don’t think that but I do. 


At the end of the day, our job is to support the sales efforts, that’s predominantly our job. And then our a, there’s a bunch of other rules that we have. But first and foremost, our job is a supportive role. So I try to engage as much as possible with the sales team and see where they will need more help in, let’s say, penetrating new markets and so on, and make sure that I’m prepared for them.


Kenny Soto  21:37  

Karen, I have to add that you’re definitely not the first nor do I believe you will be the last marketing leader on this podcast to say that say some say that same sentiment, excuse me, of marketing being in a support role, because in most cases, and even in my own experience, so far as in marketing, seven years now, I’ve I can also agree that marketing really is supporting sales to a certain degree supporting the personal brands of executives, and also supporting customer success or customer support. However, you would define that role. But my next two questions for you are my last, what are the biggest marketing challenges your team faces this year?


Keren Pakes  22:22  

Good question. I guess said, you know, the data, the industry is an industry that is not that old, right? It’s fairly new, especially web data, what we do, and it’s constantly changing and constantly shifting, and constantly new questions are arising, whether it’s regulation, compliance, related questions, and so on and so forth. And you keep needing to, for instance, shift my messaging and revise them probably on a monthly basis, which is quite a lot. So I think that this first and foremost, is where my team finds it, not challenging, but I would say where they need to keep their finger on the pulse is on this shifting landscape. 


Secondly, is there any market here? you know, the idea of being more creative and having new ideas and, you know, innovation within marketing? Really, it’s not? You know, there’s a lot of innovation within marketing and I think creativity is key when you want to be a marketeer. So we’re always trying to come up with new ways of doing things, new ideas in order to, you know, become more prominent in our landscape and tell them a more interesting story and engage our audience even further or engage our customers more and more and create more collaboration with them. 


So that’s something that is always a challenge. Lastly, I would say it is knowing how to choose the right angles, right? None of us as marketers have endless budgets and you know, limitless resources. Any marketeer will tell you that I think you need to choose wisely where you want to put most of your budget and where you want to invest. You know, I can send the teams here to dozens and dozens of events every year and I don’t select them very carefully. Because at the end of the day, you want the ROI to be very high. You want the sales team to generate a lot of leads. You want to open doors to many new opportunities, things like that. So yeah, that’s always a challenge to select the right avenues for your So,


Kenny Soto  25:01  

Karen, my last question for you is hypothetical, because time machines do not exist. But if one did, and you can go back in time, about 10 years into the past, knowing everything you know, today, how would you specifically accelerate the speed of your marketing career?


Keren Pakes  25:17  

Well, when I shifted from when I moved from journalism to marketing, I was very hesitant, very insecure, because I thought that the gap between journalism and marketing, and you have to remember that I’ve done journalism since the age of 19. Okay, nice. And I stopped being a journalist at the age of, well, 13 years later. So I’ve done journalism for quite a bit, and for a very, for a leading broadcaster less such at the BBC. 


And, you know, removing myself from that, and going into the marketing world, was quite a step for me. And I made some mistakes. In the beginning, I was very insecure, and I went into very much Junior roles, or do I advance myself quite a bit, and quite quickly, but what I didn’t realize is that the skill set I had and I acquired as a journalism, a journalist, are very good for, you know, a very, I would say they’re prominent skills, it’s a prominent skill set for marketing, and I didn’t leverage them enough. 


And I just, I would say, if I’m honest with myself, I basically discourage or let other people discourage me and tell me, No, you haven’t done marketing for 10 years, you can’t go into such roles, you need to do the whole thing, the truth of the matter. And this I would give advice to anyone, if each case is a case on its own. I learned the hard way not to listen to anyone but myself. 


And today, I am, I don’t let anyone stop me. If I want to do something, I do it back then. So if I can give advice to those starting their way in marketing, marketing is very much up to your talents and your skills, and then it’s up to your knowledge. And I think, if you’ve got the skill set, and we’ve got the talent, then try to teach yourself quite a bit of the knowledge. And you know, accelerate as much as you want.


Kenny Soto  27:41  

Totally agree with everything you just mentioned. And I wanted to quickly add, marketing definitely becomes easier over time, as you find what is the most fun for you to do every day. And for the most part, I’m not saying that work, 100% of the time needs to be fun. But if you can find a channel, a specific function within the team that you enjoy doing the most, whether it’s creating videos, or doing podcasts, such as this one, then lean into that because the more fun it is, the more you’re going to actually want to learn the skills required to be successful. Karen, thank you so much for your time today. If anyone wants to find you online, where can they go to say Hi?


Keren Pakes  28:27  

Um, the best way to find me is probably LinkedIn. So it’s Karen. Karen K A R E N. Pakes is P A K E S, And feel free to contact me and Kenny, I fully agree with what you just said. So thank you very much for having me.


Kenny Soto  28:45  

Thank you. And thank you to the listener for listening to Episode 115 of the people Digital Marketing podcast. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe wherever you’re listening to. And please rate us on Apple, Spotify, and whatever other apps you’re using to listen to this podcast. And as always, I hope everyone has a great week.




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